Arab teams plot paths to 2026 World Cup and 2027 Asian Cup

Arab teams plot paths to 2026 World Cup and 2027 Asian Cup
Lumen Field, a host of 2026 FIFA World Cup, is seen on June 28, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. (AFP File photo)
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Updated 01 August 2023
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Arab teams plot paths to 2026 World Cup and 2027 Asian Cup

Arab teams plot paths to 2026 World Cup and 2027 Asian Cup
  • Arab News looks at the 9 groups in round 3 of long AFC qualification process  

The 2026 World Cup, set to be hosted in the US, Mexico and Canada, may still be three years away but the 46 nations that make up the Asian Football Confederation now know the path they will have to tread on the road to qualification.

The preliminary round of qualifying in Asia — which doubles up as qualification for the 2027 AFC Asian Cup in Saudi Arabia — will begin on Oct. 12, a mere 298 days after Argentina were crowned world champions in Doha.

Qatar 2022 was seen as something of a breakthrough for Arab football, highlighted by Saudi Arabia’s win over Argentina, Tunisia’s victory over France, and Morocco’s historic run to the semifinals. That said, Arab nations from the Asian continent went 28 years without a win at a World Cup finals and the contest’s qualifiers have never generated more than one finalist in a single edition.

With the finals expanding from 32 to 48 teams and Asia’s allotment doubling from four to eight spots, there is hope for that trend to be broken.

The draw includes an initial preliminary designed to reduce the field from 46 to 36 teams by means of 10 home-and-away playoffs to be held from Oct. 12 to 17.

The 10 preliminary winners will then be grouped with the rest of the field in nine groups of four teams with play slated to begin on Nov. 16. The top-two teams in each group will advance to an expanded third round of qualification and clinch qualification to the 2027 AFC Asian Cup in Saudi Arabia.

The 18 teams will then be divided into three groups of six with the top-two finishers in each group qualifying for the World Cup Finals and the bottom-two teams eliminated from contention.

The third- and fourth-place teams in each group, six in total, advance to the fourth round which will generate another two finalists along with an intercontinental playoff participant.

Below is an analysis of the nine groups.

Group A: Qatar, India, Kuwait, Afghanistan/Mongolia

The Asian Champions meekly exited their own World Cup and now face the prospect of a rebuild under former Iran coach Carlos Queiroz. The Portuguese tactician has qualified South Africa, Portugal, and Iran (twice) to the finals and the draw has been somewhat kind to his new team.

Al-Annabi can draw on experience from the last edition of qualifying when they were also grouped with India and Afghanistan.

Kuwait have fallen on hard times since their FIFA suspension in 2016. The Al-Azraq having missed out on two AFC Asian Cups, but drawing the lowest-ranked team from pot two means there is a serious chance the team could return to the third round for the first time since qualifiers for Germany 2006.

Group B: Japan, Syria, North Korea, Myanmar/Macau

If Syria are to return to the third round of World Cup qualifiers for the third straight edition they will have to survive the most demanding travel schedule of any team that was grouped in pot two.

The Eagles of Qasioun will travel a total of nearly 24,000 km just to get to the capitals of Japan, North Korea, and, most likely, Myanmar.

North Korea has a history of upsetting the established order in Asian football by leveraging its home field advantage in Pyongyang to great effect.

That said, the Koreans have not played a match since November 2019 due to the pandemic.

Myanmar suffered a loss in form that coincided with the 2021 military coup, losing 19 of their past 24 matches.

Group C: South Korea, China, Thailand, Singapore/Guam

On paper this should be a relatively straightforward group for South Korea, that have qualified for every World Cup finals since 1986. Football, however, is not played on paper.

There are already murmurs of discontent amongst Korean fans underwhelmed by the appointment of Jurgen Klinsmann. The former US and Germany boss did himself no favors by revealing plans to play Heung-Min Son as a box-to-box midfielder despite his pedigree as one of the best attackers in Asia and the English Premier League.

Meanwhile, Chinese football is recovering from the prolonged lockdown and Aleksandar Jankovic has only been in charge for seven non-competitive matches.

Group D: Oman, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Chinese Taipei/Timor Leste

Ivan Brankovic’s Oman have steadily risen up the FIFA rankings and shown their ability to go toe-to-toe with the best teams in the region. Oman lost the Gulf Cup final this year to hosts Iraq in extra time but not before dispatching the holders Bahrain in the semifinal.

They secured a famous scalp of Japan in qualification for Qatar 2022 and a 2-2 draw against Australia condemned the Socceroos to the inter-confederation playoff.

This group should feature few surprises for Oman.

