Monday, September 25, 2023 | Daily Newspaper published by GPPC Doha, Qatar.
 Sahan Bidappa
Sahan Bidappa
Sahan Bidappa is a sports writer with Gulf Times. He joined Gulf Times after having worked for more than 10 years with leading newspapers in India. Sahan misses covering cricket in Qatar but has adeptly channelized his talents towards tennis, football and Olympic sports.

Mutaz Barshim holds his son as he acknowledges the crowd after winning the bronze in Budapest. (AFP)
Emotional Barshim proud of ‘amazing’ career

Doha: Mutaz Essa Barshim was far from downhearted after his reign as world high jump champion came to an end in Budapest on Tuesday night. Not since the Rio Olympic Games in 2016 has anyone been able to finish higher than the Qatari icon in an outdoors global high jump competition.But at the National Athletic Centre on Tuesday, Barshim’s good friend Gianmarco Tamberi, with whom he shared the gold medal at the Tokyo Games two years back, had dethroned him to win his maiden world title.Yet, Barshim sported a smile like a true champion he is. Why wouldn’t he!? The 32-year-old’s bronze in Budapest was his fifth Worlds medal of his career, which includes three consecutive gold and one silver – making him the first man to achieve the feat in high jump.Barshim even joined Tamberi and his Italian fans in the stands as the duo celebrated with Qatari legend’s toddler son joining them. Later as the disappointment of not winning yet another gold had settled in, Barshim reflected on his illustrious career and brimming with pride at what he had achieved.“I came here with three world gold medals and one silver and managed to add a bronze tonight,” said Barshim, who has had to contend with back and knee problems in recent years.“Look at my career. It is really amazing. If it was not me that did this, but someone else, I would like to be that someone. Today I look at my CV and I am the only high jumper with such a medal count. This almost brings tears to my eyes. I just need to give myself credit. Having my son here only makes it more memorable. It is very emotional to have all my family and friends out here,” he added.Yesterday, in an emotional post on Instagram Barshim, opened up more about his career as he dedicated his bronze medal to people who have stood behind him. He also said representing Qatar was a huge responsibility that he takes ‘very seriously’“It’s very sentimental for me to think of how far I’ve come from my very first World Championship in Daegu in South Korea in 2011. As a young high jumper pursuing my passion I was looking up to the all-time high jump greats. I remember wanting to be up there so badly. Looking at myself today, I realise that I am now on top of that list becoming the most decorated high jumper in World Championships history, collecting five medals. One silver, three consecutive gold and now one bronze medal,” he wrote.“If I’m allowed to say it, I’m really proud of myself for never giving up, for putting in the hard work, for sacrificing what matters most to me and having my team, my family, my country & my supporters stand behind me no matter what. I realise that I have a huge responsibility by carrying the flag of my country on my back and I take that responsibility very seriously. This medal is for all of you who have been standing behind me for more than a decade,” he added.Barshim paid tribute to Tamberi and the young American JuVaughn Harrison, who won silver on Tuesday, but said he was up for the fight at the Paris Olympics next year, even though he indicated that could be his farewell event.“The atmosphere on the field was electric. The rivalry between all the jumpers was incredible. I enjoyed every moment of it. I am happy that Tamberi won the gold. It was a medal he was missing from his CV and he added it tonight,” Barshim said.“He deserved to be on the top of the podium. He has been working really hard and it is time for him to celebrate. The Paris Olympics is my next goal but it will be my last. It will be more like a contest, not revenge.”Barshim, who has the second best jump in history – 2.43 behind Cuban great Javier Sotomayor (2.45 in 1993) – looked in for a rough night when he missed his first attempt at 2.25. He had looked calm before the event started as he lay down on a towel on the infield for a good 20 minutes. Barshim passed the opening height, 2.20m, but the lack of preparation showed in a rusty first attempt at 2.25m that sent the bar tumbling. Barshim then cleared 2.33 for bronze, but missed all three attempts at 2.36, leaving Tamberi and Harrison to fight for the gold.Tamberi, who had scraped through to the final with a last-gasp clearance at 2.28m in qualifying, entered the competition with a first-time failure at 2.25m, but as his raucous supporters rooted for him from the stands, the Italian grew in confidence and pocketed his first world title.Tamberi now has a full collection of golds, having also captured world indoor, European and Diamond League titles. But with Barshim still not done yet, the Italian will have a fight on his hand at the Paris Olympics.Barshim FactfileBorn: 24 June 1991, Doha Height: 1.90m (6 ft 3 in) Weight: 65kg Achievements and titlesWorld Championships: 2011 Daegu: 7th2013 Moscow: Silver2015 Beijing: 4th2017 London: Gold2019 Doha: Gold2022 Eugene: Gold2023 Budapest: BronzeOlympics 2012 London: Silver2016 Rio de Janeiro: Silver2020 Tokyo: GoldHighest world ranking No. 1 (weeks 23)Personal best(s) Outdoor: 2.43m in Brussels (2014)Indoor: 2.41m in Athlone (2015)

Gulf Times
Crespo hungry for more silverware with Al Duhail

Hernan Crespo’s first season as coach of Al Duhail could not have gone much better, with the former Argentina striker leading the Qatari club to treble of domestic titles – the league, Qatar Cup and Ooredoo Cup.While Duhail were hammered by Saudi side Al Hilal in the AFC Champions League semi-final and also lost in the Amir Cup quarter-finals, the Red Knights had a successful season under Crespo. So it wasn’t a surprise when the Duhail management extended Crespo’s contract to another year, until the end of next season. Now Crespo, whose coaching career has included spells in Italy, Argentina and Brazil, wants to repeat last year’s success with Duhail or even better it.But the 48-year-old believes it won’t be easy as the other Qatar Stars League teams – especially Duhail’s arch rivals Al Sadd have strengthened their squad. “This will be a very, very difficult season. I think for us, the last season was amazing. We reached the semi-final of the AFC Champions League. We won three trophies then. It’s not easy to repeat. We try to be competitive again to try to fight in all of the competitions,” the Argentinian said ahead of Duhail’s opening match against Al Ahli on Friday at the Al Thumama Stadium.However, Crespo was confident of the team’s success as he said the team’s pre-season preparations have been perfect. “The preparation has been perfect. We are only waiting to complete our roster with another foreign professional. But anyway, we are ready for the first game of the league, which will be very, very tough this time,” he added.For Duhail, Al Sadd, a record 16-time winners of QSL, will once again be their main rivals for all the trophies this season while Amir Cup champions and league runners-up Al Arabi could also pose a tough challenge. But Crespo chose to focus on his team and urged his players to be competitive like last season.“Our challenge is to try to be competitive. Logically we try to win the trophies, but the most important thing is to be competitive. After that, in football, everything can happen. Sometimes it has happened that we won three titles like last year, sometimes not. You never know.“But I think, the way to respect our passion, respect our professionalism is to try to work hard. After that the rest is all a consequence,” he said philosophically.Like last season, the league will take a six-week break this time too in December as Qatar will be hosting the AFC Asian Cup in January and February. “The last season was hectic with the World Cup and it will be so this season too,” said Crespo.“We are very proud to have hosted the FIFA World Cup and now we are very proud to host the AFC Asian Cup (in January 2024). Our idea is to try to help the national team. And after that, we will try to do our best. We prepare the players to become better players. I think representing the national team is great. We are very proud of that and we try to give to the national team a lot of players,” said Crespo.

Qatar Gold Cup squad
Pragmatic Queiroz injects fresh blood, targets 2026 World Cup spot for Qatar

