MENA Sports Wrap: Bittersweet first week for Arab teams at AFCON, Asian Cups

MENA Sports Wrap: Bittersweet first week for Arab teams at AFCON, Asian Cups
MENA Sports Wrap: The Africa Cup of Nations and Asian Cup have entered the knock-out stages with some Arab teams making it to the last-16 and others failing.
6 min read
26 January, 2024
This week saw highs and lows during the Asian and Afcon cups [Getty]

Arab football giants such as Algeria and Tunisia were felled in the group stages of the Africa Cup of Nations this week, while minnows such as Mauritania surprisingly survived and made it through to the last 16.

In the Asian Cup, there was more joy for Arab teams, with most reaching to the knock-out stages.

Here's a wrap-up of the week's highs and lows in the two continental cups during week 1, with some surprises and shocks along the way.

AFCON 2023: Shock as Algeria and Tunisia fail to qualify

The Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) tournament enters its second week with the first seven days seeing plenty of drama and shock results.

Arab teams failed to live up to their expectations amid shock exits from Tunisia and Algeria, who failed to win crucial games that were vital for them to reach the second round.

The Fennec Foxes, AFCON champions in 2019, struggled to find the back of the net against Mauritania, who are ranked 75 places below the Algerians.

The Murabitun then went on to take the surprising lead with a goal from Mohamed Dellah Yaly in the 35th minute, sending shockwaves across the continent.

Missed opportunities and frustration ensued before the Algerians found themselves out of the competition. Mauritania secured their first-ever AFCON win and a place into the round of 16.

Algeria’s players and fans were left visibly dejected at the result, forcing coach Djamel Belmadi to resign.

Tunisia, the third-best-ranked team in the tournament, also failed to achieve momentum and were held to a 0-0 draw by South Africa on Wednesday, preventing them from advancing to the second round.

Coach Jalel Kadri quit, though his contract automatically was to expire as Tunisia failed to reach the semi-finals - the minimum expected from the Tunisian Football Federation.

Seven-times champions Egypt however managed to scrape through thanks to a 2-2 draw against Cape Verde in a nail-biting match on Monday evening.

The island nation already had their round of 16 spot secured, but the Pharaohs - alongside Ghana and Mozambique - had to fight tooth and nail to clinch a place in the second round.

After a goal from Cape Verde’s Gilson Benchimol Tavares and Egypt's Trezeguet made the match 1-1, a strike by Mostafa Mohamed in the 93rd minute appeared to seal the deal for Egypt but then an equaliser from Bryan Silva Teixeira appeared to end the Pharaohs' hopes.

Chaos followed and Egypt's disappointment didn't last for long as Ghana's 2-0 lead against Mozambique was squashed by two late equalisers. A huge sigh of relief was probably heard well outside of Egypt's borders, as the Pharaohs secured a ticket for the next round.

Joy was also felt in the north-western end of North Africa. Morocco, the World Cup semi-finalists, made it to the second round of the tournament thanks to a goal from Galatasaray winger Hakim Ziyech against Zambia on Wednesday.

Morocco had more chances to score, but a strong performance from the Zambian side in the second half of the match kept additional Moroccan goals at bay.

The Atlas Lions will now face South Africa on Tuesday, while Egypt will battle it out against DR Congo over the weekend in a bid to secure a place in the quarter-finals.

Asian Cup: Palestine and Syria make knockout stages

Palestine and Syria both achieved historic feats at the AFC Asian Cup this week, securing victories that saw them progress to the last 16 of the continent's biggest tournament.

Palestine beat Hong Kong 3-0 on Tuesday night, while Syria secured their place in the knockout stage on Monday with a 1-0 win over India.

It is Palestine's first time in the last 16 of the Asian Cup, while Syria last made it to this stage in 1980.

The group stages of the tournament wrapped up on Thursday, and the round of 16 is to begin on Sunday.

Host nation Qatar had already secured their place in the knockout stages, as had Iran, Iraq, and the UAE. Bahrain and Jordan also secured their places in the next round on Thursday.

Iran, Iraq, and Qatar have all looked particularly strong so far, winning all three of their group-stage matches.

Palestine's victory has given the nation a small glimmer of joy amid genocide in Gaza and intensified Israeli violence in the occupied West Bank.

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An Israeli onslaught on Gaza that began in October has killed 26,000 Palestinians in that territory, while brutal suppression in the West Bank has also killed hundreds of Palestinians.

Syria has been ravaged by a civil war since 2011 that has claimed the lives of more than 500,000 civilians.

But the national football team has been branded by Syrians as a "propaganda tool" for the regime responsible for the deaths, disappearance, and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Syrians since the war began in 2011.

In the round of 16, the UAE will play Tajikistan on Sunday; on Monday, Iraq will play Jordan while Qatar plays Palestine; and Syria will play Iran on Wednesday.

Saudi snooker tournament to reveal 'golden ball' feature

Saudi Arabia will reinvent the rules of snooker when it hosts a new international tournament in Riyadh this March.

The Riyadh Season World Masters of Snooker - due to take place between 4 to 6 March -  will feature a 'golden ball' counting as 20 points.

"Each game will be played under World Snooker rules and regulations but with the introduction of an innovative new concept, a 23rd ball known as the Riyadh Season ball," said a statement posted on the World Snooker Tour website.

"This gold ball will be worth 20 points and can only be potted once all other balls have been successfully cleared from the table if a player is on a maximum break to make it 167."

The current maximum break - barring any fouls - is 147, with the 'golden ball' innovation welcomed by some and scorned by others.

"What's the prize for a 167? Have they announced it? I'm sure that it will be a hefty prize," wondered Ronnie O'Sullivan, widely regarded as the world's best-ever snooker player.

He also appeared to confirm he would take a shot at the maximum 167 break, a feat never seen before.

"Listen, the Saudis can just do what they like. They are a powerful outfit," he told media.

"Every other sport seems to be doing stuff in Saudi, so it will be great to go out there."

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O'Sullivan has achieved the highest number - and quickest - 147 breaks in his 22-year career with 15 and will undoubtedly relish the opportunity to tackle the golden ball challenge.

Turki Al-Sheikh, the head of the Saudi Entertainment Authority (GEA), said last week the tournament would feature some of the world's top players including Ronnie O'Sullivan, Judd Trump, and Luca Brecel.

Saudi Arabia hosts some of the world's biggest sporting events, including the Italian Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup, and the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

Riyadh says this is part of a plan to diversify its economy and provide entertainment opportunities for the Saudi population, but critics accuse the government of "sportswashing".