Group E: Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Hong Kong/Bhutan

A group that will feature three Central Asian derbies could throw up a few unexpected results but it is quite clear who the best two teams are in the group.

Iran and Uzbekistan contested the final of the Central Asian Football Association Championships last June and both teams are mainstays of the latter rounds of Asian World Cup qualification tournaments.

Iran boast elite attackers in Mehdi Taremi, Sardar Azmoun, and Alireza Jahanbaksh and should reach the third round with little concern, while Uzbekistan have found their mojo again under former Iraq coach Srecko Katanec.

Group F: Iraq, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia/Brunei

The competition and intrigue in Group F will center on which team from Southeast Asia will survive qualifying.

Iraq might have preferred a less daunting travel schedule, but the Lions of Mesopotamia can take comfort in the fact that they have never dropped a match against any of their opponents.

Indonesia are heavily favored to get through the preliminary round and have improved by leaps and bounds, including clinching a spot at the 2023 AFC Asian Cup finals in Qatar.

Tim Garuda have been working furiously to close the gap between themselves and Vietnam who beat them by an aggregate score of 7-1 in two qualifiers during the 2022/23 cycle.

Group G: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Tajikistan, Cambodia/Pakistan

Group G should see both Arab teams advance with relative ease although there are question marks surrounding the coaching situation in Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

The Saudi Football Federation has yet to announce a replacement for Herve Renard while Jordan did a U-turn at the eleventh hour and decided not to renew the contract of Adnan Hamed.

The Iraqi tactician enjoyed a successful second spell with Al-Nashama winning 70 percent of his games, advancing past the group stage at the FIFA Arab Cup, and qualifying the team for the Asian Cup. Instead the Jordanian Football Association will turn to Hussein Ammouta who won plaudits for his style of play whilst in charge of Morocco’s A side.

Group H: UAE, Bahrain, Yemen/Sri Lanka, Nepal/Laos

This is the easiest possible group that the UAE and Bahrain could have dreamt of and with potentially only a single away trip outside of the Middle East.

The removal of Sri Lanka’s suspension from football meant that more teams entered the preliminary stage and the AFC bizarrely decided to let luck and not rankings reward a team from pot four with a position in pot three.

This is the perfect scenario for both teams, that will be under new management and facing the daunting task of rebuilding aging squads.

Paulo Bento only recently signed his contract with the UAE while Bahrain have yet to announce who will take over for Helio Sousa, the Portuguese tactician who won the 2019 WAFF Championship and 2019 Gulf Cup.

Yemen have shown an ability to qualify for several youth championships at the Asian level in spite of a civil war raging at home. The senior team could spring a couple of surprises against their regional rivals but the goal for Yemen remains qualifying for the 2027 Asian Cup.

Group I: Australia, Palestine, Lebanon, Maldives/Bangladesh

This is a group which will most likely send only one Arab team into the third round. Palestine and Lebanon have met three times since 2015 with each match ending in a draw.

Australia have a track record of making up for any wobbles away with imperious home form and it is hard to envision a scenario where they finish worse than second.

Palestine is on steadier footing than their neighbors to the north. Lebanon’s recent form has included a run of nine games with only three goals, all coming against lowly Vanuatu. Failure to win in three matches against India last month saw the Cedars lose ground in the FIFA rankings, which landed them in pot three. The question on the minds of Lebanese fans is if anyone other than the ageless Hassan Maatouk is able to score on a consistent basis.

Palestine will hope to ride the form of Charleroi’s 24-year-old star Oday Dabbagh, who has tallied 10 goals and five assists in his 27 appearances for the national team. Al-Fida’i can also count on one of the best goalkeepers in Asia, Rami Hamadi, who has 21 clean sheets in 38 games in national colors.

Palestine have never lost a competitive match on home soil but there are question marks as to the fate of their contest with Lebanon next June. Lebanon is technically still at war with Israel which makes crossing the Israeli-controlled border virtually impossible.


Jude Bellingham’s goal secures England a 1-0 win against Serbia at Euro 2024

Jude Bellingham’s goal secures England a 1-0 win against Serbia at Euro 2024
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Jude Bellingham’s goal secures England a 1-0 win against Serbia at Euro 2024

Jude Bellingham’s goal secures England a 1-0 win against Serbia at Euro 2024
GELSENKIRCHEN: Jude Bellingham scored to give England a winning start at the European Championship by beating Serbia 1-0 on Sunday.
The Real Madrid star put England in front with a stooping header in the 13th minute at the Veltins Arena after Bukayo Saka’s cross.
Victory sent England to the top of Group C after Denmark drew 1-1 with Slovenia earlier in the day, with Christian Eriksen scoring three years after suffering a cardiac arrest on the field at the last Euros.
Gareth Southgate’s England was a beaten finalist at the last Euros, losing on penalties to Italy in the final three years ago. It is one of the favorites this time around.
The buildup to the game had been overshadowed by concerns about violence between rival supporters. And some of those fears were realized when police rushed to separate brawling fans in Gelsenkirchen earlier in the day.
Social media footage showed men throwing chairs at each other outside a restaurant festooned with Serbian flags in the city.

