Solid Morocco hold Modric’s Croatia at World Cup

Morocco’s Achraf Hakimi and Romain Saiss shake hands as Croatia’s Dejan Lovren looks on after their World Cup match at the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, on Wednesday. (AP)
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Updated 23 November 2022

Solid Morocco hold Modric’s Croatia at World Cup

  • The Atlas Lions followed up north African rivals Tunisia's strong performance against dark horses Denmark a day earlier to frustrate Croatia
  • "This was an extremely difficult game," said Croatia captain Modric

AL KHOR, Qatar: Morocco held Croatia to a 0-0 draw in their opening game of the World Cup on Wednesday, producing a spirited display against the 2018 runners-up led by Luka Modric.
Backed by Qatar’s large Moroccan community at the Al Bayt Stadium, the Atlas Lions followed up north African rivals Tunisia’s strong performance against dark horses Denmark a day earlier to frustrate Croatia.
“This was an extremely difficult game,” said Croatia captain Modric. “I do believe as the tournament goes on we’ll be better and we’ll adopt a more proactive attitude.”
Modric insisted Croatia are capable of making another deep run despite a sluggish start in the early afternoon heat.
“We’ve not come here to just play and get out the group,” said Modric.
“Our ambitions are a bit greater on the basis of our Russia achievement, but we need to take it one step at a time.
“Even before the 2018 World Cup we said our primary goal was to make it out the group. If we manage to do that we can be a dangerous opponent for any team.”
Coach Zlatko Dalic had urged Croatia to exercise caution following Saudi Arabia’s shock win over Argentina, a result Morocco captain Romain Saiss said had “opened the door” for the tournament’s less-fancied teams.
Morocco took the game to a Croatia side featuring four players who started the 2018 final but struggled to create genuine chances against a defense marshalled by the experienced Dejan Lovren.
Azzedine Ounahi strangely opted against shooting when well placed inside the area, with Hakim Ziyech and Achraf Hakimi heavily involved down the right without ever truly threatening Croatia.
Ivan Perisic fired just over from distance for Croatia after intercepting a dreadful pass from Selim Amallah, while goalkeeper Yassine Bounou blocked well with his legs to deny Nikola Vlasic from close range.
Modric, the former Ballon d’Or winner appearing at his fourth World Cup at the age of 37, then hammered over from the edge of the box.
Morocco lost Noussair Mazraoui early in the second half after his diving header was saved, the Bayern Munich full-back injuring himself when he tumbled awkwardly to the ground.
Sofyan Amrabat poked Lovren’s goal-bound effort away off the line after a scramble at a corner, while Hakimi’s free-kick at the other end was beaten to safety by Croatian keeper Dominik Livakovic.
Only once have Morocco gone beyond the group stage, in 1986, but they will rate their chances of advancing with games to come against an aging Belgium team and Group F outsiders Canada.
Croatia pushed for a late winner but found Morocco’s defense in unforgiving mood as Walid Regragui’s side secured a valuable and deserved point.
“I think it’s a very good point for us,” said Regragui, who was only appointed as Morocco coach in late August.
“It keeps us alive for the next two games. I’m very proud of my players. I think this game makes us more confident.”

Battle for fourth place goes down to the wire in UAE cricket league

Updated 06 February 2023

Battle for fourth place goes down to the wire in UAE cricket league

  • International League T20 is ongoing cricket tournament being played in the United Arab Emirates
  • Desert Vipers, Gulf Giants and MI Emirates occupy top three spots, Dubai Capitals at fourth place

Over the past few days, final positions have been fought for in the round-robin stage of the UAE’s DP World ILT20 Cricket League.

Although Abu Dhabi Knight Riders had failed to secure a win so far in nine matches, they finished on a winning note by defeating the Sharjah Warriors to put a dent in the latter’s hopes of finishing in the top four.

Those four teams will contest play-off matches. The first-placed team will play the second-placed team, providing the winner with a direct route to the final. Third and fourth-placed teams will face off, the winner playing the loser of first versus second. The Gulf Giants and the Desert Vipers will finish first and second. On Saturday, they met in the round robin, Vipers sitting top of the league. Bragging rights were at stake.

The Giants batted first and, at 129 for four after 14.2 overs, looked to be running short of a competitive total. However, Shimron Hetmyer accelerated the rate and the Giants closed on 180 for six, a very gettable target for the Vipers. They started with the intent of finishing as quickly as possible. Rohan Mustafa struck three fours in the first over, all hammered through the offside. However, the bowlers changed their lengths, preventing him from advancing, and he stopped laying bat on ball before nicking one through to the wicketkeeper. Alex Hales started more slowly before getting into his stride, greeting Chris Jordan’s first ball with a huge straight six.