After a disappointing 2022 World Cup, if the football fans in Qatar were craving for a new dawn then Carlos Queiroz has answered the call. The veteran Portuguese coach, who took over from Felix Sanchez after the World Cup debacle where the hosts lost all three of their group matches, revealed a fresh-look squad yesterday for the Gold Cup, which will be held in the United States of America and Canada from June 24 to July 16. Captain Hassan al-Haydos, star striker Akram Afif, Karim Boudiaf, Pedro Miguel, Boualem Khoukhi, Abdulaziz Hatem and Saad al-Sheeb were among the seniors who were left out of the 26-member squad as Queiroz said he was determined to lead Qatar into the 2026 World Cup. Since his appointment in February on a four-year deal, Queiroz has meticulously drafted a new road map for the Qatar team. The experienced coach yesterday spoke about short, medium and long term plans as the 70-year-old plots a revival of the Qatar team – which after the high of maiden Asian Cup triumph in 2019 could just not reach the promised level. In a free-wheeling chat with reporters yesterday, Queiroz conceded the journey ahead “would not be a sprint but a marathon’ and said it was his “dream to help Qatar qualify for the first time in the World Cup.” If Queiroz is successful in his 2026 World Cup mission, it would be his fifth appearance at the finals, having led his native Portugal in 2010 before taking Iran to the tournaments in Brazil, Russia and Qatar. “I have 44 years of experience with me but I feel like I am starting a new career. I am very excited and it’s a privilege for me to lead the Qatar team for which I am thankful to the Qatar Football Association and all the fans. It’s my new home, my new family and it is not a time to make promises but to deliver,” the Portuguese said yesterday. In the four months he has been in Qatar, Queiroz admitted to having seen 23 matches of the Al Annabi till the Gulf Cup and numerous domestic matches. “I continued to watch them day and night,” he said with a smile. Queiroz has retained few from the World Cup squad like Almoez Ali, Mohamed Muntari, Bassam al-Rawi, Assim Madebo and Tariq Salman but the Gold Cup squad mostly consists of players who featured at the Gulf Cup in January. After pruning the squad to 26 from 41 players after a short camp, Queiroz regularly spoke about ‘talent and performance identification’ but said the doors were always open for the seniors to make a comeback. Identifying talent has been Queiroz’s forte in the past. It is well known that Queiroz convinced Alex Ferguson to sign the then-teenager Cristiano Ronaldo to Manchester United in 2003. He also played a vital role in shaping the careers of Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Joao Pinto as Queiroz led Portugal to world youth championships in 1989 and 1991. For Qatar football, there could not have been a better coach to guide the next generation as he looks to rebuild of personnel and confidence. “It’s not a question of exclusion but it is about inclusion of new players who are rewarded for their performances. The word exclusion is not in my dictionary. Also, it is a right decision to rest some players. It’s time for them to have a break away from stress,” Queiroz explained on his decision to blood youngsters in the team. “I want to open a window for young players and give them opportunities. The youngsters in the squad have only one or two international appearances, they will be given enough opportunity to express themselves on the pitch. The selection will be based on talent and performance identification. My job is to make the right decision. So I was clear with this in my mind. I want a minimum of six players for one position and build competition for places. We need a strong group of players and make it a large pool for selection to the Qatar team. It’s still a long way to go,” he added. Queiroz knows his first test will be to help Qatar defend their Asian Cup title at home next January. “Qatar won the 2019 Asian Cup. But, today, we are ranked sixth in Asia – five other Asian teams are in front of us. Japan, South Korea, Australia, Iran and Saudi Arabia are ahead of us. Then we have Iraq and the UAE,” Queiroz. “This is exactly the mountain we need to climb. We have to challenge ourselves against top Asian teams. We need to be ready to defend the Asian title. It won’t be easy but we need to stand up and work hard every day. On the pitch we have lots of things to do. Qatar needs to win consistently and not just win here and there. If we have to be the best, we need to be the best and compete and challenge the best,” he added. Queiroz also said Qatar’s 2026 World Cup would start on November 13, 2023, referring to the start of the qualification period for the next football showpiece, which will be held in the US, Canada and Mexico. “To qualify for the World Cup is the ultimate goal. 2023 November our World Cup will start. This is our trophy. We don’t have too much time. We have 183 days to start our World Cup. We cannot climb a mountain with one step, we have to take many steps,” he said. Qatar will open their Gold Cup campaign against Haiti at the NRG Stadium in Houston on June 24. The Asian Champions then take on Honduras on June 29 in Glendale, Arizona before wrapping up their Group B matches against heavyweights Mexico on July 2 in Santa Clara, California. Queiroz will hold a preparation camp for Vienna, Austria from June 1. In Vienna, Qatar will play three friendly matches – against a Croatian side made up of local players on June 8, versus Jamaica on June 15 and against New Zealand four days later. Qatar players will leave for the USA on June 20. Qatar Gold Cup squad Goalkeepers: Jassim al-Hail (Al Arabi), Mishaal Barshim (Al Sadd), Salah Zakaria (Al Duhail), Youssef Hassan (Al Gharafa) Defenders: Hazem Ahmed (Al Wakrah), Ahmed Suhail, Jassem Jaber (Al Arabi), Tariq Salman, Musab Khader (Al Sadd), Bassam al-Rawi, Mohamed al-Nuaimi, Youssef Ayman (Al Duhail), Hammam al-Amin (Al Gharrafa) Midfielders: Ahmed Fathi, Abdullah al-Maarafi (Al Arabi), Asim Madebo (Al Duhail), Ali Asad, Mohamed Waad, Mahdi Salem (Al Sadd), Mustafa Mishaal (Al Shamal) Forwards: Ahmed Alaa (Al Gharafa), Almoez Ali, Mohamed Muntari (Al Duhail), Tamim Mansour (Al Rayyan), Khaled Mounir, Youssef Abdelrazzaq (Al Wakrah)

Gulf Times
Al Arabi beat Al Sadd to win first Amir Cup title in 30 years

Al Arabi ended a 30-year long wait for the Amir Cup title as they stunned Al Sadd 3-0 in the final to win the prestigious trophy at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan yesterday.In front of a packed 37,839 attendance, Arabi players, officials and their long-suffering fans in the stands were overcome with emotions as His Highness the Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani crowned them as the champions.Prolific striker Omar al-Somah scored a brace, but it was substitute Hamid Ismail who played a key role in Arabi’s first major title since winning the league title 26 years ago. Ismail, who had replaced injured Youssef Msakni at the end of first half, set up the opening goal while also getting into the score sheet with Arabi’s second.It was also a significant occasion for Arabi’s Younes Ali, who became the first Qatari coach to win the Amir Cup since 1994. Ahmed Omar was the last Qatari coach to win the trophy.Ali also became the fourth person to lift the prestigious title both as player and coach Ahmed Omar, Hussein Amouta and Xavi Hernandez. Ali, who played as a midfielder before retiring in 2017, won the Amir Cup three times as a player with Al Rayyan.A jubilant Ali paid tribute to his players for hard work throughout the season and he thanked the fans for sticking with the team for many difficult years. “Al Sadd were a very tough team but we played very well. I want to thank our fans who supported us throughout the season and for many years,” the 40-year-old said.“We had an excellent season irrespective of our victory in the final. It was sheer teamwork of all people associated with Al Arabi. We will now focus on doing better in the next season and it would require a great deal of hard work,” he added.Forward Al-Somah, who joined Arabi on a one-year loan from Al Ahli, said they were deserving winners on the night. “We are delighted to win the prestigious Amir Cup after a gap of so many years. This historic title has doubled our joy as we have capped a fine season by lifting this coveted trophy,” the Syrian said.“We have won the trophy deservingly as we played well in the final. After falling behind in the QSL title race, all our focus was on winning the Amir Cup. The entire Al Arabi team, the coaching, technical and administrative played their part in this success.”Arabi went into the high-stakes match yesterday hoping to overcome the heartbreak of missing out on the league title to Al Duhail by two points last week, not to mention the pressure of ending the trophy drought. They had beaten Sadd 2-1 in the last round league match last Monday, but were still the underdogs for the title against record 18-time Amir Cup winners.Friday’s final was also a repeat of the 2020 title clash, which Sadd had won comfortably at the same venue as yesterday. Expectedly, it was Sadd who went on the offensive but were unable to break the deadlock, despite numerous scoring opportunities as Arabi players defended bravely.Sadd’s star forward Akram Afif curled from outside the box just wide of the far post, while Guilherme Torres’ long-range strike missed the target just before the half-hour mark. Boualem Khoukhi also went close from 10 yards outside the box, while Ali Asad wasted a golden opportunity to score from a close range.With Sadd looking threatening, Arabi were dealt a blow as the experienced Youssef Msakni limped out due to injury. But that turned out to be a blessing for Arabi as Msakni’s replacement Ismail turned the game in his team’s favour with a terrific second-half display.After a VAR check cleared Arabi defender Marc Muniesa of fouling Baghdad Boundjah in the box, the ‘Dream Team’ went ahead just after the hour mark. Ismail played a cross from the right and Syrian international al-Somah connected it with a towering header past Sadd goalkeeper Saad al-Sheeb.Sadd searched for the equaliser and should have had one but Bounedjah’s header went just over the bar. With the clock ticking in, Arabi landed the killer blow in the 91st minute through a counterattack.Former PSG star Rafinha surged ahead from the midfield to set up Ismail, who pummeled the ball into the net. In the 11 minutes of added time, Rafinha again set up a goal this time assisting al-Somah for his second goal of the match as Arabi players and supporters went into frenzy at the final whistle.

Gianni Infantino, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa and HE Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa bin Ahmed al-Thani pose with the trophy and coaches during the draw in Doha Thursday.
Asian Cup to begin with holders Qatar vs Lebanon at Al Bayt Stadium

