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. 


Al-Hilal’s new signing Marega has big shoes to fill to replace club legend Gomis

Al-Hilal’s new signing Marega has big shoes to fill to replace club legend Gomis
Updated 10 May 2021

Al-Hilal’s new signing Marega has big shoes to fill to replace club legend Gomis

Al-Hilal’s new signing Marega has big shoes to fill to replace club legend Gomis
  • The Malian striker will join up with the Riyadh club at the start of next season

LONDON: Al-Hilal may go through coaches at a rapid rate but when it comes to recruiting strikers, the Saudi Arabian giants have a far-sighted policy in place. No sooner had Bafetimbi Gomis become the fastest foreign player to score 100 goals for the club, it was announced that a new striker and a potential replacement was on his way to Riyadh. 

Moussa Marega was last seen scoring in the Portuguese league on April 22 to keep FC Porto’s title hopes alive and, from next season, the 30 year old will be an Al-Hilal player. As the French-born Mali international is out of contract at the end of the Primera Liga season and available on a free transfer, it marks a good bit of business from Al-Hilal, who will pay a reported 5 million euros ($6 million) a year over a three-year contract.

“In 1991, I was born in the French city of Les Ulis and in the same year, Al-Hilal won their first continental title,” Marega said as he was unveiled by the three-time Asian champions.

“These two stories continue to excite and they crossed again in 2020 when Al-Hilal won a hat-trick (of trophies) in Saudi Arabia and I did the same in Portugal,” he added, referring to his part in Porto’s triumph in the Portuguese League, Cup and Super Cup. “And now in 2021, my next destination is Saudi Arabia.”

Marega scored 52 league goals in his four seasons with Porto, and a further 10 in domestic cups. He also managed six goals in the 2018-19 UEFA Champions League as he became the joint-third highest scorer that year alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Aguero.

He was welcomed to Riyadh by Gomis, who wrote on Twitter: “Welcome to (the) Al-Hilal family my brother.”

Marega’s arrival is likely to herald the end of Gomis’ time in Riyadh. The French forward has been one of the most successful foreign imports in the history of Saudi Arabian football. His 100th goal on Friday, one of two he scored in the 5-1 win against second placed Al-Shabab, that sent the defending champions three points clear with four games to play, came in only his 126th appearance for the club. Sixty-eight of those goals came in the league, eight in the King’s Cup, 17 in Asia — he was top scorer as Al-Hilal won the tournament in 2019 — five in the Arab Championship and two in the Club World Cup.

Gomis turns 36 in August and the arrival of Marega means speculation the former Lyon and Swansea star will return to Europe will intensify. When he does leave, the striker has said that he wishes to do so as a hero of Al-Hilal, though he refuses to comment specifically on a date.

“One day I will definitely leave but I want to leave when we have won the title,” Gomis said. “I have won many titles and had many historical achievements.”

Gomis helped Al-Hilal to the Saudi title last year and the AFC Champions League the year before and wants more prizes before he departs.

“This will be the best end for me. I would like history to remember that I was one of the leading goalscorers at Al-Hilal.

“It is my duty to give everything to the team and the fans, I know they love me personally so I feel a great responsibility towards them. That is why against Al-Shabab, I tried to do everything I could, both in attack and defence, for the team and especially for those fans,” he added.

The two goals Gomis netted against Al-Shabab were not just typical strikes from the star — and not only meant Al-Hilal are in touching distance of a successive title — but also meant Gomis now has 20 for the season, four more than Abha’s Carlos Strandberg, and is top of the goalscoring charts.

“The game against Al-Shabab is not the most important this season, it is all about the title and success for Al-Hilal but it is true that winning here brings us closer to the title,” he said. “It is something very special and I am delighted to achieve it, but the most important thing is that the team wins.” 

Regardless of how long he has left with Al-Hilal, it is certain that Gomis will get his wish and leave a hero, and if it is in the coming weeks, it is increasingly likely that he will leave as a champion.


Inter’s Serie A title win sees Achraf Hakimi emerge as one of the finest Arab footballers in Europe

Inter’s Serie A title win sees Achraf Hakimi emerge as one of the finest Arab footballers in Europe
Updated 10 May 2021

Inter’s Serie A title win sees Achraf Hakimi emerge as one of the finest Arab footballers in Europe

Inter’s Serie A title win sees Achraf Hakimi emerge as one of the finest Arab footballers in Europe
  • Madrid-born Moroccan international played a pivotal role in Milan club’s first championship in 11 years

DUBAI: An Egyptian, an Algerian and a Moroccan walk onto a football pitch. The punchline usually involves a curling left-footed shot into the back of the net.

