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

qatar airways

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 Belmadibeat 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.


Pro-Iran protesters leave US embassy compound in Baghdad

After being hit with tear gas, demonstrators who rallied against deadly US air raids heed calls to retreat.

The US embassy in Baghdad suspended all public consular operations on Wednesday as the protest raged [Khalid al-Mousily/Reuters]
The US embassy in Baghdad suspended all public consular operations on Wednesday as the protest raged [Khalid al-Mousily/Reuters]

Protesters withdrew from the United States embassy perimeter in Baghdad after the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces) paramilitary force ordered them to leave, a day after their dramatic demonstration.

Iraq‘s military confirmed on Wednesday that the protesters had left.

On Tuesday, thousands of Iraqi supporters of the largely Iranian-trained group had encircled and vandalised the embassy compound, outraged by US air raids in Iraq and Syria that killed 25 Hashd fighters over the weekend.

Angered crowds marched unimpeded through the checkpoints of the usually high-security Green Zone to the embassy gates, where they broke through a reception area, chanting “Death to America” and spraying pro-Iran graffiti on the walls.


Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi called on the protesters to leave the embassy, but most spent the night in dozens of tents set up outside the perimeter wall.

On Wednesday morning, crowds of men brandished the Hashd’s colours, torched US flags and hurled rocks towards the compound.

Security personnel inside responded with tear gas, wounding at least 20 people, the Hashd said.

By the afternoon, the group called on its supporters to leave the embassy and gather outside the Green Zone out of “respect” for the state.

“You delivered your message,” the Hashd said in a statement.

AFP’s photographer saw protesters dismantling their tents and leaving the Green Zone.

Kataib Hezbollah, the group associated with the Hashd that was targeted in the US raids, initially said it would stay at the embassy.

But the group’s spokesman Mohammad Mohyeddin later backed down, saying they were abiding by the Hashd’s order.

“We scored a huge win: We arrived to the US embassy, which no one had done before,” he told AFP.

“Now, the ball is in parliament’s court,” Moyheddin added, referring to legislators’ efforts to revoke the legal cover for 5,200 US troops to deploy in Iraq.

Reporting from Baghdad, Al Jazeera’s Simona Foltyn said: “The crowds have now fully withdrawn from the US embassy.

“Initially, the most defiant groups were reluctant to leave, burning tyres and waving flags, before they too made their way out of the Green Zone and to the other side of the Tigris.”

According to Foltyn, US-trained Iraqi counterterrorism forces have taken over security around the embassy.

“As the crowds heeded the PMF calls to withdraw, the forces surrounded the embassy,” she said.

Also on Wednesday, the US embassy in Baghdad said that all public consular operations were suspended.

“Due to militia attacks at the US Embassy compound, all public consular operations are suspended until further notice. All future appointments are canceled. US citizens are advised to not approach the embassy,” it said in a statement.

New sit-in

After the protesters left, many marched across bridges connecting the Green Zone to the other side of Baghdad. Hundreds of protesters erected tents for the night, according to witnesses.

“We withdrew from the US embassy because we received orders to leave the premises,” said 24-year-old Mohamed.

“But we’ve set up camp on the banks of the Tigris [River] opposite the US embassy and the Green Zone so that we can continue our sit-in for at least the three days of mourning.”

Another protester, who also left the Green Zone and joined the crowds on the opposite side of the river, said he will continue to protest until further notice.

“We will continue an open-ended protest here until we receive orders from our leaders to do otherwise,” 33-year-old Ammar, who described himself as a PMF member, told Al Jazeera.

“The Hashd is a legitimate part of the Iraqi state and we have to show the US that we won’t back down,” he said.

‘You can’t do a thing’

Tuesday’s embassy attack was the latest episode in spiralling tensions between the US and Iran since Washington abandoned a landmark nuclear deal with Tehran in 2018.

Many of those tensions have played out in Iraq, which has close ties with both governments.

US forces have faced a spate of rocket attacks in recent months, blaming them on pro-Iran PMF factions.

Last week, one of those attacks killed a US contractor, prompting the retaliatory US air raids that killed 25 fighters from Kataib Hezbollah.

US President Donald Trump and other US officials have blamed Iran for attacks on US forces and the embassy.

“They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

Iran’s supreme leader on Wednesday condemned the US attacks in Iraq and warned that Tehran was ready to hit back.

“First of all, you can’t do a damn thing! This has nothing to do with Iran,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a speech on state television.

“If the Islamic Republic decides to oppose or fight against a country, it will do this explicitly,” he said.

Tehran’s foreign ministry said it had summoned an official from the Swiss embassy, which represents US interests in Iran, over US “warmongering” in Iraq.

‘Our hands are tied’

By Wednesday, Iraqi forces had reimposed normal security measures around the perimeter of the Green Zone, usually inaccessible without a badge.

US officials were alarmed that protesters crossed checkpoints so easily on Tuesday.

An Iraqi special forces fighter assigned to guard the Green Zone told AFP his units had no orders to intervene.

“If I had had orders to act, I could have fired and stopped the storming of the embassy,” he said.

“But after what happened, our hands are tied. We can’t prevent the situation from deteriorating.”

US officials have pressured Iraqi authorities to step up security and sent a rapid response team of marines overnight to help guard the compound.

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said about 750 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division were prepared to deploy to the region in the coming days.

No US personnel were injured in the attack and US officials said they had no plans to evacuate.

US Ambassador to Iraq Matthew Tueller was said to be on his way back to Baghdad from holiday, but had yet to arrive on Wednesday afternoon.

The attack highlighted new strains in the US-Iraqi relationship.

The US led the 2003 invasion against the then-leader of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, and it has worked closely with Iraqi officials since, but its influence has waned compared with Tehran’s growing clout.

Tuesday’s dramatic scenes at the embassy evoked memories of both the 1979-1981 hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran and the deadly 2012 attack on the US consulate in Libya’s second city Benghazi.

Abdallah al-Salam contributed to this report from Baghdad.