Netherlands start Euro 2024 campaign with 2-1 win over Poland

Netherlands start Euro 2024 campaign with 2-1 win over Poland
Updated 16 June 2024
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Netherlands start Euro 2024 campaign with 2-1 win over Poland

Netherlands start Euro 2024 campaign with 2-1 win over Poland

HAMBURG: Substitute Wout Weghorst snatched a late winner for the Netherlands in a 2-1 victory over Poland on Sunday in their opening Euro 2024 clash.

The Burnley striker, who burst into life at the 2022 World Cup, once again brought his best game to the big stage in Hamburg as Poland looked to have frustrated their opponents, despite injured striker Robert Lewandowski being unable to play.

The Barcelona striker’s replacement Adam Buksa, headed Poland in front after 16 minutes before Cody Gakpo levelled with a deflected effort at the Volksparkstadion.

Netherlands failed to convert further openings and Poland improved as the game seemed to be heading for a draw, before Weghorst intervened in the 83rd minute to delight his team’s fans.

Clad in their traditional vibrant orange, a sea of bouncing Dutch supporters took over the streets of Hamburg before the game, hoping for a second European Championship trophy.

Coach Ronald Koeman, in his second stint at the helm, won the tournament with the Oranje as a player in 1988.

The Netherlands, who performed strongly two years ago at the Qatar World Cup after failing to reach Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup, came out of the blocks quickly. Despite lacking the star power of previous generations — the likes of Arjen Robben, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Robin van Persie — their current trio of forward are dynamic.

Liverpool winger Gakpo took the creative reins alongside Memphis Depay and Xavi Simons, and tested Wojciech Szczesny with a low drive.

Midfielder Tijjani Reijnders steered a good chance narrowly wide before Michal Probierz’s Poland took the lead against the run of play with one of their first forays forward.

Separately, police shot and injured a man who threatened them with an axe and a Molotov cocktail ahead of a match in Hamburg. The incident triggered a “major operation” in the city’s St. Pauli district, police said on X, formerly Twitter.

“The attacker was injured and is currently receiving medical treatment,” they added.

According to a police spokesman, there was no indication that the incident was linked to the Euro 2024 clash between Poland and the Netherlands taking place later on Sunday.

The attacker “came out of a pub with a pickaxe and a Molotov cocktail and threatened the police,” the spokesman said, adding that the suspect was shot in the leg.

The incident took place near the Reeperbahn station, more than a kilometer away from the city’s official fan zone.

Meanwhile, Scotland manager Steve Clarke said Sunday that he had to “kick a couple of backsides” and “give a couple of cuddles” after his side’s humiliating 5-1 defeat to Germany to open Euro 2024.

Clarke accepted responsibility for a failed tactical plan as the host nation ran riot against the 10-man Scots in Munich on Friday night.

“I’ve spoken to the players about what I feel was wrong from my side and what I gave them,” Clarke told reporters.

“I think their interpretation of what we asked them to do was wrong, so we’ve worked on that.

“I had a little chat with a lot of them on the training pitch this morning. Just to try to put one or two things in their head about things they maybe didn’t do on the pitch that they should have done.”

Scotland have never made it out of the group stage at a major tournament in 11 attempts.


‘I feel dangerous!’: Former champion Robert Whittaker accepts risky Khamzat Chimaev replacement to save UFC Saudi Arabia card

‘I feel dangerous!’: Former champion Robert Whittaker accepts risky Khamzat Chimaev replacement to save UFC Saudi Arabia card
Updated 16 June 2024
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‘I feel dangerous!’: Former champion Robert Whittaker accepts risky Khamzat Chimaev replacement to save UFC Saudi Arabia card

‘I feel dangerous!’: Former champion Robert Whittaker accepts risky Khamzat Chimaev replacement to save UFC Saudi Arabia card
  • Ikram Aliskerov (15-1) steps in to replace Khamzat Chimaev (13-0)
  • Whittaker plans to ‘go in there and conquer’

LONDON: It has been a turbulent week for the UFC, with two high-profile cards enduring significant reshuffling. In the same 24 hours as Conor McGregor’s removal from UFC 300 was confirmed, it transpired that Khamzat Chimaev had been pulled from his main event clash with Robert Whittaker at UFC Saudi Arabia due to illness.

