All eyes on Arab football star power as countdown to FIFA World Cup Qatar begins

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With Argentina as their first opponent in November, there is no time for inferiority for the Saudi national team. (AFP)
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A general view shows the Lusail Stadium, the 80,000-capacity venue that will host this year's World Cup final. (AFP)
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A view of Qatar's Lusail Stadium in Lusail city, around 20 km north of Doha. (Qatar's Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy / AFP) 
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Updated 06 September 2022

All eyes on Arab football star power as countdown to FIFA World Cup Qatar begins

  • The presence of Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Tunisia and Qatar will be as much a cultural one as it is a sporting one
  • The Arab quartet have chance to deliver what their fans really want: Goals, wins and football to be proud of

DUBAI: On Nov. 22, Saudi Arabia will take on Argentina in their first match of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. That is, Lionel Messi’s Argentina. There will be a temptation for the players to view the world’s greatest footballer with reverence, with (not misplaced) awe.

While coming up against the two-time world champions and Messi remains an honor, it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia’s French coach Herve Renard will allow his players to think of anything beyond getting a result at Lusail Stadium.

For Saudi Arabia, this is no time for an inferiority complex.

The first World Cup held on Arab soil will have a record-equaling four Arab nations, just as in Russia 2018.

The presence of (host) Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Tunisia will be as much a cultural one as it is a sporting one.

While tens of thousands of fans will be descending on Doha from around the world, for once support for the Arab teams will not be restricted to a few flags scattered across the stadia, as has often been the case at previous tournaments.

Qatar is home to large Arab communities, many of whom come from countries that have not qualified to the World Cup but who, it is hoped, will throw their support behind their participating neighbors, while thousands more will be expected to make the short trip from nearby countries, or the slightly longer one from North Africa.

Arab teams should, perhaps for the first time ever at a World Cup, be firmly in the spotlight. More than ever before, Arab players have genuine star power.

Qatar’s squad, the reigning Asian champions, is made up of players who have been training from a very young age to take part in this tournament, progressing through Aspire Academy and age group teams for the ultimate goal.




The Qatari national football team. (Qatar Football Association via Twitter)

The world’s media outlets, some not always with good intentions, will likely scrutinize their every move and performance like never before.

In Al-Hilal’s trio — Salman Al-Faraj, Salem Al-Dawsari and Yasser Al-Shahrani — Saudi Arabia will have three of Asia’s finest players, as shown by the leading roles they played in their club’s recent AFC Champions League triumphs.

Meanwhile, Morocco and Tunisia have for years had squads bolstered by stars who play in some of Europe’s top leagues and who are recognizable to fans around the world.




Tunisia's players pose for a group picture during the FIFA Arab Cup 2021 quarter final football match between Tunisia and Oman in Ar-Rayyan on December 10, 2021. (AFP)

It is a far cry from some of the earlier World Cup participations by Arab nations, which were treated with barely concealed condescension by pundits and commentators.

Emirati players who took part in the 1990 World Cup in Italy spoke of the utter lack of knowledge foreign journalists had of the UAE at that point in time.

Often, too, teams did themselves no favors, as with Kuwait in 1982 and Iraq four years later. On the pitch, as off it, those days should be consigned to the past.

Only eight Arab teams have reached the World Cup finals since the first tournament took place in 1930: Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Kuwait, Iraq, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Remarkably, until the hosts take on Ecuador in Qatar 2022’s opening match on Nov. 20, Saudi Arabia remain the last Arab debutants at the World Cup. No new team from the region has managed to qualify since the Green Falcons reached the 1994 FIFA World Cup in the US.




Morocco's players line up behind their national flag during the Africa Cup of Nations 2021 quarter-final football match with Egypt in Yaounde, Cameroon, on January 30, 2022. (AFP)

This means the Arab world has had to rely on the same clutch of nations to carry their hopes over the last three decades. Saudi Arabia went on to play in four more tournaments since their first appearance, while the North African trio of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia regularly qualify for the finals from the African confederation.

