MENA Sports Wrap: Arab nations felled in Asian Cup, AFCON disappointment
The last Arab teams exited the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) this week but a handful of sides are still giving the region hope in the Asian Cup.
Morocco, the last North African side in the tournament, hoped to replicate their World Cup run when they faced South Africa in the round of 16.
Jordan and Qatar are the last Arab survivors in the Asian Cup, with a full wrap-up of both tournaments in this week's MENA Sports Wrap.
AFC Asian Cup: Arab teams fall at the wayside in round of 16
Hopes for an Arab team to lift the AFC Asian Cup have dwindled fast this past week.
Eight Arab teams made it to the last 16 of the pan-Asia tournament, but only two – Jordan and Qatar – have progressed to its quarter-finals.
Jordan and Qatar secured their places in the next round after beating out Iraq and Palestine respectively.
Jordan faced off on Monday against Iraq, who were on a high after winning three of three group matches – including their 2-1 victory over Asian giants Japan.
The match tide turned fast when Iraqi striker Ayman Hussein scored to put Iraq 2-1 up, before being promptly sent off by Iranian-Australian referee Alireza Faghani for eating grass during a celebration. Jordan went on to score two goals in stoppage time to secure a place in the quarter-finals.
There was widespread anger among Iraqi fans over the red card and the unexpected defeat.
Fans of the Lions of Mesopotamia flooded Faghani's social media accounts with condemnation, and the Iraqi Football Association said earlier this week that it would appeal the decision to send Hussein off.
Iraqi reporters confronted manager Jesus Casas after the disappointing result, with some of them shouting at the Spaniard. Reporters involved in the incident had their credentials stripped from them by the AFC for both present and future tournaments.
The post-match fracas was condemned by the Iraqi Football Association.
In a less shocking result, the tournament's 2019 winners and current tournament hosts Qatar beat Palestine 2-1.
Penalties were the undoing of several Arab teams in the last 16. Syria lost to Iran, Saudi Arabia to South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates to Tajikistan.
- Bahrain lost 3-1 to Japan.
- Central Asian teams await the last two Arab teams in the quarter-finals.
- Jordan will on Friday play Uzbekistan, who are having a fairytale run at the tournament; Qatar will play tournament stalwarts Uzbekistan on Saturday.
- #Iran will face Japan on Wednesday.
Remaining Arab hopefuls Morocco and Egypt fumble, crash out of AFCON
The last remaining Arab hopefuls in the Africa Cup of Nations bid farewell to the competition following disappointing defeats in the Ivory Coast this week.
Egypt, who have won the competition a record seven times, were knocked out of the competition on Sunday in a lengthy penalty shootout against DR Congo, following a 1-1 draw in San Pedro.
The match saw goals from Meschack Elia and Mostafa Mohamed during the first half of the match, while the second half, as well as extra time, saw the two teams battle it out for a place in the quarter-finals.
The penalty shootout saw goalkeeper Lionel Mpasi convert the winning spot-kick, after Egypt shot-stopper Mohamed 'Gabaski' Abou Gaba had his attempt hit the crossbar – spelling the end of the Pharaohs’ short-lived run in the continental competition.
The shootout ended 7-8 in DR Congo’s favour, who will now face Guinea on Friday.
Egypt, tipped to lift the trophy, were noticeably missing captain and talisman Mo Salah, who suffered an injury in the competition that prompted him to fly back to his club Liverpool for treatment.
Morocco were also subject to a shock exit from the competition after a 2-0 defeat against South Africa on Tuesday.
The Atlas Lions were among the bookies' favourites to be crowned African champions, following their fourth-place finish at the 2022 World Cup, as well as the team boasting high-profile players based in top European clubs.
The Atlas Lions’ loss reflected Morocco’s unlucky streak in the Africa Cup of Nations tournament, which they haven’t won since 1976. The last time they reached a final was two decades ago, against Tunisia.
The Morocco squad were 1-0 down early in the second half, thanks to a goal scored by Evidence Makgopa. Achraf Hakimi had the opportunity to level the match and boost Moroccan morale with a penalty, but intense pressure prompted the left-back to hit the crossbar.
A second South African goal in the 95th minute of additional time sealed the deal for the Bafana Bafana, and subsequently sent Morocco home.
The team were visibly dejected after the loss, with coach Walid Regragui saying that he "takes full responsibility for the defeat".
"This is not the first time Morocco arrived as favourite and a potential winner. Before almost every finals, we are among the favourite nations for the title. But unfortunately, we have not managed to be regularly among the last four in this tournament. Our last final was in 2004," he told reporters following the game.
Another favourite, Senegal, also crashed out of the competition earlier than expected. The defending champions lost to the host nation Ivory Coast in another exhilarating penalty shootout – showcasing the unpredictability of the tournament.
Saudi exodus doesn't materialise
The Riyadh Season Cup - between Inter Miami and Al-Nassr - took place on Thursday with the Saudi side still featuring top names, such as Cristiano Ronaldo - in their starting line-up.
Some European journalists eagerly predicted that the floodgates had opened and superstars signed by Saudi clubs in the summer were lining up to make a hasty departure from the kingdom, leaving the Saudi Pro League replete of its glitz and quality.
When the European mid-season transfer deadline day closed at midnight on Friday, players such as Karim Benzema - who had been linked to a move to the Premier League - stayed in the kingdom, guaranteeing an exciting end to the season as Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal fight for the trophy.
This must have been viewed as a win for Saudi football officials. While the transfer window did not see clubs attract any more big names - with former Manchester United Players David de Gea and Jessie Lingard linked with moves - the Saudi Pro League did not lose any of their stars.
Al-Hilal snapped up Brazilian international Renan Lodi, who at 25 is proof that Saudi clubs are looking beyond former legends to liven up the game before they retire and considering investing in players with some miles left in their tanks.
Al-Nassr also proved to Inter Miami - and Ronaldo to Lionel Messi - that the Saudi Pro League is arguably a stronger competition than Major League Soccer, a big achievement given that major investment in domestic football by the Saudi state has only just begun.