Qatar’s hosting of 2023 AFC Asian Cup paves way for Saudi to win 2027 bid

There will be a short break as soon as the World Cup finishes in Qatar and focus would turn to the 2023 AFC Asian Cup immediately afterwards. (AFP)
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Updated 20 October 2022

Qatar’s hosting of 2023 AFC Asian Cup paves way for Saudi to win 2027 bid

  • After China pulled out of holding next year’s tournament, the Middle East could be holding three editions of the competition in a row

Asian football changed this week on what was otherwise an unremarkable Monday in October with the center of power moving further westwards.

Sometimes what happens off the pitch can be as fascinating as what happens on it, and that is especially the case with Asia playing an increasingly important role in the world of football. As soon as the World Cup finishes in Qatar, there will be a short break and then thoughts will turn to the 2023 AFC Asian Cup that will be held in the same country, having beaten off competition from South Korea and Indonesia to be named as the host of the continent’s biggest tournament after China gave up their staging rights in May due to Beijing’s zero COVID-19 policy.

The decision, taken by a vote of the Asian Football Confederation’s executive committee in Kuala Lumpur, has had a number of consequences.

For Saudi Arabia, it means that the road to hosting the 2027 event has become a little smoother. The race started with five runners, with interest from Jordan and Iraq never making it into concrete bids. In December 2020, Uzbekistan dropped out to leave four that went all the way. Well, almost. Last week Iran, beset by protests and problems at home, withdrew. Now Qatar, seen as Riyadh’s main rival for the tournament, have moved forward four years. It means that 2027 will be held in either Saudi Arabia or India.

“Again, we thank our three member associations — the All India Football Federation, the Qatar Football Association and the Saudi Arabian Football Federation — for submitting strong bids to host the AFC Asian Cup 2027,” AFC President Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa said. “We must also acknowledge the Football Federation Islamic Republic of Iran and the Uzbekistan Football Association for signaling their intent to host the 2027 edition . . .”

Qatar’s success in being named as host of 2023, which is likely to be held in January 2024, did not go down well in Seoul. The Korean Football Association took the unusual step of releasing a statement expressing that feeling.

“It has not been held in Korea, an Asian football powerhouse, for 63 years, and in terms of rotation and regional balance, it was a reasonable order to hold it in East Asia,” the KFA said.

“Unexpectedly, however, we had to face tough competition as Qatar jumped into the bid with its abundant financial, human and material base.” It added: “It is judged that the unconventional offensive and support of Middle Eastern countries trying to take the lead in Asian football also influenced the situation.”

Many neutrals felt that after the UAE hosting in 2019 and Qatar doing so as recently as 2011, the continent’s biggest event should have been held in the East, for what would have been only the second time since 1996.

South Korea, who have not hosted since 1960, are entitled to feel a little annoyed, especially as they worked hard, encouraged by the AFC, in the summer to try and step in for the Chinese. There is a case to be made for the East getting the nod.

Qatar could point out, however, that the 2023 tournament had, in fact, been handed to East Asia, but just a year before it was all due to kick off the region’s biggest country decided not to go ahead. The 2022 World Cup hosts have all the facilities in place and have established themselves as a very safe pair of hands in terms of hosting AFC tournaments during the global pandemic. From the viewpoint of the confederation, who got their fingers burned with China’s withdrawal and had all kinds of headaches and financial issues in trying to organise events in recents years, Qatar is the easy, safe and lucrative option.

With the 2023 battle now over, the 2027 race is entering its final stages with India and Saudi Arabia left. There is certainty when it comes to the decision day at least. The AFC’s executive committee will vote in February to select the host. Neither country has hosted before. India is an important market for the AFC and for FIFA and nobody in Riyadh will be getting ahead of themselves. At the moment in Asian football circles, however, Saudi Arabia are regarded as the favourites.

“Our chances of hosting the 2027 Asian Cup are good because we have had generous support from the Minister of Sports Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal and his team. Our bid and documentation are complete and we are optimistic that we can host the 2027 tournament,” said Yasser Al-Misehal, president of the Saudi Arabia Football Federation on national television earlier this week.

For the past 20 years, East Asia has had the upper hand on the pitch with the 2002 World Cup and with South Korea and Japan having subsequent success on the global stage and sending players to Europe’s big leagues. The arrival of the Chinese Super League as a major player added to that power. Now, though, Asian champions at both club and national team level are from the west and that is also where more and more of the biggest events in sport are taking place.

