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Posted November 23, 2022 01:22 AM

Football Fans Flock to Fan Festival Zone in Riyadh

As the 2022 World Cup kicked off in Qatar on Sunday, Riyadh Season opened its World Cup Fan Festival Zone in the Saudi capital.

Modeled on the fan zones in Qatar and set up in the Mrsool Park stadium, it will screen all the games and offers football fans the chance to watch the World Cup on the big screen amid the great atmosphere in Riyadh.

The Fan Festival zone includes entertainment and shopping areas, where visitors can play video games, shop, and choose from an array of restaurants and cafes. It will also feature live music between and before matches.

Many people flocked to the zone to watch the opening game that pitted hosts Qatar against Ecuador on Sunday.

The Fan Festival zone will also host an exhibition for Argentinian football icon Diego Maradona, which will display the most prominent moments of his career.

Another exhibition is dedicated to the English football club Newcastle United, which was recently purchased by the Saudi Public Investment Fund. There, a lecture will be given about the club and its history, and fans can buy jerseys from the official store.

Visitors can buy one of three tickets, bronze (allows visitors to watch from the stands), silver (allows visitors to watch from the field), or gold (allows visitors to watch from special seats at the front row).

Lionel Messi begins his legacy-defining World Cup with a game against Saudi Arabia with Argentina on a 36-match unbeaten run.

It seems like an ideal chance for Messi to push his international goals tally toward a century — he currently has 91 — in what’s surely a forlorn attempt to catch the leading men’s mark of 117, owned by great rival Cristiano Ronaldo.

How Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni treats Messi for this game in particular, being staged in the 80,000-seat Lusail Iconic Stadium, might be instructive given the captain’s fitness has been managed heading into the World Cup.

Messi trained individually on Friday and Saturday because of what the Argentina football federation described as “muscle overload.” That raises doubts over whether Messi will play the full 90 minutes against Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has reached the last 16 only once in their five appearances at the World Cup.

They started the 2018 tournament with a 5-0 loss to Russia, the host nation.

Then again, Argentina opened that World Cup with a disappointing 1-1 draw with tiny Iceland — in a match which saw Messi have a penalty saved — that immediately put pressure on the Albiceleste.

That’s something the team is eager to avoid again.

“I missed, we drew and then the mess came,” Messi recalled in a recent interview. “The first game is key because if you’re going to play Mexico with the three points from the Saudi Arabia game, it’s something else.”

It’s unlikely the Argentines will trip up this time. Copa America champions in 2021 for their first major title in 28 years, a national-record unbeaten run — one short of tying the world record set by Italy from 2018-21.

Scaloni, Argentina's somewhat accidental coach, has turned his team into an extremely well-balanced unit and back to being a major force in world football. Where, many believe, it belongs.

Messi is obviously the star at the center of everything and is looking to finally win the World Cup to boost his standing as arguably soccer's greatest ever player.

By playing against Saudi Arabia, Messi will become the first Argentine player to play in five World Cups — one more than Diego Maradona and Javier Mascherano.

Scaloni has had to contend with injuries to midfielder Giovani Lo Celso and forwards Nicolas Gonzalez and Joaquin Correa in the lead-up to the World Cup.

Saudi Arabia is set to be well-backed at the World Cup because it shares Qatar's only land border to the outside world, and fans will drive across in their droves to attend the match taking place at the tournament's biggest venue.

Under French coach Hervé Renard, the Saudis have been in preparation for several weeks after domestic competitions were paused so players could focus on the World Cup.

“We are ready for this fabulous tournament," Renard said.

Even without the injured Karim Benzema, defending World Cup champion France has plenty of attacking power.

Most teams would love to have either Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann or Olivier Giroud in their forward line, let alone all three. They have 119 international goals between them, plus an abundance of speed, craft, experience and skill.

But France does not have the same assurances in midfield, and that is where Australia could trouble Les Bleus on Tuesday in their opening Group D match.

France struggled to beat Australia 2-1 when the teams met in their World Cup opener four years ago, and that was with a full-strength midfield.

France coach Didier Deschamps is missing the injured N'Golo Kante and Paul Pogba — his dynamic engine room from 2018. Pogba has played 91 times for France and one of his 11 goals came in the 4-2 win over Croatia in the 2018 final.

While Pogba's form has been up and down since then, Kante's consistency rarely ever dropped and he's arguably an even bigger loss.

A tireless runner with an incredible ability to close down space, surface from anywhere to win the ball and then release it cleanly, Kante is one of the best defensive midfielders in world football. But he's recovering from a hamstring operation and won't add to his 53 international appearances.

So Deschamps faces Australia with a revamped midfield where the most experienced player is Adrien Rabiot — Pogba's teammate at Italian club Juventus — with 29 appearances.

The 27-year-old Rabiot finally feels ready to emerge as France's new midfield leader.

“When I played in the French youth teams, I was often more experienced than my teammates. Now I find myself in a similar position,” he said. “I feel that I'm able to help others, to lead by example. I like being in this position."

That's some turnaround for Rabiot, who four years ago actually asked to be taken off the list of reserve players for the 2018 World Cup. He was dropped for more than two years by Deschamps, who called his decision “a huge mistake.”

Now Rabiot will likely line up on the left of a midfield three at Al Janoub Stadium with 22-year-old Aurelien Tchouameni in the center, and either Eduardo Camavainga or 23-year-old Matteo Guendouzi on the right.

Tchouameni has impressed for France, but he has played only 14 times for Les Bleus, and never in a major tournament. Neither has Guendouzi, who has made six appearances, or the 20-year-old Camavinga, who has made only four.

For Juventus this season, Rabiot has been scoring and assisting more regularly and taking an increasingly important role that he hopes to transfer to the national team.

“It's a great responsibility that I'm ready to take up,” he said. “I'd rather be in this position, than not be in this squad."

A physically imposing player, Rabiot is a strong runner with excellent technique at holding the ball, a good passing range and is strong in the air — something which could trouble Australia's defense on free kicks and corners.

Real Madrid paid 100 million euros ($97 million) to sign Tchouameni from Monaco in the offseason. In a similar way to Pogba, he is a lean and athletic player with an assured first touch who sprays passes short or long with equal effect.

But Australia has a solid midfield, too, led by the experienced Aaron Mooy — a tough tackler and able passer who played two seasons in the Premier League with Brighton and has made 53 appearances.

Mathew Leckie was Australia's best player at the 2014 World Cup and poses a threat from the wing. The 31-year-old Leckie is also the national team's top scorer with 13 international goals.

Leckie and Mooy both started against France four years ago.

But coach Australia coach Graham Arnold's plans for this match were hit when winger Martin Boyle pulled out on Sunday with a knee injury. Boyle has a decent scoring record with five goals from 19 appearances for Australia.

“We all feel for Martin and it is a cruel blow for him,” Arnold said. “He has been an integral part of our journey to get to Qatar.”

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