Saudi club Al-Hilal impresses with social media success

Saudi club Al-Hilal impresses with social media success
Al-Hilal after winning a record-equaling third Asian Champions League title in November last year in Saitama, Japan. (Files/AFP)
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Updated 11 September 2020

Saudi club Al-Hilal impresses with social media success

Saudi club Al-Hilal impresses with social media success

LONDON: When Al-Hilal became Asian champions for the third time last November, they joined Pohang Steelers of South Korea as the most successful teams in the continent’s history. When it comes to social media however, it is clear who is No. 1 in Asia.

With 9 million followers on Twitter, Al-Hilal are head and shoulders above the rest and have 150 times more followers than Pohang. It is not just about Asia; Al-Hilal rank alongside the biggest clubs in the world on the platform and surpass the likes of European giants Bayern Munich and Juventus. 

Other leading teams in the Saudi Pro League are also far ahead of continental counterparts, with Al-Ittihad close to 4 million and Al-Nassr near 3 million. Some of Asia’s biggest clubs, such as Urawa Reds of Japan with their 400,000 followers, can only dream of such figures. Only Indonesian giants can come close, with Persija Jakarta at 2.9 million followers on Twitter and Persib Bandung at 3.3 million.

In 2019, the Saudi league was ranked as the third-highest league in the world in terms of fan interaction on social media. Tweets about the league reached 80 million from 40 million accounts, surpassing the Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue One. Only the English Premier League and La Liga had higher rates of engagement.

How have Saudi clubs done it? That is a question that people are starting to ask around Asia. One reason is the sheer numbers on Twitter. “It has always been by far the most popular social media platform in Saudi Arabia,” said Wael Jabir, founder and CEO of Ahdaaf, a Dubai-based football digital content company. “In fact, Saudi Arabia has one of the highest percentages of population on the platform worldwide.”

Jabir noted that Al-Hilal have improved their quality of late but believes that these clubs gain a major advantage from the size of their fanbases. “I’d even argue that the top four Saudi clubs are not even the best in the league in terms of social media content quality, but their popularity is such that above average content gets massive engagement.”

FASTFACT

 

Al-Hilal and other Saudi teams are not going to rival the likes of Barcelona in terms of global profile, but they can raise their standing across the world. 

That engagement leads to a higher quality social media presence, however, as fans and clubs interact. 

“If we take a look on Al-Hilal’s social media platforms, we will see how most of their content is football-related,” Xavi Bove, sports marketing consultant, said. “Lineups, results, goals celebrations or post-game photographs are predominant in their feed. The club publishes original content regarding players’ birthdays or families.” The Spaniard believes that more behind-the-scenes or fan-generated content would improve the product further. “Such strategies have been very useful for clubs like FC Barcelona.”

Al-Hilal and other Saudi teams are not going to rival the likes of Barcelona in terms of global profile, but they can raise their standing across the world. 

“Leveraging Saudi fan passion across the digital landscape together with the expansion to international markets through the signing of foreign players and more content beyond football can surely boost Saudi teams’ exposure in global markets,” Bove said. “A conscious exercise of branding and storytelling will become crucial to create more interest and trust both locally but especially globally, since football is shifting toward the industry of entertainment rather than sport. And, of course, success on the pitch is always important to attract fans and followers, as we tend to seek brands that genuinely inspire us.”

Bove added that signing big stars from countries such as Brazil helps increase awareness, but Kim Myung-won, a Seoul-based social media and communications expert, believes Asia should be a first port of call, especially as nations such as South Korea and Japan have a lot to learn from Saudi teams.

“Just follow the posts ahead of a game. A map of the world is posted with all the different times listed, which fans in different countries can watch,” said Myung-won. “It is simple but effective in showing that the club sees itself as an inclusive international brand. It is a call to action, too.”

Video content is also hugely important. Myung-won pointed to Al-Nassr’s welcome of South Korean international defender Kim Jin-su, who was signed at the end of August. 

