MENA Sports Wrap: Arab players gear up for AFCON, AFC cups

MENA Sports Wrap: Arab players gear up for AFCON, AFC cups
MENA Sports Wrap: Several Arab stars will missing from some of Europe's top football flights, while team Palestine will be play in the AFC cup despite war.
5 min read
05 January, 2024
Some of the Arab world's top footballers will be focusing on regional competitions in Africa and Asia this month [Getty/TNA]

The likes of Mo Salah and other North African players will be focusing on country rather than club for the next month, as the AFCON competition begins next week with Morocco a favourite to win the tournament.

Qatar, who famously hosted the 2022 FIFA World Cup, will be gearing up to host the AFC Asian Cup, also taking place next week, where Palestine will compete despite the deadly military campaign in the Gaza Strip.

Meanwhile, Algerian footballer Youcef Atal has been given a suspended sentence and ordered to pay a hefty fine by a court in France following a controversial Gaza-related post he shared days after Israel's onslaught on Gaza began on 7 October.

Arab, African stars put club games on hold for AFCON

Some of Africa’s top football stars will be missing crucial club games as they represent their respective countries in the upcoming African Cup of Nations (AFCON) tournament, slated to start on 13 January.

Among those who will absent from the English Premier League are Liverpool’s Mo Salah, who will be captaining Egypt, West Ham centre-back Nayef Aguerd, who in 2022 emerged as one of Morocco’s brightest stars during their World Cup campaign, and Manchester United goalkeeper Andre Onana, who will be seen in the net for Cameroon later this month.

Algerian striker Rayan Aït-Nouri will be absent from the Wolves team sheet, as will be Sheffield United’s Anis Ben Slimane, who will feature in Tunisia’s 23-man squad in the Ivory Coast.

Salah’s absence will deal a huge blow to Liverpool, with the 31-year-old having helped the club reach the top of the Premier League as the football season reaches its mid-way point.

The Egyptian, widely regarded as one of the best strikers globally, has so far scored 14 goals this season.

The Egyptian Pharoah, as he is known by fans, could miss as many as eight games for Liverpool, all depending on how far Egypt gets in the tournament. He is guaranteed to miss three games, at the very least.

Should Egypt reach the final, Salah will not be among Liverpool’s starting 11 in crucial matches against Chelsea and Arsenal.

Despite this, the Egypt captain firmly believes his club will be fine without him. In an interview with Sky Sports on Monday, he said: "But without me, I'm sure the [Liverpool] players will manage to win games. We have fantastic players, really good quality, they just need to keep the pressure away and just play their football. We have players who can play in my position, they can do what I am doing."

Elsewhere in Europe, Moroccan right-back and Paris Saint-Germain star Achraf Hakimi will miss a number of games for the French club, while Turkish side Galatasaray will be without Hakim Ziyech.

The African competition will see the likes of Algeria, Senegal, Morocco and Nigeria battle it out for the coveted title.

Morocco’s Atlas Lions are the highest-ranked side in the tournament, propelled to their 13th position in the FIFA World Rankings in part by a stellar performance at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, where they made the semi-finals.

Palestine in AFC Asia competition amid Gaza onslaught

Qatar, who hosted the 2022 World Cup, will hold the AFC Asia Cup starting next week.

The likes of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, and Iraq will vie for Asian football's top cup.

Team Melli, Iran, is the highest ranking Middle Eastern team, and will fancy themselves as one of the favourites for the trophy.

Qatar, however, are the defending champions.

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The UAE, Jordan, and Lebanon will also compete - as will Palestine, whose team was warmly greeted in Qatar earlier this week.

Members of the squad were seen landing in the Gulf country draped in the traditional keffiyeh, in a show of Palestinian pride amid Israel's brutal war on Gaza.

Many players fear leaving loved ones behind in Palestine. Coach Makram Daboub said: "Everyone is glued to the news, before and after training, be it on the bus or at the hotel."

Several Palestinian players have lost family members in the onslaught, which has killed around 23,000 people.

The Palestinians will face Iran, the UAE, and Hong Kong in the group stage.

Algeria's Atal given suspended sentence, fine over Gaza post

Algeria and Nice defender Youcef Atal has been handed an eight-month suspended sentence by a court in France for "inciting religious hatred" following a Gaza-related post he shared in October last year which allegedly contained antisemitic content.

Atal was also ordered to pay a fine of 45,000 euros ($49,000) by the court in the southern city of Nice, and also for details of his conviction to be published in the regional daily Nice-Matin and French national newspaper Le Monde.

The Algerian international already appeared in court in December over the post, two months after he was suspended until further notice.

The right-back apologised in court, and said he thought the video "contained a message of peace for the people who were suffering in this war". He further admitted he didn’t watch the 35-second video in full.

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The argument, however, did not convince the judges, who said sharing the video meant "being party to its message and lending it visibility".

Atal, who has played for Nice since 2018, removed the Instagram post after his club warned that it would attract controversy.

Attal also issued an apology: "I want to clarify my point of view without any ambiguity: I strongly denounce all forms of violence, wherever in the world, and I support all victims."

Despite the controversy, Atal is due to play for Algeria in AFCON.