Hosts Qatar will open their Asian Cup defence against Lebanon at Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor on January 12, 2024, after the draw for the continental showpiece was held at the Katara Opera House Thursday.Qatar – who won the Asian Cup for the first time in the 2019 edition held in the UAE – will also play against China and tournament debutants Tajikistan in their other Group A matches.Since the unimpressive performance of the Qatar team in the World Cup last year, former Real Madrid and Iran coach Carlos Queiroz has replaced long-serving Felix Sanchez and the Portuguese veteran said it was time for Qatar to ‘deliver’ on the pitch. “We want to compete against the best and try to beat the best. It is not about the opponents but about us, and now it is time to deliver, work and be well prepared. The most important thing is to play good football, to have fun and bring as much pride and honour for the country,” Queiroz said Thursday.Qatar captain Hassan al-Haydos – who was one of the draw assistants at the draw ceremony Thursday – said his team will go with all guns blazing to retain the title. “Playing at the big stage in Asia is always an honour and to be able to defend the trophy at home will be even more special. I can't wait to play in front of our fantastic fans and we will try to do everything to make them proud,” said the Al Sadd forward.Twenty-four teams from across the continent learned their fate finally Thursday. The tournament was initially slated for this summer with China as hosts, but was moved because of the country's strict Covid rules with Qatar stepping in as hosts. It is the third time the Asian Cup will return to Qatar after they hosted the championship in 1988 and 2011. Eight stadiums, six of which were used at the World Cup, will stage games at the Asian Cup in January-February.The other five groups have thrown up some interesting contests, with Australia, Uzbekistan, Syria and India all drawn in Group B, while three-time champions Iran faces Palestine, United Arab Emirates and Hong Kong in Group C.The most successful nation in Asian Cup history, Japan are in a tricky Group D with 2007 winners Iraq, Indonesia, and Vietnam. South Korea, Malaysia, Jordan and Bahrain make up Group E, with Saudi Arabia, also going for a fourth title, in Group F with Oman, Thailand and Kyrgyzstan. The top two from each of the six groups as well as the four best third-placed teams will progress to the knockout stage, with the final to be held at the Al Bayt on February 10.In his opening address Thursday, watched by FIFA President Gianni Infantino, Asian Football Confederation President Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa was confident the tournament will “the greatest edition ever” as he thanked Qatar and the Local Organising Committee (LOC) for staging the tournament.“The last time Qatar hosted the Asian Cup was in 2011 and in just 12 years we have all witnessed an era of great progress. Since then we have expanded the competition to 24 teams and as witnessed at the FIFA World Cup, the teams and players are among the finest in the world. Qatar has earned its place as among the best host nations in global football history,” Sheikh Salman said.The ceremony was attended by HE President of the Qatar Football Association and Chairman of the AFC Asian Cup Qatar 2023 LOC Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa bin Ahmed al-Thani, AFC Executive Office members, representatives of the continental federations, and managers and coaches of the 24 participating teams.South Korea’s coach Jurgen Klinsmann said he expected the Asian Cup to ‘be as fantastic a tournament as the World Cup.’ “The draw is exciting and, for me, it is all about learning now and learning about the opponents, teams and all the coaches that are here. I am sure it will be a fantastic tournament as the World Cup was an outstanding and beautiful tournament,” the former German forward said.

Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim competes in the men’s high jump. (AFP)
Richardson, Kerley power to victories; Barshim disappoints

Americans Sha’Carri Richardson and Fred Kerley stormed to sprint victories at the Diamond League opener in Doha, as three meet records tumbled on a cool evening at the Suheim Bin Hamad Stadium on Friday.The packed crowd witnessed 15 Olympic and world champions on the night, but had to return home disappointed after home hero Mutaz Essa Barshim put on a sluggish show as he finished a disappointing third in the high jump. The Olympic and World champion stumbled at every height before finishing with 2.24m, while American Juvaughn Harrison soared to victory with an impressive 2.32m, while South Korea’s Woo Sanghyeok (2.27m) was third.Barshim needed three attempts at 2.21m to get into the final and then failed with all three tries at 2.27m. The Qatari great vowed he would come back stronger as he bids for an unprecedented fourth World title this year. “This is home, so the crowd and support were incredible,” the 31-year-old said. “It wasn’t the performance I wanted, but the atmosphere was amazing, and I thank the crowd for their support. I definitely have few points to work on but it’s the first Diamond League of the season and I know what to do to improve. My next event is the Stockholm Diamond League,” he added.But it was Richardson, who grabbed the limelight with her biggest win of her career in the star-studded women’s 100m. The 23-year-old, who missed the 2020 Tokyo Olympics after testing positive for cannabis at the US trials, led from gun to win in 10.76 seconds to break the meet record set by Tori Bowie, the 2017 world champion who was found dead this week.The last two world 200m champions — Shericka Jackson (10.85sec) of Jamaica and Dina Asher-Smith (10.98) of Britain – were second and third. “I found my peace back on the track, and I’m not letting anything or anybody take that anymore,” Richardson said, adding that she got “kicked out” of the 100m at her last meet in Botswana last Saturday, where she ran the 200m instead.A little later, Kerley continued the American dominance in the sprint as the world 100m champion won the men’s 200m in 19.92. The Olympic and world silver medallist Kenneth Bednarek had led coming off the bend but Kerley produced a blistering finish as he used his long strides in the final 40 metres to romp home.Bednarek was second (20.11) and Canada’s Aaron Brown was third (20.20). Andre De Grasse, the Olympic 200m champ from Canada, was sixth, while world 400m champion Michael Norman crossed the line in last place (20.65). Buoyed by yesterday’s triumph, Kerley was aiming for a 100-200m double at this year’s world championships in Budapest. “I was comfortable, but I know I still have work to do. The most important thing was to win and I did. I was happy with the competition, it was a good one, the guys gave me a fight. Next is Japan, (I will) open up my season in the 100 (metres),” the 27-year-old Texan said.Two other meet records came on the night from Slovenian Kristjan Ceh in men’s discus, while Ethiopia’s Lamecha Girma put on a sensational run to win the 3,000m in 7:26.18.World champion Ceh launched the discus to 70.89m to improve Daniel Stahl’s mark by 33 centimetres. The Swede had to settle for second behind Ceh with 67.14m. However, such was Ceh dominance that all four his valid throws would have sufficed for victory. “This means a lot to me. I just started my season and it was good. I’m aiming to raise my average.” said Ceh.The men’s 3,000m was when the crowd was at its loudest with the event billed as one of the biggest clashes of the night and it did not disappoint.Ethiopia’s Berihu Aregawi looked prime for win, but with 500 metres to go Girma edged ahead of his compatriot Aregawi followed by another countryman Selemon Barega. World and Olympic steeplechase champion Soufiane El Bakkali of Morocco was way off his best in fourth.India’s javelin superstar Neeraj Chopra at last claimed his first win in Doha, five years after making his debut. The Olympic champion and World silver medallist sent his spear out to a world-leading 88.67m in his first attempt, and that turned out to be the best effort among the field.World and Olympic medallist Jakub Vadlejch of Czech Republic came within four centimetres of Chopra’s lead with 88.63m in round three but had to settle for second place, while two-time world champion Anderson Peters was third with 85.88m.“It was a very hard win but I’m happy. It’s a really good start for me. I hope to come in first place in the next competitions and to be consistent during the season,” said Neeraj, who received a raucous reception from the fans.In the women’s pole vault, Olympic champion Katie Moon held off stiff competition from Sandi Morris and Tina Sutej to win with a world-leading 4.81m.Faith Kipyegon’s 3:58.57 in the women’s 1500m saw her round off a night of brilliant performances and make the perfect start to her Diamond League title defence.There were further world leads from Winfred Yavi in the women’s steeplechase and Hugues Fabrice Zango in the men’s triple jump, although the latter ultimately lost to Pedro Pablo Pichardo, who claimed victory with a windy 17.91m. There were also victories for Rai Benjamin in the men’s 400m hurdles and Jasmine Camacho-Quinn in the women’s 100m hurdles.

Dina Asher-Smith (left) of Britain, Fred Kerley (centre) of the United States and Faith Kipyegon of Kenya pose after the press conference in Doha on Thursday. PICTURES: Noushad Thekkayil
With world record still on mind, Barshim opens season today

Olympic and World champion Mutaz Barshim has not given up his dream of breaking the long-standing high jump world record. In 2018, he was just millimetres away from bettering Cuba’s Javier Sotomayor’s feat of 2.45m which has stood since July 1993.But Barshim – who had earlier in 2017 became the first athlete in history to clear 2.40m in five consecutive years and remained unbeaten that season – suffered a career-threatening foot injury on his third attempt at 2.46m at the Gyulai Istvan Memorial meet in Hungary. But that painful setback has not deterred Barshim from achieving his ambition of creating a new world record. While the 31-year-old has sights on winning gold at the Paris Olympics next year and an unprecedented fourth high jump world crown in Budapest and Asian Games later this year, Barshim has Sotomayor’s 30-year-old record in his mind.“I always aim for the maximum,” said Barshim yesterday, on the eve of the Diamond League season opener at Qatar SC’s Suheim Bin Hamad Stadium. “I am still active and while I am active, I will keep chasing the best possible. There is nothing like that I can’t achieve. If you don’t believe it, go home, don’t be here.”Barshim said events like the Diamond League ‘is sort of training’ for him because he has ‘bigger goals’. “So I am up for the big fish and that’s for me are the World Championships, the Olympics and the Asian Games this season,” he said without a hint of arrogance.“I only look at myself, to be honest. I’m in a different stage of my life, in my career, even though you know where you are. But deep down you don’t know because you always surprise yourself. There’s always that extra that you’re trying to reach and grab. And I say it’s a great opportunity to go and grab for extra and to focus on what I need to be focused on because I know the season is so long and I have my own targets,” he added.The Qatari has competed sparingly in recent years, mainly due to various injury concerns, but he has managed to get it right when it matters, winning the past three world titles as well as the Olympic title in 2021.In his first competition of the season, Barshim jumped 2.20m to take gold at the relatively weak field at the West Asia Athletics Championship in Doha last week. He last competed at a higher level in September 2022, so it remains to be seen what kind of form he is currently in, but he isn’t easy to beat.World indoor champion Woo Sanghyeok of South Korea beat Barshim in the Doha meeting last year, so will be the closest challenger to the home favourite today. USA’s JuVaughn Harrison also heads to Doha in great form, having already cleared 2.33m this year.“It’s the start of the season. Definitely, I’m excited. Not only to compete but compete at home,” said Barshim. “The start of the season is very important to all of us athletes. Again, you know, competing at home for me is definitely extra boost and I’m looking forward to that.Meanwhile, World 100 metres champion Fred Kerley will be one of 15 reigning Olympic and world champions competing in the first of 14 top meetings that make up the Diamond League.Kerley will race the 200 metres in Doha, which will also feature Olympic 200m champion Andre de Grasse of Canada – who also had an injury-stricken 2022 – and Americans Michael Norman, the world 400m champion, and Olympic and world 200m silver medallist Kenny Bednarek. In the women’s 100m, reigning world 200m champion Shericka Jackson of Jamaica will take on Britain’s former world 200m champion Dina Asher-Smith.Kenya’s two-time Olympic and world 1500m champion Faith Kipyegon headlines the women’s 1500m. She said she was “really excited” to start another world championship year.Olympic and world champion Katie Moon will take on fellow American Sandi Morris and Australian Nina Kennedy who she beat to the women’s pole vault title in Eugene last year.The strongest field of all in Doha is the men’s 3000m. Three months on from his world indoor 3000m record, Lamecha Girma takes on the same distance outdoors and faces a field that includes four winners of global titles. The Ethiopian clocked 7:23.81 in Lievin in February and hasn’t raced since. A lack of prior races didn’t seem to do the Ethiopian any harm back then, so the fact this is his outdoor season debut shouldn’t necessarily work against him.Especially as the same applies to many other athletes in the field, including world and Olympic steeplechase champion Soufiane El Bakkali. The Moroccan is more at home when jumping over barriers, but he is speedy enough on the flat to be competitive in a race such as this.Olympic 10,000m champion Selemon Barega, 2021 Diamond League 5000m champion Berihu Aregawi and fellow Ethiopians Getnet Wale and Telahun Haile Bekele add further depth to the field, as do 2019 world 1500m champion Timothy Cheruiyot, world U20 cross-country champion Ishmail Kipkirui and Oceanian record-holder Stewart McSweyn.The meeting record of 7:27.26 has stood for 12 years, but there are several athletes capable of challenging that mark today.

