Young Falcons are only just getting started, says coach Khalid Al-Atawai as Saudi Arabia U-19s make World Cup

The Young Falcons beat Australia 3-1 to make it to the last-four. (AFC)
Updated 30 October 2018

Young Falcons are only just getting started, says coach Khalid Al-Atawai as Saudi Arabia U-19s make World Cup

  • Saudi Arabia U-19s beat young Socceroos to get to last four of U-19 Asian Championships.
  • Young Falcons set to face Japan in last four on Thursday.

LONDON: The scenes on the Saudi Arabia team bus as it left the Patriot Candrabhaga Stadium in Bekasi, Indonesia, on Monday night were those of pride and patriotism as the country’s Under-19s celebrated the execution of an ambitious plan. This month’s ultimate mission, however, is not yet complete.
The Kingdom’s Under-19 side had defeated Australia 3-1 in the quarterfinals of the age-group Asian Championships to confirm their place at next May’s U20 World Cup as one of the continent’s four best teams. On the journey back to the team hotel, players — with camera phones in hand — sang “We are all Salman” as they drummed their palms on whatever surfaces they could find.
It was a rare moment of release for a group of teenagers who had arrived in Jakarta with the weight of expectation to at least emulate the previous generation, which had qualified for the global championship by way of reaching the regional final. The convincing victory against the Young Socceroos allowed them to relax, but their focus must quickly return if they are to end a 26-year drought and bring the Asian trophy back to the Kingdom.
Hazem Al-Zahrani, the Al-Ittihad defender who was an unused substitute, said he and his teammates “strive to go to the World Cup as heroes,” while goalkeeper Abdulrahman Al-Shamrani said the feeling of qualification was “indescribable,” adding “we promise the masses to return to the country as heroes of Asia”.
Coach Khalid Al-Atawi, formerly of Al-Najoom, conceded his side had arrived with the objective of World Cup qualification. “We played to reach this goal, and we reached it,” he said. “I’m very happy that we will now participate in the World Cup. I congratulate the Saudi people and we are very fortunate to have the honor of representing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
Tomorrow’s semifinal opponents, however, are Japan, a country that is quickly becoming a thorn in the side of a Saudi Arabia team desperate for tangible success. In 2016, Sami Al-Najei and Abdulrahman Al-Yami shared the Golden Boot at the U19 Asian Championships, but it was the Japanese who lifted the trophy, beating the Young Falcons on penalties after a 120-minute stalemate in the final.
At August’s Asian Games, which is open to U23s, Saudi Arabia registered a squad made up entirely of players aged under-21. It is a tactic long adopted by Japan, who use the Asian Games as preparation for the U23 Asian Championships, which offer direct qualification to the Olympics. The Young Falcons impressed on route to the quarterfinals, yet it was the Blue Samurai again who ended their participation, beating them 2-1 in the last-eight.
Victory tomorrow would mean more than simply a place in the final. 
Although South Korea and Qatar have also reached the semis, it is Japan and Saudi Arabia who are generally regarded as the two best teams at this month’s 16-nation tournament. Neither have dropped a point yet this month, recording a perfect record of four wins from four games, although free-scoring Japan’s goal difference is substantially more impressive. Al-Atawi nonetheless believes his team can go all the way.
“We are trying to do our best in every game,” he said. “In any game, we want to do more than the game before. In this competition, the team is improving from game to game, so we are looking forward to achieving the highest level we can. We are preparing these players for this competition. We hope we can perform well, and we are building step by step. The sky is our limit.”
The Young Falcons have reached the semifinals on four occasions since they beat South Korea 2-0 in the 1992 final, but have yet to claim the ultimate prize. This year’s squad have frightening pace and are technically excellent, with Al-Shabab’s Turki Al-Ammar in particular gaining attention with a series of eye-catching displays. Al-Atawi, however, refuses to single out players for praise, insisting instead on the importance of the collective.
“Turki is one of 23 players and I treat them all equally, but I think he will be a star in the future,” said Al-Atawi of the midfielder who opened the scoring against Australia to claim his second goal of the tournament. “I can guarantee though that we will see more stars come from these 23 players in the future.”