At 57 for 1, compared with 55 for 1 for the Giants at the same stage of their respective innings, Hales holed out to a ball turning away outside the off-stump by trying to hit it over mid-wicket but did not get enough power on it, being caught on the boundary. The bowler was local Aayan Afzal Khan. Whether this was a deliberate ploy is not clear but it seemed that Hales knew as soon as he hit the ball that it was not the right decision. He remains the top run-scorer in the League but is being chased closely. Shortly afterwards, the captain, Colin Munro, gave a wicket away needlessly, hitting straight down the ground to be safely caught by David Wiess. Two wickets were thrown away. This is difficult to understand from the sidelines. Certainly, Munro’s twirling of the bat into the air as he departed gave comfort to those lesser cricketers of us who have felt the same way after playing a rash stroke.

The Giants were now in the ascendancy after being on the back foot. A change of pace, bowler and length had been decided upon very quickly on the field and the bowlers effected this well. Further innovation came when Erasmus bowled from 23 yards, inducing a faint edge from Sam Billings, who was trying to resurrect the innings. He had no option but to review the decision, which went against him.

The Giants bowlers, especially Chris Jordan, were putting the ball in the right areas, causing an implosion of the Viper’s innings. Tom Curran, who ended undefeated on 42 was left with too much to do on his own and the innings petered out disappointingly, 25 runs short on 155 for six. After an early misfire with their bowling, the Giants recovered with an astute performance in the field. England’s James Vince has captained their matches in the League, although Carlos Braithwaite was nominated for this match. Whoever was pulling the strings should be thankful for Jordan’s experienced input.

Another captaincy conundrum arose in Sunday’s match between the MI Emirates and the Dubai Capitals, who had been led by Rovman Powell. Although Powell was in the line-up, Yusuf Pathan was named as captain, performing the role energetically, having won the toss and elected to field. In the second half of MIE’s innings, Powell was fielding at long off and long on at both ends, necessitating a long walk/run from one end of the ground to the other.

Dubai Capitals needed to win this match in order to stand a chance of making the last four. Jake Ball embodied their determination, making an early breakthrough in his first over with two wickets. Mohammad Waseem and Lorcan Tucker steadied the innings before Waseem tried to slog a straight ball from Adam Zampa. Tucker also departed to leave MIE on 76 for four after nine overs. Captain Nicholas Pooran rebuilt the innings, pulling anything possible. Dan Mousley gamely supported him but struggled for rhythm. In the 17th over, Zampa had three men short on the offside within the field restriction markers. In response, Pooran pulled Zampa for six.

However, he then drove to cover on the boundary and was caught low down for 43. The last over was entrusted to Jake Ball, who had Jordan Thompson caught by Powell at long off. Ball would have had another wicket caught in the deep but for overstepping the crease to concede a no-ball on the fifth ball of the over and then saw the batter dropped of the next ball, before the innings closed with a run-out on 164 for seven.

Dubai Capitals started slowly against a very mean Craig Overton. Robin Uthappa stepped up the pace before falling to Overton for 29. George Munsey was out reverse sweeping against Zahir Khan and two balls later Powell slogged to deep mid-wicket and was caught low down by Mousley. The very next ball, Pooran dropped Sikander Raza at slip, possibly a match-turning moment. Raza and Dasun Shanakar then carefully rebuilt an innings, which seemed to be at the point of derailment. In a very well-timed run chase, Shanaka, in particular, gradually asserted authority in conditions where evening dew began to affect the bowler’s grip, wides and no-balls creeping into their delivery.

In the 15th over, Shanaka powered Thompson for six, with two fours to follow, placing his side at 128 for 3, compared with MIE’s 116 for 4 at same stage. Raza then accelerated and the target was reached with 11 balls remaining to secure an impressive comeback, both batters reaching fifty.

Dubai Capitals lie in fourth place, a mere 0.013 ahead on net run rate. Their fate will be determined by the result of the final round-robin match between the Gulf Giants and the Sharjah Warriors, who must win to claim fourth spot and a place in the finals.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s high-tech platform Footlab to launch in Saudi Arabia

Updated 06 February 2023

Cristiano Ronaldo’s high-tech platform Footlab to launch in Saudi Arabia

  • Saudi entertainment company Confrontation Entertainment has signed an exclusive franchise agreement with Footlab
  • At the platform, players can train, compete and keep track of their real-time performance data in a digital ecosystem

Saudi entertainment company Confrontation Entertainment has signed an exclusive franchise agreement with Footlab, a partnership by Cristiano Ronaldo and Rui Costa.

