FIFA 2021 Arab Cup Qatar Kicks Off In Spectacular Style
Qatar kicked off the 2021 Arab Cup last night, November 30th, with a spectacular opening ceremony. Attended by the Emir of Qatar, FIFA President Gianni Infantino, and a host of other dignitaries from Qatar and the twenty-three countries involved in the tournament, the opening celebrations were mesmerising on their own. With four starting matches and the inauguration of two of Qatar's new 2022 World Cup stadiums also in the offing, the competition's launch was an unforgettable experience.
The 2021 Arab Cup
The Arab Cup, a pan-Arab national teams football tournament, is not new; it was previously held, somewhat sporadically, under the Nations Cup title. However, the 2021 competition is the first under the FIFA umbrella of international tournaments.
The contest invites the best teams from Arab nations across Asia and Africa to compete in a battle for the Cup and the title of Arab Champions.
Twenty-three teams signed up to play in the 2021 tournament, but only sixteen remain after the initial qualification stage in June.
Qatar, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) qualified automatically for the tournament as the highest FIFA ranked Arab teams. Qualification was based on the April 2021 FIFA ranking, though Qatar also qualified as hosts. The remaining fourteen teams were whittled down to seven squads via the qualifiers contest. Those seven - Oman, Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain, Mauritania, Palestine and Sudan - join the top nine teams in the Group Stage, which began on the 30th.
The sixteen teams who qualified have been split into four groups of four:
GROUP A - Qatar, Iraq, Oman, Bahrain
GROUP B - Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Syria, Mauritania
GROUP C - Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Palestine
GROUP D - Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Sudan
Each group will play a round-robin of matches, from November 30th to December 7th, to decide on the top two teams. The eight winning teams from the Group Stage will advance to the quarter-finals - to be played out over December 10th and 11th.
The four winning quarter-finalists go through to a semi-finals bout on December 15th to contest a place in the final and a chance to be crowned champions of the Arab footballing world. The final will take place, as will the contest for third place, on December 18th - Qatar National Day.
The Opening Ceremony
The celebrations that kicked off the tournament were nothing short of magnificent. The festivities, held at Qatar's World Cup Al Bayt Stadium, were on a grand scale that included live performances, choreographed dancing, music and light shows, giant holographics, and a mind-blowing fireworks display. In front of a packed stadium audience, speeches welcoming fans, guests and visitors from all over the Arab world were given by His Highness the Amir and Gianni Infantino. Music stars from the region performed throughout, including a beautiful medley of the competition's twenty-three nation's anthems. A seventy-five piece orchestra and two hundred and twenty dancers accompanied many performances, providing a breathtaking spectacle for the thousands of fans seated in the tiers around and above the pitch. Much of the entertainment featured traditional Arabic themes, music, scenes and costumes. Guests at the launch were gifted tiny glowing lanterns in the classic regional design. As night fell, the little lanterns lit up the stands like stars. And, the pièce de résistance, a fireworks display that lit up the sky.
The opening ceremony was held prior to one of the four starting matches, a face-off between Qatar and Bahrain. The match was the first ever to be played on Qatar's brand new Al Bayt Stadium pitch and served as the inaugural fixture.
Al Bayt Stadium, constructed to resemble and perform like a traditional Bedouin tent, is the sixth World Cup stadium inaugurated before the 2022 World Cup. Located 46km north of Doha in Al Khor and with a 40,000 seat capacity, the stadium will host five Arab Cup matches, including the final.
On the same day, Stadium 974 was also inaugurated during another opening day match, a head-to-head between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Syria.
Stadium 974, built using 974 shipping containers to comprise the main body of the structure and operating as the first fully demountable stadium in FIFA World Cup history, is the seventh 2022 World Cup stadium to be inaugurated. Located on the coast near the Hammad International Airport and with a 40,000 seat capacity, the stadium will accommodate six matches, including one semi-final game and the third-place decider.
