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Drama-filled Asian Cup fuels 2026 World Cup hopes

Drama-filled Asian Cup fuels 2026 World Cup hopes
Jordan’s Musa Al-Tamari kicks the ball past South Korea’s Kim Young-gwon at the Qatar 2023 AFC Asian Cup. (AFP)
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Updated 11 February 2024

Drama-filled Asian Cup fuels 2026 World Cup hopes

Drama-filled Asian Cup fuels 2026 World Cup hopes
  • Hong Kong, the lowest-ranked team, were competitive despite losing all three games, giving Iran a real scare before going down 1-0

DOHA: An Asian Cup that will be remembered for shocks and dramatic finishes has showcased the region’s strength in depth and raised hopes its teams could reach new heights at the 2026 World Cup.

Eight direct spots and one intercontinental playoff berth are up for grabs for Asian Football Confederation sides at the expanded 48-team World Cup in the US, Canada and Mexico.

The Asian Cup in Qatar, which concluded with Saturday’s final won by the hosts 3-1 win over Jordan, suggests that the region’s traditional heavyweights now have some serious competition.

“Asian football has improved a lot,” South Korea coach Jurgen Klinsmann said in Doha.

“The quality has risen over the last 10, 15 years dramatically.”

His strongly fancied side were subsequently beaten 2-0 by Jordan in the semifinals while pre-tournament favorites Japan crashed out in the quarterfinals to Iran, who then lost to Qatar.

“All of the teams at the Asian Cup have a lot of quality and we have had difficult games because they are getting better,” said Japan coach Hajjime Moriyasu, whose team conceded at least one goal in every game.

Teams have mostly found success by playing positive, attacking football, while games have generally been close.

The biggest margin of victory at the tournament was matching 4-0 wins for Australia and Jordan over Indonesia and Malaysia respectively.

Notable successes have been Jordan, whose high-tempo attacking style made a mockery of their world ranking of 87, and debutants Tajikistan, who reached the quarterfinals.

Hong Kong, the lowest-ranked team, were competitive despite losing all three games, giving Iran a real scare before going down 1-0.

Another so-called regional minnow, Malaysia, pulled off a famous 3-3 draw with South Korea.

South Korea skipper Son Heung-min thought he had scored the winner from the spot in the 94th minute, only for Malaysia to grab the leveller in the 105th minute.

“They fought until the end,” said Son. “I was very pleased to see this for Asian football.”

For all the progress, a few teams appear to be treading water or going backwards. India and China both headed home without scoring a goal in their three games each.

Some of the goalkeeping has also been iffy at times and Japan, notably, badly lacked a reliable stopper.

Football writer Scott McIntyre, of The Asian Game website, believes the World Cup expansion gives Asia’s smaller nations a reason to invest more in the sport.

“If you’re one of the handful of Asian nations that have consistently gone to the World Cup, those nations have invested in their domestic leagues,” he told AFP.

“For others, it’s like, ‘What’s the motivation if you’re an Uzbekistan or a Jordan?’

“You think with four spots, you’re never going to get to the World Cup.”

Asian teams had some notable success in the group phase of the Qatar 2022 World Cup. Japan beat Germany and Spain, and ż stunned eventual champions Argentina.

ż are throwing money at football and are set to host the 2034 World Cup.

However, South Korea’s run to the semifinals in 2002 as co-hosts remains the region’s best World Cup performance, and no AFC team has gone further than the last 16 since.

Teams from other confederations beyond Europe and South America have done better, with Morocco giving Africa its first World Cup semifinalist in 2022.

Hussein Ammouta, the Moroccan coach of Jordan, believes the key to improving national sides is to have their players in the major European leagues.

Of his Jordan squad, only Mousa Al-Tamari at Montpellier currently does that, but Ammouta sees a growing number of Asian players good enough to follow suit.

“Asian football has developed so much and is producing those quality players that are being sought by big European teams,” he said on the eve of the final.