The Kingdom has emerged as an epicenter for combat sports in recent months, and the June 22 event in Riyadh will mark the first time the UFC hosts an event there. The loss of Chimaev is significant; not only is the Swede a significant contender for the middleweight title, but he is also a big star. The UFC was forced to pivot, and in stepped Ikram Aliskerov, a ferocious fighter on a seven-fight winning streak, with his only career loss coming at the hands of Chimaev.

This is a huge opportunity for the Russian. Ranked outside the top 15, but with two straight first-round finishes since his arrival in the UFC, the 31-year-old has a chance to usurp his opponent’s No. 3 ranking in the division. Whittaker deserves huge credit for accepting the fight, where he stands to gain little but lose a lot.

“It’s a little annoying. I spent months working for Chimaev because he’s a unique fighter, but I’m sure none of the skills I worked on will go to waste,” explained the Australian in an exclusive interview with Arab News. “The Reaper” acknowledges the challenge posed by Aliskerov: “Ikram’s a hard fight. I know he’s kind of come out of nowhere, but that element makes him more dangerous in other aspects. Plus, I think he’s better at certain angles in the fight game than Chimaev anyway,” he explained, adding, “The task is the same: Get in there, conquer, and go home.”

Whittaker ascended to the interim middleweight champion status following his victory at UFC 213. He later attained the position of undisputed champion when Georges St-Pierre relinquished the UFC Middleweight Championship in 2017. It was a landmark moment for “Bobby Knuckles,” who became the first-ever Australian champion in UFC history. Aside from knowing what it is like to hold the belt, the 26-7 star is a veteran of 21 fights inside the Octagon, and his attitude exemplifies just why he is so beloved by most MMA fans.

“It is what it is! I came here to fight. I’m headlining the card, I understand the responsibilities that that entails, I understand the amount of work that needs to go around it. The card is reliant on me to some degree,” said Whittaker. “Another thing is I’ve put three months’ work in. I’m shredded, I’m fit, I’m ready to fight. I’m not going to throw that away. If there’s a way to save the card, I’m going to do that. Props to Ikram for taking it. The fight goes on.”

Whittaker comes into this fight on the back of a crucial win over No. 8-ranked Paulo Costa at UFC 288. Having suffered a second-round knockout loss to current champion Dricus du Plessis in his previous fight, it was vital for the Sydneysider to get back in the win column. “It was massive. Any win is important. A win after a loss is even more important, especially the way that I lost against Dricus,” he reasoned, before adding, “I’m going into this fight with my head screwed on with the objective clear in my sights and a new kind of predator’s gaze.”

Du Plessis has already stated in interviews that even if Whittaker were to beat Chimaev, that would not be enough to earn a title shot. With the Aussie now facing an unranked opponent, it is likely he will need one more to seal a crack at gold, and many fans have been calling for a scrap with another former champion, Sean Strickland. “He looks like an awkward fight. I was trying to get him out to fight him before he beat Izzy (Adesanya), and then that obviously derailed my plans a little bit,” said Whittaker.

“We’re both in the division, we’re both at the top. Our paths will cross,” he added.

As far as Du Plessis’ comments go, Whittaker could not care less. The 33-year-old is fully focused on the task at hand and having spent 13 years fighting at the highest level, he understands one thing rings truest in the world of MMA: “Mate, winning opens doors,” he said. “I’ll worry about getting my hand raised and putting on a show and see how the chips fall after.”


T20 World Cup: Babar delivers captain’s knock as Pakistan bow out with win over Ireland

T20 World Cup: Babar delivers captain’s knock as Pakistan bow out with win over Ireland
Updated 16 June 2024
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T20 World Cup: Babar delivers captain’s knock as Pakistan bow out with win over Ireland

T20 World Cup: Babar delivers captain’s knock as Pakistan bow out with win over Ireland
  • Ireland had recovered from a poor start to make 106-9 with Gareth Delany making 31 runs off 19 balls
  • Shaheen Afridi took three wickets and then hit two sixes as Pakistan ended a disappointing tournament

LAUDERHILL: Pakistan skipper Babar Azam guided his team to victory over Ireland on Sunday, with an unbeaten 32, in their final game at the T20 World Cup, avoiding another embarrassing loss for his already eliminated side.
Shaheen Shah Afridi took three wickets and then hit two sixes to win the game as Pakistan ended a disappointing tournament with a three-wicket win at Central Broward Stadium.
Ireland had recovered from a poor start to make 106-9 with Gareth Delany making 31 off 19 balls and although Pakistan wobbled at 62-6, captain Babar’s 32 off 34 balls steadied the ship and avoided another defeat.
Pakistan’s shock defeat to the USA and loss to India meant they were eliminated from second-round contention before Sunday’s final Group A game in Florida.
After the first three games at the South Florida venue were all abandoned because heavy rains caused a waterlogged outfield, the overwhelmingly pro-Pakistan crowd were rewarded with some top class opening bowling.
Left-arm seamer Shaheen Shah Afridi (3-22) did the bulk of the damage picking up three early wickets as Ireland’s top order was ripped apart.

