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Flashes of Arab unity at World Cup after years of discontent

Source image: https://apnews.com/article/world-cup-soccer-sports-business-religion-3ab21c0226ea417f286e971ec100650a

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — For a brief moment after Saudi Arabia’s Salem Aldawsari fired a ball from just inside the penalty box into the back of the net to seal a World Cup win against Argentina, Arabs across the divided Middle East found something to celebrate.

Such Arab unity is hard to come by and fleeting when it arrives. But Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup has provided a moment where many in the Arab world have rallied by Doha and the Saudi team’s win.

Whether that momentum continues will be tested on Saturday as Saudi Arabia faces Poland — and as regional tensions, religious differences and renewed economic competition between countries resume.

“All Arabic countries are celebrating because one Arab team won,” said 27-year-old Saudi Rakan Yousef after Arab fans congratulated him in Doha, Qatar, on the Green Falcons’ win. “Even the emir of Qatar attended our match. … There’s this feeling now that we are all brothers. That’s why I’m speechless.”

The Arab world’s division start even with the Arabic language.

Spoken Arabic changes regionally, with the Berber-infused Arabic of North Africa, the rapid-fire Egyptian heard in movies and television comedies, the soft Levantine drawl and the guttural dialect of the Gulf Arabs.

Religion is another differentiator — there are Muslims, both Sunni and Shiite with subgroups within, and minority Christians, Druze, Baha’i and others. Different views on religion and regional rivalries bleed into conflicts, such as the ongoing war in Yemen.

But despite an attempt by al-Qaida to stir up extremists, the monthlong World Cup in energy-rich Qatar so far has seen unity among the Gulf Arab nations. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, the heads of state in two countries that only some two years ago had boycotted Qatar, attended the tournament’s opening match.

Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, called Qatar’s hosting of the tournament “a milestone for all Arabs” and also attended the opening. That feeling was shared by others as well.

“We are proud to be here for the first World Cup in an Arabic country,” Morocco coach Walid Regragui said.

Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi similarly praised Qatar while dismissing the criticisms of journalists — and by extension, rights groups.

“Qatar did a tremendous job organizing a World Cup. … Qatar never claimed it was perfect,” Safadi said. “We have differences in opinion, we have differences in views but that should not take away from the fact that Qatar has really put together a World Cup that is unique in every sense of the word.”

But the biggest surprise came two days later as Saudi Arabia stunned Argentina by winning their opener in the tournament, with Aldawsari doing a cartwheel and a flip. Qatar’s ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, attended the match and wore a Saudi flag around his shoulders.

One veteran Saudi sports journalist, Majed al-Tuwaijri, even wept on air after the match.

“This is the most beautiful and important moment in my life and my 30-year media career,” he said, his voice choking up. “I find myself failing to express myself because of the complexity of my feelings toward this great historical victory.”

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman declared Wednesday a public holiday to commemorate the win. In the kingdom and outside of it, people cheered and waved the country’s green and white flag to celebrate.

The Saudi flag itself carries two images that show its complicated place in the wider Arab world. It bears a white sword and the Arabic inscription of the shahada, a Muslim declaration of faith: “There is no god but Allah; Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.” After the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 A.D., Islam spread from the austere desert reaches of the Arabian Peninsula that later would become Saudi Arabia.

Today, Saudi Arabia maintains beheading as a form of execution and is one of the world’s top enforcers of the death penalty. The kingdom also has used its oil money since the 1980s to export an ultraconservative view of Islam called Wahhabism into mosques around the world. Extremists have exploited Wahhabi organizations receiving Saudi funding as well.

That history, as well as regional politics, make a wholehearted embrace of Saudi Arabia more complicated for Arabs in the Mideast. While some celebrated Saudi Arabia’s win in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian enclave blockaded by Egypt and Israel is ruled by the militant group Hamas. The kingdom, while not diplomatically recognizing Israel, now allows Israeli airlines overflight rights.

The limits also can be seen in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has been fighting the country’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels since 2015. Houthi Information Minister Daifallah al-Shami on Twitter offered “a thousand congratulations” to Saudi Arabia for placing “Arab football back on the map.” He later deleted the tweet and apologized.