These four nations — Algeria’s shock elimination notwithstanding — no longer dream of qualification but expect it.

With that comes, or should come, the responsibility of performing at a consistently higher level — and winning. The novelty of rubbing shoulders with the world’s best is no longer enough.

When Saudi Arabia take on Messi and his team at the World Cup, the odds, not surprisingly, will be stacked against them.

But then again, that was also the case on June 29, 1994, at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. Having earlier lost to the Netherlands and beaten Morocco, the Saudi team went into their final group match against Belgium, still with a chance of progressing to the knockout stages at their first ever World Cup. The bad news was that it was against a formidable Belgium team.




Saudi Arabia's Ahmed Madani tries to stop Swedish striker Kennet Andersson during their World Cup football match on July 3, 1994, in Dallas, Texas. (AFP file)

What happened next would go down as one of the country’s greatest sporting moments, and certainly the most iconic.

Only five minutes into the match, Saudi Arabia’s No. 10 Saeed Al-Owairan received the ball deep in his own half and embarked on a sensational run that laid waste to the Belgian defense, before slotting the ball past the advancing goalkeeper Michel Preud’homme.

It was instantly one of the most spectacular goals in World Cup history, worthy of mention alongside Diego Maradona’s legendary run and finish against England in Mexico in 1986 and Roberto Baggio’s brilliant solo effort for hosts Italy against Czechoslovakia in 1990.




Saeed-Al-Owairan. (AFP)

Al-Owairan’s moment of magic was enough to secure a famous 1-0 win for Saudi and qualification to the round of 16, where, after a valiant effort in the scorching midday heat of Dallas, they went down 3-1 to eventual semifinalists Sweden.

Things would never be better for Saudi Arabia at the World Cup, despite four subsequent participations, the last of which was four years ago.

It is something that Renard and his players will look to put right in Qatar.




Saudi Arabia's players carry French coach Herve Renard in celebration after beating Australia in their 2022 Qatar World Cup Asian Qualifiers football match in Jeddah on March 29, 2022. (AFP)

Africa’s Arab nations have all been involved in memorable World Cup moments as well, though ones that very often ended in heartbreak.

In 1978, Tunisia, led by legendary coach Abdelmajid Chetali and the outstanding talent of Tarek Diab, defeated reigning CONCACAF Gold Cup champions Mexico 3-1 on their World Cup debut in Argentina.

It was the first-ever win by an Arab nation at the finals of the competition.

The Carthage Eagles even pulled off a 0-0 draw against reigning World Cup winners West Germany, but Tunisia’s Golden Generation just missed out on progress to the last eight.




Algeria's players perk themselves up ahead of the FIFA Arab Cup 2021 group D football match with Lebanon at the Al-Janoub Stadium in Al-Wakrah, Qatar, on Dec.4, 2021. (AFP)

Four years later in Spain, Algeria provided one of the World Cup’s greatest-ever shocks when they beat the mighty West Germans 2-1 in Gijon, a result made all the sweeter for the disrespect that the European players and coach had shown to their African opponents in the days before the match.

But Algeria’s participation would end in controversial circumstances when West Germany beat Austria (only) 1-0 in the infamous “Disgrace of Gijon” match, which ensured the European neighbors qualified at the expense of the Arab nation.

The fallout from the scandal led to the stipulation that the last group matches would kick off at the same time to avoid collusion in the future. It was little consolation for the Desert Warriors, who nonetheless returned home as heroes.

But one wonders how such a blatant act of gamesmanship would play out today with blanket, unforgiving coverage and an army of social media users waiting to pounce.

Then there was Morocco’s second World Cup participation in Mexico, 1986. Expected to head home early after being placed in a “Group of Death” with England, Poland and Portugal, the Atlas Lions instead stormed to the top of the group with an astonishing 3-1 win over Portugal in their last match.