Footlab, a cooperation between the Portuguese football legends through Ronaldo’s tech company 7EGEND, started from an idea to bring to life a blend of e-gaming, real-life football and technology. It is headquartered in Lisbon, Portugal, and opened in 2018.

At the platform, players can train, compete and keep track of their real-time performance data within different stations in the park, which are all connected in a digital ecosystem.

Footlab was designed with the next generation of football players in mind, providing players and trainers with the tools they need to measure and track performance in real time and use that information to create personalized development.

The technology behind it was developed in-house by Sports Scientists, a team of software and hardware engineers, UX designers, AI and data experts, to deliver the world’s leading football data-driven experience.

Luis Parafita, Footlab world CEO, expressed his gratitude for entering the Saudi market through this agreement. “Sports is an integral component of Saudi Arabia’s transformative Vision 2030, and we are thankful for the unconditional support of our partners and the perfect timing to launch Footlab in all (of the) Kingdom, having Cristiano here and world attention for what lies ahead.”

“Footlab aspires to change the game in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” he pointed out, “with elite facilities and coaching staff dedicated to the analysis and development of players, empowering teams and groups of friends with challenges, to test and improve their cognitive, physical and technical skills.”

Ahmed Madani, Confrontation Entertainment CEO, said the growth of the sports and entertainment sector in Saudi Arabia made this an ideal time to introduce innovative projects such as Footlab in the market.

He said this partnership was aligned with the Quality of Life Program, one of the Saudi Vision 2030 realization projects “which encourages the private sector to contribute to the development of the entertainment and sports sector, by offering an abundance of new experiences that contribute to raising the quality of life.”

Sports pitch for level playing field in cricket-mad Pakistan 

Updated 06 February 2023

Sports pitch for level playing field in cricket-mad Pakistan 

  • Cricket has totally eclipsed other sports, even the ones Pakistan excelled at
  • Field hockey, Pakistan’s national sport, too waned in popularity, participation

ISLAMABAD: On Islamabad’s outskirts, burly men bind together in a scrum on a rugby pitch that has seen better days. The sign bearing the club’s name is worn. The floodlights are too costly to use, given high electricity prices and the paltry $135 total that the club earns in membership fees every month. 

Watching the players, coach Mohammed Zahir Uddin said ruefully: “There’s only one game in Pakistan.” 

That would be cricket, the country’s most popular sport, a juggernaut when it comes to sponsorship, broadcasting rights and capturing the public’s imagination. 

Cricket has totally eclipsed other sports, even ones Pakistan excelled at. Field hockey, Pakistan’s national sport, once propelled the country to Olympic gold and global glory, but it has waned in popularity and participation. Pakistan dominated the squash world for decades, only to become a shadow of its former self. 

Prospects are even bleaker for a sport like rugby, which has no heyday or heroes in Pakistan. 

“There’s no support from the bodies that there ought to be in terms of funding, spreading the word,” said Hammad Safdar, who captains Pakistan’s national rugby team. “The majority of sports have the same issue. That’s why, in terms of performance, in the later stages when there’s a test, we lack because there’s no foundation.” 

Female field hockey players of a local club attend a training session, in Karachi, Pakistan, on November 13, 2022. (AP)

Pakistan hosts the South Asian Games next year, the biggest sporting tournament to be held in the country for 20 years. It won 143 medals the last time it hosted, including 38 gold. But years of neglect of sports could affect its medal tally this time. 

Advocates of sports under cricket’s shadow say they don’t have the environment to thrive or take top prizes, with a lack of investment and interest. Even universally loved soccer has its struggles in Pakistan. Infighting and government interference have led to suspensions from the global body FIFA, stunting its growth at home and chances overseas. 

Pakistan, with a population of 220 million, has a national government sports budget of around $15.3 million, far smaller than others in the region. The Pakistan Sports Board, which oversees all sports in the country and their federations, did not respond to interview requests. 

Rugby gets no government money but a grant from the global rugby body. If it needs more, it asks the chairman or president of the Pakistan Rugby Union to give from their own pockets. 

The national rugby pitch in the eastern city of Lahore is on army land. It lacks changing rooms. It has no seating, so organizers rent chairs for tournaments. Rugby development coach Shakeel Malik concedes it’s hard to attract funding without results, but that it’s hard to get results without funding. 

