Reem Abulleil is back with her annual list of Arab athletes to keep an eye out for in the coming year. From established superstars to young up-and-comers looking to break through, here’s a look at some of the leading sportsmen from the region looking to have a strong 2023.
Azzedine Ounahi (Morocco) – Football
He was one of Morocco’s breakout World Cup stars and left Luis Enrique speechless after the Atlas Lions upset Spain in the last-16 stage.
“Madre mia, de donde sale ese muchacho?” said the flummoxed Spain manager. In other words: “Goodness me, where did this guy come from?”
The 22-year-old Angers midfielder is currently one of the most sought-after players in the European market and is understandably the target of many clubs including Leicester, Leeds, Newcastle, West Ham and Napoli, while Gunners legend Ray Parlour has urged Mikel Arteta to bring Ounahi to Arsenal.
It’s fair to assume Ounahi won’t be staying in France much longer and will probably light up whichever squad he eventually joins.
Sofyan Amrabat (Morocco) – Football
Like his teammate Ounahi, Sofyan Amrabat is in high demand this transfer window with Liverpool looking to outbid a number of teams so the 26-year-old midfielder can join their ranks.
One of the 2022 World Cup’s standout heroes, a big move for Amrabat from his current club Fiorentina seems inevitable this winter.
The midfield maestro was impressive on every front in Qatar. From fearless tackles, to precise passes, to a record-breaking number of recoveries, Amrabat had everyone singing his praises after the World Cup, including French President Emmanuel Macron, who described him as the best midfielder of the tournament.
Will we see him join fellow North African Mohamed Salah at Liverpool?
Mohamed Salah (Egypt) – Football
A regular fixture on this annual list, Mohamed Salah once again has a busy year ahead as Liverpool vie for the Champions League trophy and attempt to make up for their sluggish start to the Premier League campaign.
After a lengthy break due to the World Cup, Salah restarted the season with a bang, equalling Kenny Dalglish’s tally of 172 goals for Liverpool by scoring against Aston Villa on Boxing Day. They now share seventh spot on the all-time list of top men’s goalscorers in the history of the club.
In the Champions League, Salah has netted seven goals in six games so far this season to help guide the Reds to a last-16 showdown with Real Madrid in February.
Abdullah Shelbayh (Jordan) – Tennis
A product of the Rafa Nadal Academy in Mallorca, Abdullah Shelbayh has made history for Jordan on several occasions so far in his young career.
The 19-year-old lefty was the first player from his nation to compete at a Grand Slam when he made his major debut at Roland Garros juniors in 2021. A month later, he reached the Wimbledon juniors doubles final.
In 2022, Shelbayh won three ITF singles titles and became the first Jordanian to win a match on the Challenger Tour when he made the semi-finals in Mallorca, which was his maiden appearance at that level.
Already ranked in the top 500 after just seven months competing as a pro, Shelbayh is shaping up to be one of the most promising young Arab talents – his impressive performances at the Arab Masters tournament in Kuwait this week are testament to that as he won the singles title and made the doubles final.
Recently signed by industry giants IMG, the talented teenager has an opportunity to get the backing he needs to climb up the rankings.
Ramzi Boukhiam (Morocco) – Surfing
While Morocco were making history as the first African or Arab side to reach the World Cup semi-finals, another Moroccan was quietly etching his own name in the record books off the coast of Hawaii.
Competing at the Haleiwa Challenger at the end of November, Ramzi Boukhiam successfully qualified for the 2023 World Surf League Championship Tour, becoming the first Moroccan, North African or Arab to make it to surfing’s most prestigious circuit.
“It’s been 10 years since I started my Pro Junior career and competed in the WSL Qualifier series. This proves that if you work hard, you can still get there. I am very proud of the work I have done and of showing the new Moroccan generation that we have what it takes to succeed,” said the 29-year-old Olympian.
He’s got one of the best backhands in the business and will rub shoulders with surfing’s elite this season. Keep an eye out for Boukhiam as he finally realises a childhood dream.