General view of Qatar's Lusail stadium during the volunteers orientation event for the World Cup Qatar 2022. (REUTERS/Mohammed Dabbous)

In the round of 16, Morocco went toe-to-toe with eventual finalists West Germany but succumbed to a late, late winner by Lothar Matthaus. Another tale of so near, yet so far for an Arab nation.

The weight of such history can be paralyzing, but the Arab quartet have a chance of changing the narrative and making their fans proud in Qatar.

And what do these fans want? Nothing more than what every other supporter around the world wants: Goals, wins and football to be proud of. No more excuses.

 

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Pakistan’s Naseem Shah out of fifth England T20

Updated 28 September 2022

Pakistan’s Naseem Shah out of fifth England T20

  • Shah was taken to hospital with an infection and will miss the fifth Twenty20 international against England today
  • The 19-year-old’s availability for the rest of the seven-match series will be decided after assessing his medical reports

LAHORE: Pakistan’s highly rated teenage fast bowler Naseem Shah was taken to hospital with an infection and will miss the fifth Twenty20 international against England later Wednesday, said a cricket board spokesman.

The 19-year-old’s availability for the rest of the seven-match series will be decided after assessing his medical reports.

“Naseem was taken to hospital on Tuesday night with a viral infection and will not be available for Wednesday’s match,” a Pakistan Cricket Board spokesman said.

Naseem played the first match of the series and went for 41 runs in his four wicket-less overs.

The series is tied 2-2 after four matches in Karachi. The remaining three are in Lahore.

England are on their first tour of Pakistan for 17 years.


Racial slur, laser pens at players mar Brazil’s 5-1 win over Tunisia in friendly

Updated 28 September 2022

Racial slur, laser pens at players mar Brazil’s 5-1 win over Tunisia in friendly

  • The Selecao produced a dominant first-half display in their final outing before traveling to Qatar, with Raphinha netting twice and Neymar moving to within two of Pele’s record
  • The scene for a bad-tempered match was set when the vast numbers of Tunisia fans jeered the Brazilian national anthem before kickoff

PARIS: Richarlison was the target of a banana thrown from the crowd as Brazil thrashed Tunisia 5-1 in a friendly in Paris on Tuesday, while Neymar edged closer to Pele’s all-time scoring record for the five-time world champions.

The game at the Parc des Princes was also briefly paused in the first half as the crowd were twice implored not to point laser pens at Brazil players.

“Unfortunately... a banana was thrown on the pitch toward Richarlison, scorer of the second Brazilian goal,” the Brazilian football confederation (CBF) said on Twitter.

“The CBF reinforces its position to combat racism and repudiates any prejudiced act.”

The Selecao produced a dominant first-half display in their final outing before traveling to Qatar for the World Cup, with Raphinha netting twice and Neymar moving to within two of Pele’s record.

Richarlison also found the net, while Pedro scored as a second-half substitute before responding to more boos and missiles from the crowd by bowing in front of them in celebration.

“It’s a shame, it’s difficult to see images like that,” said Brazil captain Thiago Silva, whose team posed for a team photo before the match with a banner bearing an anti-racism message.

“Unfortunately it seems that we can’t change people’s mentality.

“I hope they will realize that this doesn’t work, it’s the past, we have to change. Unfortunately, people continue with this mentality.”

Tite’s Brazil will head into their World Cup Group G opener against Serbia on Nov. 24 on a 15-match unbeaten run, dating back to their Copa America final loss to Argentina last year.

The scene for a bad-tempered match was set when the vast numbers of Tunisia fans jeered the Brazilian national anthem before kickoff.

“I was puzzled, I was saying ‘No, it’s a lack of respect’. Football is a sport that promotes inclusion,” said Tite.

Brazil took the lead in the 12th minute, though, as Casemiro clipped the ball over the top and Barcelona winger Raphinha directed a wonderful looping header over Tunisia goalkeeper Aymen Dahmen and into the net.

Jalel Kadri’s men hit back six minutes later.