Cricket, which gets no government funding, has a budget of around $66 million. It shot into the stratosphere with a 1992 World Cup win by a national team captained by Imran Khan, who later went on to enter politics and served as prime minister from 2018-2022. 

Pakistan has never dominated cricket the way it once did in in squash and hockey; it has only two world championships to its name, and the national team is notoriously unpredictable. But it’s a big business with infrastructure to nurture talent, a thirst for empire building, rampant commercialism, and a steady supply of domestic and international matches for TV. It’s so embedded in Pakistani life that the prime minister approves the appointment of the cricket board chairman. 

Pakistani squash players compete in a match of All Pakistan Squash Championship, in Karachi, Pakistan, on November 7, 2022. (AP)

Its rise in the 1990s coincided with the beginning of the end for hockey and squash. 

Pakistan was the superpower of squash for decades, winning the British Open 17 years in a row by 1963. Specifically, one family, the Khans, ruled the sport. The last of the dynasty — Jahangir Khan, a former World No. 1 racket-wielding machine — was unbeaten for hundreds of matches. He won the British Open 10 years in a row until his final victory in 1991. 

Khan told The Associated Press that even he doesn’t understand how the family amassed as many trophies as they did, without facilities and investment. “Even today, Pakistan’s name comes first in squash, and so does this family’s name,” he said, speaking at the squash complex named after him in Karachi. 

He’s pained by its decline. Pakistan is now 65th in the world men’s squash rankings. Khan said the sport failed to build on his family’s legacy. 

He argues that mismanagement had undermined the sport and that players need to show more achievement to attract sponsorship. “If people have set a bar, it’s up to you to make the most of it and build on it. Funding is not a solution. You produced a world champion when you had nothing.” 

And there is also cricket’s stranglehold. “It’s not necessary to have all the talent playing one thing,” he said. 

In the heyday of field hockey, people turned out in the tens of thousands to watch matches, said Samiullah Khan, a player who helped win Pakistan a stack of medals in the sport at the Olympics, World Cup and Asian Games until the 1990s. 

“It hurts my heart” to see the current state of hockey, he said. He said Pakistan’s teams didn’t adjust to changes like the synthetic turf and rule-changes in Europe that, in his view, turned the sport into “a free-for-all.” 

“Hockey became like any other sport, like rugby. The power left, the skill left,” he said. 

Pakistan's legendary field hockey player Samiullah shows a souvenir hockey stick during an interview with The Associated Press, in Karachi, Pakistan, on November 12, 2022. (AP)

But there is hope, and a love that lingers for hockey. In a Karachi suburb, about a dozen young women pad up for practice on a team with the Karachi Hockey Association. 

Kashmala Batool, 30, has been playing hockey for almost half her life. “It’s our national game,” she said. “Despite it not getting support or government funding, the enjoyment we get playing our national game can’t be found in any other.” 

Shazma Naseem, the goalkeeper, started out in college and has been playing at the national level for five years. She sees the enthusiasm her parents still have for the sport and feels a duty to keep it going. 

“It’s absolutely our job, to have played hockey so well, to have made our name in it, so that future generations know about hockey, that this is also a game.” 

Pakistan announces three-match T20 series against Afghanistan in UAE

Updated 06 February 2023

Pakistan announces three-match T20 series against Afghanistan in UAE

  • Pakistan to play T20 series against Afghanistan in Sharjab by end of March, says PCB boss
  • Pakistan says will play series to “compensate” Afghanistan after Australia pulled out of series

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan will play three T20Is against Afghanistan in Sharjah by the end of March, Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) boss Najam Sethi announced on Sunday, a day after the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) meeting took place in Bahrain. 

Australia were scheduled to play three One Day Internationals (ODIs) in the UAE in March. However, Cricket Australia announced they were withdrawing from the series in protest against the Taliban government’s restrictions on women’s education and employment in the country. 

Sethi, who serves as the chair of the PCB’s managing committee, wrote on Twitter that Pakistan would play three T20Is against Afghanistan to “compensate” Afghanistan for the Australia pullout. 

“Pleased to announce PCB will play 3xT20s against Afghanistan in Sharjah end March to compensate Afghanistan following Australia’s pullout from bi lateral series against it,” Sethi said. 

Sethi’s announcement comes on the heels of the ACC’s executive board meeting held in Bahrain on Saturday. During the meeting, the issue of the upcoming Asia Cup 2023 venue also came up for discussion, according to the PCB. 