Xavi denies reports that Barcelona’s leadership is considering firing him

Updated 18 May 2024

Xavi denies reports that Barcelona’s leadership is considering firing him

BARCELONA: Xavi Hernández on Saturday denied a slew of reports in Spanish media outlets that Barcelona’s leadership is considering firing the coach for having said that the club’s poor finances will impede it from competing with Real Madrid.
“The club has transmitted to me that I should stay calm and continue working with the same motivation and commitment. Nothing has changed,” Xavi said at a pregame news conference.
Almost all the questions he faced were about the speculation in Spain’s sports press that club president Joan Laporta was upset with Xavi for having said earlier this week that “the situation is very difficult, above all on the economic level, for us to compete with our top rivals, whether it be Real Madrid or teams in Europe.”
The media reports said Laporta is pondering a replacement for Xavi this summer.
Xavi insisted Saturday that he had heard no such thing from the club.
“I don’t know and I don’t care where that information is coming from. I have the support of the president and Deco, our sports director,” the former Barcelona midfielder said.
Neither Laporta nor the club have made any public statements about the rumors. The club said it had no comment on them when asked by The Associated Press.
Even if it Barcelona keeps Xavi on, it is still an awkward situation for a coach who just three weeks prior had reversed a previous decision made in January to leave the club this summer. In April, Xavi said that he had changed his mind after his players showed him that they believed in the team’s potential and had improved their performances.
Laporta inherited a club mired in debts of more than 1.3 billion euros ($1.4 billion), and soccer’s most expensive payroll, when he returned to run the club for a second time in 2021.
A few months later he brought back fan favorite Xavi, who had been coaching in Qatar, to lead a team rebuild following the exit of superstar Lionel Messi.
But with no cash on hand and mounting debts, Laporta had to sell off future television revenues and other club assets, which Laporta dubbed financial “levers,” to sign Robert Lewandowski and other players two seasons ago.
With those reinforcements, Xavi guided Barcelona to the Spanish league title last campaign. But Barcelona has struggled this season and will finish it without any titles.
Xavi’s words earlier this week seemed aimed at curbing the expectations of fans used to the club making significant signings in the summer.
The club’s wages still exceed the salary cap established by the Spanish league and it is more likely to sell players this off-season than bring in new talent.
Barcelona plays Rayo Vallecano on Sunday seeking a win to lock up a second-placed finish in the domestic league and secure a spot in the Spanish Super Cup.

Al-Hilal manager Jorge Jesus ‘very proud’ as last-gasp equalizer preserves unbeaten domestic season

Updated 18 May 2024

Al-Hilal manager Jorge Jesus ‘very proud’ as last-gasp equalizer preserves unbeaten domestic season

  • Roshn Saudi League champions earn 1-1 draw in Riyadh derby on Friday thanks to Aleksandar Mitrovic’s injury-time penalty
  • Al-Nassr manager Luis Castro disputes penalty award and praises players’ performance

Riyadh: Al-Hilal manager Jorge Jesus saluted the resilience of his players after they preserved the club’s unbeaten domestic season with an injury-time penalty from Aleksandar Mitrovic in their Roshn Saudi League 1-1 draw against Al-Nassr.

A dramatic Riyadh derby exploded into life on Friday night after just 25 seconds when Al-Nassr midfielder Otavio thundered the hosts into the lead from distance at Al-Awwal Park. But Mitrovic ensured the champions remain on course for an invincible 2023/24 league campaign by smashing home a late spot-kick awarded after a VAR check.

In a match in which both sides created chances, both Jesus and Al-Nassr counterpart Luis Castro agreed the hosts enjoyed the better of the first half, and the title winners the second half.

While Al-Hilal could not maintain a remarkable Roshn Saudi League winning run that stretched all the way back to September — 24 games in total — Jesus said the determination shown to earn a point bears all the hallmark of champions.

“I’m very proud of my players,” he said. “They showed great resilience (to keep the unbeaten record). We have a fantastic group of players. I believe in their talents; they believe in my ideas.

“It has been a fantastic season until now. We want to finish as winners and there are three games left: two in the league and one the King’s Cup final. We not only want to be unbeaten in the next two games in the league, but also win the King’s Cup. I don’t think you can have a better season than this in local competitions.”

The penalty kick was awarded deep into injury time when Sadio Mane was deemed to have caught Saud Abdulhamid just inside the penalty area. Spanish referee Jose Maria Sanchez Martinez pointed to the spot after being called to the screen by the VAR.

Jesus believed Saud was impeded by Mane, but Castro was unhappy that the decision denied his team three points against their Riyadh rivals.

Castro said: “The penalty given to them and scored by them; it wasn’t at all a penalty. There is no injury, there is no foul at all.”

Asked whether the game will influence the upcoming King’s Cup final between the two sides that will round off the season, Castro said: “No, this was one match and that is a different match. We all saw how Al-Hilal celebrated as if they won, but they only drew. That means it was a tough match for them. We had chances to win.”

Twelve points separate champions Al-Hilal and second-placed Al-Nassr in the Saudi Roshn League table.

