MENA Sports Wrap: Arab teams gliding through World Cup qualifiers, as Qatar legend hangs up his boots

MENA Sports Wrap: Arab teams gliding through World Cup qualifiers, as Qatar legend hangs up his boots
Qatar's captain Al-Haydos had retired from international football, while Arab teams competed for a place in the 2026 World Cup.
6 min read
Qatar legend Hassan Al-Haydos bowed out of international football last week [Getty/TNA]

Arab teams competed for a place in the 2026 World Cup, while Israel was knocked off its perch by Iceland in the Euro 2024 qualifiers.

Meanwhile a veteran of Qatari football retired from international play while a mystery over the departure of a top Israeli player from pro-Palestine Celtic has finally been revealed.

Smooth sailing for Arab teams in Asian FIFA World Cup qualifications

Saudi Arabia is slowly but surely on course to qualify for the 2026 World Cup, following a 1-0 victory over Tajikistan on Thursday in the second qualifying round of the FIFA tournament, thanks to a goal by veteran winger Salem Al-Dawsari.

The victory meant that the Green Falcons are five points clear of the top of their group, but still have to face Tajikistan again, as well as the Jordan and Pakistan sides.

Also on top of their groups are Qatar, Oman, the UAE, Iraq, and Iran among the Asian section of the 2026 World Cup qualification groups.

The Syria, Palestine, and Bahrain sides are also contenders to make it to the World Cup.

Three more qualification rounds remain, with games expected to be played until November 2025, seven months before the 2026 tournament in Canada, Mexico and the USA is due to start.

There are eight places plus one additional spot through an inter-confederation play-off for Asian teams.

The first two rounds of the World Cup qualification process also double as qualifying matches for the 2027 AFC Asian Cup, which Saudi Arabia is automatically qualified for as host.

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Iceland thumps Israel with 4-1 victory in Euro 2024 qualifier

Four Icelandic goals, including an impressive hattrick by Albert Gudmundsson, knocked Israel out of the qualification stages for the Euro 2024 on Thursday in an impressive win for the tiny Nordic state.

Israel were 1-0 up at the start of the game played in Budapest, thanks to a penalty from Eran Zahavi, rewarded after Daniel Gretarsson clipped the heals of the Maccabi Tel Aviv forward.

Moments later, Gudmundsson equalised in the 39th minute with an impressive 30-yard free-kick, which prompted loud cheers from the crowd. Arnor Traustason then put Iceland in the lead with a volley in the 42nd minute, before Gundmundsson netted the remainder of his goals towards the end of the game, in the 83rd and 87th minutes respectively.

Additionally, Israel continued the game with 10 men after Roy Revivo was handed a deserved red card for a horrific tackle on Birkir Bjarnason.

Iceland will face Ukraine later this month in the Path B playoff final in the Euro 2024 qualifiers.

Israel’s home games have not been played in the country since Tel Aviv began its deadly military onslaught on Gaza on 7 October.

Iceland has been vocal in its support for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, where almost 32,000 people have been killed – mostly women and children.

On Thursday, Iceland coach Age Hareide, expressed caution before the bout against Israel.

"If you ask me from a personal point of view, I am hesitant to play against Israel, given what is happening to women, children and other innocent civilians in Gaza," he said.

"We shouldn’t have to play this game, as far as I am concerned. But we must. The consequences for Iceland would be heavy if we did not."

Palestinian football fans, officials, and players have urged FIFA to ban Israel from participating in international competitions, similarly to how Russia was banned from competing in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar in response to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

FIFA, however, is yet to make a decision on Israel's participation in the sport, nearly six months into its military campaign.

Pro-Palestinian football fans took to social media to celebrate Iceland’s win over Israel. One user said that Iceland did what FIFA couldn't, which is knocking them out of the competition.

Another user said: "Israel spent $20 billion on defence and still couldn’t stop Iceland."

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Qatar's captain Al-Haydos retires from international football

Qatar legendary captain Hassan Al-Haydos has retired from international football ending a 16-year career highlighted by back-to-back Asian Cup victories.

Al-Haydos, who made his international debut in 2008, is the most capped player for Qatar with 182 appearances for the Gulf nation, scoring 41 times.

The 33-year-old twice found the net in the Asian Cup earlier this year as hosts Qatar won their second title, beating Jordan in the final.

He was also captain when Qatar won their first title in 2019 and was named in the team of the tournament in both editions.

"The Qatari Football Association extends its sincere thanks and appreciation to the captain of our national team, Hassan Al-Haydos, following his decision to retire from international football after a long career," the country's Football Association (QFA) said in a statement over the weekend.

"Words cannot thank you enough over the past years, the leader on and off the field, Hassan Al-Haydos. Always in our hearts."

Al-Haydos will continue to play for his club Al-Sadd, who are top of the standings in the Qatar Stars League.

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Israeli winger Liel Abada not forced out of Celtic by pro-Palestine fans

Celtic fans are not to blame for the mid-season exit of Israeli player Liel Abada to the US, the boss of his new club Charlotte FC has said.

The winger left Celtic for the Major League Soccer outfit earlier this month after weeks of speculation around his future, amid Celtic fans showing solidarity with Palestinians during Israel’s war on Gaza.

Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers indicated that Abada was not in the right frame of mind after being left out of matchday squads, despite returning from injury

However, several Israeli and British media outlets speculated that Abada was being driven out of Celtic due to pro-Palestinian sentiment and displays among the Celtic fans following the beginning of Israel’s assault on Gaza in October of last year.

However, Charlotte FC General Manager Zoran Krneta has contradicted this narrative, saying it was pressure from the Israeli media, his teammates in the Israeli national team, and their head coach that ultimately forced Abada out of Celtic.

"I really think Celtic fans liked him. It is clear to everyone that the situation was difficult for him with the criticism that came his way," Krneta told Walla when asked about the relationship between Celtic’s fanbase and Abada.

"He was not ready to deal with it and things got a little out of control."

After finalising his £8 million move to Charlotte FC, Abada released a statement thanking Celtic fans and did not allude to being driven out of the club for political reasons.