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The Africa Cup of Nations is finally here, and after delays, disruptions and false rumors of cancelations, fans can finally settle down and watch some of the world’s best players face off over the next three weeks.
The profile of African players, especially those who play abroad, has never been higher, yet there is something about the competition that ensures even the most prominent of global stars end up attaining legendary status in their home countries with a successful continental showing.
The AFCON has often proved the perfect stage to showcase players to the world.
Arab teams have won the competition 12 times: Seven by Egypt, two by Algeria, with Morocco, Tunisia and Sudan weighing in with one each.
For today’s star Arab players, the feats of footballing predecessors will act as an inspiration.
Egypt, with seven title wins, remain in a league of their own in this competition, and the current generation of players will have big shoes to fill, with their predecessors having provided some of the competition’s most iconic teams and moments.
In the 1998 edition, Hossam Hassan lead Egypt to their fourth title, scoring seven goals on the way to glory in Burkina Faso.
Hassan has contributed to three of the Egypt’s seven titles, having been part of the squad that took the championship in 1986 at home and then crowning his international career with the AFCON 2006, also in Cairo.
Under the leadership of Hassan Shehata, it was Egypt’s fifth title and marked Hassan as the only player to win the competition 20 years apart.
Then there is Mohamed Aboutrika, who lead the Pharaohs to title wins in 2006 and 2008, when he scored the winning goal in the final against Cameroon.
It is arguable that Mohamed Salah has already overtaken all his countrymen to become Egypt’s — even the Arab world’s — greatest-ever player, thanks to his exploits with Liverpool in recent years.
Still, an AFCON eludes him, and putting that right could be one of the crowning moments of his astonishing career.
For Algerian legends, you cannot look past Rabah Madjer and Lakhdar Belloumi, who both scored and starred in their nation’s greatest win — the 2-1 victory over mighty West Germany at the 1982 World Cup in Spain.
Both ended up on 28 goals for Algeria as well, but it is their 1986 World Cup teammate Djamel Menad who scored four goals on the way to winning the 1990 AFCON title with a 1-0 win over Nigeria.
Riyad Mahrez was standout player of the 2019 edition, leading Algeria to a second title with a 1-0 win over Senegal in Cairo.
Now a single goal separates him from becoming the historical top scorer for his country in the tournament, and Belloumi’s record of six goals could well go in Cameroon.
Led by Hatem Trabelsi, Tunisia won their only AFCON title after beating Morocco 2-1 in 2004 on home soil. Trabelsi remains one of the most prominent players to have represented the Carthage Eagles, having excelled for Ajax Amsterdam, Manchester City and Al-Hilal in Riyadh.
If Tunisia’s current captain, Youssef Msakni, recovers from a positive COVID-19 test, he will lead his nation in an impressive seventh personal participation in the competition.
Moroccan hero Ahmed Firas, meanwhile, holds the rare distinction of taking part in his country’s lone AFCON triumph in 1976, as well as being their historical top scorer in the competition with six goals.
Today, Morocco’s star man is Paris Saint-Germain right-back Achraf Hakimi, who at only 23 has had a hugely successful career in Europe playing for Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Inter Milan before his move to the French capital.
Alongside Salah and Mahrez, he is one of the most recognizable African players in the world today and could end up being one of the stars of the tournament.
This edition of the Africa Cup of Nations will see a record seven Arab nations take part: Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Sudan, Mauritania and Comoros.
For one, or more, of their star player, immortality awaits.
MELBOURNE: World tennis No. 1 Novak Djokovic was back in practice hours after winning a court challenge to remain in Australia on Monday, thanking the judge who released him from immigration detention and saying he remained focused on his bid for a record 21st Grand Slam win in Melbourne.
The fight over his medical exemption may not be over, however, as the Australian government said it was still considering another move to deport him.
“I am pleased and grateful that the judge overturned my visa cancellation,” Djokovic wrote on Twitter where he posted a photograph of himself on court at the Rod Laver Arena at Melbourne Park. “Despite all that has happened I want to stay and try to compete at the Australian Open.”
Earlier Judge Anthony Kelly had ruled the federal government’s decision  last week to revoke the Serbian tennis star’s visa amid was “unreasonable” and ordered his release.
“Novak is free and just a moment ago he went to the tennis court to practice,” Djokovic’s younger brother Djordje told a family news conference  in Belgrade. “He’s out there to set another record.”
Djokovic, who arrived in Australia last week to defend his Australian Open title, had spent the day at his lawyers’ chambers.
