Top 10 sports events of 2019 in the Middle East and North Africa

Top 10 sports events of 2019 in the Middle East and North Africa

It has been a year of landmark achievements in sports in the Middle East and North Africa – on and off the field.

From Qatar’s maiden win at the Asian Cup to Iran allowing women to attend a men’s football match after decades, there was plenty to celebrate and talk about.

As we reach the finish line for 2019, Al Jazeera takes a look back at some of the most notable sporting moments in the region.

1. Qatar wins first Asian football title

In a tournament that was played against the backdrop of a regional political dispute, Qatar’s national football team defied odds and exceeded expectations at the AFC Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) earlier this year.

The Maroons stunned four-time champions Japan 3-1 in the final on February 1 to lift their maiden trophy at the continental tournament.

Qatar welcomes Asian Cup football champions home [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Qatar’s football team was given a hero’s welcome back in Doha after their triumphant Asian Cup campaign [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

They also beat Saudi Arabia, Iraq, South Korea and hosts UAE en route to the title.

Qatari striker Almoez Ali set an Asian Cup record of nine goals to go home with the best player award.

2. BeoutQ: Saudi-Qatar piracy row

Off the field, a two-year-old broadcasting row between Qatar’s beIN Sports and a Saudi pirate channel beoutQ deepened.

A number of football bodies – including football’s world governing body FIFA and Europe’s UEFA – pursued legal action in Saudi Arabia against the pirate outfit.


Qatar vs Saudi Arabia: Football, blockade and piracy at Asian Cup

In September, an Al Jazeera Arabic investigation revealed the exact location of beoutQ’s headquarters in the al-Qirawan district of the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

Since 2017, beIN Media Group, which holds exclusive rights to broadcast major international sports events to the MENA region, has fallen victim of beoutQ, which has been stealing its signal by broadcasting it as its own, complete with superimposed on-air logos.

3. Golden year for Liverpool’s Salah

It was a memorable year for English football club Liverpool as well as its star striker Mohamed Salah.

The Egyptian footballer reached a landmark feat of 50 Premier League goals for his team, becoming the eighth Liverpool player to join the elite club.

But his half-century arrived in only 69 games, three fewer than Fernando Torres, the previous quickest to the mark.

The 27-year-old also steered the Reds to their sixth European Champions League title in June and their first FIFA Club World Cup trophy in Qatar in December.

4. Algeria wins Africa Cup of Nations

Africa Cup of Nations 2019 - Final - Senegal v Algeria
Algeria won its first African trophy back in 1990 [Suhaib Salem/Reuters]

In July, Algeria’s national football team ended a 29-year dry spell to triumph at the Africa Cup of Nations for a second time.

The North African side, led by former Algerian international player Djamel Belmadi, beat Senegal 1-0 in the final in Egypt’s capital, Cairo.

5. Tunisian tennis player Ons Jabeur’s rise

Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur reached a career-high ranking of 51, the highest for any Arab female tennis player.

The 25-year-old Tunis resident also made the third round of the US Open in September, equalling her best performance at the Grand Slam level.

2019 US Open - Day 5
Ons Jabeur of Tunisia returns a shot during her women’s singles third round match against Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic at the 2019 US Open [Mike Stobe/Getty Images/AFP]

6. Qatar’s Mutaz Barshim bags high jump gold 

Qatari athlete Mutaz Essa Barshim successfully defended his high jump title at the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Doha.

It was the first time the international biennial competition was held in the Middle East.

Track and Field: IAAF World Athletics Championships
Mutaz Essa Barshim celebrates after winning the high jump at 7-9 1/4 (2.37m) during the IAAF World Athletics Championships at Khalifa International Stadium in Doha  [Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters]

The event also featured a challenging debut for the midnight marathon, which saw 28 women runners and 18 males failing to finish the race under intense heat and high humidity levels.

7. Iranian women attend historic football match

For the first time in nearly 40 years, Iranian women were allowed to freely attend a men’s football match in the capital, Tehran.

More than 3,000 female fans watched from a special women-only section in Tehran’s Azadi Stadium as their national men’s team beat Cambodia 14-0 in a World Cup qualifying match

Iranian women cheer during the FIFIA World Cup qualification match between Iran and Cambodia, at the Azadi stadium in Tehran, Iran, 10 October 2019. Media reported that thousands of Iranian women are
Iranian women cheer during the FIFA World Cup qualification match between Iran and Cambodia at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran [Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA-EFE]

The doors were opened a month after the death of Iranian female football fan Sahar Khodayari, dubbed “Blue Girl” because of the colours of the club she supported.

The 29-year-old died of her wounds after setting herself on fire outside a Tehran court upon learning she could be imprisoned for attempting to sneak into a stadium disguised as a man.

8. Bahrain’s handball team qualifies for Tokyo 2020

For the first time, Bahrain’s men’s handball team qualified for the Summer Olympic Games, which will take place in Tokyo next year.

They beat South Korea 34-29 in the final of the Asian handball qualifications to book their spot.

This is the first Olympic qualification in any team sport for the island nation.

IHF Handball World Championship - Germany & Denmark 2019 - Group B - Bahrain v Japan
Bahrain made a comeback from a half-time deficit to defeat South Korea in the final in Doha [Andreas Gebert/Reuters]

9. Egyptian squash players crowned world champions

Egypt continued its dominance on the squash courts, with world number two Nour El Sherbini capturing her fourth world title in Cairo and Tarek Momen winning the men’s event in Doha.

World number one Ali Farag from Egypt won five tournaments, including his second US Open title in October.

Egypt also defeated England to retain their men’s World Team Squash Championships title in Washington, DC.

Nour El Sherbini
Nour El Sherbini of Egypt won the final of the CIB Women’s World Championships 2019/2020 in Cairo [Pedro Costa Gomes/CIB Egypt – Squash Tournament/AFP]

10. Arabian Gulf Cup: Maiden trophy for Bahrain

In December, underdogs Bahrain won the Arabian Gulf Cup, hosted by Qatar, for the first time in the regional football tournament’s 49-year history.

They knocked out 10-times winner Kuwait and a higher-ranked Iraqi side before victory against three-times champion Saudi Arabia in the final in Doha.

24th Arabian Gulf Cup [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]
Bahrain were finally able to break through after finishing runners-up four times [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

There was extra attention on the biennial eight-nation tournament this year after teams from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE reversed a previous decision to boycott the event over a two-year-old diplomatic dispute with the hosts.

Despite airspace restrictions, in place since June 2017, teams from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain reportedly flew in directly to Doha.

Planeloads of Bahraini football fans also arrived, flying via Kuwait, ahead of their team’s semi-final and final.


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