When the topic of best Arab footballers currently playing in Europe comes up, three players inevitably dominate the discussion.

Since joining Liverpool in the summer 2017 Mohamed Salah has attained a level of superstardom that no other Arab footballer had come close to before.

Champions League and Premier League winners’ medals, the Golden Boot - twice, and seemingly countless individual awards, the Egyptian has cleaned up.

Even in a shockingly poor season by Liverpool, he continues to lead the Premier League’s goalscoring charts.

Just over a year before Salah’s move to Anfield, the Algerian Riyad Mahrez had played a heroic role in Leicester City’s sensational title win (which earned him the 2015-16 PFA Player of the Year award), and after joining Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in 2018 would become one of a select group players to win the Premier League title with two different clubs.

In the second half of this season Mahrez has been in stunning form and the coming weeks will surely add another title medal and potentially a Champions League winners medal to his collection.

Standing in his way in the final on May 29 will be Chelsea’s Moroccan playmaker Hakim Ziyech, who, while having a mostly frustrating, inconsistent season, has still managed to score the goal that set Chelsea on their way to a win over Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final and, at the weekend, grabbed the equaliser as the London club again beat Guardiola’s team to ensure that the Premier League coronation, inevitable as it is, will have to wait a little longer.

But it’s one of Ziyech’s international teammates that has a strong claim to being one of the outstanding Arab footballers playing in Europe in 2020-21.

And he has managed it well away from the hype machine that is the English Premier League. He also happens to be a defender, in name at least.

Inter Milan’s first Serie A title win in 11 years, ending a run of nine triumphs by Juventus, has been lit up by the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Stefan De Vrij, Lautaro Martínez and Nicolò Barella.

But one of the standout performers has been the brilliant, Madrid-born Moroccan Achraf Hakimi.

Someone at Real Madrid, Hakimi’s hometown club, will at some point have to explain how arguably the best right back in European football has been allowed to escape the Bernabéu, not once, but twice, over the last three years.

Having, at 18, been part of the squad that won the 2018 Champions League final against Liverpool - and earlier collected FIFA Club World Cup, UEFA Super Cup and Spanish Super Cup winners’ medals - Hakimi looked set for long and successful career with the Spanish giants.

But with Spanish defender Dani Carvajal - one of the team’s most trusted and senior performers - Hakimi was often reduced comes from the bench.

That summer, after being part of Morocco’s squad at the World Cup in Russia, Hakimi was loaned to Borussia Dortmund on a two-year deal.

At a club that values and encourages young talent, he flourished.

His marauding runs from defence became a feature of the team’s play, and his assists and goals have since earned comparisons with the likes of Trent Alexander Arnold and Reece James, attacking fullbacks which English football seem to suddenly be specializing in.

He won the German Super Cup in 2019, and his individual performances were increasingly drawing attention as opposition defenders struggled to cope with his speed and his deliveries.

Indeed, in February 2020, Hakimi set a Bundesliga speed record of 36.48 km/h against Union Berlin, beating the old record of 36.2 km/h he himself set earlier that season against RB Leipzig.

Hakimi must have thought he had done enough to have another crack at becoming first choice right back Real Madrid, who despite winning La Liga in the Covid-19-disrupted 2019-20 season, were now a shadow of the Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired team he had left two years earlier.

Instead he was sold to Inter for $48.69 million, and Zinedine’s Zidane’s loss would prove Antonio Conte’s gain.

Hakimi has been inspirational for his new team, scoring seven league goals and helping set up many on the way to the championship.

On May 1, he scored the second goal in a 2-0 win over Crotone to put Inter within touching distance of the coveted Seri A title.

The following day, Atalanta’s failure to win at Sassuolo meant the title was heading to the blue and black half of Milan. At 22, Hakimi was a title champion.

No doubt Hakimi and Inter will have their eyes on Champions League success next season, and the Moroccan will also be eyeing glorying with his country at the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations Cup (taking place at the start of 2022) and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Before that, Middle East, Arab and African audiences could well be hoping to see him take part in FIFA Arab Cup in Qatar next November.

He may not have achieved quite what Salah, Mahrez and Ziyech have and will in the near future, yet, but at only 22 he has plenty of time to catch up with that exalted trio with magical left feet.

And he’ll be doing it all with those devastating runs from way back in the defense.