Youssef Ramadan (Egypt) – Swimming
The 20-year-old Egyptian has started to make a name for himself on the global swimming stage and has great talent and ambition in equal measure.
At the World Championships (25m) in Australia this month, Ramadan made the final of the 100m butterfly – placing eighth in a race won by South African superstar Chad Le Clos – as well as the semi-finals in the 100m freestyle and 50m butterfly.
This year with Virginia Tech, as a sophomore, he was voted ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) Most Valuable Swimmer after he successfully defended his ACC title in the men’s 100 fly with a new conference record of 44.08s.
Expect a strong showing from the young Cairene at the World Aquatic Championships in Fukuoka, Japan next July.
Harib Abdullah (UAE) – Football
At 20 years of age, Harib Abdullah is considered one of the most promising young prospects in Asian football.
The Shabab Al Ahli winger announced himself on the global stage by scoring the winner against South Korea on his first start for the UAE national team, which earned his side a World Cup play-off meeting with Australia.
UAE narrowly lost to Australia and couldn’t make it to Qatar but Abdullah’s efforts did not go unnoticed.
The talented Emirati is expected to play an important role for the Whites in a busy first half of 2023 that includes the Arabian Gulf Cup in Iraq in January, the West Asian Football Federation Championship, on home soil, in March and April, followed by the Asian Cup in Qatar.
Mohamed Khalil Jendoubi (Tunisia) – Taekwondo
Since clinching Olympic silver in men's 58kg taekwondo in Tokyo a year and a half ago, Mohamed Khalil Jendoubi has not skipped a beat.
The 20-year-old Tunisian enjoyed a strong 2022, winning the African Championship in Rwanda, picking up silver medals at four Grand Prix events – in Rome, Paris, Manchester and Riyadh – and grabbing bronze at the World Championships in Guadalajara.
He is ranked No 1 in the world in his weight category and is building towards Paris 2024, where he’ll be looking to move one step up the podium and secure that gold.
Amir Albazi (Iraq) – MMA
Iraqi mixed martial artist Amir “The Prince” Albazi has a 16-1 record, including five wins by knockout – his most recent coming this month against Alessandro Costa at UFC Fight Night 216.
The first ever UFC fighter from his nation, Albazi competes in the flyweight division and is 4-0 since making his UFC debut in July 2020.
“I wanted to put on a really good performance to show that I’m a different level than these guys and that I’m ready for the top five, I’m ready for that belt and I hope you guys saw that I have knockout power too,” the 29-year-old London-based Iraqi told MMA Junkie after his third-round knockout in Vegas two weeks ago.
“I can put people to sleep standing up, and I can put people to sleep on the ground. Just keep them coming and I’ll keep taking them out.”
Former UFC flyweight and bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo recently said on his YouTube channel he expects Albazi “is going to be a nightmare for anybody at 125 pounds” and tipped him to be a future UFC champion.
Having fled Iraq to Syria at the age of seven, moved to Sweden at eight, lived alone at 15 before relocating to London at 18, Albazi backs himself to adapt to any situation and has the ultimate belief he will be crowned UFC champion one day. His 4-0 start in the octagon is definitely a good sign.
Yehia El Deraa (Egypt) – Handball
Egyptian handball is enjoying a renaissance, with the Pharaohs placing fourth at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 and reigning supreme at the African Championships in 2020 and 2022; not to mention their impressive display en route to seventh place at worlds two years ago in Cairo.
Many eyes will be on Egypt at the 2023 World Handball Championship, held in Sweden and Poland in January, and among those looking to shine for the team is 27-year-old Yehia El Deraa.
Named tournament MVP at the 2020 African Championship, the left/centre back joined Hungarian powerhouse Telekom Veszprem from Cairo’s Zamalek ahead of the start of this season.
In his first campaign with the club, he has scored 40 goals from 13 starts in the domestic league, and 20 goals in 10 games in the EHF Champions League (Veszprem are top of the Hungarian league with a perfect 13-0 record so far).
With a wealth of experience on the Egyptian roster, and now international pedigree to go with it, El Deraa will be a key figure for the Pharaohs at the World Championship.