From Left: Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim, American Katie Moon and India’s Neeraj Chopra pose after the press conference on Thursday, on the eve of the Diamond League opener in Doha. PICTURE: Noushad Thekkayil
Affable Chopra set to continue his gold-coated legacy

Neeraj Chopra’s ascension to the top of javelin throw and his evolution as an athlete should be part of the sporting curriculum. For, at the age of 25, he has achieved milestones unheard in the history of Indian athletics, and the manner in which he continues to handle his stardom after the Olympics gold is heartening to see as well a big lesson for the younger generation.Chopra was always billed for bigger things in India, after he won the World Under-20 Championships gold in 2016 with a world record throw of 86.48m. He then went on to add Asian Games and Commonwealth Games gold, but his historic Olympic gold at the 2020 Tokyo Games two years ago has skyrocketed his popularity in India and around the world.His World Championship silver and Diamond Trophy title last year has shown that Chopra is set to dominate javelin throw over the next decade.On the eve of the Diamond League opener in Doha on Thursday, the charming Chopra was the cynosure of all eyes. There were never-ending requests for interviews and photographs from the media, yet the young Indian handled everything patiently with a wide smile.“After I won the Olympics gold medal, there has been a lot of change in the Indian sporting culture,” said Chopra, when asked about his ever-growing influence in Indian sports, particularly athletics.“The young generation is taking up sports. And it’s not just the javelin, there is interest in other sports too. And it’s bringing the confidence in the juniors to perform well. They believe if I can do it, they can do it too. In India, we already have six or seven of them who can throw over 80m. And there are two or three more of them who threw over 80m this year. So the interest in javelin has picked up in India. Hopefully in the next ten years, other javelin throwers from India will join me in the Diamond League, World Championship or Olympics,” he added.So how does he manage to keep laser-sharp focus on his career? “Training is like healing for me. I feel really good when I’m training,” said the lad from Panipat.“After my Olympic gold many people know me now, so the biggest challenge for me is to focus on my training and competitions. That’s really the tough part for me. So for me to manage all this attention and also compete on a bigger stage in the world is difficult.”Today, Chopra launches his Diamond League defence at the Suheim Bin Hamad Stadium, with a star-studded field hoping to seal the limelight from him. An important and packed 14 months awaits the Indian as he defends his Asian Games and Olympics title, while also hoping to upgrade his Worlds silver into gold in Budapest.His first test awaits in Doha, where Chopra will be up against two-time world champion Anderson Peters and Olympic silver medallist Jakub Vadlejch. Peters threw 93.07m to win in Doha last year in a thrilling competition with Vadlejch, who set a PB of 90.88m.Chopra, who extended his national record to 89.94m last year and was incredibly consistent in the high 80s, hopes to join the coveted 90m club in Doha. From Thomas Rohler’s 93.90m in 2017 to Peters’ 93.07m last season, Doha has a rich history of record-breaking throws.“This is my first competition of the season. It’s always good when you have great competitors,” Chopra said yesterday. “Vadlejch has already thrown 88.38m in Potchefstroom (South Africa, on April 18), so I think tomorrow will see great competition. Also, Doha is famous for 90m throws. So we will see, hopefully tomorrow will have great results for all,” added Chopra.Chopra is returning to Doha after five years. In the 2018 Diamond League, he finished fourth with 87.43m, while he missed the 2019 Worlds as he was recovering from elbow injury.

Nasser Saleh al-Attiyah poses with the Dakar Rally trophy during a felicitation function in Lusail.
Rally great al-Attiyah targets Paris Olympics gold in shooting

‘That’s my second major goal. I have started preparing for Paris andwill continue to get ready for the challenge. Paris Games will be my 7th Olympics.It’s not easy, but this year we will have a lot of preparation.We will have a two-month training camp in Italy. Having cemented his place as one of the all-time greats after his fifth Dakar Rally victory last week, Nasser Saleh al-Attiyah is in no mood to stop.The 52-year-old racing legend, who is also equally good at shooting, has set his sights on winning gold at the Paris Olympics next year. Al-Attiyah has an Olympics bronze in skeet from the London Games in 2012. Now, the Qatari ace wants to stand on top of the podium in Paris, in what will be his seventh Olympics. With his unbreakable resolve, it would not be a surprise if he goes on to add another feat to his illustrious career. “That’s my second major goal. I have started preparing for Paris and will continue to get ready for the challenge. Paris Games will be my 7th Olympics,” al-Attiyah said, in one of the many felicitations functions held in his honour after his return from Dakar triumph.Al-Attiyah is an once-in-a-lifetime athlete, having shown his world class abilities in two different sports concurrently for over a decade. Admittedly, shooting is his second love as he devotes most of his time to racing. And al-Attiyah knows medalling at Olympics, that too gold, would be a gigantic challenge.“It’s not easy, but this year we will have a lot of preparation. We will have a two-month training camp in Italy and then we will take part in the Asian Games, Asian Championships and the Arab Championships to continue our practice. Then next year we will focus more for the Olympic Games,” he noted.Matching Ari Vatanen’s tally of Dakar wins put him in the same bracket as Dakar legends, but number five sets al-Attiyah apart as the second-most successful driver in the car category behind Stephane Peterhansel – who has eight.In the unforgiving Saudi terrain over a fortnight, al-Attiyah showed his tactical acumen as well his mastery behind the wheels even as his main rivals tumbled one by one. Al-Attiyah’s team principal at Toyota Gazoo Racing Glyn Hall summed up the Qatari character perfectly recently. “There are so many different elements of Nasser,” Hall said. “He is tough. I think the softest part of Nasser is his teeth!”For al-Attiyah though, it is all about determination and willingness to stay on top of his game – whether it may be racing or shooting. “I love my sport and I always try to be on top,” the soft-spoken al-Attiyah says with his trademark smile. “Hard work is a result of where I am now. There is no other way to achieve success. I am thankful to Qatar (government) for all the support I get for my sport. I always look to do best for my country,” he says modestly.“When I see everyone around me, it’s a nice feeling. I always dream and work to be the number one to raise the Qatar flag. You have to be strong in the things you know and enjoy it. If you love to do something, do it properly, this is what I am trying to do and getting success. I get a lot of support from everyone here in Qatar and the Middle East also which keeps me going. This is a really nice, nice feeling. I will try to do my best to be the number one and raise the Qatar flag in the world.”Al-Attiyah aims to break the record of eight titles in the car category held by Frenchman Peterhansel. “I am really setting this target. The target to break the record for eight titles. I have won five now and I have a long mission. I hope I will be able to achieve the target. Inshallah, I will try my best to keep going in this class,” he said.Al-Attiyah, who also has 18 Middle East titles, will be seen in the Oman International Rally next week. “I am looking forward to winning in Oman as we are aiming to win the Middle East Championship title again. I am ready for the challenge,” he said.

