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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 17 January 2021

Mohamed Salah, Mohammed Khamis Khalaf and the 10 Arab male athletes to watch out for in 2021

From footballers chasing championships to Olympians and Paralympians focused on gold in Tokyo, it is set up to be an exciting year

After a year that saw sport around the world severely disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, 2021 promises to be action-packed.

The rescheduled Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games are set to dominate the summer, while football, tennis, and other sports look ahead to a full and uninterrupted calendar.

Among the many athletes seeking glory in 2021 are a number of Arab sportsman. Reem Abulleil selects 10 male athletes from the Arab world who are set for a big year.

Mohamed Salah (Egypt) – Football

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After helping Liverpool win a first Premier League title since 1990 last season, Salah is back at it with the Reds, searching for a repeat.

The "Egyptian King" is currently the league’s top-scorer with 13 goals struck in 16 games and is showing no signs of slowing down, despite the rumours flying around about him possibly seeking a move to either Real Madrid or Barcelona.

“I'm always trying to score goals to help the team to win the game. There's a good chance to be a third time top-scorer again. But the most important thing is to win something, to win the big trophies with the team. That's the most important thing,” Salah told Spanish publication AS in an interview recently.

Achraf Hakimi (Morocco) – Football

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At just 22 years old, Hakimi is already considered one of the best right-backs in world football.

The Moroccan joined Inter Milan from Real Madrid for €40 million ($49.2m) last summer having spent two years on loan at Borrusia Dortmund, with his contract running until 2024/2025.

In his first 14 Serie A appearances, Hakimi has scored four goals and provided three assists for his teammates to help Inter firmly establish themselves in the title race.

Blessed with incredible speed (in a December 2019 game against RB Leipzig, Hakimi was clocked running at 36.48kmph which, at the time, was the fastest speed ever registered in the Bundesliga), he was recently ranked by ESPN as the second-best right-back in the world in their annual FC 100 list.

Abdullah Sultan Al Aryani (UAE) – Para-shooting

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The Emirati shooter is set to compete in his fourth consecutive Paralympic Games when he heads to Tokyo this summer.

Al Aryani scooped his first of four Paralympic medals by taking gold in the R6 - Mixed 50 m Rifle Prone SH1 at London 2012 before claiming three silvers (R1 - Men's 10 m Air Rifle Standing SH1, R7 - Men's 50 m Rifle 3 Positions SH1, and R6 - Mixed 50 m Rifle Prone SH1) at Rio 2016.

The Al Ain native is the only Emirati to win three medals at the same Games and will be looking to write a new chapter in his storied career in Tokyo.

Al Aryani, 50, first competed at the Olympics as an able-bodied shooter in Sydney in 2000. He then suffered a serious car accident a year later that paralysed him from the waist down and confined him to a wheelchair.

Al Aryani has already qualified for Tokyo and will take part in the Al Ain 2021 World Shooting Para Sport World Cup from March 15-26.

Mohammed Khamis Khalaf (UAE) – Powerlifting

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Khalaf is a legendary figure in the history of Paralympic sport and at 51 years old is still going strong and is hungry for more success.

The powerlifter owns two Paralympic gold medals, clinched 12 years apart (in Athens 2004 and Rio 2016), and also grabbed silver in Beijing 2008.

Khalaf is preparing for a fifth appearance at the Paralympic Games and is dreaming of more gold in Tokyo, assuring that the word “retirement” does not exist in his vocabulary.

“I love challenges, and this is one sport which challenges me, my strength and power,” Khalaf told Paralympic.org.

“I want to fight for gold medal in Tokyo. I have been working hard for this. It will be just so amazing to stand on top of the Paralympic podium and hear the UAE national anthem once again.”

Yousef Karam (Kuwait) – Athletics

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The 27-year-old Kuwaiti specialises in the 400m and is the reigning Asian champion.

Karam is currently ranked inside the top-10 of the 400m world rankings and while he has yet to secure his spot at the Tokyo 2021 Olympics, the qualifying standard time is within his reach.

At the 2019 Asian Championships, Karam took 400m gold by breaking a 16-year-old national record. He lowered his personal best from 45.63sec to 44.84sec in two days and also became the 11th fastest Asian man ever over that distance.

In February 2020, he won the 400m indoors at the ORLEN Copernicus Cup, Arena, Torun. Later in the year, he claimed silver in the Diamond League in September and ran a season-best 45.25sec to take silver at the Golden Gala Pietro Mennea in Rome.