There were chaotic scenes on Monday evening as supporters who had gathered outside the lawyers’ office chanting “Free Novak!” surged around a black car with tinted windows leaving the building, while police at one stage used pepper spray as they tried to clear a path.
A spokesman for Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said he was considering using his broad discretionary powers he is given by Australia’s Migration Act to again revoke Djokovic’s visa. Such a move could include a three-year ban on re-entering Australia.
“The minister is currently considering the matter and the process remains ongoing,” the spokesman said.
The controversy has been closely followed around the world, creating diplomatic tensions between Belgrade and Canberra and sparking heated debate over national vaccination rules.
The Australian Open begins on Jan. 17. Djokovic has won the tournament, one of tennis’s four Grand Slams, for the last three years and nine times overall.
Spanish rival Rafa Nadal called the drama surrounding the buildup to the tournament a “circus.”
“Whether or not I agree with Djokovic on some things, justice has spoken and has said that he has the right to participate in the Australian Open and I think it is the fairest decision,” Nadal told Spanish radio Onda Cero.
The authorities’ efforts to let the media and public follow events in court at times descended into farce, with pranksters hijacking internet links to stream loud music and porn.
Judge Kelly said he had quashed the decision to block Djokovic’s entry to Australia because the player was not given enough time to speak to tennis organiZers and lawyers to respond fully after he was notified of the intent to cancel his visa.
Officials at Melbourne’s airport, where Djokovic had been detained on arrival late on Wednesday, reneged on an agreement to give Djokovic until 8.30 a.m. to speak to tournament organiser Tennis Australia and lawyers, Kelly said.
BAFOUSSAM, Cameroon: Sadio Mane saved Senegal with a 97th-minute penalty to beat Zimbabwe 1-0 while Morocco won the first meeting of heavyweights at the African Cup of Nations with a late goal to edge Ghana 1-0 on Monday.
Neither game produced much high-quality football despite them involving three title contenders. It didn’t disappoint that many fans in Cameroon, though, as both were played in front of sparse crowds as the African showpiece reverted to one of its perennial problems.
The tournament often struggles with poor attendances when the host nation isn’t playing. This year, only people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 are allowed into the stadiums, meaning the crowds in Cameroon might be even smaller than normal.
Senegal, Africa’s top-ranked team, opened their campaign on the second day of the tournament with an unconvincing win in Group B over a team ranked 101 places below them. It was a win nonetheless.
Mane sent goalkeeper Petros Mhari the wrong way and drilled his very late penalty into the left corner at the Kouekong Stadium in Cameroon’s western city of Bafoussam. The Liverpool forward took his chance after Zimbabwe midfielder Kelvin Madzongwe was penalized for handball in the fourth minute of injury time as the game suddenly ended in drama.
Zimbabwe protested vehemently but referee Mario Escobar of Guatemala stuck by his decision after referring to a video review, which is being used at every game at the African Cup for the first time. Madzongwe had thrown himself to the ground trying to block a shot and the ball struck his arm.
Mane’s penalty was effectively the last kick of the game as Escobar blew for fulltime as soon as Zimbabwe restarted.
Senegal played without goalkeeper Edouard Mendy and captain Kalidou Koulibaly, who were among a group of players ruled out for the game after testing positive for the coronavirus. There have been virus outbreaks in many of the 24 squads in the buildup and at the tournament and it seems the African Cup will soldier on through them.
In an update to its tournament rules because of the virus, the Confederation of African Football has said teams must fulfil fixtures if they have at least 11 players healthy and available, even if it means they won’t have any substitutes.
Senegal have also lost forward Ismaila Sarr for the tournament with injury, providing them with a less-than-ideal buildup to its latest quest to win the African title for the first time.
Senegal lost to Algeria in the final at the last African Cup in 2019.
Guinea beat Malawi 1-0 in the day’s other Group B game with a first-half goal from Issiaga Sylla. Guinea-Malawi followed the Senegal-Zimbabwe game at the same stadium.
Morocco vs. Ghana at Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium in Yaounde seemed headed for 0-0 when Sofiane Boufal suddenly pounced on a loose ball that bounced off a Ghana defender to score Morocco’s 83rd-minute winner.
Ghana captain Andre Ayew finished the game with a bandage wrapped round his head and blood seeping through it after a clash of heads with Morocco skipper Romain Saiss. It encapsulated the game as the Ghanaian came off second best.
Comoros, a tiny Indian Ocean island off the east coast of Africa, made its debut at the African Cup against Gabon in Monday’s last game.