Defender Montassar Talbi met Anis Slimane’s outswinging free-kick to send a powerful header into the bottom corner past ‘keeper Alisson.

Incredibly, Brazil were back ahead just seconds after that setback, as Raphinha sent Richarlison in behind to drill a strike through the legs of Dahmen to score his third goal in two games after a double against Ghana.

The Tottenham forward celebrated in front of the Tunisian supporters, who responded by throwing a banana and plastic cups in his direction.

Fred kicked the banana off the pitch, before extra security guards took up residence on the side of the field.

Brazil almost extended their advantage as Paqueta followed a fine turn with a low shot which Dahmen tipped wide.

But from the resulting corner, Casemiro was hauled down in the box and Neymar stepped up to roll home his 75th international goal from the penalty spot, despite having lasers pointed at his face.

Brazil continued to cut through the visitors’ defense with ease and Raphinha scored again in the 40th minute by firing in off the post from the edge of the box.

Things went from bad to worse for Tunisia before halftime as Dylan Bronn brought down Neymar and was harshly sent off after a brief melee between the two teams.

Tunisia were much improved after the break but Brazil still scored again with 16 minutes remaining through Flamengo forward Pedro’s maiden goal for his country.

Earlier on Tuesday, World Cup hosts Qatar survived a late penalty miss by Alexis Sanchez to hold Chile to a 2-2 draw in Vienna.

Canada, who are preparing for their first World Cup since 1986, lost 2-0 to Uruguay in Bratislava as Liverpool’s Darwin Nunez scored his third international goal.

Sardar Azmoun scored as a substitute to earn Iran a 1-1 draw with African champions Senegal. Morocco drew 0-0 with Paraguay in Seville.


Spain snare Nations League semifinal spot from Portugal

Updated 28 September 2022

Spain snare Nations League semifinal spot from Portugal

  • Spain will join Italy, Croatia and the Netherlands in the semis in June 2023, although attention now switches to the fast-approaching World Cup

BRAGA, PORTUGAL: Alvaro Morata’s late strike snatched Spain a 1-0 Nations League victory over Portugal in Braga on Tuesday and sent them into the semifinals.

La Roja needed to win to finish top of League A Group 2, but struggled on another difficult night for the Euro 2020 semifinalists, until Morata’s 88th-minute breakthrough.

Spain have not been able to hit top form in the internationals leading up to the Qatar 2022 World Cup, but this hard-fought victory provides a welcome morale boost.

Portugal had the better of the game but Spain brightened in the final stages, with the introduction of several substitutes, including Nico Williams, who headed across goal for Morata to gleefully turn in at the back post.

“When we had to stand up, we did,” Morata told TVE. “If we had lost, it had to be giving everything we had on the pitch, and that’s what we did.

“I’ll remember the attitude of the team, we fought until the end. And Nico Williams, in his second game for the national team, was key and I put it over the line.”

Spain will join Italy, Croatia and the Netherlands in the semis in June 2023, although attention now switches to the fast-approaching World Cup.

Luis Enrique made wholesale changes to the side that suffered Spain’s first home defeat since 2018 against Switzerland on Saturday, retaining only four starters.

Morata was brought in to lead the line, while the Asturian coach rotated his entire midfield trio.

Spain still dominated possession, as their gameplan demands, but to little effect as Portugal created the more dangerous openings.

Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper Unai Simon made a solid save to deny Ruben Neves and then a brilliant one to keep Liverpool striker Diogo Jota at bay.

With Portuguese confidence increasing, Bruno Fernandes lashed an effort narrowly off-target, celebrated prematurely by swathes of the stadium as the ball appeared to settle in the net.

Just as they did against Switzerland, Spain failed to get a single shot on target in the first half, and after Simon made another good save from Cristiano Ronaldo early in the second half, Luis Enrique took action.