The video opened overlooking the megacity of Seoul with Jin-su packing his bags in a hotel room and telling fans of his new club how much the move meant to him. 

“It was simply but beautifully done,” said Myung-won. “It showed a little of Jin-su and his homeland and immediately brought the player closer to fans. Signing a left-back from South Korea is not going to get fans too excited, but this video makes a difference.”

For too long, Myung-won says, the rest of Asia have either not known of the social media success of Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr and other teams in Saudi Arabia, or have not cared. That should change.

“Clubs here in Korea and Japan think that they can learn only from Europe, but officials should be flying to Saudi Arabia,” said Myung-won. 


Documentary highlights Saudi Greens’ tournament run in 2019

Documentary highlights Saudi Greens’ tournament run in 2019
Updated 03 March 2021

Documentary highlights Saudi Greens’ tournament run in 2019

Documentary highlights Saudi Greens’ tournament run in 2019
  • All-female team competed in New York City while also promoting environmental causes

RIYADH: The profile of women’s football in Saudi Arabia continues to rise.

The first Women’s Football League was established in the Kingdom last year and now a new film documenting the historic appearance of the Saudi Greens at the 2019 Global Goals World Cup (GGWCup) is being released by the Saudi Sports for All Federation (SFA).

Launched across the SFA website, its YouTube channel and social media accounts last week, the documentary chronicles the all-women Saudi football team’s journey at the GGWCup in New York City.

It was the first time a female sports team from the Kingdom had ever competed in the US, but the team’s involvement went beyond just a sporting achievement.

The tournament framed the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a sport, as 30 teams worldwide competed to create the kind of world they would like to see. Each team created an action plan with a particular global goal and strived to achieve it in their own country while also competing in five-a-side football tournaments.

Regional qualifying rounds determined which teams progressed to the finals in New York, where the winner was decided based on the impact of its activism and performance on the pitch.

In 2019, the Greens focused on SDG 15 “Life on Land,” bringing attention to the effects of single-use plastics on the environment. Prior to the tournament, team members hosted community events and campaigns across the Kingdom, helping to educate people on the impact of plastics and the wider SDGs in general.

The team distributed reusable bags, collected litter, held awareness talks, and collaborated with local schools and sports clubs to collect plastic bottles and teach children about the importance of recycling.

After they progressed through qualifiers in Copenhagen, the Greens joined 14 other teams at the 2019 finals, where they finished in second place. 

The documentary highlights the team’s experience in New York, but not just in footballing terms. The film also reflects on the team’s social development, international bridge-building and the Greens’ role in boosting female empowerment within Saudi Arabia.

The Greens were formed in 2018 with support from the SFA, the Saudi Ministry of Sports and the country’s Olympic Committee. Less than three year later, the team has come to symbolize progress and female empowerment in the Kingdom.

Since the tournament, the team has hosted virtual workout sessions for the GGWCup Clubhouse, contributed to SFA events and initiatives, and paved the way for the Women’s Football League, which was launched last February.

The latest role for the team will be as ambassadors for the upcoming GGWCup Saudi Arabia – the Kingdom’s first qualifying round of the global competition – due to take place this year.


Golf Saudi launches ‘Power of the Game’ podcast

Golf fans in Saudi Arabia can now get the inside track to the Kingdom’s plans for the game via Golf Saudi’s brand-new podcast – Power of the Game. (Supplied)
Golf fans in Saudi Arabia can now get the inside track to the Kingdom’s plans for the game via Golf Saudi’s brand-new podcast – Power of the Game. (Supplied)
Updated 02 March 2021

Golf Saudi launches ‘Power of the Game’ podcast

Golf fans in Saudi Arabia can now get the inside track to the Kingdom’s plans for the game via Golf Saudi’s brand-new podcast – Power of the Game. (Supplied)
  • The podcast series is hosted by Dubai Eye’s golf obsessive Robbie Greenfield

LONDON: Golf fans in Saudi Arabia can now get the inside track to the Kingdom’s plans for the game via Golf Saudi’s brand-new podcast – Power of the Game.