“There are red lines that no party or person should cross,” al-Shami wrote.

The Saudi win, which the daily newspaper Okaz described as “restoring the glories” of the kingdom, also fits into the new, more nationalistic Saudi Arabia forming under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

As the prince has risen to power, the kingdom has socially liberalized by allowing women to drive, reopening movie theaters and curtailing its morality police. His comments to the team ahead of the tournament, urging them to “enjoy” the matches, have been repeated constantly in Saudi Arabia’s tightly controlled press.

But Prince Mohammed also led a self-described corruption crackdown targeting anyone with power in the kingdom. U.S. intelligence agencies believe the brutal slaying of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul came at his orders, something denied by the kingdom.

Meanwhile, economic competition between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia has been increasing as Riyadh tries to draw international business from Dubai. Qatar, which faced a Saudi-led boycott only two years earlier, has embraced the kingdom while solidifying ties with the United States as hedge. The inconclusive war in Yemen still rages.

Soccer provides a respite, but no panacea for those woes.

“You’d have to have a historical lobotomy to think this is a stable region,” said David B. Roberts, an associate professor at King’s College London who long has studied Gulf Arab nations.

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Associated Press writers Isabel DeBre and Gerald Imray in Doha, Qatar, and Renata Brito in Barcelona, Spain, contributed to this report.

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Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Source: https://apnews.com/article/world-cup-soccer-sports-business-religion-3ab21c0226ea417f286e971ec100650a

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Stewart heads to New York on 1st day of WNBA free agency

Breanna Stewart couldn’t turn down a chance to play in New York and potentially help the Liberty win their first WNBA championship.

The most coveted free agent this offseason, who won the WNBA MVP award in 2018, announced on social media that she was going to New York with a photo of her in a Liberty shirt on Wednesday. Stewart had spent her entire career in Seattle since the Storm drafted her No. 1 overall in 2016. She won championships with the team in 2018 and 2020.

“I decided to go to New York as I wanted to continue to be great. And I wanted to go to the place where I think I can help this league become better, to raise the standard,” Stewart said in an interview on ESPN. “I feel like why not go to the biggest market in all of sports. I’m excited to go after their first championship.”

The 28-year-old wing has averaged 20.3 points and 8.6 rebounds in her WNBA career. She missed the 2019 season with an Achilles tendon injury.

“New York is a basketball city and I can’t wait to be a part of it,” Stewart said.

Coming to New York brings Stewart closer to home. She grew up in Syracuse, which is an hourlong flight away. She’ll also have a shorter flight to Spain to visit relatives of her wife, Marta.

New York representatives, including coach Sandy Brondello and co-owner Clara Wu Tsai met with Stewart in Turkey last week. Stewart had narrowed her choices to Seattle and New York before choosing the Liberty.

The move turns the Liberty into an instant championship contender. New York, one of the WNBA’s original franchises, has never won a championship. The Liberty already added 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones and Kayla Thornton through a three-way deal to complement 2020 No. 1 draft pick Sabrina Ionescu.

“I think this group has a ton of potential, a lot of amazing players,” Stewart said. “The selflessness helps us set ourselves apart from everyone else.”

The news was met with elation on social media by Jones, Ionescu and Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant, who said on a podcast that he had reached out to Stewart to get her to come to New York.

Stewart was the second big-name free agent to announce her intentions to play for another team. Candace Parker said last weekend she was going to sign with the Las Vegas Aces and did so on Wednesday.

“As I’ve gone through free agency this time around, of course I’m thinking of where I can compete for my third championship, but the words home and family are what I kept coming back to,” said Parker, a longtime Southern California resident. “After evaluating the landscape together with my family, we’ve decided the Las Vegas Aces are the right organization for us at this point in our lives. To play for a championship close to home is the perfect situation for us. I’m looking forward to continuing the journey this summer in Las Vegas.”

Wednesday was the first day that free agents could sign contracts. Other moves announced included:

— Brittney Sykes and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough with Washington.

— Lexie Brown and Stephanie Talbot with Los Angeles.