The coach sent on Pedri, Gavi and Yeremy Pino to try and give La Roja more inspiration going forward, although it was the hosts who almost broke the deadlock when Dani Carvajal deflected a strike narrowly over his own crossbar.

The changes livened Luis Enrique’s team up and they began to turn the tide, building momentum as the game reached its denouement.

Carvajal launched a crossfield ball into the area, with Williams’ header leaving Morata with the simple task of firing into the empty net to put the runners-up of the last edition of the Nations League back into the final four.

An exasperated Ronaldo was denied by Simon at the death and Fernando Santos’s Portugal left ruing their missed chances and wishing they had killed off Spain when they had the chance.

“We had many chances and Spain few, we are sad, we would have liked to have been in the finals,” said Santos.

“Ronaldo had three or four chances that he would usually score, but he could not. That’s football.”

It was a disappointing end to a good run for Portugal, while Spain experienced the opposite sensation.

After defeat by Switzerland and frustrating draws with Portugal and the Czech Republic in June, Morata’s late winner provided relief for La Roja.

“This is a wonderful sport in which winning is the best antidote to any depression or sadness,” said Luis Enrique.

“Portugal are a top, top, top team. In the first half I insisted, maybe too much, on having the ball, and we did. It’s evident we’d prefer to play the passes in their half.

“(But) the first half was necessary to show that the ball was ours, and in the second we had the sensation that the goal would come. We’re in the final four again and it’s a great joy.”


Qatar tests out massive bus fleet ahead of World Cup

Updated 27 September 2022

Qatar tests out massive bus fleet ahead of World Cup

  • Thani Al Zarraa, who is overseeing transport preparations, said some 4,000 buses will be used during the monthlong tournament
  • The bus fleet will shuttle passengers between main transport hubs and the eight stadiums

DOHA: Qatar has tested out a massive fleet of buses ahead of next month’s World Cup, when an estimated 1.2 million soccer fans will descend on the small Gulf nation, an official said Tuesday.
Thani Al Zarraa, who is overseeing transport preparations, said some 4,000 buses will be used during the monthlong tournament, which begins Nov. 20. That includes 3,000 buses acquired for the World Cup on top of a pre-existing fleet of around 1,000, he said.
Of the new buses, around 700 will be electric, he told The Associated Press. Fans can also use Qatar’s Metro rail system.
The bus fleet will shuttle passengers between main transport hubs and the eight stadiums where the matches will be held. Authorities held tests over the weekend involving some 1,800 buses without passengers.
Transport will be free for holders of the Hayya card issued by the government, which is required for entry to stadiums. An accompanying app has a feature in which fans can plan their journeys.
All visitors to Qatar, even those not planning to attend the matches, will need a Hayya card to enter the country from Nov. 1 to Jan. 23. Cardholders will also be able to enter the United Arab Emirates and Oman.
This will be the first World Cup hosted by an Arab nation.


Suspected German ‘fans’ attack pub customers before Wembley clash with England

Updated 27 September 2022

Suspected German ‘fans’ attack pub customers before Wembley clash with England

  • About 100 males, many wearing masks, approached the pub in Wembley
  • Punches and projectiles including traffic cones were thrown

LONDON: Scores of suspected German football fans attacked customers at a London pub ahead of England’s 3-3 Nations League draw with Germany on Monday, injuring several people, three seriously, police said.
About 100 males, many wearing masks, approached the pub in Wembley, near where the stadium where the match was held, and assaulted customers in the beer garden, police said.
“While a number of the group were wearing England hats and scarves, it is believed they were German ‘fans’,” a police statement said.
“The group entered the beer garden of the pub and began assaulting customers, most of whom were in the area to attend the England vs Germany match. Punches and projectiles including traffic cones were thrown.
“Officers responded and the group fled. The disorder lasted for around two minutes.”
The police said “a number of people” sustained head and facial injuries, with three suffering serious leg, wrist and thumb injuries. Four people were arrested.
“None of those injured are believed to be in a life-threatening condition,” the statement added.