Arab fans unite after surprise wins in Qatar

DOHA: Victories against the odds by Arab teams competing at the Middle East’s first World Cup have inspired their supporters, bringing a rare sense of optimism and unity for fans from the Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean.

Saudi Arabia delivered the early shock of the tournament, defeating two-time World Cup champions Argentina, and Morocco then overcame second-ranked team Belgium -- roared on by the vast majority of fans at both matches in the Gulf state of Qatar.

With one match each left to play in their groups, both teams remain in strong contention to reach the knockout stage of the competition, the first time two Arab countries would have reached that far.

That chance to make history has forged a sense of solidarity among Arab supporters in Doha.

Mohammad al-Mansouri came from Spain to watch Morocco beat Belgium 2-0.

“Most of the congratulations...” he began ”...were from Saudis!” said Saudi fan Faisal al-Ruwaili, draped in his country’s green flag and finishing Mansouri’s sentence for him.

“When Saudi Arabia play I am Saudi and when Morocco play, all the Arab people...” said Mansouri ”...are Moroccans!” said Ruwaili, his arm around Mansouri’s shoulder.

Mansouri said it felt as if Morocco and Saudi Arabia were both playing on home ground in Qatar, something which may have helped them reach new heights.

“Saudi Arabia played the best match in the history of the Arab world,” he said, speaking in Doha’s Souq al-Waqif market, where fans mingled in shops and restaurants, keeping one eye out on televisions for updates on matches.

Although hosts Qatar lost their opening two matches and were the first to be eliminated, a fourth Arab side, Tunisia, could still advance if they overcome France in a final group match on Wednesday. While the odds may be against them, they will not be short of support at the nearly 45,000-capacity Education City Stadium on the western edge of Doha.

“Football unites nations. All Arab and Gulf people support any [Arab] team,” said Saudi supporter Khaled al-Asaimi, echoing the tone set by the leaders of Qatar and Saudi Arabia at the start of the tournament.

Tensions between the two neighbours led Saudi Arabia and its allies to declare a travel and trade embargo on Qatar in 2017, a move only rescinded last year.

Qatar’s emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wrapped scarves and flags of each other’s country around them as they watched their teams play.

Morocco fan Kareem al-Azzi said the results had shown that Arabs “are one nation, and [the World Cup] fixes what politics damage. We are brothers.”—Reuters

Cameroon goalkeeper suspended for indiscipline

DOHA: Cameroon’s first-choice goalkeeper Andre Onana has been suspended for disciplinary reasons, the country’s federation (FECAFOOT) said, after he was left out of the squad for their 3-3 draw with Serbia at the World Cup on Monday.

Onana was marked as “absent” on the team sheet, with head coach Rigobert Song saying he had to “put the team first ahead of an individual” amid reports of a falling-out over tactics.

Cameroon are third in Group ‘G’ on one point and need to beat Brazil in their final group game on Friday to stand any chance of reaching the last 16.

“The Cameroon Football Federation hereby informs the public that following Mr Rigobert Song Bahanag’s decision, head coach of the Indomitable Lions, the player Andre Onana has been temporarily suspended from the group for disciplinary reasons,” the statement said.

“The Cameroon Football Federation reiterates its full support to the head coach and his entire staff as they implement the federation’s policy aimed at preserving discipline, solidarity, complementarity and cohesion within the national team.

“FECAFOOT further reaffirms its commitment to create a peaceful atmosphere for the team and to provide them with adequate facilities for an outstanding performance.”

Onana said in a statement on Monday he “always behaved in a way to lead the team to success in a good manner”.

“Yesterday I was not allowed to be on the ground to help Cameroon, as always do, to achieve the team’s goals,” said Onana.

“I have put all my efforts and energy into finding solutions to a situation that a footballer often experiences, but there has been no will on the other side. Some moments are difficult to assimilate.

“However, I always respect and support the decisions of the people in charge of pursuing the success of our team and country.”—Reuters

Hazard denies rift in squad

DOHA: Belgium captain Eden Hazard has denied there is a rift in the squad but admits frank words were exchanged between the players following their surprise 2-0 World Cup Group ‘F’ loss to Morocco on Sunday.

Hazard was speaking to the media along with experienced goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois on Tuesday after they replaced the players originally scheduled to talk, Yannick Carrasco and Arthur Theate.

It was a move by team management to try to quell growing speculation that a number of players have fallen out.

Belgium, ranked second in the world, will almost certainly have to beat Croatia on Thursday to advance to the last 16.

“We had a good talk among the players,” Hazard said. “A lot has been said. We talked for an hour about good things and less good things. Now we want to win against Croatia. We now have two days to prepare. We have to be ready.”

Hazard denied there was a confrontation in the dressing-room after the Morocco loss, and said he had spoken with midfielder Kevin De Bruyne after the latter was quoted as saying the Belgium squad was too old to win the World Cup.

“Nothing happened in the dressing room,” Hazard said. “Only the coach [Roberto Martinez] spoke. I spoke to Kevin De Bruyne, he does believe in the group.”

Hazard admitted the players were disappointed with their performances in the opening two matches in Qatar.

“We have to do better, we cannot deliver the performance we want [at the moment]. We have to show it on the pitch, that is what counts,” he said.

“We still have quality in the group and are here to win. We lack confidence because of that last pass and that last dribble. We have to regain that confidence.”—Reuters

Published in Dawn, November 30th, 2022

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