The series has been launched to explore the creation of new golf courses, efforts to bring new players into the game and shed light on Saudi Arabia’s golf sustainability mission, as it seeks to establish the world’s most integrated golfing ecosystem.  

The podcast series is hosted by Dubai Eye’s golf obsessive Robbie Greenfield, who will regularly invite guests to discuss their involvement in golf development in the Kingdom.

The first five episodes have been released on Tuesday as a “box-set” and include discussions with Ladies European Tour CEO, Alex Armas, 2018 Ryder Cup Captain Thomas Bjorn and an exclusive feature with Jack Nicklaus, who describes the designs for his new golf course at Qiddiya.

The podcast series underlines Golf Saudi’s ambition and its connectivity to the national Vision 2030 program and will emphasise Saudi Arabia’s role in establishing new global benchmarks across its six pillars: Access and Infrastructure, Events, National Team and Academies, Sustainability, Mass Participation and Tourism.

These will deliver key metrics in the next decade for the country, including having up to 27,000 registered golfers in the Kingdom and ensuring over one million Saudi nationals have actively tried golf. 

Commenting on the new podcast for the country, Majed Al Sorour, CEO of Golf Saudi and The Saudi Golf Federation, said: “At Golf Saudi, we have a number of over-arching aspirations for golf in the Kingdom and we wanted to give our new listeners the chance to hear more about these. We have laid out major plans for the socio-economic growth and development of the golf in the Kingdom, through tourism, commerce, investment and the entertainment sectors and are working with many amazing organisations and people to deliver these.  

“These are hugely exciting times and through the ‘Power of the Game’ podcast series we hope the stories of the work we are doing and the passion shown by these individuals shines through and gives our listeners a better view than ever of the scale of our ambition.” 

Listeners will be able to tune into each episode via major podcast providers: Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Stitcher.  


Life-altering operation keeps Olympic dream alive for Emirati surfer

Life-altering operation keeps Olympic dream alive for Emirati surfer
Updated 02 March 2021

Life-altering operation keeps Olympic dream alive for Emirati surfer

Life-altering operation keeps Olympic dream alive for Emirati surfer
  • Mohammad Hassan had his colon removed after years of discomfort. Now he has Tokyo in his sights
  • The operation to have the Stoma changed his life for the better and kept the dream alive, and now he is faced with option of having another operation which would do away with the bag

DUBAI: On his surfboard, waiting for the next wave.

Mohammad Hassan is never happier than when he is alone in the water.

The story of the Emirati’s attempt to be the only Arab surfer at the Tokyo Olympics would be inspiring at the best of times. But as it happens, Hassan also had to overcome a debilitating and life-threatening disease to follow his dream.

The baggage, in his case, is quite literal.

In August 2020, the 33-year-old had his colon removed, and the professional surfer now passes solid waste through a stoma in his abdomen that connects to a waterproof pouch called an ostomy bag.

“The first thing that came to my mind was, would I be able to live a normal life,” he said of his post-surgery state of mind.

“Would I be able to do my sports? All these things kicked in, and also looking at surgery itself, because I had to have a stoma, the first thing that came up was, would I be able to lay down on my board? Especially as I was trying to qualify for the Olympics.”

A naturally positive person, Hassan was nonetheless racked with concerns.

Will I be able to compete? Will I be able to do all the things I did before?

“Having the stoma was very difficult,” he said. “In my mind it was very difficult to lay down on my board, that was the main concern.”

Diagnosed with ulcerative colitis 15-years-ago meant that Hassan, a talented football and rugby player, could barely function in his everyday life, never mind in competitive sports.

Leaving the pitch every few minutes for bathroom break soon ended his team sports aspirations.

After moving to Australia, the Emirati increasingly found solace in surfing.

“Watersports were the perfect scenario,” he said. “I could sit in the water, enjoy my time.”

“[At first] I never knew what surfing was,” he said.