— Teaira McCowan with Dallas.

— Alysha Clark and Cayla George with Las Vegas.

— AD Durr and Nia Coffey with Atlanta.

Many free agents were waiting for Stewart to make her decision, including Courtney Vandersloot.

Vandersloot announced on social media late Tuesday night that she wasn’t returning to Chicago, where she had spent her entire career. She has led the league in assists six times during her 12-year career and helped the Sky win the 2021 WNBA championship.

“To the Sky organization who drafted the little guard from a mid-major and believed in me from the jump, I couldn’t have asked for anything better,” Vandersloot wrote on Instagram. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I have realized my dreams because of you. Although I never planned for this day to come, I have decided it is time for me to pursue a new beginning.”

Stewart and Vandersloot are currently playing together in Turkey.

“My message to Sloot is she knows I love to play with her, but I’m going to support her in any decision she makes,” Stewart said. “Free agency is hard. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster for everybody. It’s not only basketball these decisions are made behind. It’s life.”

While Stewart and Vandersloot will be playing for different WNBA teams, Brittney Griner, who is also a free agent, announced in December when she returned home from her 10-month ordeal in Russia that she planned to remain with the Phoenix Mercury. Her long-time Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi is also a free agent, but she too is expected to go back to Phoenix.

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AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Pat Riley: Kareem never had potential, ‘only greatness’

Pat Riley remembers just about every detail surrounding the events of Dec. 29, 1961. It was a cold night in Schenectady, New York. A little snowy, the roads a little icy. And when the bus carrying the opposing team from New York City arrived, all of Riley’s Linton High teammates peered out the window.

They saw a giant.

Long before Riley and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were winning NBA championships together as coach and player with the Showtime-era Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s, they were opponents. Riley and Linton beat Power Memorial and Lew Alcindor — Abdul-Jabbar’s name before converting to Islam — 74-68 that night.

Abdul-Jabbar, then a 6-foot-10 freshman, was held to eight points because he spent virtually the entire game in foul trouble. He has told Riley several times over the years that Linton won because Riley’s father — a lifelong baseball man — had his umpiring friends refereeing the game.

“Which we did,” Riley acknowledges.

Riley knew it then and came to appreciate it even more years later — there were only a few ways to stop the player who would eventually spend nearly four decades as the most prolific scorer in NBA history. Abdul-Jabbar is on the verge of being passed by the Lakers’ LeBron James, the 38-year-old who was nearly nine months from being born when the unforgettable center made one of his signature sky hooks on April 5, 1984 to overtake Wilt Chamberlain and become the league’s scoring leader.

“Kareem was a guy that never had any potential. He just had greatness,” said Riley, now the president of the Miami Heat and one of the few who has worked with both Abdul-Jabbar and James. “You could see that. When you can bypass potential and you move right to greatness as a high school player, and then college and then the pros … there are very few like him. There’s a handful. Two handfuls, at the most.”

James is one of them, going from high school straight to the NBA, and now in his 20th season, he is now just 89 points away from passing Abdul-Jabbar’s record. The Lakers play Thursday in Indiana, then Saturday at New Orleans.

The most realistic target for the record-breaker is Tuesday in Los Angeles against Oklahoma City or — perhaps symbolically — next Thursday in L.A. when the Lakers play host to the Milwaukee Bucks, the team that Abdul-Jabbar started his NBA career with.

This past October, Abdul-Jabbar — on his Substack page where he discusses and offers opinion on a variety of topics, often nothing to do with sports — wrote that when James passed Kobe Bryant for No. 3 on the all-time scoring list in 2020, he “knew it was just a matter of time before he passed me too.”

Abdul-Jabbar added that every time a record is broken, all people are elevated.

“When I broke Wilt Chamberlain’s scoring record in 1984 — the year LeBron was born — it bothered Wilt, who’d had a bit of a one-sided rivalry with me since I’d started doing so well in the NBA,” he wrote. “I don’t feel that way toward LeBron. Not only will I celebrate his accomplishment, I will sing his praises unequivocally.”

