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It has been an action-packed year for football in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world in general. As 2023 kicks off, we take a look back over the last 12 months.

Saudi Arabia’s game of the year

Saudi Arabia 2-1 Argentina. A game that football fans will never forget. It was the match that set the tone for a World Cup tournament full of upsets and excitement. A dominant Argentina were kicking themselves for only being 1-0 ahead at half-time but were confident that more goals would flow after the break. They did, but for Saudi Arabia. Saleh Al-Shehri equalized, then a beauty from Salem Al-Dawsari quickly put the Green Falcons ahead and, try as they might, Argentina could not get back into the game. Few guessed at the time that the South Americans would go on to lift the trophy, and perhaps this result had something to do with that. It also set the tone for a World Cup of upsets and excitement.

Arab game of the year

Morocco 1-0 Portugal. This well-deserved victory meant the marvelous Moroccans became the first Arab team ever to make the semi-finals of the World Cup, where, ultimately, reigning champions France proved too strong for the injury-hit Atlas Lions. But Morocco were the story of the tournament. They won their group and defeated Belgium, Spain and Portugal on their way to the semis. Their team lit up the World Cup — the players became household names and the fans weren’t bad either.

Special mention should also go to Tunisia for an epic win over France that just wasn’t quite enough to take the team into what would have been the country’s first appearance in the knockout stages.

Saudi Arabia’s player of the year

Salem Al-Dawsari has been consistently good for both club and country. If the 31-year-old winger was just a little younger then he would doubtless be on the shopping list of many European clubs. His wonderful goal against Argentina was one of the best moments of the footballing year — perhaps the best — but there was more besides. Al-Dawsari was excellent throughout the World Cup, also scoring against Mexico. And even though his missed penalty against Poland possibly cost his team a second-round appearance, that could not eclipse the part he had played in getting his country to the finals in the first place. He also helped his club Al-Hilal win an unlikely league title.

Arab player of the year

Achraf Hakimi was already regarded as world-class before the World Cup, having been excellent for Paris Saint-Germain for some time. He was especially impressive for Morocco in Qatar, improving as the tournament progressed — immense in the best defense at the World Cup and at the heart of many good things going forward too. There are few, if any, better right-backs around in world football, and his penalty that eliminated Spain was the epitome of coolness and a thing of beauty. Hakimi’s Morocco teammate Sofyan Amrabat was a very close contender for this prize too.

Saudi Arabia’s coach of the year

It has to be Herve Renard for his major improvement of the national team. It should not be forgotten that the Green Falcons, who struggled to win the group in the preliminary qualifying stages, were the best team in the final round, deservedly finishing above Japan and Australia. The World Cup was a success too, with that historic win over Argentina helped by Renard’s aggressive gameplan, and the team were not far away from reaching the knockout stages. More than that, Saudi Arabia played with confidence and a refreshing belief that they deserved to be playing on the biggest stage of all.

Special mention should go to Saad Al-Shehri who led the U23 team to the Asian title in Uzbekistan.

Arab coach of the year

It has to be another Moroccan — but this is not just about the World Cup. Walid Regragui should be named as world coach of the year in 2022. He not only led Wydad AC to the African title, defeating Al-Ahly of Egypt in the final, but then took over Morocco less than three months before the World Cup kicked off and took the team to the last four. Despite that lack of preparation time, the 47-year-old somehow engineered a club-like atmosphere among the Atlas Lions and the result was an organized and resolute team that counter-attacked in style. If they had reached the final, it would not have been undeserved.

Saudi Arabian disappointment of the year

A strong case could be made for the way in which Al-Ittihad threw away a double-digit lead and the chance to win a first title since 2009, but Al-Hilal’s 4-0 loss to Al-Ahly of Egypt in the FIFA Club World Cup was painful. This game between the two biggest teams in the Arab world saw Al-Hilal, who had pushed Chelsea all the way in their previous game, come out very much second best. Two red cards before the half-hour ended the game as a contest. There was a silver lining, however, as the loss ended Leonardo Jardim’s time at Al-Hilal and brought in Ramon Diaz, who led the Riyadh giants to an unlikely domestic title.

Arab disappointment of the year

Qatar. The pressure was well and truly on the host nation ahead of their first ever World Cup appearance and it did not go well. The Asian champions started badly against Ecuador and never recovered. Subsequent performances against Senegal and the Netherlands were better, but the results were the same. Qatar became just the second World Cup host, after South Africa in 2010, to fall at the first hurdle, and the first to pick up zero points on the way. While the tournament went well for the hosts off the pitch, nobody expected it to go quite so badly on it.

Saudi Arabian story of the year

The national women’s team’s first game was a low-key 2-0 win over the Maldives, but it signaled the start of a new chapter in the country’s football history. With a national league and the ambition of hosting the 2026 Asian Cup, the future looks bright for the women’s game in the Kingdom.

Arab story of the year

While Morocco became the first Arab women’s team to reach the final of the Women’s African Nations Cup and the first to qualify for the World Cup, the biggest story of the year in Arab football was surely Egypt’s multiple near misses. The Pharoahs lost two huge penalty shootouts to Senegal — the first in the final of the African Nations Cup and the second with a place at the World Cup finals on the line. Had things gone just a little differently, Egypt would have been playing in Qatar as champions of Africa. Instead, they had to stay home and watch Senegal do that.

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