“So when I got injured playing rugby, through rehabilitation in the water I saw people surf and that’s how I got into it. I really enjoy the water. Water was my escape from everything. Every time I would go in the water, I’d feel at ease, I’d feel really good, I’d forget everything that happened during the day. And when I found sport I could do in the water, that was it, I clicked with it.”

He would carry his love of surfing with him to the US and eventually back home to the UAE.

“Sports come naturally to me, but I picked up surfing super well,” said Hassan, who was encouraged to pick the sport by his Australian friends.

“From the first time I caught the first wave, it felt good, it felt comfortable. I think I picked up really quick. I was born a surfer.”

But over the years medication could not improve Hassan’s illness, and he returned to the UAE two years ago.

During a routine follow-up for a patient with ulcerative colitis, a colonoscopy revealed pre-cancerous cells in Hassan’s colon. What was a daily inconvenience became life-threatening.

A team of surgeons and pathologists at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi advised a total colectomy – the removal of the colon.

Successful surgery meant saving his life by eliminating cancer, and effectively curing his colitis, eliminating his symptoms.

Hassan would have to carry the bag with him, but he had his life back.

That he was soon back on his surfboard and dreaming of Olympic glory is testament to his willpower as much as it is to the team of doctors.

“In the past we used to do surgeries like this the traditional way,” said Dr. Shafik Sidani, the colorectal surgeon who performed the surgery at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi.

“Which is open [surgery], big incision down the abdomen and basically the patients stay for many days if not weeks in the hospital. They don’t eat and drink for a while and when they recover, it’s slow recovery.”

Modern advances mean such operations are now carried out with small keyhole incisions, ensuring less pain and quicker recovery time for the patients.

A procedure called Enhanced Recovery After Surgery (ERAS) played a big role in Hassan’s return to a normal life.

“It’s basically a pathway in patient care that starts the moment the patient walks through the door with a diagnosis,” Sidani added.

“We prepare the patient for surgery physically, mentally and we set expectations, we educate the patient. We involve the patient in the care and the decision of the treatment.”

“Mo added another element to all this in that the stars aligned with him and with our pathway, with his motivations, his expectations and what he wanted out of this,” the doctor added.

“So he took it to another level, really pushed himself to recover quicker. He didn’t play the sick role for as long, he tried to move on.”

Now Hassan is taking the steps back into professional surfing and looking to emulate some of his heroes

“My favorites are ‘John John’ Florence and Julian Wilson,” he said.

“I really enjoyed the way they surf, I enjoyed their creativity on the water, and I really like their Air Game, so they were my go-to surfers. I surfed with John John so that was dream come true."

Pursuing the biggest dream of all, surfing in the Olympics, did not happen overnight. The World Cup of surfing came first.

“My coach Matt told me, ‘why don’t you compete for the UAE? I don’t think anyone has competed from the Gulf countries.’ Give it a go, I’m going to teach you, I’m going to help you out and we’ll see how it goes’. I agreed,” Hassan recalls of a conversation in 2018.

It worked.

Qualification to the World Surfing Games followed, where he was the only surfer form the Middle East.

Then came the World Qualification Series (WQS) for the World Surf League. A few wins got him “excited”.

And when surfing was announced as an Olympic sport for the Tokyo Games, his path was set.

The operation to have the Stoma changed his life for the better and kept the dream alive, and now he is faced with option of having another operation which would do away with the bag.

It’s a decision he is pondering as he is happy with the quality of life he is currently enjoying, as proven by his participation in the Dubai Fitness Challenge 2020, playing 30 different sports in 30 days.

The Final Olympic Surfing Qualifier in El Salvador at the end of May will determine his fate.

Hassan admits to being a bit rusty after the operation, and Covid-19 restrictions have not helped his training program.

But it will all be worth it if he makes it to Japan wearing his country’s colors.

And what would it mean to represent the UAE at the Olympics?

“Everything,” Hassan said. “The UAE has given me so much, and I think this is the time for me to pay it back.”