Mallorca beat Real Sociedad on penalties to return to Copa del Rey final two decades later

Mallorca beat Real Sociedad on penalties to return to Copa del Rey final two decades later
Updated 28 February 2024

Mallorca beat Real Sociedad on penalties to return to Copa del Rey final two decades later

Mallorca beat Real Sociedad on penalties to return to Copa del Rey final two decades later
  • Mallorca goalkeeper Dominik Greif saved the opening penalty by Mikel Oyarzabal, then Sergi Darder converted the decisive kick to put Mallorca in the final
  • Mallorca will play the April 6 final in Seville against either Atletico Madrid or Athletic Bilbao, who will play the second leg of the other semifinal on Thursday in Bilbao

MADRID: More than two decades later, Mallorca are back in the Copa del Rey final.

The Spanish club partly owned by Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr and former NBA great Steve Nash defeated Real Sociedad 5-4 in a penalty shootout on Tuesday to make it to the final 21 years after they won the competition for the only time.

Mallorca goalkeeper Dominik Greif saved the opening penalty by Mikel Oyarzabal, then Sergi Darder converted the decisive kick to put Mallorca in the final. The teams drew 1-1 in regulation and were scoreless in extra time at Sociedad’s Reale Arena.

The teams had drawn 0-0 in the first leg in Mallorca on Feb. 6.

Mallorca will play the April 6 final in Seville against either Atletico Madrid or Athletic Bilbao, who will play the second leg of the other semifinal on Thursday in Bilbao. Athletic won the first leg 1-0 in Madrid.

It will be the fourth Copa final for Mallorca, which hadn’t made it the title game since it won the tournament in 2003 against Recreativo Huelva. Its other final appearances were in 1991 and 1998. It hadn’t made it to the semifinals since 2009.

Mallorca’s Mexican coach Javier Aguirre had taken Osasuna to the 2005 final, when it lost to Real Betis.

Sociedad was trying to return to the Copa final for the first time since it beat rival Athletic to lift the trophy in the 2019-20 season.

Vedat Muriqi, Manu Morlanes, Omar Mascarell and Nemanja Radonjic also scored for Mallorca in the penalty shootout. Beñat Turrientes, Jon Ander Olasagasti, Martín Zubimendi and Sheraldo Becker scored for Sociedad.

Mallorca took the lead in the 50th with a header by Gio Gonzalez into the far corner in what was the visitors’ only attempt on target during regulation. There was a long delay before the goal was confirmed as video review looked for a possible offside in the buildup.

The hosts, who had nearly 30 attempts throughout the match, equalized in a breakaway in the 71st with Oyarzabal finding the net with a low shot after a nice through ball by Brais Méndez.

Mallorca, who sit just outside the relegation zone in the Spanish league, had won only one of their last six games.

Sociedad, seventh after 26 league rounds, had one win in its last seven matches across all competitions. The Basque Country club is in the round of 16 of the Champions League, having lost the first leg against Paris Saint-Germain 2-0 in France.


Haaland scores five goals in Man City’s 6-2 rout of Luton in the FA Cup

Haaland scores five goals in Man City’s 6-2 rout of Luton in the FA Cup
Updated 28 February 2024

Haaland scores five goals in Man City’s 6-2 rout of Luton in the FA Cup

Haaland scores five goals in Man City’s 6-2 rout of Luton in the FA Cup
  • Haaland now has 27 goals in all competitions for the season after scoring 52 in his first year at the club

Erling Haaland looks determined to make up for lost time.
The Norway striker scored five goals to power Manchester City into the quarterfinals of the FA Cup in a 6-2 win against Luton on Tuesday.
It was his eighth hat trick in a season-and-a-half with City and the second time he has scored five in a single game for the club.
Perhaps more significantly, it was evidence that Haaland is fully back up to speed after recently returning from a foot injury that ruled him out for more than a month between December and January.
“My fitness is getting back to its best finally,” he said. “I feel good. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Haaland had scored only three goals in seven appearances since making his comeback on Jan. 31.
By his remarkable standards, that represented a relative drought, but he looked back to his devastating best at Kenilworth Road with a first-half hat trick and two more after the break. Four of those goals came from assists by Kevin De Bruyne, who has also missed large parts of the season through injury.
“It’s a pleasure playing with him,” Haaland said. “I think we know what we both want from each other, we look at each other and it clicks well.”
Mateo Kovacic added a sixth for City, while Jordan Clark struck twice for Luton.
Haaland was denied a possible double hat trick when he was replaced by Julian Alvarez in the 77th minute. It was the second time City manager Pep Guardiola substituted the striker after scoring five goals, having taken him off during the 7-0 rout of RB Leipzig in the Champions League last year.
Haaland now has 27 goals in all competitions for the season after scoring 52 in his first year at the club.
His performance and linkup play with De Bruyne will also fuel the belief City can emulate last season’s treble of trophies when it won the Premier League title, FA Cup and Champions League.
“We’re coming. Exciting times (are) ahead,” Haaland said.
The forward completed his hat trick after 40 minutes, having opened the scoring in the third and adding a second in the 18th.
Clark pulled one back for Luton in the 45th and made it 3-2 with another seven minutes after halftime.
But Haaland quickly extended City’s lead with further goals in the 55th and 58th.
Kovacic completed the scoring with a long range effort in the 72nd.