Pakistan are slated to host the Asia Cup 2023 tournament. However, the matter became controversial in October last year after Indian cricket board chief and ACC president, Jay Shah, said India would not travel to Pakistan to take part in the tournament. Shah suggested a neutral venue for the tournament. 

“The Board agreed to continue discussions on operations, timelines, and any other specifics with a view to ensure the success of the tournament,” the PCB said in a statement last week. “An update on the matter would be taken on the next ACC Executive Board Meeting to be held in March 2023.”

As per various international media reports, Sethi told Shah point-blank that if India does not play Asia Cup 2023 in Pakistan, the green shirts would consider not going to India for the 50-over ODI World Cup scheduled to be held in India later this year. 

Barcelona exploit Madrid’s stumble to open 8-point lead

Updated 06 February 2023

Barcelona exploit Madrid’s stumble to open 8-point lead

  • Alba, Gavi and Raphinha scored a goal each in the second half to give Barcelona their fifth straight victory in the league

MADRID: Barcelona took advantage of Real Madrid’s stumble to kick off the second half of the season with another win and enjoy their biggest lead so far at the top of the Spanish league.

After Madrid’s 1-0 loss at Mallorca, Barcelona extended their 10-game winning streak in all competitions with a comfortable 3-0 victory over Sevilla on Sunday to open an eight-point lead over Madrid after 20 of 38 rounds.

It is the biggest lead by any team this season, putting the Catalan club in firm control as they chase their first league title since 2018-19.

“We are having a great season. We have been playing well, not giving many chances for our opponents,” Barcelona defender Jordi Alba said. “It’s eight points. There’s a lot of league left, but it’s a good gap.”

Alba, Gavi and Raphinha scored a goal each in the second half to give Barcelona their fifth straight victory in the league.

The last game Barcelona failed to win was a 1-1 league draw against Espanyol last year.

Sevilla, who got off to a surprisingly awful start to the season, were coming off two straight league wins that had helped it move further away from the relegation zone. They dropped to 16th place with the loss, two points from the drop zone.

Marco Asensio missed a penalty kick in Madrid’s loss at Mallorca in their last match before traveling to Morocco to play at the Club World Cup.

Madrid were depleted by injuries and rested some players ahead of the Club World Cup,

“We already expected a very tough match,” Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti said. “We had our chances but couldn’t take advantage of them.”

Ancelotti couldn’t count on several injured starters, including striker Karim Benzema, defender Eder Militao and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who was dropped from the squad at the last minute after getting injured during the warmup. Ancelotti also rested midfielders Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, who came on in the second half.

Asensio missed a chance to equalize when his 60th-minute penalty kick was saved by Mallorca goalkeeper Pedrag Rajkovic after Madrid forward Vinicius Junior had been fouled. Madrid’s last chance was a header by Antonio Rüdiger that went narrowly wide deep into stoppage time.

The hosts got on the board with an own-goal by Nacho Fernandez, who was replacing Militao in defense. Nacho went for a high cross and deflected the ball into his own net over goalkeeper Andriy Lunin, who started in place of Courtois.

“I hit the ball with my head and unfortunately it went into the top corner,” Nacho said. “It was a complicated match, against a team that is having a good season. It’s a pity that we let three points get away.”

Madrid were coming off a win against Valencia after being held by Real Sociedad. Its opponent in the semifinals of the Club World Cup on Wednesday will be Egyptian club Al Ahly.

It was the second win in three league matches for Mallorca, and the fourth straight at home. They remained midtable with 28 points from 20 matches.

“It’s a good result, moves us further away from the relegation zone,” Mallorca’s Mexican coach Javier Aguirre said. “But there are many matches left, we can’t relax.”

Vinicius was shown a yellow card and will be suspended for Madrid’s next league game against last-place Elche.

Real Sociedad missed a chance to move within three points of Madrid after losing 1-0 to Valladolid at home.

It was the third winless game for the Basque Country club after a nine-game winning streak in all competitions. Sociedad was coming off a 1-0 loss to Barcelona in the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey, and a 0-0 draw at Madrid in the league.

Newly signed Canadian forward Cyle Larin scored a second-half winner for 13th-place Valladolid, who have won two in a row after five straight losses in all competitions.

Valencia’s struggles continued with a 1-0 defeat at Girona, a result that extended their losing streak to five matches in all competitions.

Valencia have only one win in its last 12 league matches and is sitting just outside the relegation zone.

Girona moved to 11th place.