Sister act as Korda romps to Gainbridge LPGA win

Sister act as Korda romps to Gainbridge LPGA win
Updated 02 March 2021

Sister act as Korda romps to Gainbridge LPGA win

Sister act as Korda romps to Gainbridge LPGA win
  • Three birdies in her opening six holes gave her a healthy cushion at the top of the leaderboard, leaving her five shots clear at one stage

MIAMI: Nelly Korda produced a flawless final round to claim a three-shot victory at the Gainbridge LPGA tournament in Florida on Sunday.

Korda — whose elder sister Jessica won the LPGA Tour’s previous event, the season-opening Tournament of Champions in January — fired a three-under-par 69 to finish on 16 under.

The 22-year-old, whose father is former Czech tennis star Petr Korda, had opened up a one-shot lead on Saturday with a four-under-par 68.

On Sunday at Orlando’s Lake Nona Golf and Country Club, she picked up where she left off in the third round.

Three birdies in her opening six holes gave her a healthy cushion at the top of the leaderboard, leaving her five shots clear at one stage.

She then reeled off 12 consecutive pars to remain in control and close out the fourth LPGA Tour victory of her career with her parents and sister Jessica rushing to congratulate her on the 18th green.

“Honestly I did not play very good golf today,” Korda told a television interviewer moments after clinching her first career win on US soil.

“I just stayed really solid. I honestly don’t know how I did it. It was definitely very stressful.

“Winning in front of my parents was a first too, so that was really nice.”

Korda’s 72-hole aggregate 272 left her three clear of Lexi Thompson and Lydia Ko who finished tied for second on 13 under.

Thompson had closed to within three of Korda with a brilliant eagle three at the par-five 11th, but a bogey on the following hole stymied her chances of mounting a charge down the stretch. Thompson finished with a four-under-par 68.

New Zealand’s former world No. 1 Ko stormed up the leaderboard at the start of the back nine with four consecutive birdies starting on the 12th hole, eventually carding a three-under-par 69.

World number one Ko Jin-young meanwhile finished five off the lead in fourth place on 11 under. Ko posted a one-under-par-71 after an erratic final round that included four birdies and three bogeys.

There was disappointment for Thailand’s Patty Tavatanakit, who had started the day one off the lead.

The 21-year-old rookie faded with a two-over-par 74, with two bogeys and a double bogey on the front nine dropping her out of contention.

Tavatanakit finished on 10 under alongside Australia’s Sarah Kemp, who shot a three-under-par 69.

Meanwhile, LPGA great Annika Sorenstam, who parred her final hole on Friday to make the cut in her first tour start since 2008, closed with a four-over-par 76, propping up the leaderboard on 13 over.


How a group of Saudi female showjumpers took over the reins

The Equestrian Union was established in 2015 bu group of Saudi female riders with an aim to compete on equal footing with male counterparts. (The Equestrian Union)
The Equestrian Union was established in 2015 bu group of Saudi female riders with an aim to compete on equal footing with male counterparts. (The Equestrian Union)
Updated 01 March 2021

How a group of Saudi female showjumpers took over the reins

The Equestrian Union was established in 2015 bu group of Saudi female riders with an aim to compete on equal footing with male counterparts. (The Equestrian Union)
  • The Equestrian Union was formed in 2015 to allow women to compete on equal footing with men in the Kingdom

DUBAI: If it doesn’t exist, create it.

That seems to be the attitude of Saudi female athletes increasingly taking matters into their own hands. Women footballers and motor-racing drivers in the Kingdom have rightly been making the headlines recently.

But a group of six female showjumpers have been riding the wave of change even before societal reforms swept through the Kingdom and brought gender equality to the fore, as part of its Vision 2030 goals.

For years, the group of friends would attend showjumping competitions throughout the season as spectators. Until one day, while at an Equestrian Federation show in Jenadriya, they decided to establish an organization that would cater to their love of the sport, and allow them to compete on equal terms with male show jumpers.

They named it the Equestrian Union.