The final two matches of the day between Tunisia and Mauritania and Iraq and Oman were held in Ahmad bin Ali Stadium and Al Janoub Stadium, respectively. Both stadiums are part of Qatar’s FIFA World Cup stadium portfolio, and were built from scratch for the 2022 event. Al Janoub Stadium was inaugurated in May 2019 and Ahmed bin Ali in December 2020.
In all, the competition’s contesting teams will be hosted in six of Qatar's eight new World Cup Stadiums - Ahmad bin Ali, Al Bayt, Al Janoub, Al Thumama, Education City and Stadium 974.
Topping off the excitement of the competition's opening ceremony and the inauguration of two hotly anticipated World Cup stadiums, the four starting matches for Group A and B offered plenty of entertainment.
Tunisia vs Mauritania
One of Africa's top teams and ranked 29th in the world, Tunisia routed Mauritania 5-1 in the first Group B match of the day. Seifeddine Jaziri broke the deadlock in the 39th minute, a lead that was doubled three minutes later by teammate Ben Al Arbi. Jaziri slotted in another before the break to give the Tunisians a three-goal lead. Mauritania's Moulaye Bessam managed to pull one back in first-half stoppage time from a penalty shot, but another goal from Al Arbi six minutes into the second half and a 91st strike from Youssef Msakni gave Tunisia a comprehensive win.
Iraq vs Oman
Group A’s Iraq and Oman left the pitch on a 1-1 draw following their bout. After a goalless first half, Oman took the lead with a penalty strike from Salaah Al Yahyaei in the 78th minute of the game. The goal looked like it would give the Omanis the win, but a dramatic stoppage-time penalty goal from Iraq’s Hasan Abdulkareem meant both sides had to share the points from the match.
Qatar vs Bahrain
Host team Qatar took on rival neighbour and Group A opponent Bahrain following the opening ceremony at Al Bayt Stadium. Having not beaten Bahrain since a friendly match in 2002, the pressure was on. The Maroons rose to the challenge and delivered a tight 1-0 victory to the delight of the home crowd. Bahrain started the match well, narrowly missing a chance to open the scoring. However, Qatar responded with their own near-miss from Mohammed Waad in the 18th. They kept up the pace into the second half and controlled the majority of possession. Two further attempts from Ahmed Fathi and Almoez Ali missed their mark, but a cross from Ali Afif headed home by Abdulaziz Hatem broke the deadlock and took the win.
UAE vs Syria
Group B's Iraq dominated possession in their 2-1 match against Syria, scoring the winning two goals in the first half. Caio Canedo headed in the first of the two shots in the 24th minute, and Ali Saleh followed up with a strike six minutes later. Syria, who narrowly missed an opportunity early in the second half, pulled one back in the 60th, courtesy of Ward Alslamh. They almost drew level in the dying seconds, but Iraqi keeper Ali Khasif saved their shot.
December 1st will see Group C and D’s first tournament matches kick-off. Morocco will face Palestine at Al Janoub Stadium, Saudi Arabia will take on Jordan at Education City Stadium, Algeria will meet Sudan at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, and Egypt faces Lebanon at Al Thumama Stadium.
Following the first two matchdays, each team will have a further two opportunities to gain points and aim for the top two quarter-final qualifying slots in their respective groups.
Qatar faces Oman on December 3rd and Iraq on December 6th. They will need to hold their nerve to maintain their top spot in the group standings.
Benefits of the Arab Cup
The tournament begins a new era of competitive men's football across the Arab nations. Designed to ramp up competitive opportunities between African and Asian teams that may not usually face one another, it should raise the level of football across the field, pitting lower-ranked teams against top-ranked nations. It will also provide greater exposure for players on a global stage, increasing their opportunities at home and abroad. And, possibly most significantly, it will be an opportunity to unite Arab nations.
The 2021 tournament is also being heralded as a dress rehearsal for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. It will give hosts Qatar multiple opportunities to test drive their operational plans, tournament infrastructure and associated facilities, and a chance for the Qatari national team to test their mettle against some top-class competition. The Arab Cup will also build on the region's growing excitement for the World Cup, which is less than one year away.
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