Gulf Times
Qatar march into Arabian Gulf Cup semis

Substitute Tamim Mansour's slick 88th minute equaliser sent Qatar into the semi-finals of the 25th Arabian Gulf Cup after a 1-1 draw with the United Arab Emirates in Basra, Iraq, Friday.The three-time champions were heading for exit after Fabio De Lima scored for the UAE in the 76th minute at the Al Minaa Olympic Stadium. With Kuwait holding Bahrain 1-1 in another Group B match, Qatar needed to match that result and Mansour turned out to be their saviour as the forward found the net with two regulation minutes remaining.Tamim’s strike was a reminiscent of what his legendary father Mansour Muftah had done in the inaugural Gulf Cup in 1979, which was also hosted by Iraq. Muftah had scored Qatar’s lone goal against the UAE and 44 years later his son matched his father’s feat against the same opponent and in the same country.Tamim, who made his debut for Qatar in the tournament opener against Kuwait last week, has come through Al Rayyan youth system just like his father. Friday, the 20-year-old made the deftest of touches off a cross from Homam al-Amin to put it past the UAE goalkeeper Khalid Essa with his teammates mobbing Tamim to celebrate his maiden senior goal.With Kuwait unable to beat Group B toppers Bahrain in another game, Qatar held on for 10 minutes stoppage time to seal a place in the semi-finals against hosts Iraq on Monday. Defending champions Bahrain will face Oman in another semi-final on the same day.After two successive defeats, the UAE needed to win by two clear goals and hope Bahrain beat Kuwait. But with a solitary point from three fixtures, the UAE finished bottom of the group.Rodolfo Arruabarrena's side made a bright start but were undone by poor finishing, including a missed penalty from Caio Canedo in the 66th minute. Qatar though had the best chance in the first half added time but striker Yusuf Abdurisag shot over the bar.The UAE had an opening when Amro Siraj fouled Walid Abbas as the UAE captain was poised to shoot. But Caio’s penalty kick hit the post, much to the relief of Qatar players. Caio, though, played a key role in his team’s goal as the striker’s cross was volleyed home by De Lima.As the UAE searched for the second goal, Tamim’s strike broke their hearts as Qatar’s young squad kept their country’s hopes of a fourth Gulf Cup title alive.Qatar's Portuguese coach Bruno Pinheiro praised the players for fighting it till the end. “We performed well, especially during the first half, when we enjoyed maximum possession. We created many opportunities, but lacked the finishing touch. We deserved to qualify for the semis. I am proud of the players,” he said.“The match was difficult. Qatar Football Association’s vision is to give young players the opportunity in this tournament and in front of full stadiums. And the players have responded well, absorbed pressure and put in an excellent performance. We are excited to face Iraq in the semis. This is my first visit to this country and I am surprised by the hospitality we have received here,” he added.Earlier, Bahrain and Kuwait played out a gripping 1-1 at the packed Basra International Stadium. Mahdi al-Humaidan put Bahrain ahead in the 26th minute before Shabib al-Khaldi scored the equaliser 19 minutes later.

Iraq coach Casas at a press conference.
After decades of upheaval, Gulf Cup returns to Iraq

Forty four years after Iraq staged the inaugural Arabian Gulf Cup in 1979, the country will host the 25th edition of the tournament in the southern port city of Basra from today. Iraq has gone through turbulent times in the last few decades with war, invasions and instability making it impossible for its own team to play at home, let alone host a major sport event.Hence, the Gulf Cup, which was initially set to take place in December 2022 but was postponed as it was believed to be scheduled too close to the World Cup in Qatar, will be a big test for the government and football officials to show Iraq is a safe place.Decades of conflict and upheaval in Iraq means the security situation remains fragile as it has not hosted a competitive international since before the 2003 US-led invasion. In fact, in the past two decades, just two qualifiers have taken place in the country: against Jordan in Erbil in 2011 and Hong Kong in Basra eight years later.Murals and huge billboards have adorned the streets of Basra in the past one month with Iraqi authorities scrapping visa fees for fans entering Iraq for the competition. The move seeks to attract fans from across the Gulf region, particularly Kuwait, whose border with Iraq lies less than 50 kilometers from Basra. Ninety percent of the tickets have been sold electronically with Iraq Football Association (IFA) promising an opening ceremony that will showcase Iraq’s rich history.Eight teams from West Asia, including two-time champions Qatar, are split into two groups with the tournament to be played at two venues: Basra International Stadium and the new 30,000-seater Al Minaa Olympic Stadium. Today, Iraq open the championship when they take on Oman, followed by Yemen facing Saudi Arabia in Group A matches. Qatar, which has sent a young team after the World Cup debacle at home, will start their campaign against 10-time winners Kuwait tomorrow, with defending champions Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates the other teams in Group B.Iraq wants to take a leaf out of Qatar’s successful hosting of the World Cup in November and December. “Sports has become one of the most important activities in the world... of transmitting cultures and civilisations through hosting tournaments and competitions, and this is what we witnessed in Qatar’s organisation of the 2022 World Cup,” head of the competitions committee of the IFA Haider Aufi told the local media.“It is a step forward to retain Iraq’s normal position in the fields of sport, culture and society,” added Basra Governor Asaad Al Eidani. “It is a message to the whole world that we are capable.”The Iraqi ministry of transport announced in late December that free transportation for the Gulf Cup fans in Basra, while the country’s Prime Minister Mohamed Shia’ al-Sudani visited the tournament city to check on the preparations instructing officials to “spare no effort’ in hosting the regional competition in a befitting manner.On the pitch, the Lions of Mesopotamia will be eyeing their third title. The team had a disappointing final round of World Cup qualification last year and there have been a string of coaches who have come and gone.Jesus Casas – who worked as an assistant coach for Spain under Luis Enrique between 2018 and 2022 – is the latest to don the managerial hat for Iraq. Casas has called up players with plenty of experience in Hussein Ali, Dhurgam Ismail, Amjad Attwad and Gothenburg midfielder Amir al-Ammari.“I can sense the importance of the Gulf Cup from the enthusiastic interest of the Iraqi fans,” Casas said on Thursday. “We will spare no effort to win the title. We are proud to play in front of the fans and this will help us greatly. We hope that we will be as ambitious as the fans,” the 49-year-old added.Oman’s Croatian coach Branko Ivankovic called the tournament a ‘mini World Cup for Gulf teams. “We go into the tournament with very high ambitions. There are strong teams competing here, especially Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Oman has a young team and the tournament is a good opportunity to give them experience in facing strong teams, to build the future of Omani football,” he said.

Emiliano Martinez won the World Cup’s Golden Glove award for the most clean sheets with three. (AFP)
Emiliano Martinez, a dreamer battles the odds to be a World Cup winner

It’s time for Emiliano Martinez and Argentina to send a thank you note to Neal Maupay. If not for Brighton striker accidentally inflicting a season-ending injury on Arsenal goalkeeper Bernd Leno in June 2020, Martinez would have still been a peripheral figure let alone a world champion.Maupay’s challenge on Leno was so bad that the German had to be stretchered off and was subsequently ruled out for three months. That opened a passage for Martinez, whose career was going in the wrong direction. The Argentine had arrived at Arsenal from Independiente in 2010 but a decade later at the North London club, Martinez had only made six league and two Champions League appearances.When he came as a substitute to Leno, it was his first Premier League appearance for three years having spent time out on loan at Oxford United, Sheffield Wednesday, Rotherham, Wolves, Getafe and Reading. Martinez had admitted how he had spent time with a psychologist to keep his morale high during his low points.And when an opportunity presented itself, Martinez grabbed it with both hands. He could not prevent Brighton from winning in his 50 minutes appearance as Maupay scored the winner five minutes into added time, but helped Arsenal to FA Cup and FA Community Shield triumph.In three months’ time, his stock had risen as Martinez moved to fellow Premier League club Aston Villa in a transfer worth £20mn. In his first season at the club, he kept a club record 15 clean sheets in the Premier League, with Argentina head coach Lionel Scaloni handing him an international debut on June 3, 2021 in a friendly against Chile.Scaloni had played seven different goalkeepers in his first 49 games in charge before settling on Martinez as first choice. And he has justified that trust in him as he came through in the big moments in Argentina’s march to third title in Qatar.There was the last-gasp save against Australia, shootout heroics against France and the Netherlands, and a stretching stop to deny Randal Kolo Muani deep into stoppage time of extra time in the final. The 30-year-old walked away with World Cup’s Golden Glove award for most clean sheets with three, like he did in La Albiceleste’s Copa America triumph in Brazil last summer.Martinez’s consistency in big moments is borne out by the statistics. Including Sunday’s World Cup final, Martinez has kept 17 clean sheets and conceded just 13 goals (excluding penalty shootouts) in 26 appearances for his country.In the penalty shootouts against France and the Netherlands, Martinez’s domineering antics played a key role. On Sunday, Martinez failed to stop three penalties off Kylian Mbappe, including one in the shootout, but the Argentine saved Kingsley Coman’s effort before Aurelian Tchouameni fired wide, leaving Gonzalo Montiel to convert the winning penalty.Apart from being strong in defending crosses, Martinez is known for his penalty-saving ability and playing mind games to unsettle spot kick-takers. He was crucial to Argentina throughout their World Cup campaign, both in open play and at set pieces, but he was at another level in shootouts.As Tchouameni walked up for his turn on Sunday, Martinez rolled the ball away from the Real Madrid midfielder, forcing him to have to walk over to collect it. An under-pressure Tchouameni dragged his penalty wide, as Martinez celebrated with a dance. His verbal warfare with French players and his delaying tactics earned him a yellow card, but the 6ft 5in would care less.In Martinez’s three penalty shootouts for Argentina, opponents have scored only seven times from 14 attempts, a conversion rate of 50 per cent. Lionel Messi had called him a “phenomenon” after his penalty shootouts heroics against Colombia in Copa America semi-finals, with coach Scaloni joining his captain in praising the goalkeeper. “Emi Martinez is a very positive guy and told his teammates he was going to save some penalties,” revealed Scaloni.After Argentina’s historic win, an emotional Martinez – who is fondly called as Dibu by his teammates after an animated character in the Argentine telenovela Mi familia es un dibujo, said: “We suffered a lot. We thought we were in control but they managed to come back. It was a very complicated game. Our destiny was to suffer. They had one last chance to win, luckily I was able to stop it with my foot. This is a moment I’ve always dreamed of living, I have no words for it. I left very young for England and I would like to dedicate this victory to my family.”“I did my thing, what I dreamed of,” Martínez said of his shootout trickery. “There could not have been a World Cup that I have dreamed of like this. I was calm during the penalties.”Martinez’s gamesmanship and his lewd celebration with the Golden Glove award after the final may have won him few fans, but there is no denying that the goalkeeper was the ultimate difference-maker in Argentina’s triumph.