Cameroon’s African Cup opened Sunday when the host team beat Burkina Faso 2-1. The Central African nation has been waiting three years for this tournament after it was stripped of the right to host the 2019 African Cup and then saw its second chance in 2021 postponed for a year because of the pandemic.
WADI AD DAWASIR, Saudi Arabia: Sebastien Loeb chipped another seven minutes from the Dakar Rally lead of Nasser Al-Attiyah, who finally struck mechanical trouble on Monday in stage eight in Saudi Arabia.
Al-Attiyah, leading for a 10th straight day, was still up by 38 minutes on Loeb, but the Qatari has lost 12 minutes to the chasing Frenchman since the rest day on Saturday, and was starting to feel nervous.
Loeb opened the way and punctured just 28 kilometers into the 395-kilometer special from Al Dawadimi south to Wadi Ad Dawasir. Loeb then also lost his only other spare wheel, forcing him to drive carefully, and yet he pushed hard enough to be third on the stage.
Al-Attiyah also punctured and also drove extra carefully because he suspected he broke the rear differential installed on Sunday, leaving him in front-wheel drive for most of the way.
“I was scared, because we have done a very good job from the beginning and now if we start to have problems …,” he said. ”We’ll try to respect the Dakar.”
Mattias Ekstrom of Sweden earned his first stage win in his Dakar debut, winning by 49 seconds from Audi teammate Stephane Peterhansel, whose bonnet came off after one dune jump and who lost his bearings at the very end of the stage. Loeb’s ProDrive was third, three minutes later, and three seconds ahead of Carlos Sainz’s Audi. Al-Attiyah’s Toyota was 10 minutes down in 11th.
Sam Sunderland won the motorbike stage in dominant fashion and regained the overall lead with four stages to go.
Sunderland was the 28th rider to start and took advantage of the others’ tracks. The British rider led the whole way, winning the stage by three minutes from Pablo Quintanilla of Chile, who moved up to fourth overall. Matthias Walkner of Austria was third and remained second overall, nearly four minutes behind Sunderland.
Adrien van Beveren lost the overall lead when he was more than 10 minutes off the pace, finishing the stage ninth. The Frenchman dropped to third overall, nearly five minutes back.
Also having a bad day was defending champion Kevin Benavides of Argentina, who fell from third overall to sixth, from five minutes behind to nearly 15.
“With the glory of winning, you have the punishment of opening the stage the next day,” Sunderland said. “At the same time, if you want to win the race you have to win some stages.”
RIYADH: Saudi Arabian champions Al-Hilal have moved quickly at the start of 2022 to strengthen their overworked squad, although it remains to be seen whether it comes early enough to save their title defense.
The defending champions have signed international goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais from Al-Ahli and then former Saudi Arabia right-back Abdulrahman Al-Obaid from Al-Nassr. These additions may not make the kind of headlines that the big-name foreign arrivals command, but they will stand the Riyadh giants in good stead going forward.
It is understandable that coach Leonardo Jardim is looking to add players as there are plenty of demands on his squad in the coming weeks and months. 
Next month there is the FIFA Club World Cup and a chance for the Saudi Arabian powerhouse to take on Chelsea in the semi-final, as long as they defeat probable quarter-final opponents Al-Jazira of the UAE.
Al-Hilal fans say theirs is the biggest club in Asia and, with a record four continental championships and a social media following of over 10 million, one that even some of Europe’s top teams can’t match, it is a persuasive argument. It means, however, that the 17-time champions will, and should, take the Club World Cup seriously. If they could become the first Asian representative to defeat Europe’s, it would make headlines around the world and be a great advert for Saudi Arabian and Asian football.
And then there is the AFC Champions League. 
Al-Hilal, once again correctly, always set great store by performing well in Asia’s flagship tournament. There are going to be tough games in May and with only the top team in each group certain of a place in the knockout stages, there are unlikely to be many opportunities to rest players or take things easy. 
And then there are four very important World Cup qualifiers in January, February and March for the national team with good results securing a place in Qatar. Al-Hilal will be providing a healthy proportion of the Green Falcons for the climax of the qualification campaign.
It all means lots of demands on the Al-Hilal squad and the addition of more players will be welcomed by fans. The team already has good goalkeepers and full-backs, but Al-Owais and Al-Obaid should get their chance to show what they can do in the famous blue shirt sooner or later.