The previous league derby between the two this season saw Al-Hilal beat Al-Nassr 3-0 in December. As well as being unbeaten domestically this season, Al-Hilal also created world football history earlier in the campaign by winning 34 matches in succession across all competitions.

Pacers pummel Knicks to stay alive in NBA playoffs

Updated 18 May 2024

Pacers pummel Knicks to stay alive in NBA playoffs

  • On the brink of elimination after an embarrassing game five defeat in New York, the Pacers played with desperate aggression

LOS ANGELES: The Indiana Pacers produced another big win on their home court Friday, routing the New York Knicks 116-103 to force a decisive game seven in their NBA Eastern Conference semifinal series.
Pascal Siakam scored 25 points to lead Indiana’s scoring. Tyrese Haliburton added 15 with nine assists and Myles Turner had 17 points as six Pacers players scored in double figures.
On the brink of elimination after an embarrassing game five defeat in New York, the Pacers played with desperate aggression, out-scoring the Knicks 62-38 in the paint and winning the rebounding battle.
They hustled after loose balls, blocked eight shots and handed out 35 assists to keep their offense firing, and kept Knicks talisman Jalen Brunson in check for much of the night as they improved to 6-0 at home in this post-season.
They’ll have to follow up on the road, however, if they want to book a clash with the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, with the Knicks hosting game seven on Sunday at Madison Square Garden.
“Now it’s a one game series, and it’s for all the marbles,” Haliburton said. “Where better to have a game seven than the Garden?
“No team’s won a game on the road in this series, so we’ve got to be ready to go from start to finish in 48 minutes.”
The Pacers broke open a close game with a 17-2 scoring run that pushed their lead to 13 points late in the second quarter.
Donte DiVincenzo stopped the rot for New York, draining a three-pointer from the corner that cut the Pacers’ lead to 10, 61-51, at halftime.
Brunson was limited to five points on 2-of-13 shooting in the first half. He found his range after the break, scoring 14 points in the third and finishing with 31.
Miles McBride added 20 for the Knicks, whose brief surge to open the third quarter was quickly squelched by the Pacers.
“There really isn’t any excuse for anything,” Brunson said. “Just the way they played tonight you’ve got to give them credit.”
Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said it was a matter of playing harder.
He said Siakam, an NBA champion with Toronto in 2019 and acquired from the Raptors in January, had provided a key veteran presence on a young and a crucial skillset that made a big difference on Friday.
“He’s the only guy on our roster that can manufacture a 16-foot shot over a seven-foot guy and make it,” Carlisle said. “He did it three or four times in the third, fourth quarter.”
While Carlisle was pleased with his team’s bounce-back win, he was already looking ahead to the test awaiting on Sunday.
“In a series like this, you can’t sit around patting yourself on the back. That’s what gets your ass kicked the next game,” he said.
The Knicks return home with yet another injury concern after forward Josh Hart departed early in the fourth quarter with what the team called abdominal soreness.
He’d clearly been troubled by discomfort around his midriff since the first quarter.
It’s just the latest blow for the Knicks, who saw forward OG Anunoby go down to a hamstring injury in game two after they were already without Julius Randle, Bojan Bogdanovic and Mitchell Robinson.
“We’ll see,” was head coach Tom Thibodeau’s tight-lipped response on whether Hart would be available on Sunday, but he made it clear the Knicks wouldn’t be citing injuries as an excuse.
“This is the nature of the playoffs,” he said. “This is what you play for. Oftentimes it comes down to a hustle play, a loose ball .. so you’re going to get tested physically, mentally, emotionally — and you’ve got to be able to get through all of that.
“So whatever it is that we’re facing, we can overcome and just keep battling.”

Coach Thomas Tuchel says he’s still leaving after talks on extending Bayern Munich stay fell through

Updated 17 May 2024

Coach Thomas Tuchel says he’s still leaving after talks on extending Bayern Munich stay fell through

  • “We found no agreement on further cooperation so the agreement from February remains in force,” he said
  • In the three months since Bayern said Tuchel was leaving, they have tried and failed to sign a series of high-profile replacements