Pakistan’s Shaheen Shah Afridi celebrates the wicket of Ireland’s Andrew Balbirnie during the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup cricket match between Ireland and Pakistan at the Central Broward Regional Park Stadium, Lauderhill, Florida on June 16, 2024. (AP)

The Irish, who have not been able to practice for the past week due to wet facilities, were in deep trouble at 32-6 with seamer Mohammad Amir also picking up two wickets on a surface that was offering plenty for the quick bowlers.
Delany provided some much needed resistance for the Irish, blasting three sixes as he made 31 from 19 balls.
Delany’s entertaining knock — and a 44 run partnership with Mark Adair — came to an end when Imad Wasim’s slow left-arm spin found the edge and Shabad Khan ran in from point to make the catch.
Adair tried to keep the momentum going but he departed for 15 when he slogged Imad to long on and Afridi held on to the catch despite Usman Khan colliding with him.
All-rounder Imad picked up his third wicket by bowling Barry McCarthy but Josh Little provided some valuable lower order runs with his unbeaten 22 taking Ireland to three figures.

Pakistan’s Mohammad Amir, back to the camera, celebrates with teammates the wicket of Ireland’s George Dockrell during the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup cricket match between Ireland and Pakistan at the Central Broward Regional Park Stadium, Lauderhill, Florida, Sunday, June 16, 2024. (AP)

McCarthy, who finished with figures of 3-15, gave Ireland some hope with a lively opening spell, picking up the wickets of Mohammad Rizwan (17) and removing Usman Khan and Shabad Khan cheaply.
When Curtis Campher dismissed Imad Wasim, whose cut shot to point was well held by Harry Tector, Pakistan looked in danger of another upset at 62-6.
But a 33 run seventh wicket partnership between Babar Azam and Abbas Afridi steadied the innings and Shaheen Shah Afridi’s two big heaves over mid-wicket ensured victory with seven balls to spare.
“Let’s see, what team needs, I’ll be okay with it. We have a good bunch of players, we’ve to go home, chat and see where we lacked, and then come back. Couldn’t finish off close games, as a team we weren’t good as a team,” said Babar.
The win meant that Pakistan finished third in the group and Ireland ended bottom with a solitary point from their washed-out game against the USA.


Malaysia’s Lee Zii Jia crowned Australian Open badminton champion

Malaysia’s Lee Zii Jia crowned Australian Open badminton champion
Updated 16 June 2024
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Malaysia’s Lee Zii Jia crowned Australian Open badminton champion

Malaysia’s Lee Zii Jia crowned Australian Open badminton champion

SYDNEY: Malaysian Lee Zii Jia outlasted Japan’s Kodai Naraoka in the men’s singles final to be crowned Australian Open badminton champion Sunday, while Aya Ohori of Japan clinched the women’s title.
With many of the top-ranked players giving the tournament a miss, world number eight Lee took advantage to upset his sixth-ranked opponent 21-19, 11-21, 21-18 in Sydney.
It was his sixth career win on the BWF World Tour and came on the back of victory at the Thailand Open last month.
Ohori triumphed with a gutsy 17-21, 21-19, 21-16 come-from-behind beating of 35th-ranked Indonesian teenager Ester Nurumi Tri Wardoyo.
It was only her second title on tour, having won her first at the Thailand Masters this year.
In the men’s doubles final, China’s He Ji Ting and Ren Xiang Yu swept past Indonesian pair Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan 21-11, 21-10
But another Indonesian duo, Febriana Dwipuji Kusuma and Amallia Cahaya Pratiwi, broke through to win the women’s doubles, having lost previous finals at the Spain Masters and Thailand Open.
They recovered from a game down to oust Malaysia’s Lai Pei Jing and Lim Chiew Sien 12-21, 21-7, 21-13.
Chinese top seeds Jiang Zhen Bang and Wei Ya Zin overcame countrymen Guo Xin Wa and Chen Fang Hui in the mixed doubles decider by two-games-to-one.
The circuit moves to Fort Worth in the United States next.