Motorsport must encourage more women to compete, says Saudi female driver Aseel Al-Hamad

Updated 21 November 2019

Motorsport must encourage more women to compete, says Saudi female driver Aseel Al-Hamad

  • FIA is hosting an event alongside the Nov. 22-23 Diriyah ePrix called “Girls on Track"
  • Said Kingdom hosting events like Formula E is vital in boosting popularity of motorsport

RIYADH: One of Saudi Arabia’s first female racing drivers believes motorsport is too male dominated and that more needs to be done to encourage women to enter the sport.

Speaking exclusively to Arab News, Aseel Al-Hamad said the fact that only 1.5 percent of racing licences are held by women was “a big international issue.”

Al-Hamad, who is also the first female board member of the Saudi Arabian Motor Federation, said that while there are some women blazing a trail in the sport, more needs to be done by its authorities.

“There are Formula 1 drivers like Tatiana Calderón, team principles such as Susie Wolff and Claire Williams. We also have female mechanical engineers and in all kinds of positions, but they are just a few. 

“We need to use them as role models to encourage more young girls to become like these amazing women,” she added.

Al-Hamad, who has been passionate about cars since her youth, told Arab News that she is a fan of Formula 1 and a highlight of her career was being invited to drive an F1 car, but her driving idol was Michèle Mouton. 

“Because, back then in the 1980s, she competed in an all-men rally championship. And honestly, I don't think anyone did what she did at that time,” she said.

It is experiences like those that inspired her to forge a path for more women in motorsport and lead the way for female drivers in Saudi Arabia and beyond.

Al-Hamad, who mixes racing with her interior design business, is one of the representatives on the International Automobile Federation (FIA)’s “Women in Motorsport Commission”, which creates programs and initiatives to encourage more young girls to be inspired by the sport and consider it as a career.

“I won’t forget the day I got contacted by the president of the Federation asking me to join the board of directors, it's great because I have lots of difficulties in my career and it's so great to now build a foundation for these young women and ensure that they won't go through the struggles and the challenges I went through,” she said.

On the possibility of one day seeing a Saudi female world champion in major motorsport such as F1 and Formula E, she said: “Today, it is possible, especially when we are seeing how the government is very much supporting sports and women’s participation in sport. 

“We have just recently started and we're starting really fast. I won’t be surprised to see a champion soon competing in big international events.”

Al-Hamad also said the Kingdom hosting events like Formula E is vital in boosting the popularity of motorsport in the country and the wider region. 

“Maybe most of the people used to watch football. But, today, when we have such international motorsport event, so many people will get closer to the motorsport and understand the rules. 

“And maybe these young generations, when they attend the race, they might get inspired and become fans of motorsport.” She added.

The FIA is hosting an event alongside the Nov. 22-23 Diriyah ePrix called “Girls on Track,” the second time such an event has been held outside of Europe.

“This event is very much focused on encouraging young girls from eight to 18 years old to discover their talents and motorsport, hopefully it will inspire them to consider a career in motorsport,” Al-Hamad said. 

The event will include educational workshops to introduce girls to a range of topics -- from mechanical engineering to motorsport journalism, as well as opportunities to use racing simulators and to drive on a carting track.

The girls will also take part in a panel discussion with some figurehead females in motorsport including Susie Wolff, team principal of Venturi Formula E. 

“We've approached mostly schools and we sent them invitations to have girls register and hopefully they will discover their talents,” Al-Hamad said.

Her advice to young women is to achieve what they dream for, even if they are dreaming big.

“They might have some fears at the beginning, they might think it's impossible. But my advice to them is to take small steps and just think of the steps with time, they will be surprised that they actually achieve their dreams,” she said.

Ahead of the Diriyah ePrix, Al-Hamad drove Porsche’s first all-electric road vehicle -- the Taycan -- from Dubai to Riyadh with former F1 driver Mark Webber.

Ahead of the Diriyah ePrix, Al-Hamad drove Porsche’s first all-electric road vehicle -- the Taycan -- from Dubai to Riyadh with former F1 driver Mark Webber. The model goes on sale in the Middle East in 2020. (Porsche)

The Taycan, which goes on sale in the Middle East in 2020, is the most powerful production electric model that the sports car manufacturer currently has in its product range, hitting 0-100kmh in 3.2 seconds.

On driving it, Al-Hamad said: “We wanted to test the performance of the car and it's great that we just arrived ahead of Porsche's debut in the Formula E this weekend.

“I love the handling, the feeling, it's a fast car, it has the same Porsche DNA in its interior and exterior. It is a beautiful car.”