Saudi Arabia makes history with AlUla Desert Polo match

The Winter at Tantora festival will feature a special polo event that is played on sand rather than the usual grass. (Photo/Supplied)
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Updated 14 January 2020

Saudi Arabia makes history with AlUla Desert Polo match

  • It is the first event of its kind to be played on sand, and first organized by the Saudi Polo Federation

JEDDAH: A very special equestrian event this week will break new ground not only for Saudi Arabia but for global sport.

AlUla Desert Polo is the first official polo event to be played on a field of sand, rather than the more usual grass. It is also the first match organized in association with the Saudi Polo Federation, which was formed in July 2018.

However, as federation chairman Amr Zedan explained, the inspiration for the event, which will take place from Jan. 16 to 18 as part of the Winter at Tantora festival, comes from a very different environment.

“It’s inspired by the snow polo event in St. Moritz,” he said. “AlUla Desert Polo is a unique event in both Saudi and global terms.”

Zedan, who has played polo around the world for 20 years, established the Zedan Polo Team in 2005. However, this week’s event is particularly special to him, as he hopes it will help to promote the sport in the Kingdom, encourage young people to give it a go and provide a solid foundation for its future growth in the country, which is something he is passionate about.

“From my perspective, the highlight of AlUla Desert Polo is the power that sport has to instigate positive change in society,” he said.

Zedan believes the Saudi Vision 2030 initiative to develop and diversify the country’s economy and society has helped to make great strides in the development of many sports, including polo.

“Saudi Arabia has a great pool of untapped talent in all sporting arenas,” he said, adding that a growing number of Saudi equestrians have excelled in international competitions around the world.

“We know that many young Saudis love horses and we want to give them a chance to become involved in what is an exciting and rewarding sport. This event brings the world’s best.”

First played as long ago as the 6th century BC, according to some historians, polo is one of the oldest equestrian sports in the world. Two teams of four players on horseback use mallets with long handles to attempt to hit a wooden ball into the opposition’s goal. The desert sands of AlUla not only provide a different type of terrain on which to play, but the ancient, historic location is an unusually stunning venue.

“Polo has never been played against such a unique, spectacular and unspoiled backdrop before,” said Zedan. “AlUla is an ancient, UNESCO World Heritage site, with very strong links to the horse heritage that runs throughout Saudi Arabia. It will be an outstanding event, one that the people who play in it and watch it will never forget.”

The safety and welfare of the horses is paramount, given the unusual venue and surface. Zedan said that experts have been brought in to prepare a playing surface that is suitable and safe for the animals, without damaging the unspoiled landscape of AlUla’s sandstone outcrops.

“This game has given me so much pleasure over the years and I feel great satisfaction in being able to now share this passion with the people of Saudi Arabia,” he added. “In addition, I am from the Madinah Al-Munawara region, of which AlUla is a part, so this event is something of a homecoming for me.”


Africa Cup switch to winter sends a chill through European leagues

Updated 21 January 2020

Africa Cup switch to winter sends a chill through European leagues

  • High-profile African players playing in England include the Arsenal duo Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang of Gabon and Nicolas Pepe of Cote d’Ivoire

CAIRO: There is little doubt that the switch by the Africa Cup of Nations from summer to winter competition will have a big impact on European competitions, with those at the top of the Premier League perhaps most affected.

The confederation confirmed that from 2021 when Cameroon will play host, the tournament will revert back to being played in January and February.

The tournament was moved to a June-July slot for last year’s edition in Egypt, which meant minimal disruption to the European domestic season. But plenty of Premier League managers will be left with problems this time next year, with several stars likely to leave for up to six weeks, including pre-tournament preparations.

Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp appears to face the biggest headache given that two of his star attacking players, Mohamed Salah from Egypt and Sadio Mane from Senegal, both featured in the African tournament last summer and are almost certain to be involved in the 2021 competition in some capacity.

High-profile African players playing in England include the Arsenal duo Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang of Gabon and Nicolas Pepe of Cote d’Ivoire, while Manchester City will lose Riyad Mahrez should Algeria feature.

Klopp is critical of the decision to move the tournament dates, calling it “a catastrophe.” Salah and Mane’s absence would leave huge gaps in the Liverpool side. There is also Cameroon’s Joel Matip and Guinea’s Naby Keita to worry about. Matip has become solid at the back. Keita, too, would be a loss given his recent resurgence.

The Liverpool manager is upset because last year’s tournament was moved to mid-year to end a long-standing clash between clubs and countries over the release of their players. It was felt that common sense had prevailed when the tournament, which since 1960 had always been held during winter, reverted to summer. African players in western European clubs would no longer find themselves the target of competing claims for their attention every other season, which would benefit the players and their clubs and countries, and lead to fewer squabbles.

But then Cameroon changed its mind about hosting the tournament in summer next year, changing the dates from June and July to between Jan. 6 and Feb. 6. Why? The weather. It’s simply too hot in Cameroon in summer.

Organizers said they had agreed to the change after discussions with player and coach representatives.

But didn’t Cameroon know beforehand that its summers are too hot, too humid and right in the middle of its rainy season? That the country does not enjoy ideal conditions for football in summer could not have taken its organizers by complete surprise.

The situation serves as a vivid reminder of the botch-up of the 2022 Qatar World Cup. The host and FIFA decided that the World Cup, which is forever played in summer, would be moved to winter because of Qatar’s oppressive heat — but that decision came only after Qatar won the bid. That change, again, will mean a head-on clash with international tournaments and club competitions.

A football tournament simply cannot keep changing when it will be held as often as people change their socks. This is especially true for the Africa Cup of Nations, which is played every two years.

A major sports tournament must have fixed times. And, to be sure, its organizers should understand that you can’t please everybody. A championship’s times are bound to clash with some tournament or other. The African tournament, for example, will avoid a clash with FIFA’s revamped 24-team Club World Cup to be played in China in June and July 2021. But it cannot but conflict with European leagues. The important thing is to stay the course. Once a date is picked, it should be stuck to like glue.