From left: Argentina’s Enzo Fernandez, Argentina’s Lionel Messi, Argentina’s Emiliano Martinez and France’s Kylian Mbappe pose after being awarded the Best Young Player, Golden Ball, Golden Glove and Golden Boot, respectively. (Reuters)
Messi the hero as Argentina win World Cup Qatar 2022

Lionel Messi finally has his Diego Maradona moment and make a claim to be the greatest ever to play the game. The Argentina superstar laid his hand on his holy grail – a World Cup title – that had eluded him until last night, which came after a dramatic 4-2 shootout victory in the final against France in what was a fitting end to the Qatar 2022.On an epic night at the Lusail Stadium there were plenty of twists and turns – not least from Messi and Kylian Mbappe – with arguably the finest World Cup final ever decided on penalties.When it was finally over after Gonzalo Montiel had converted the winning penalty to give Argentina its third title and first since 1986, Messi had lived through many emotions.It was a fairytale end to Messi’s World Cup Odyssey. Clearly, it was written in the stars for Messi, even after the most stunning of France comebacks inspired by a terrific Mbappe.As France, bidding to become the first team to win back-to-back World Cups since Brazil achieved the feat in 1962, made a laboured start, Argentina played with passion and intensity. Messi put his side in front in the 23rd minute scoring a penalty with ease before contributing to a second goal which was a team creation of a beauty finished off by Angel Di Maria.As Argentina dominated with no sign of France fightback, Messi ambled across the pitch for most of the match. The 35-year-old’s memory must have wandered to his time at Rosario, his hometown in Argentina, where he grew up dreaming of winning a World Cup medal.But a double whammy in the space of 97 seconds from Mbappe after 80th minute – a penalty followed by a thunderous volley – changed the complexion of the game and put Messi’s lifelong dream in threat.Les Bleus manager manager Didier Deschamps made two substitutions before half-time, replacing Olivier Giroud and Ousmane Dembele with Marcus Thuram and Randal Kolo Muani and both young stars provided the fuel for Mbappe to fire.Suddenly, Argentina were in danger of losing a final which they pretty much had under control as Mbappe looked unstoppable. But it needed an intervention from French captain and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris to take the game to extra time after he tipped a Messi shot over the bar.It would have been a perfect ending to the final if Messi’s magical left foot had curled the ball into the net, but it was his least admired right foot that gave Argentina the spark in the extra time.After substitute Lautaro Martinez’s strike was saved by Lloris, Messi pounced on the rebound with a desperate last-ditch save from a France defender in vain.In the 1986 final, Maradona had made an assist to Jorge Burruchaga for the winning goal against West Germany and Messi looked to have gone one better than his legendary compatriot in what looked like a winning strike.But the drama extended after Mbappe’s fierce shot was blocked by the arm of Montiel to win another penalty in the 117th minute. Messi looked the other away as his Paris Saint-Germain teammate calmly dispatched to secure an hat-trick – the first in a World Cup final since Sir Geoff Hurst did it for England against West Germany in 1966 – and a tournament-topping eighth goal.It set up a wild finish in front of a 88,966 spectators, mostly made up of Argentina’s blue and white stripes, as both sides came agonisingly close. Lautaro Martinez was denied by last-ditch Dayot Upamecano interventions, while Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez made a stretching save of his life after a one-on-one from Kolo Muani. Mbappe then made an outrageous dribble past two defenders in the box before he was stopped by the third.And so it went to penalties, with Mbappe and Messi converting theirs. Aston Villa goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez – who had made two stunning saves against the Netherlands in the quarter-finals – palmed away Kingsley Coman’s spot kick, before Aurelian Tchouameni shot wide.Then it was left for Montiel to seek a redemption after extra-time handball and the left-back kept his nerves to put the ball to Lloris’ right. As Montiel heaved a huge sigh of relief, Messi collapsed to his knees in the centre circle and was engulfed by his jubilant teammates.After the weight of the world visibly lifted off his shoulders, Messi, joined by his wife and three sons, celebrated with the trophy and his second Golden Ball award for best player of the tournament, before vowing to continue playing for his country despite realising his lifetime ambition.“I want to keep experiencing a few more matches as world champion,” Messi told an Argentine television.Later France boss Deschamps suggested that the virus which laid low several of his players in the run-up to the final was partly to blame for their poor performance over the first hour.“There were many reasons which explained why we were not as good. Several important players had less energy but bringing on younger players with less experience but plenty of freshness and quality allowed us to keep dreaming.“But unfortunately the dream did not come true,” said Deschamps, who was in his third World Cup final after he won it in 1998 as Les Bleus’ captain and then four years ago as their coach.

Argentina’s Lionel Messi during a training a session at Qatar University Training Site 3 in Doha yesterday, on the eve of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 final against France. (Reuters)
Messi seeks elusive glory as France target encore

In 2016, Lionel Messi was left a broken man. The comparison to his legendary compatriot Diego Maradona, who led Argentina to the World Cup title in 1986, had followed him like a shadow ever since he burst onto the scene and the burden of it was clearly showing on him.But it was the defeat to Chile in the 2016 Copa America final on penalties – where he missed the target – had left Messi deflated. By then he had already played in three World Cups, lost twice in the quarter-finals and once in the final. Then came the sucker punch against Chile, which was his fourth consecutive failure at the Copa America. Being a beaten finalist for a third time in South America’s premier competition, he couldn’t take it anymore as he tearfully announced his retirement from Argentina duties.But, five days later, when the raw emotions had dissipated he reversed his impulsive decision upon reflection. Six years later, that change of heart from Messi – one of the greatest to have ever played the game – has taken him to the cusp of a World Cup title that he has craved for his entire life.When he finally won his maiden title with Argentina – the nation’s first trophy since 1993 – beating Brazil in the Copa America last year, a huge weight seemed to have lifted from Messi’s shoulders. At Qatar 2022, in what surely is his last World Cup, the 35-year-old has dazzled like only he can as he has taken Argentina to their sixth final, where they will face holders France at the Lusail Stadium today.Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni and his French counterpart Didier Deschamps insisted yesterday that the final was not about Messi himself or his battle with PSG teammate Kylian Mbappe, who at 23 could become the youngest player to win two World Cups since Pele achieved the feat at the age of 21.But it’s hard to ignore the impact the two have had over their respective teams at this World Cup, particularly Messi. The Argentina superstar has played six games in Qatar and he has been man of the match in four of them, having scored five times and made three assists.Argentina’s shock defeat to Saudi Arabia in their opening match on November 22 at the very stadium where they will play the final today seems a distant memory. Messi has played like a man liberated of any pressure, while his teammates have played for him – even belting out a celebratory song in his honour on the team bus after each victory.Former Argentina centre-back Mauricio Pochettino and Messi’s former coach at PSG said in a column yesterday that his country’s run to the final has one important characteristic. “The Argentina players fully understand their jobs: when you have Messi in your team, you need to run for him. And when you have the ball, you need to give it to him as soon as possible so that he can create something. So the players know what they need to do in every single moment, to give Messi everything he needs to be decisive, like he was on Tuesday night against Croatia,” Pochettino wrote in seems the stars are aligning for Messi to win a world title and coach Scaloni is making everything possible to make it a perfect World Cup odyssey for his former teammate. Scaloni made key changes after the Saudi defeat and had the courage to bring in youngsters Enzo Fernandez and Julian Alvarez, who have been brilliant since.He has also made crucial changes to his system, using three defenders against the Netherlands in the quarter-finals and three holding-midfielders to neutralise Croatia great Luka Modric in the semi-finals.After Argentina booked their ticket to the final with a 3-0 win against Croatia, Messi confirmed today would be his last game for his country. Scaloni said that made it an even bigger match for his team and his country: “Let’s hope that if it’s Leo’s (Messi) last game, that we can win the title. It would be great and the important thing is to enjoy it... What better scenario than in a World Cup final.”Even French coach Deschamps, whose team has been battered by viral flu on the eve of the final, was aware the football romantics all over the world want Messi to lift the football’s biggest silverware today but was keen to make it another night of agony for the Argentine.“Not the only one in the world, no. I am often alone, but I like being alone,” said Deschamps, who will be in his third World Cup final after he won it in 1998 as Les Bleus’ captain and then four years ago as their coach.“The most important thing when preparing for a game like this one is to be calm, and of course, a final, any final, especially a World Cup final, there is the game and there is the particular context. But of course, the goal of a final is to win another trophy. But I know the whole of Argentina and maybe some French people too, would like to see Messi win. But we don’t really agree with that, so we are going to do everything we can to get what we want,” he added.Deschamps said France have not been overly troubled by the virus that has hit several players including defenders Dayot Upamecano, Ibrahima Konate, Raphael Varane, midfielder Adrien Rabiot and forward Kingsley Coman.The virus scare threatens to derail France’s bid to become the first team to win back-to-back World Cups since Brazil achieved the feat in 1962 but with all 24 members of the squad in attendance for the training session yesterday, Deschamps was hopeful it would not impact his team’s performance today.“We try to take the maximum precautions, to adapt and to deal with it, without going overboard. It is obviously a situation. If it could not exist it would be better, but we manage as best we can,” Deschamps said.France have shown they can adapt to any kind of team, which could be a big asset against Argentina, who have tested out several systems during the World Cup. “You have to be willing to suffer at times. You have to make the most of the good situations, too,” said captain Hugo Lloris.“Tomorrow there will be a game plan to respect. We are still studying this team and preparing for this big game. There are always things we are not prepared for. To face that we need a perfect mindset, to be ready to go above and beyond. We know that we are capable of playing with possession and on the counter-attack. We have a lot of fast players offensively. The strength of our team is that we can adapt to any type of scenario.”