Liverpool's injury list worsens after Ryan Gravenberch is ruled out

Liverpool's injury list worsens after Ryan Gravenberch is ruled out
Updated 28 February 2024

Liverpool's injury list worsens after Ryan Gravenberch is ruled out

Liverpool's injury list worsens after Ryan Gravenberch is ruled out
  • Gravenberch sustained an ankle injury in the first half of Sunday’s English League Cup final
  • Endo left Wembley Stadium on crutches and wearing a protective boot

LIVERPOOL, England: Liverpool's injury crisis keeps on getting worse.
Ryan Gravenberch is the latest name to be added to an ever-lengthening list of players unavailable to the Premier League leader, while Wataru Endo is a doubt for Wednesday's FA Cup fifth round match against Southampton.
Gravenberch sustained an ankle injury in the first half of Sunday’s English League Cup final triumph against Chelsea and was taken off on a stretcher.
Endo left Wembley Stadium on crutches and wearing a protective boot.
“We need miracles with a few players,” Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said Tuesday. “I don’t want to rule them out for too long. But it is touch and go with a lot of players who were not available for the final: Darwin (Nunez), Mo (Salah), Dom (Szoboszlai) — we have to see what they can do."
Gravenberch has ligament damage that will keep him out for at least two games, Klopp said.
Trent Alexander-Arnold, Thiago Alcantara and goalkeeper Alisson Becker are other key players Klopp has had to do without in recent weeks.
Yet Liverpool remain in contention for a quadruple of trophies after Sunday's 1-0 win against Chelsea.
The Merseyside club are one point ahead of Manchester City at the top of the table and still competing for the FA Cup and the Europa League.


Bundesliga boss says rejection of investor deal ‘bad for the league’

Bundesliga boss says rejection of investor deal ‘bad for the league’
Updated 28 February 2024

Bundesliga boss says rejection of investor deal ‘bad for the league’

Bundesliga boss says rejection of investor deal ‘bad for the league’
  • Fans had littered pitches with everything from tennis balls to chocolate coins in opposition to the plan
  • German football has a notable commitment to fan control and involvement via a “50+1” rule

BERLIN: Bundesliga boss Hans-Joachim Watzke said Tuesday the rejection of a planned investor deal, shelved after widespread fan protests, was “bad for the league.”
Last week the German Football Leagues (DFL) which runs the Bundesliga abandoned a planned billion-euro investment deal, which had previously been approved by the necessary two-thirds majority of clubs, due largely to fan protests resulting in long delays at matches.
Fans had littered pitches with everything from tennis balls to chocolate coins in opposition to the plan to swap a portion of the league’s future media revenues for an upfront cash injection.
DFL chairman Watzke told AFP and other journalists on Tuesday that fans “in Germany have a problem with investors.”
“Germans are traditional, perhaps even a bit old-fashioned.
“In Germany, investor is perhaps not the best word.”
German football has a notable commitment to fan control and involvement via a “50+1” rule which restricts the degree of influence an external investor can have over a club.
The rule remains enduringly popular among German fans, many of whom value it more than domestic or international competitiveness.
The DFL had promised the new deal would include supporter-friendly protections against changes in kick-off times or moving competitive fixtures abroad.
“Our contract with the investor had clear red lines that nothing could happen which would be a problem for the fans, but the problem was that fans didn’t believe us.
“It’s actually a problem in German society. Every idea that you tell the public, the public says ‘not good’.”
Watzke said the protests did not reflect the opinion of the average fan.
“Five percent of the fans — which is not so much, but they’re the organized fans — were against it.
“The average fans had no problem, but they did not tell anyone.
“Maybe 500 or 800 in the stadium, the organized fans, they had a clear position — no investor.”
The 64-year-old said the protests had changed the atmosphere around the deal, with clubs getting cold feet.
“As the boss of the Bundesliga, I always had the feeling that the clear majority of clubs supported it, but in the past weeks that changed.
“When I recognized that the majority was not there, then I stopped it.”
Watzke said the result will hit mid-table teams the hardest, rather than those at the top of the tree.
“You can be sure that there’s no problem for Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.
“It’s a problem for the other clubs in the league. The money from the investor would be perfect to help the whole Bundesliga grow.
“Bayern and Dortmund will make our own way if it’s necessary.”
Watzke is also CEO of Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund and he was speaking on Tuesday to announce the opening of Dortmund’s first office in New York, where fellow Bundesliga heavyweights Bayern Munich have had a presence for a decade.


