MENA Sports Wrap: Palestine with chance of making Asian Cup history

MENA Sports Wrap: Palestine with chance of making Asian Cup history
Jordan Henderson ended his experiment in the Saudi Pro League this week, as he cut short his time at Al-Ettiflaq and headed to Amsterdam to join Dutch side Ajax
6 min read
19 January, 2024
Palestine and Gaza have dominated the Asian Cup so far [Getty/TNA]

The Asian Cup and Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) opened this week with thrilling group stages games.

Arab teams have done well in the Asian Cup, but their cohorts in North Africa have been mostly a disappointment in AFCON, with the exception of Morocco's Atlas Lions.

Palestine has still loomed large over the Asian Cup in Qatar, where touching acts of solidarity with Gaza have been made by players, fans and officials.

Palestine clinch historic draw against UAE

Palestine secured a crucial draw against the UAE in the Asian Cup on Thursday, giving them a chance of making it through the group stages.

Before kick-off, a minute's silence was held for the nearly 25,000 dead in Gaza before the UAE got into gear and dominated the start of the game with a header from Sultan Adil.

Palestine saw a penalty kick saved before UAE defender Bader Nasser put the goal in his own net and levelled the game.

The draw gives Palestine an opportunity to make it through to the knock-out stages if they win their final group game against minnows Hong Kong. Coach Makram Daboub has told his Palestine team to go out and make history for the country.

Palestine always had a mountain to climb at the Asian Cup with the tragedies at home undoubtedly proving a huge burden for the squad as it entered the tournament.

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It was never going to be an easy opening game with Palestine lined up against continental heavyweights Iran.

The Palestinian players were ill-prepared. Many members of the national team play for clubs in the Palestinian league, and were not been able to play in competitive matches since Israel launched war on Gaza in October. Unable to train in Palestine, the team has had to settle for tournament preparations in Algeria and Saudi Arabia instead.

As they walked out onto the pitch at Education City Stadium, the Palestine team wore their flag on their sleeves, chests and backs, dressed in track jackets that bore an all-over Palestine flag print. 

There were kaffiyeh scarves and Palestine flags aplenty in the crowd, with fans of all stripes cheering loudly before the Palestine national anthem played.

Before the whistle blew, a moment's silence was marked to mourn the lives lost in Gaza, among those killed are athletes and family of the Palestine team.

At the Palestinian team's final training session before their match with Iran, team member Mahmoud Wadi learned that his cousin had been killed in Gaza. About a week earlier, Palestinian Olympic football team coach Hani al-Masdar succumbed to injuries caused by an Israeli strike near his home. 

Iran decisively beat Palestine 4-1, scoring their first goal just over a minute into the match. Coach Daboub, who is Tunisian, said the loss was down to "a lack of concentration" and "overexcitement". 

Palestine was at the forefront of the tournament's opening festivities in Lusail last Friday, ahead of the opening match between Lebanon and Qatar.

Palestinian songs bookended the ceremony, while home captain Hassan al-Haydos introduced his Palestinian counterpart Musab al-Battat to deliver the players' oath, traditionally taken by the host nation's captain, on his behalf

Host nation Qatar has already made it to the last 16 of the tournament, having won both of their first two group stage matches.

They confidently secured a 3-0 win in their match with Lebanon, and beat Tajikistan 1-0 on Wednesday.

Elsewhere at the tournament, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE all secured wins in their opening matches.

From Dammam to the Dam

Jordan Henderson ended his experiment in the Saudi Pro League this week, as he cut short his time at Al-Ettifaq and headed to Amsterdam to join Dutch side Ajax.

Henderson was offered a king's ransom to play for Al-Ettifaq in the summer, some £700,000 a week, but could not settle in Saudi Arabia and so terminated his contract with the Dammam side this week.

Al-Ettifaq has struggled this season, currently languishing in seventh place in the Saudi Pro League.

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Henderson played just 19 games for the Dammam side, with his family choosing to live in the more socially liberal climes of Bahrain and the footballer travelling to the Saudi east coast each day for work.

The gruelling commute and struggles of Al-Ettifaq likely proved too much for Henderson, who has flown to Amsterdam for a medical and signed for Ajax on a three-and-a-half year deal.

Henderson has reportedly not been paid a riyal for his six month spell in Saudi Arabia, due to him deferring salary payments for tax reasons, with questions over whether or not he will receive a bumper pay cheque when he leaves, according to The Telegraph.

Al-Ettifaq were mum on the issue but said in a statement his departure was amicable. 

"Once it became clear he wanted to leave, Al Ettifaq did not stand in his way. In fact they fast-tracked his departure so they could do business in this window," the team said in a statement.

"His contract will be terminated on financial conditions that mean the club will not really lose out.

Jordan Henderson has cut short his stay in the Saudi Pro League [Getty]

"Everyone tried to make it work. It didn't. No one is to blame, no one is upset and there are no hard feelings. It's just part of football and life."

Henderson's departure will be a blow for his former Liverpool teammate Steven Gerrard, who has struggled to adapt to the Saudi Pro League which is dominated by the state-backed 'big four' - Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad and Al-Ahli.

Despite the struggles of his team, Gerrard was given a two-year extension to his contract this week, securing his place in the kingdom until at least 2027 with a £15 million a year salary.

Still, Henderson's departure has been a blow for the Saudi Pro League, particularly with questions over Neymar's future at Al-Hilal and Karim Benzema lined up for a move to the Premier League.

North African teams struggle in Ivory Coast, Salah injured

Mo Salah could already have his Africa Cup of Nations dreams with Egypt dashed as the star striker sustained an injury in Thursday evening’s draw with Ghana.

Salah, who is missing key games for his club Liverpool FC as he takes part in the pan-Africa tournament, was forced to come off moments before the half-time whistle in Abidjan.

It appears that Salah has injured his hamstring although Egypt coach Rui Vitoria said it was "too early to say" whether he will be out for the rest of the competition.

"We don't know yet what is the problem. I hope not a big problem, it is too early to say something," he said.

"Salah is an amazing player, one of the best players in the world, so we want to have this kind of player always with us."

The Pharaohs have had an unlucky start to AFCON so far, drawing twice so far.

An extra-time penalty from Salah saved the team from humiliation against Mozambique on Sunday, while the nail-biting game against Ghana ended in a 2-2 draw.

Other North African teams got off to a slow start with Tunisia losing to Namibia (who made history by winning their first ever AFCON match), while Algeria were held to a disappointing 1-1 draw with Angola on Monday.

Bad luck was on the Fennecs’ side. An impressive overhead-kick goal by Baghdad Bounedjah that could’ve sealed the win for Algeria was ruled offside, while Angola’s winning penalty initially bounced off the crossbar, before finding the net milliseconds later. 

Morocco beat Tanzania 3-0 this week, during their opening AFCON game [Getty/file photo]

Morocco’s Atlas Lions though had a solid start to the tournament.

The World Cup semi-finalists comfortably netted three goals against Tanzania on Wednesday.

The goals, scored by Romain Saïss, Azzedine Ounahi and Youssef En-Nesyri, cemented Morocco’s place as a firm contender for the AFCON trophy, though the likes of Nigeria and Senegal will prove to be stiff competition.