France’s defender Theo Hernandez strikes the ball to score his team’s first goal past Morocco’s goalkeeper Yassine Bounou during the Qatar 2022 World Cup semi-final against Morocco at the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor yesterday. (AFP)
It’s France vs Argentina in the world cup final

It was as if the whole of Morocco had descended into Al Bayt Stadium last night. The ear-bleeding whistles from the partisan Moroccan fans every time France had the ball or the jeers when Kylian Mbappe was stopped in his tracks would ring in the ears of the 68,294 spectators for years to come. So would Walid Regragui’s side’s historic run to the semi-finals of the Qatar World Cup that will inspire many in the African and Arab world.Coach Regragui had called for that ‘crazy’ run to continue and boy did they give it a good shot. In the end, Morocco’s giant killing act was ended by a wily France, with the holders booking their second successive place in the final where they face Argentina at the Lusail Stadium on Sunday.Theo Hernandez’s acrobatic volley in the fifth minute had given France a perfect start, but Morocco were not going to cave in that easily. But too many missed opportunities and injuries to key defenders was always going to make it a steep climb for them. And when substitute Kolo Muani scored with his first touch in the 79th minute, Morocco knew their glorious run would come to an end.At the final whistle there was relief in the French camp, but it was tears from the Moroccan players and from the fans in the stands that was the telling moment of the second semi-final. While France will be chasing history – to become the first country to retain the World Cup for 60 years following Brazil’s triumphs in 1958 and 1962 – Morocco know they have inspired generations to come.The Atlas Lions’ marauding run to the semi-finals, where they defeated European powerhouses Belgium, Spain and Portugal, is the story for the ages to come. They can still go on to create more history though as they aim to become the first African and Arab side to finish third at a World Cup, when then they take on another beaten semi-finalists Croatia in the play-off at the Khalifa International Stadium on Saturday.“We gave the maximum, that’s the most important,” said Morocco coach Regragui. “We had some injuries, we lost Nayef Aguerd in the warm-up, Romain Saiss, Noussair Mazraoui at halftime. We paid for the slightest mistake. We didn’t get into the game well, we had too much technical waste in the first half, and the second goal killed us, but that doesn’t take away everything we did before.”It was a nervy and hard-fought win for France, who were pushed all the way by the Moroccans backed by their vociferous crowd. Didier Deschamps had spoken about how his players would have to shut out the noise and Hernandez did exactly that when he powered France ahead.With key defender Nayef Aguerd ruled out of the match after he was named in the starting line-up, Morocco’s backline took time to settle with the French taking advantage of it.Antoine Griezmann picked out Mbappe, who missed with his first strike as Moroccan defenders swarmed him but the ball took a deflection and fell into Hernandez. The left-back volleyed with his left foot from the far post as Morocco conceded for only the second time in the tournament – the first was an own goal against Canada in the group stage.It looked like they were in for a hammering when Mbappe had captain Romain Saiss in his mercy on the left flank and Olivier Giroud hit the post once and struck his next shot inches wide. Saiss, who had to be substituted after suffering a hamstring injury in the quarter-finals against Portugal, was clearly unfit and looked a liability before he was replaced by Selim Amallah just after 20 minutes.Morocco, though were not going down without a fight as Azzedine Ounahi forced Hugo Loris to dive to his left and make a save, while Hakim Ziyech shot wide. Morocco, who had gone behind for the first time in the tournament, enjoyed the possession and had completed more passes in the first 30 minutes last night than they did in the entire game against Portugal.They were unfortunate to not have been awarded a penalty when Sofiane Boufal was fouled by Hernandez, instead the referee inexplicably showed the Moroccan a yellow card. While they went into halftime a goal behind, Morocco looked the stronger team as Lloris got a hand to Jawad El Yamiq’s overhead kick which hit the post.After the break, the North Africans launched wave after wave attacks with Liverpool defender Ibrahima Konate, playing instead of unwell Dayot Upamecano, preserving France’s lead with some crucial blocks.While Moroccans wasted a few golden opportunities – with an off-colour Youssef En-Nesyri guilty on a couple of occasions. France kept their composure just like they did against England in their quarter-finals. And when Mbappe’s shot deflected into the path of Eintracht Frankfurt forward Muani, who slid the ball into the net, it was the end of Morocco’s resistance and a second successive place in the final for France.“There’s emotion, there’s pride, there’s going to be a final step, we’ve been together with the players for a month, it’s never easy, there’s happiness so far,” said a smiling coach Didier Deschamps.

France’s Olivier Giroud celebrates scoring his team’s second goal during the Qatar 2022 quarter-final against England at the Al Bayt Stadium yesterday. (AFP)
Bleus for Three Lions

Harry Kane turned into a villain from hero within a matter of thirty minutes. The England captain had shown nerves of steel while converting his first penalty of the night to bring his side back into the game, but blazed his next one into the lower tier of the Al Bayt Stadium – where a shell shocked English supporters watched in horror – to send holders France into the semi-finals of the World Cup.Kane was the standout English player on the pitch till his 83rd-minute missed penalty crushed Three Lions hopes of a second title since 1966. Kane had earlier cancelled out Aurelien Tchouameni’s first-half strike, before Oliver Giroud put France back in front with a header that deflected off defender Harry Maguire in the 78th minute.Five minutes later, England were given a way back into the game after Theo Hernandez’s needless shove on Mason Mount in the box resulted in a second penalty of the night. With history weighing on his mind as he went for his 53rd goal for England that would put him level with Wayne Rooney, Kane overshot his right footer as his Tottenham Hotspur teammate and French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris and his teammates celebrated the decisive miss.France, who take on surprise semi-finalists Morocco on Wednesday at the same venue, were hardly the better team – especially in the second half – as England enjoyed larger possession and had 16 shots on target, six more than their opponents. But when presented with a goal-scoring opportunity, France were clinical and now will be favourites to reach their second successive final.England manager Gareth Southgate felt the result was harsh on his players.“Our performance deserved better. Goals are decisive, but I’ve just said to the players, I don’t think they could have given any more. I think they played really well against a top team,” he said.“There are fine margins, things at both ends that have ended up deciding the game, but the way the players have progressed as a group through this tournament has been fantastic. In most of the big moments we were in the right place. We had more shots on goal. But it’s a game of fine margins.”Kylian Mbappe, who was touted to be the danger man for France, was uncharacteristically quiet as the forward failed to add to his tournament highest tally of five goals. Antoine Griezmann was the livewire on the field for France. The Atletico Madrid star has been a revelation in his new role as deep lying midfielder in Qatar, and he once again pulled the strings for his team last night.England though had the best of chances as Kane forced Lloris to make a couple of crucial saves. But France surged ahead after Tchouameni’s brilliant drive from the 25 yards that beat Jordan Pickford low to his right. England players were unhappy with the goal after Bukayo Saka was clattered by Dayot Upamecano moments before but Brazilian referee Wilton Sampaio stuck to his decision.Few minutes later England and their fans were left incensed after Sampaio ignored the call for a penalty as Kane went down after a tackle from Upamecano. A minute into the second half though, England earned their penalty after Tchouameni’s clumsy foul on Saka as the Arsenal star weaved past the French defence.Kane confidently put the ball past Lloris into the top corner as England looked the better team with Jude Bellingham forcing Loris to tip his strike over. Saka and Kane too tried their luck from outside the box but it was Maguire’s header off the cross which brushed the post that came back to haunt England.France’s forward Olivier Giroud was a constant threat in the box and was denied a near certain goal when Pickford made a point-blank reflex save. But in the resulting corner, France regained the lead 12 minutes from time when Giroud headed in Antoine Griezmann’s perfect cross.England, desperate for the equaliser, brought in Mount and Sterling and they had a chance to take the game into extra time when Hernandez fouled Mount. With former star David Beckham nervously watching from the stands, it looked all safe as Kane stepped up to take the penalty but the Spurs striker’s wild kick landed among the crowd as England’s long wait for their second world title will continue for another four years.As another substitute Marcus Rashford blazed his free kick way over Lloris in what was the last action of the match, Kane looked to the sky recounting the moment that will haunt him forever.Southgate said the ‘incredible’ and ‘reliable’ Kane was not to be blamed for the loss. “For me, we win and lose as a team. We’ve let a couple of goals in, and missed a few chances. So he’s been incredible for us, so reliable in those sorts of situations. We wouldn’t be here but for the number of goals he’s scored for us,” he said.

Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates as Argentina progress to the semi-finals. (Reuters)
Messi’s Argentina go through on penalties after dramatic Dutch comeback

A magical assist and a penalty from Lionel Messi had appeared to have put Argentina in the semi-finals of the World Cup before Netherlands’ Wout Weghorst’s late brace ripped open the dramatic quarter-final as the hotly-contested clash went into penalties. Thankfully for Messi, goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez’s heroics kept his dream of winning the elusive World Cup alive as Argentina edged the Netherlands 4-3 in the shootout. Martinez made brilliant saves off Virgil van Dijk and Steven Berghuis – the first two of Netherlands’ spot kicks. Enzo Fernandez missed Argentina’s fourth penalty but Lautaro Martinez slammed the decisive kick into the net as the two-time champions set up a semi-final against Croatia, who had earlier in the night knocked out another South American giant Brazil. It was another penalty heartbreak for Dutch coach Louis van Gaal against Argentina, having also suffered the same fate at the same stage in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. For Messi, he would be hoping it will end on a different note this time - eight years after losing in the final against Germany. “Argentina are among the four best in the world because they show that they know how to play every game with the same desire and the same intensity,” Messi, 35, said after the match. “A lot of joy, a lot of happiness. We didn’t have to go to extra time or penalties, we had to suffer. But we got through and it’s impressive,” he added. What started with a tetchy and slow-paced first-half, the quarter-finals between the two traditional World Cup rivals burst into life with plenty of skirmishes in the second half that often spilled into the dugouts in front of an 88,235 vociferous crowd at Lusail Stadium. There were cynical fouls, deliberate handball and a shoving contest in itself with Argentina almost paying a costly price for losing their composure at the end of 90 plus 11 minutes of stoppage time. There were a total of 14 yellow cards shown by Spanish referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz on the night – including eight to Argentina players. Weghorst, who had brought the Netherlands back into the game with a towering header in the 83rd minute, took the game to extra time after converting a cleverly taken free kick, in what was the last action of the regulation time. Argentina threw the proverbial kitchen sink to find the winner, particularly in the second half of the extra time, but the match was destined to go into penalties. Even before the match began, Argentina fans were in high spirits. As tournament favourites Brazil crashed out of the World Cup after a harrowing loss to Croatia on penalties, a loud cheer went across the Lusail Stadium as the fans of Selecao’s arch-rivals Argentina celebrated wildly. But La Albiceleste fans reserved their loudest cheer after one of their very own created a moment of magic to put Argentina ahead against the Netherlands. After a drab opening 35 minutes, Messi brought the game to life with a brilliant pass, only he could envisage and execute it to perfection. The Argentina captain drove past the Dutch defenders before he slipped a pass into the box, where Nahuel Molina took a soft first touch and then slid it past goalkeeper Andries Noppert for his first international goal. It was a touch of genius from Messi - the vision to deliver the reverse pass and the impeccable timing to place it in the right spot, giving a glimpse of his legendary career in a nutshell. He would later also convert a penalty in the 73rd minute – his fourth goal of Qatar 2022 - after Marcos Acuna was brought down in the box by Denzel Dumfries. An Argentina vs Croatia semi-final looked a foregone conclusion, before Van Gaal threw his trump card Weghorst in the 78th minute. The Besiktas striker on loan from Burnley made an instant impression with a goal five minutes later as Argentina appeared to lose control of the game they were very much in command. It all went out of control for Messi and his men in 10 minutes of added time, as Argentina players committed plenty of fouls, including a reckless lunging challenge from Leandro Paredes on Nathan Ake that kicked off a melee. In the last minute of stoppage time, the Netherlands were awarded a free kick just outside the box, which Van Gaal’s men took full advantage of. With substitutes German Pezzella and Paredes marking Weghorst on the edge of the box for a header, another late Dutch substitute Teun Koopmeiners cleverly slid the ball to his teammate while pretending to go for a free kick. Weghorst, who took the ball with his left foot, swivelled into the far corner. As the Netherlands players, both on and off the field, celebrated wildly, Messi cut a distraught figure. Fortunately for him, Martinez was at his absolute best to keep his teammates’ long-cherished dream alive. The heartbreaking loss at Lusail Stadium was the first for Netherlands in 20 matches. The loss brought an end to 71-year-old Van Gaal’s third spell as coach. “We practised on penalties all year and then you screw it up,” Van Gaal said. “That’s a pity. As a coach, I want to have everything under control. That is why I asked the players to take a penalty at their club, they all did. If you miss two, you won’t win anymore. You simply cannot simulate such a series.”

Argentina’s forward Lionel Messi (left) and Angel di Maria take part in a training session at Qatar University in Doha yesterday, on the eve of the Qatar 2022 World Cup quarter-final against Netherlands. (AFP)
A classic on the cards

One of the two greatest careers will have a sad ending today at a World Cup as Argentina and the Netherlands square off in the quarter-finals.From the beginning the focus has been firmly on Lionel Messi, one of the greatest ever to have played the game. The Argentina superstar, playing in his fifth World Cup, has admitted Qatar will be his last tournament with his teammates and la Albiceleste’s passionate fan base rooting for him to lift a trophy that has eluded him all these years.At the other end today there is Louis van Gaal, the Dutch coach at 71 plotting his country’s first world title and giving himself a fitting farewell to his illustrious career. Then there is also the small matter of this game at the Lusail Stadium having all the trappings of becoming a classic.Eight years ago in Sao Paulo, Brazil, van Gaal saw a place in the final slip away after his side were beaten in penalties by Argentina in the semi-finals, adding to the pain of losing to the South Americans in the 1978 final.“I don’t like to think about it,” van Gaal had said earlier this week before adding, “We have a score to settle.”The two teams have made it to the quarters despite a huge question mark over their ability to go all the way. The Netherlands are one of the three unbeaten teams remaining in Qatar, but van Gaal’s conservative tactics – a departure from the traditional 4-3-3 the Dutch usually play – has come for criticism back home.Van Gaal has been a popular figure in Qatar – the oldest coach in the tournament. He has been swarmed by the international media for selfies after the press conferences, while he also gave a hug to a reporter from Senegal. But his home media have been less affirmative of his ways.Ahead of the Argentina game, van Gaal was not a happy man as he went on the offensive yesterday, defending his tactic of counter-attacking game rather than the all-out offensive approach he used to employ in his earlier coaching days.“I get the same question from you every time but you don’t understand that football is evolving,” he said.“It’s a lot harder now to play attacking football than it was 20 years ago when I was coach of Ajax. When I came up with that more defensive system in 2014 (at the World Cup in Brazil), I also received a lot of criticism but now half the world plays like that. Football has evolved towards it.“At this World Cup we see that the results are very tight, even between big teams and supposedly smaller countries, because compact defending is simply easier than attacking. But it’s not true if it seems we are only defending. I hope that is clear now,” said van Gaal, who has won more than 20 titles as a manager, working at clubs such as Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United.Van Gaal is confident his pragmatic approach can deliver the title to Netherlands, who have finished runner-up on three occasions on the big stage in 1974, 1978 and 2010.“We are also a country that has a chance to become world champions because I hope we are the best team,” said the veteran manager, who considers Brazil to be the top contenders.Every match Argentina has played at the World Cup in Qatar has turned itself into an occasion. Each time Messi and his teammates have had the ball at their feet or in the net, there is a sense of Buenos Aires having come to Doha.The support from la Albiceleste’s passionate fan base has been so overwhelming in the stadiums across Qatar, that travelling supporters have stayed back in the stands drumming and dancing, much after Argentina players have gone inside to the dressing room after the match.But like the Netherlands’, Argentina go into the quarters with not many convinced they have the depth to challenge for the title. The two-time champions bounced back admirably if not spectacularly after their opening game shock to Saudi Arabia. Driven by Messi, the team is devoted to their captain’s desire of a World Cup title but have not yet displayed the cutting edge a squad needs to possess to win a global showpiece event.Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni said his team was prepared to give 100% effort at the Lusail Stadium. “We know that our team will break their backs as we have done in previous games,” the 44-year-old, the youngest coach in Qatar said.“Sometimes we’ve played very well, sometimes not that well, but we have always stood up for ourselves and that’s the thing that our people value. We know that we will give it all on the pitch. We know that football sometimes can be very beautiful and sometimes it can be cruel.”Scaloni was guarded in response when asked if Angel di Maria would be available for today’s game. Forward Di Maria missed the last-16 victory over Australia due to a left thigh injury, Rodrigo De Paul’s is also reportedly not hundred percent.“In principle, they’re feeling well and we will see in today’s training and come up with a lineup,” he said.“Yesterday, we trained behind closed doors so I don’t know where this information is coming from ... (but) the team comes first, so if you’re out on the field, you must be fit so that you can help the team.”In the last two World Cup meetings between Argentina and Netherlands, in the group stage in 2006 and a semi-final in 2014 which the Albiceleste won on penalties, neither side was able to score a goal in normal or extra time.Scaloni said Argentina had been practising spot-kicks but hoped the match did not come down to a shootout.“They always take penalties before and after matches but it’s all about luck when it comes to the penalty shootout,” he said.“I hope we don’t get to the penalty shootout, we hope the match is over before that.”