It is looking increasingly unlikely, however, that the new signings will be collecting a championship medal come the end of the season. While Al-Hilal were lifting the Super Cup last Thursday, after a hard-fought win over Al-Faisaly that went to a penalty shootout, it can’t have escaped the attention of fans and media that this was another week in which the champions were in action in a cup competition while their rivals for the Saudi title were chalking off another game in the league season.
The day following that entertaining Super Cup clash, Al-Ittihad were defeating Al-Feiha 2-0 to make it six wins out of six in the league. 
That run has taken the Tigers onto 35 points after 15 games, exactly halfway through the season. One place and three points behind are Al-Shabab, who have played a game more, with a resurgent Al-Nassr three points further back. And Al-Hilal? They are in fifth and, while there is a game in hand over the leaders, the gap is a massive 11 points.
Is the club’s title defense over? Not quite, not yet, but it means that the Riyadh giants can’t afford any slip-ups. It could well be that another defeat means it is pretty much all over. Just look at Tuesday’s clash against Al-Tai, the all-important game in hand and one that Al-Hilal need to win. To be 10 or 11 points behind Al-Ittihad just looks to be too much to overcome.
If the champions were in great form there would be more confidence, but the 3-2 win over Al-Faisaly in the league, just a week before their Super Cup meeting, came after just two points from the previous four games and involved the team coming back from 2-0 down. Al-Hilal are just not playing that well and are relying on moments of magic from their big name stars, like the stunning overhead kick from Salem Al-Dawsari last week, rather than team fluency or organization.
To make matters worse, the top three are going very well at the moment and have fewer demands on their squads. 
From the last five games, Al-Hilal have taken five points. Al-Nassr in third have collected 12, Al-Shabab 11 and Al-Ittihad the maximum of 15. In short, Al-Hilal are now in a situation where they need to get back into top gear and go on a winning run. This is at a time when they have two major international tournaments to look forward to, as well as a huge King’s Cup quarter-final tie against local rivals Al-Nassr next month.
Al-Hilal are not out of the title race yet, but with their rivals in good form and with plenty of games to think about, they can’t afford to make any more mistakes or they will be handing over the league trophy over to one of Al-Ittihad, Al-Nassr or Al-Shabab this May.
DUBAI, UAE:  Group 1 Emirates Airline Jebel Hatta winner Lord Glitters is among a 34-strong contingent of horses who arrived in Dubai on Jan. 5 to quarantine ahead of the Dubai World Cup Carnival set to take place this weekend.
Lord Glitters, who is likely to begin his Dubai campaign in the Group 2 Al Rashidiya on Jan. 21, was joined on the flight from the UK by his David O’Meara-trained stablemate Summerghand, winner of 13 races, including the Group 3 Abernant in April. Also returning, this time for a fourth attempt, is the David Marnane-trained Freescape, who is part of a four-strong Irish contingent, with the Ado McGuinness-trained pair of Harry’s Bar and Pierre Lapin joined by 3-year-old JJ Jumbo for trainer Darren Bunyan.
As well as returning heroes, this year’s Carnival, which begins on Friday, Jan. 14, will welcome several trainers to Meydan Racecourse for the first time. These include Newmarket-based handler Alice Haynes, who sends over a pair of 3-year-olds, Freyabella and Mr Professor. Up-and-coming trainer Amy Murphy will also saddle her first Dubai runner when Abalone Pearl makes her UAE debut, while Heather Main will be represented by 11-time winner Highland Brave, contender for the staying races.
France will also once again be well represented, with Carnival-winning trainer Nicolas Caullery sending over Batwan and Pia Brandt bringing the filly Pessemona. Henri-Francois Devin has two in Dubai: Wild Majesty and Listed winner Integrant. The current French contingent is completed by Manjeer, trained by Carina Fey, and Pevensey Bay, trained by Hiroo Shimizu.
The newcomers join around 20 Carnival horses already based at Meydan’s extensive stabling complex. Stephanie Cooley, international liaison for the Dubai Racing Club, is delighted at the turnout.
“We’re very happy to have such a strong bunch of Europeans here in Dubai in time for the first Carnival meeting on Jan. 14,” she said. “They join those already here, which include horses from Sweden, Norway and Uruguay. We have more flights scheduled over the next couple of weeks, including from the US, bringing a team for Doug O’Neill, as well as Australia and Argentina.”
The Dubai World Cup Carnival runs for eight meetings, with $7.5 million in prizemoney up to and including Super Saturday on March 5. The prestigious Dubai World Cup fixture, worth $30.5 million across nine races, takes place on March 26.

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