MUNICH: Thomas Tuchel says he is still leaving Bayern Munich after talks on extending his stay at the club fell through.
Bayern said in February that Tuchel would leave at the end of the season, but the coach said Friday that he held talks with the club on a “180-degree turn” that would have seen him stay after all.
“We found no agreement on further cooperation so the agreement from February remains in force,” he said.
In the three months since Bayern said Tuchel was leaving, they have tried and failed to sign a series of high-profile replacements.
Xabi Alonso is staying with Bayer Leverkusen after beating Bayern to the Bundesliga title, Tuchel’s predecessor Julian Nagelsmann signed an extension with the German national team, and Ralf Rangnick remains with Austria.
Bayern are without a trophy this season for the first time since 2012 after losing the Bundesliga title to Bayer Leverkusen, but Tuchel’s team were praised for reaching the Champions League semifinals before a narrow loss to Real Madrid.
There was also a petition from some Bayern fans calling on the club to keep Tuchel.
Strong European performances prompted the club to reach out to him in an attempt to persuade him to stay, the coach said.
“Above all, the feedback after Real Madrid over this last week was the basis to think again about the 180-degree turn, but we didn’t reach any agreement,” he said. “I don’t want to go into the individual points and the motivations behind them. That is behind closed doors and stays that way.”
There was tension last month after Tuchel said he had been insulted by comments from the club’s honorary president Uli Hoeness claiming the coach “doesn’t think he can improve” the team’s young stars.
Tuchel said at the time that Hoeness’ comments were “so far removed from reality” and added: “On the one hand it insults my honor as a coach, because I think we’ve shown as a coaching team for the last 15 years that young players, especially from the academy, always, always, always have a place with us in training and that they have a place on the field with their performances.”
Tuchel is heading into his last game with Bayern at Hoffenheim on Saturday with second place in the Bundesliga on the line. The injury list is as long as ever in a season when he has rarely had his first-choice team available.
Striker Harry Kane is undergoing treatment on a reported back injury, while Leroy Sané, Kim Min-jae, Kingsley Coman, Raphael Guerreiro and Jamal Musiala are also injured and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting is unavailable with flu, Tuchel said. Right back Sacha Boey has been granted personal leave.
Bayern’s two-point advantage over third-place Stuttgart and superior goal difference mean that a draw with Hoffenheim — which is seventh and chasing European qualification — should be enough to guarantee second position. Stuttgart host Borussia Moenchengladbach.

FIFA orders legal review of Palestinian call to suspend Israel

FIFA President Gianni Infantino delivers his speech at the FIFA Congress in Bangkok, Thailand, Friday, May 17, 2024. (AP)
Updated 17 May 2024

FIFA orders legal review of Palestinian call to suspend Israel

  • Israel has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza health officials. Israel says its strikes are targeted at militants

BANKOK: Soccer’s world body FIFA ordered an urgent legal evaluation on Friday of a proposal by the Palestinian Football Association to suspend Israel over the war in Gaza, promising to address it at an extraordinary meeting of its council in July.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino took the decision at an annual Congress in Bangkok, where the PFA president made an emotional plea to delegates to hold a vote to suspend Israel from all club and national competitions, accusing it of multiple breaches of FIFA statutes.
The Palestinian proposal accuses the Israel Football Association of complicity in violations of international law by the Israeli government, discrimination against Arab players, and inclusion in its league of clubs located in Palestinian territory. The IFA rejected that.
The request for sanctions against the IFA comes two years after FIFA’s decision to suspend Russia from international competitions over its invasion of Ukraine.


The request for sanctions against the IFA comes two years after FIFA’s decision to suspend Russia from international competitions over its invasion of Ukraine.

“FIFA cannot afford to remain indifferent to these violations or to the ongoing genocide in Palestine, just as it did not remain indifferent to numerous precedents,” PFA President Jibril Rajoub said.
“How much more must the Palestinian football family suffer for FIFA to act with the same urgency and severity as it did in other cases? Does FIFA consider some wars to be more important than others and some victims to be more significant?“
Since an Oct. 7 cross-border raid by militant group Hamas that Israel says killed more than 1,200 people, the Gaza offensive has left more than 35,000 Palestinians dead, according to Gaza health officials. Israel says its strikes are targeted at militants.
Rajoub said 193 Palestinian players had been killed, football infrastructure destroyed, its leagues suspended and its national team required to play World Cup qualifiers abroad.

‘Cynical, political and hostile’
The proposal was sent to FIFA in March and added to the Congress agenda with the support of the Algerian, Jordanian, Syrian and Yemeni federations.
The Asian Football Confederation gave its backing on Thursday for action against Israel.
IFA chief Shino Moshe Zuares said the proposal was based on motives and ambitions that “have nothing to do with the spirit of sports or the FIFA value of separating sports from politics.”
“Today, maybe more than ever, I believe that football must be a key element in healing the fractures and the wounds, helping us and everyone to recover,” he told the Congress.
“Yet, once again, we are facing a cynical, political, and hostile attempt by the PFA to harm Israeli football.
“I am holding myself back and will not speak about the true motives out of respect for this institution,” he said.
Infantino expressed extreme shock over the Oct. 7 attacks and the offensives in Gaza and said due to the “obvious sensitivity of the issue,” independent legal experts would be brought in urgently to analyze the Palestinian allegations.
Those findings would be referred to the FIFA Council, its main decision-making body outside of the Congress, to convene an extraordinary meeting in July and take appropriate decisions, he said.