MENA Sports Wrap: Arab stars compete in Asian Cup and African Cup of Nations
Two of the world's best-loved football tournaments will take place this month, with the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) and the Asian Cup hosted in the Ivory Coast and Qatar respectively.
Some of the biggest names in the Arab world will compete for the continental football trophies, with Qatar and Saudi Arabia tipped for success in the Asia tournament and Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco in West Africa.
AFC Asian Cup to kick off in Qatar as Gaza war rages
Palestine will compete in the AFC Asian Cup, and we can expect acts of solidarity from players and fans horrified by Israel’s air and ground assault on Gaza that has lasted three months and killed more than 23,000 people.
Host nation Qatar will play Lebanon at the Lusail Stadium in the opening game of the tournament.
The Asian Cup, which will run until 10 February, was meant to take place in China last summer which withdrew as tournament host in 2022 due to its "zero-Covid" policy.
Qatar was named as the replacement host but the tournament was postponed due to the Gulf state's summer heat and its team's participation in the 2023 CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Qatar is no stranger to hosting major footballing events. In 2022, it became the first country in the Arab world to hold the World Cup, and it has twice hosted the Asian Cup.
Shows of solidarity with Palestine punctuated the 2022 World Cup. Fans refused to speak to Israeli media, and players and fans waved Palestinian flags in stadiums.
Japan and South Korea are favourites to win the Asian Cup.
There is, however, a sizeable Middle East contingent present, and some teams, including Iran, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, could well upset the favourites and nab the title.
Tournament organisers said last month that revenues from the Asian Cup would be donated for relief efforts in Palestine, amid the war on Gaza.
Former Palestinian Olympic football team coach dies after Israeli strike injuries
Israel's bombardment of Gaza is killing Palestinians from all walks of life, including from the sporting world.
Hani al-Masdar, the former coach for Palestine's Olympic football team, died after sustaining injuries in an Israeli strike near his home in the village of Al-Masdar, central Gaza, the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) said on Saturday.
The 42-year-old was also known as Abu al-Abd. He was a midfielder during his playing career, including at the Gaza Sports Club, until he retired in 2018. The PFA said he possessed "magical passes".
Abu al-Abd began his managing career at the same club he played at, before taking the helm of the Olympic team in 2021.
Al-Masdar was one of dozens of Palestinian athletes in Gaza who have been killed in Israel's three-month onslaught.
According to the PFA, some 88 athletes have been killed, 67 of them footballers. Two dozen sporting "administrators and technicians" have died.
Dozens of athletes have also been detained by Israeli forces, the football association said.
Africa's best teams compete in Ivory Coast as Africa Cup of Nations kicks off
The tournament will be held in the Ivory Coast and will see the likes of Senegal, Egypt, Morocco, and Nigeria vie for the coveted trophy. It was originally slated for 2023, but adverse weather conditions postponed the competition for the winter season instead.
The hosts will be opening the tournament in a match played against Guinea-Bissau at the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe in Abidjan, while seven-time champions Egypt will be seen in action on Monday.
The competition will be bringing some of the African continent's biggest stars together – though this means many will be absent from European club football for the next few weeks, including the Premier League.
The New Arab takes a look at the players and teams to look out for:
Egypt and Liverpool juggernaut Mo Salah will captain the Pharaohs in the Ivory Coast, and will be hoping to add an African Cup of Nations winners medal to his already-impressive cabinet. Salah is considered among the most prolific goal-scorers of his generation and will be looking to net more for Egypt in the pan-Africa games.
Egypt was the runners-up in 2017 and 2021, but they haven't won since 2010. They will face stiff competition in the group stages from Ghana, who are among the favourites to win the tournament.
The Atlas Lions are the highest-ranking team in the competition, boasting a star-studded squad ranging from Paris Saint-German right-back Achraf Hakimi, Al-Hilal goalkeeper Yassine Bounou and Galatasaray forward Hakim Ziyech, who is on loan from Chelsea.
Expectations are high for Walid Regragui’s men following an impressive performance at the 2022 World Cup where they finished fourth overall, having beaten Belgium, Portugal, and Spain to reach the semi-finals – before being knocked out by runners-up France.
Morocco, however, has had somewhat of an unlucky run in then African tournament, having only won once – back in 1976 and was last seen in an AFCON final in 2004.
The Algeria captain is among the MENA region’s most well-known and skilled players, having won several trophies with top English Premier League club Manchester City.
Now based in Saudi Arabia, Mahrez will be looking to recreate Algeria's 2019 glory, when the Fennec Foxes last won the AFCON trophy, with help from the Al-Ahli striker.
The Nigerian forward was recently voted as African Player of the Year, and emerged as one of European football’s brightest stars after finishing top scorer in Italy’s Serie A league last season having scored 26 for Napoli. The 25-year-old – who has 20 goals in 27 games for the Super Eagles – will be keen to shine on the global stage, after not having the chance to do so at the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
The world’s eyes will stay on Cameroonian goal stopper Andre Onana, who only recently came out of international retirement to rejoin the squad.
Onana's role in the Cameroon side has been marred with controversy, as he made the decision to miss his country's opening match on Monday against Guinea - instead opting to play for his club Manchester United when they play Tottenham on Sunday.
Onana, noted for his wide range of skills, is considered a trailblazer for Black goalkeepers worldwide. The Cameroonian has frequently highlighted the challenges Black shot-stoppers experience in European football leagues.
Team Senegal are the reigning AFCON champions, and will be seeking to successfully defend their title this year. All eyes will be on Sadio Mane, the former Liverpool striker who is central to the team's success. The Teranga Lions are the second-highest-ranked African team and will be looking to cause a few upsets throughout the tournament.