MENA Sports Wrap: Morocco’s Atlas Lionesses make history with last 16 qualification

MENA Sports Wrap: Morocco’s Atlas Lionesses make history with last 16 qualification
This week Morocco's Atlas Lionesses secured entry to the round of 16 of the Women's World Cup, setting up an exciting clash with France.
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Morocco will face France on Tuesday in the next round of the Women's World cup [TNA]

The hopes of an entire region were re-awakened this week in the Women's World Cup, where Morocco's Atlas Lionesses bounced back from a disappointing start to the tournament, to secure last 16 qualification.

Also flying the flag for North Africa and the Middle East was Tunisian swimmer Ahmed Hafnaoui, who brought home two gold medals from the World Aquatics Championships in Japan. Meanwhile in football, the Saudi Pro League's big buys have raised concerns among top European managers, with Jurgen Klopp, Erik Ten Hag and Pep Guardiola weighing in on the matter.

Women’s World Cup: Morocco’s Lionesses make history with last 16 qualification

It took grit, determination and a little bit of luck for Morocco’s Atlas Lionesses to roar past Colombia into the last 16 of the Women’s World Cup, following a nail-biting 1-0 match in the Australian city of Perth on Thursday.

Colombia, who sit 47 places above Morocco in the official rankings, were the match favourites – but surprises can always be expected on the world stage.

Morocco started out strong, with star striker Ibtissam Jraidi attempting a shot on target less than one minute into the match. Both teams were itching to take the lead in the first half and missed a lot of chances, before a penalty was awarded to Morocco after a clumsy foul on Jraidi by Daniela Arias.

Captain Ghizlane Chebbak, the country’s most capped female player, missed the penalty, but teammate Anissa Lahmari found the back of the net after scoring the rebound, putting the Atlas Lionesses in the lead.

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A goalless and tense second half ensued before Morocco was declared victorious – but things were not quite over. The fate of their World Cup journey laid in the hands of the South Korea v Germany game taking place at the same time.

A Frauen victory would have sent Morocco packing solely based on goal difference. Luckily for them, South Korea managed to hold former champions Germany to a draw.

The Moroccans were deservedly jubilant afterwards, and received congratulations from FIFA President Gianni Infantino, their male counterparts, and compatriots. 

The Lionesses had no doubt been buoyed by their 1-0 victory over South Korea earlier in the week. It has been a remarkable turnaround for the Morocco team, who suffered a 6-0 thrashing at the hands of Germany in their opening match of the tournament.

"We thank everyone who sent us messages to boost our motivation and encouraged us to win and qualify," Moroccan goalkeeper Khadija Er-Rmichi told Al-Araby Al-Jadeed after the victory over Colombia.  

The Atlas Lionesses had already made history as the first team from the Middle East and North Africa region to qualify for the Women’s World Cup.

They must face France in their next match on Tuesday. A place in the quarter-finals is at stake. Could another miracle be in store?

Tunisia's star swimmer eyes more Olympic glory

Ahmed Hafnaoui says he is setting his sights on becoming Tunisia’s most decorated Olympic athlete after winning the 800m and 1,500m freestyle swimming events at the world championships in Japan.

The 20-year-old became came within a whisker of beating the world record in the 1,500m freestyle with a time of 14:31.54. China's Sun Yang set the world record at 14:31.02 in 2012 -- just over half a second faster than Hafnaoui's recent feat.

Having already secured Olympic gold at the 2020 games in 2020, Hafnaoui now says he wants to "break the record for the Tunisian having the most medals and break all the world records."

At present, long-distance runner Mohammed Gammoudi stands as the North African country's top Olympic winner, having won four medals between 1964 and 1972.

"Everyone should believe in themselves and to work, to make sacrifices in order to be able to succeed," Hafnaoui told reporters in Tunisia.

With the next Summer Olympics set to take place in Paris in 2024, the 20-year-old will soon get his chance to make his dream a reality.

Saudi Pro League’s big buys leave European managers on edge

Some of Europe’s most renowned managers have aired concerns over the Saudi Pro League’s spending power and long pre- and early-season transfer window.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has said the extra three weeks that the Saudi league has to complete transfers this summer means European clubs will not have time to replace players who leave for the Gulf kingdom’s football top flight.

Three Liverpool players — Jordan Henderson, Roberto Firmino, and, most recently, Fabinho — have already left Anfield for the Pro League. 

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Klopp has asked that football’s highest powers intervene to help remedy the situation.

“Pretty much the worst thing is that the transfer window in Saudi Arabia is open three weeks longer… UEFA or FIFA must find solutions for that,” he told reporters earlier this week.

The Saudi Pro League has until 20 September to complete signings — almost three weeks longer than in Europe. It has this summer spent more than £350 million on star signings — more even than Spain’s La Liga — and has managed to nab players including Karim Benzema, Riyad Mahrez, and Jordan Henderson.

Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola has also expressed wariness on the speed of change being brought about by the Saudis.

Other managers have downplayed the threat posed by the Saudi Pro League.

“The Premier League is the league where the big players want to play. That is not in competition with a league like America or Saudi Arabia,” Manchester United manager Erik Ten Hag said.

Other managers still are playing small roles in the Saudi sporting revolution.

Managerial legend Jose Mourinho has joined the board of the Mahd Sports Academy, an institute for young athletes established by the Saudi state in 2020. 

New Saudi purchases are getting practice in before the start of the season with the Arab Cup of Champions.

Al-Ittihad — the new home of Benzema, Diogo Jota, and N’golo Kante — and Al-Hilal are to play in one of the tournament’s quarter-finals on Saturday.

Al-Nassr are also still in contention for the pan-Arab title.

The Saudi Pro League season starts 11 August.