“Equestrian Union is an initiative that we started as Saudi female riders back in 2015, addressing the fact that there were no competitions that allowed female participation in Saudi Arabia at that time,” Mashael bint Mansour Binsultan, one of the founding showjumpers, told Arab News. She has been riding horses for the past 20 years.

“We had top imported horses, professional trainers, private stables and all the unconditional support of our families. We trained daily and took care of our horses; it was a lifestyle,” she added.

There was further positive change when in 2019, the Equestrian Federation opened up opens up participation for all female riders.

After that, progress has been rapid. In December 2019, 13 female Saudi equestrians made their home debut as part of the Diriyah Season, competing with their male counterparts for the first time ever in the Kingdom.

Binsultan, along with Sara Alruwaita, Ajwa Alsaud, Loulouah Bandar, Shuaa Alakeel and Sara Aljowie, had been honing their organisational skills long before that.

“We (had) started planning and managing events during the winter season since 2015, which shed light on showjumping competitions specifically but also included many other aspects such as cycling, hiking, archery, promoting local Saudi brands, food trucks, and horse trails,” Binsultan explained. “As a result, we gained experience in managing and organizing shows and events.”

Their first show took place in October 2015 and met all the standards of the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI).

“We want to continue promoting not only showjumping, but also social family-oriented sporting events and recreational activities, which is one of the main strategic goals of the Saudi Vision 2030,” Binsultan said. “Our families and friends were extremely supportive since the beginning. We were also fortunate enough to get added technical experience and support from local and international companies that sponsored some of the showjumping classes.”

Mansour AlMugatti, an international course designer and judge, continues to lend his support with the events to this day.

“We were very happy with the support and positive feedback we had from the Equestrian Federation which came from Prince Abdullah Bin Fahad, the president of the Equestrian Federation, honoring the winners in our last event,” she added.

Binsultan said, under the administration of the Minister of Sports Prince Abdulaziz Bin Turki, equestrian tournaments, in particular the Saudi Cup, are joining some of the highest profile events in the Kingdom — such as Formula E, the Clash on the Dunes heavyweight boxing bout, the Diriyah Tennis Cup and the Asian Games 2034.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia will host international four and five star showjumping events in Riyadh during the 2020-2021 season, and the Equestrian World Games 2024.

“I was immediately interested as, at the time, we did not have shows that allowed women to compete in Saudi Arabia and it was a fun way to spend the day with my friends, family and horses,” Bandar told Arab News. “I have always been into horses. I really don’t know why or how it started but both my parents rode as children and encouraged me when I expressed interest. I have a lot of family members who owned horses so I have always been around them.”

Bandar believes the Union provides a platform for equestrian lovers to practice their skills, without the pressures that comes with competing at a federation show.

“It’s a great place to come to if you are a beginner, someone with a new horse or even someone wanting to get in extra ‘schooling’ with your horse,” said the 26-year-old. “It’s also important because, a lot of the time, riders spend weekends at shows away from their family and friends, and with Equestrian Union, they can have a day out and enjoy it with their family members and loved ones.”

Alruwaita’s passion for horse-riding began at the age of 15 and alongside a friend, she went on to open “Tack Shack”, an equestrian goods store in Riyadh.

“I loved it,” she said, addressing the changes that have taken place in the Kingdom over the last decade. “Everything changed, the sport itself, the type of competitions and even the riders. Today, we have more competitions, the riders’ levels have improved, and there are more people involved.”

For Binsultan, the success of the Equestrian Union is down to the opportunities have presented themselves in the wake of societal and social change in the Kingdom.

“Everyone can see the reform that Saudi Arabia is going through with the leadership of (the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques) King Salman, and the ambitious vision of the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman,” Binsultan said. “The vision touches on all aspects of life across all social and economic dimensions, with a strong focus on enhancing the quality of life with a specific focus on human well-being through the promotion of the sports sector. We wish all the best to our Kingdom and hope we can be a part of this optimistic vision.”