Women’s World Cup holders Spain eye Nations League title

Women’s World Cup holders Spain eye Nations League title
Updated 27 February 2024

Women’s World Cup holders Spain eye Nations League title

Women’s World Cup holders Spain eye Nations League title
  • Under new coach Montse Tome, Spain comfortably topped their Nations League group ahead of Italy, Sweden and Switzerland, and then defeated the Netherlands 3-0 in Seville in last Friday’s semifinal

SEVILLE, Spain: Reigning world champions Spain can claim another title on Wednesday when they face France in the final of the inaugural UEFA Women’s Nations League, while the Netherlands and Germany meet to decide who will join them in qualifying for the Paris Olympics.

Spain’s World Cup triumph in Sydney last August ended up being somewhat overshadowed by Spanish football federation boss Luis Rubiales’s forced kiss on midfielder Jenni Hermoso after the final against England.

Rubiales recently had a three-year ban from football upheld by FIFA and is also set to go in trial over the kiss, while the Spain team — led by Ballon d’Or winner Aitana Bonmati — have tried to keep the focus on football.

Under new coach Montse Tome, Spain comfortably topped their Nations League group ahead of Italy, Sweden and Switzerland, and then defeated the Netherlands 3-0 in Seville in last Friday’s semifinal.

Winning through to the final also allowed them to take one of two qualifying spots open to European nations for the women’s football tournament at the Olympics. It is the first time they have qualified for the Games.

However, star Barcelona midfielder Bonmati believes Spain’s World Cup success has not had the hoped-for impact on the women’s game in the country.

“Unfortunately I can’t say a lot of things have changed,” Bonmati said in an interview with French sports daily L’Equipe.

“We have the example of the English, when they won the Euro (in 2022). We saw a real change following their success at a nationwide level.

“It had repercussions, and there was more investment in the domestic league. The stadiums are full when England play. It makes me jealous because I can’t say the same thing has happened here.

“There are still so many things to do here and I have the impression that the World Cup has not served any purpose.”

She complained that the match against the Netherlands was moved at short notice from Cadiz to Seville, where the final will also be played.

“We were supposed to play in Cadiz and in the end we changed the venue to La Cartuja. That wouldn’t happen with the boys.”

France had already qualified for the Olympics automatically as the host country and Herve Renard’s team are now hoping to win a first international title in the Nations League to set them up for the Games.

The Netherlands entertain Germany in Heerenveen in the third-place play-off with the winner of that game also progressing to Paris 2024.

Germany lost 2-1 to France in Lyon in their semifinal last Friday and so must now overcome the Dutch if they are to go to the Olympics, in which they won the gold medal in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

After flopping at last year’s World Cup, in which they exited in the group stage, their form has improved under veteran interim coach Horst Hrubesch, who took Germany’s men to the final of the 2016 Olympics.

However, the Dutch — whose coach Andries Jonker used to manage Wolfsburg in the men’s German Bundesliga — are hoping to make the most of home advantage at the Abe Lenstra Stadion.

“We still have a chance,” of reaching the Olympics, said captain Sherida Spitse after the semifinal.

“We are very happy with that. We are playing at home with the crowd behind us.”