The relationship between Abdul-Jabbar and James seems complicated. Abdul-Jabbar was outside of the Cleveland locker room during the 2016 Eastern Conference finals as James was jogging by; the two embraced and shared a few kind words, prompting James to discuss the respect he has for Abdul-Jabbar and others who paved the way in his postgame remarks.

Abdul-Jabbar also has lauded James “as a community leader and athlete.” But he criticized James for not doing more with his platform to encourage people to get vaccinated against COVID-19. And earlier this season, James said he has “no relationship” with Abdul-Jabbar.

There are ties that bind them, though. Both are champions. Both have worked to promote social justice and spoken out against racial inequality. Abdul-Jabbar played 20 years in the NBA; James is in Year 20. Abdul-Jabbar set the record while playing for the Lakers; James will do the same.

And If nothing else, James’ pursuit of the record may have exposed a generation or two that never saw Abdul-Jabbar play to how great he was.

“We have to always acknowledge those who come before us, those who’ve paved the way,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “You think of all those points Kareem scored and he had, what, one 3-pointer? You think about all of that, and these kids get to learn about a different era. It’s high, high-level education in the game of basketball, particularly NBA basketball.”

When Abdul-Jabbar broke the record, Riley said Magic Johnson — then the Lakers’ point guard — made sure he was the one who got the assist on the play. Johnson nearly put himself back into the game against Utah in Las Vegas that night when Abdul-Jabbar was two points away.

Years later, when the Lakers from those championship teams of that era gathered in Hawaii last summer for a reunion, Abdul-Jabbar was a day late because of personal matters. The Lakers in 2022 celebrated his arrival the same way they did the record-setter in 1984.

“He felt special because he was special, because he is special,” Riley said of the man who once stood shoulder-to-shoulder alongside an embattled Muhammad Ali during the boxing champ’s legal troubles in the late 1960s, and counted Bill Russell — another basketball giant and social-change champion — as a mentor. “He was treated as the patriarch by all the players. It was a great week for him. He was engaged, came to everything we did, gave some spontaneous talks. And he’s a shy guy, but he felt very comfortable in his group.”

Riley coached Abdul-Jabbar in Los Angeles and later lured James to Miami for a four-year run starting in 2010. He sees in James much of what he saw in Alcindor when that bus pulled into Schenectady in 1961.

“It’s all about LeBron right now, and it should be, with his unique career and unique opportunity to do this,” Riley said. “Training, travel, personal chefs, personal trainers, all that stuff has come into play since Kareem. I hope people realize Kareem’s story as well and how different it was. He went to college for four years; LeBron came out of high school. But they both dominated from Day 1. They both turned potential into greatness from Day 1.”

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AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Eagles reserve lineman accused of rape ahead of Super Bowl

CAMBRIDGE, Ohio (AP) — Josh Sills, a reserve offensive lineman for the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles, has been indicted on rape and kidnapping charges that stem from an incident in Ohio just over three years ago, authorities said Wednesday.

Sills, an undrafted free agent who appeared in just one game this season, was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list. That means he can’t practice, play or travel with the team as it prepares for the Super Bowl.

The NFL announced the move Wednesday and said the issue is being reviewed under the league’s personal conduct policy.

The rookie, who played at West Virginia and Oklahoma State, was indicted Tuesday by a Guernsey County grand jury in Ohio and ordered to appear in court on Feb. 16, four days after the Eagles are to play the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl.

His attorney, Michael Connick, said the allegations are false and that Sills will be aggressively defended.

Sills was listed as a backup guard and played just four snaps on special teams against the Cardinals on Oct. 9, the one game he played. He was on the inactive list for most of the year, including this past Sunday in Philadelphia’s conference title victory over the San Francisco 49ers.

“The organization is aware of the legal matter involving Josh Sills. We have been in communication with the league office and are in the process of gathering more information. We have no further comment at this time,” the Eagles said in a statement.

The indictment accuses Sills, who is from Sarahsville, Ohio, of engaging in sexual activity that was not consensual and holding a woman against her will on Dec. 5, 2019.

A statement issued by Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said the incident was immediately reported, and that the county sheriff’s office conducted a detailed investigation.

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