Ramzi Boukhiam (Morocco) – Surfing

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Surfing will make its Olympics debut in Tokyo in 2021 and the Arab world will have a talented representative in Boukhiam.

The 27-year-old Moroccan will be one of 20 surfers competing in the men’s competition in Shiba this summer after securing qualification with an impressive sixth-place finish at the 2019 ISA World Surfing Games in Mizayaki, Japan, where he clinched the African continental spot.

Boukhiam went head-to-head with some of the best surfers in the world and he cannot wait to walk around the Tokyo Olympic Stadium with is fellow Moroccans at the Games’ opening ceremony.

“I always think about it and I hope I’m going to be carrying the flag,” he told the Olympics official Youtube channel.

Mohamed Safwat (Egypt) – Tennis

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The highest-ranked Arab on the ATP tour at the moment, Safwat started 2020 strong by qualifying for his first Australian Open main draw.

A couple of weeks later, he became the first Egyptian to win a Challenger title since Tamer El Sawy in 1996 by reigning supreme in Launceston, Australia. Safwat hit a career-high ranking of No 130 as a result and enters 2021 with a serious shot at cracking the top 100.

The 30-year-old recently hired a new coaching team from the acclaimed Good to Great Academy in Sweden and he signed a sponsorship deal with the National Bank of Egypt to boost his campaign.

Having won the gold medal at the African Games in 2019, Safwat will suit up for Egypt at the Tokyo Olympics this summer, which will make him the first man from his nation to compete in a tennis event at the Games.

Abderrahman Samba (Qatar) – Athletics

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The 25-year-old Saudi-born Qatari is one of the most exciting talents in the world of track and field.

At the Paris Diamond League in 2018, Samba clocked the second-fastest 400m hurdles time ever (now the third-fastest of all-time) when he won the race in a personal-best 46.98 seconds. That made him just the second man to ever go under 47 seconds and got him ever so close to Kevin Young’s 28-year-old world record of 46.78sec.

“I want to become the fastest man in the world and I work hard to achieve it,” he said after the race.

In 2019, Samba won the gold and set a championship record in the process at the Asian Championships before winning the bronze medal at the World Championships.

With a healthy rivalry with Karsten Warholm and Rai Benjamin spurring him on, Samba will no doubt be one to watch in Tokyo this summer. Will that world record from 1992 finally tumble?

Marwan El Kamash (Egypt) – Swimming

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Egypt boasts a strong swim team that has risen through the ranks over the past few years, which makes it tough to pick just one to watch for 2021.

El Kamash’s story is quite an inspirational one, however, as the 27-year-old managed to overcome a bout of coronavirus and a difficult couple of years to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics with some stellar swims at the US Open in November.

The Egyptian swam a lifetime best to clock the only sub-eight-minute time of the meet and win the 800m freestyle in 7:52.19, lowering his personal best by over three seconds and punching his ticket to the Japanese capital. That swim ranks him No 4 in the world for 2020.

El Kamash also took silver in the 400m free and the 200m free.

“The past couple of years were tough. Adding a pandemic into the mix made things even worse reaching to almost a dead end for me,” he said in a post on his social media after qualifying for his second consecutive Olympic Games.

“Looking back at those times now I think it definitely made me grow and become a much stronger person. The fact that I had the privilege to learn from the best people in the sport made each day worth a while. Being able to bounce back this past weekend producing those swims in just 24hrs of racing is something I am very proud of.”

Majd Eddin Ghazal (Syria) – Athletics

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The Syrian high jumper is targeting a fourth appearance at the Olympic Games and despite the lack of competition in 2020 due to the pandemic, Ghazal can still take great confidence from his 2019 exploits that saw him win the Asian Championships gold medal as well as the Diamond League in London.

In 2017, Ghazal became just the second Syrian to ever win a medal at the World Athletics Championships when he took bronze at London Stadium.

At 33, Ghazal, who was his nation’s flagbearer at the opening ceremonies of London 2012 and Rio 2016, hopes his participation in Tokyo can inspire more young athletes back home in Syria.

“I know if I can become a champion, the effect back home will be huge. Track and field would be all over Syrian TV, and so many young people will be inspired to take up the sport,” Ghazal said in a first-person essay published on Spikes.

Updated: January 7, 2021 11:51 AM

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