Mansoor feeling ‘amazing’ after making step-up in WWE career

Mansoor feeling ‘amazing’ after making step-up in WWE career
Updated 10 May 2021

Mansoor feeling ‘amazing’ after making step-up in WWE career

Mansoor feeling ‘amazing’ after making step-up in WWE career
  • Last week the Saudi wrestler signed with WWE’s Raw brand

Saudi Superstar Mansoor said he feels “amazing” after being elevated to one of the WWE’s most high-profile and popular brands.

Last week, Mansoor signed to WWE RAW, a weekly show, in what was a huge step in his career to date.

Mansoor’s first match as an official member of the RAW roster saw him face the experienced Irishman Sheamus, and he is now looking forward to taking on some of WWE’s biggest names on a regular basis.

“It feels amazing,” said Mansoor, when asked for his thoughts on being promoted to RAW. “I’ve been on Super ShowDown, I’ve been on Crown Jewel, and those were big shows. But what I wanted most was to be consistent, and to be on a weekly program where I could show the world that I can perform every single week, not just once every few months.”

“Against Sheamus, with it being my first match (on RAW), it was a really good welcoming committee. There is nobody tougher than Sheamus. He’s probably one of the toughest men in the entire business, not just WWE.

“He loves to fight,” he added. “Even when I was hitting him with my elbows, I could feel the pain in my arm. He’s tough, he’s iron, and it’s important that I face people like that to challenge myself, and prove to the world, and the WWE universe, that I belong.”

Having earned a WWE contract after impressing at a tryout event in 2018, Mansoor’s rise to RAW has been rapid, and one which owes so much to the expert training he has received behind the scenes — along with good old-fashioned hard work.

“I’ve been training at the Performance Center in Orlando for about three years, and it’s been invaluable, the most essential experience I’ve ever had, to prepare me for this,” Mansoor said.

“The coaches are amazing, the facilities are amazing. I was lucky enough to be involved in matches on Main Event, wrestling guys like Drew Gulak and Angel Garza, getting experience with them.

“I didn’t know for sure if I was going to move up to RAW, I just knew that they wanted me to wrestle on Main Event to see how I did,” Mansoor said. “And then, on the day itself, I found out I was being signed to RAW. The preparation time was short, but in WWE anything can change at any time, so you always have to be ready.”


Zverev beats Berrettini to win his 2nd Madrid Open title

Zverev beats Berrettini to win his 2nd Madrid Open title
Updated 10 May 2021

Zverev beats Berrettini to win his 2nd Madrid Open title

Zverev beats Berrettini to win his 2nd Madrid Open title
  • Zverev won his first Madrid title in 2018 in a final against Thiem
  • The win on Sunday gave him his fourth Masters 1000 title

MADRID: Alexander Zverev continued his impressive form going into the French Open by winning his second Madrid Open title on Sunday.
After beating top-seeded Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals and fourth-ranked Dominic Thiem in the semifinals, Zverev rallied to defeat Matteo Berrettini 6-7 (8), 6-4, 6-3 for his second title this season. The sixth-ranked German also won the Mexican Open in Acapulco in March.
Zverev won his first Madrid title in 2018 in a final against Thiem. The win on Sunday gave him his fourth Masters 1000 title, and first in three years. Zverev will be trying to improve from his fourth-round exit last year at the French Open.
“To do well at the French Open, you need to be playing well during the clay court season,” the 24-year-old Zverev said. “That is in a way important for me, as well. At the end of the day I won a Masters. There’s really very little in terms of bigger than this one right here. I’m happy with this achievement. Obviously, yeah, I look forward to the next few weeks. I look forward to what’s ahead.”
The 10th-ranked Berrettini won the title in Belgrade last week. The Italian has been gradually returning to form after struggling with an abdominal injury that kept him from playing his quarterfinal match against Stefanos Tsitsipas at the Australian Open. The injury kept Berrettini out until Monte Carlo, where he lost his opening match.
“This was my first (Masters 1000) final. Hopefully it’s not going to be my last,” Berrettini said. “But like I said before, I’m really happy on my level. Today unfortunately I think I didn’t play my best tennis.”
After exchanging a break each in the first set, Berrettini opened the tiebreaker with a 5-0 lead but allowed Zverev to come back. The Italian closed it out on his fourth set point after Zverev also squandered a set point in the back-and-forth tiebreaker. It was the first set dropped by Zverev this week.
Zverev, who finished with seven double-faults, evened the match after breaking Berrettini at 4-4 and serving out to clinch the second set at the Magic Box center court, which had its roof closed because of rain in Madrid.
Berrettini, who ended with 50 unforced errors, squandered a break point early in the third set, and Zverev broke him in the following game to take the lead. He earned another break at the end, converting on his second match point to clinch the victory.
In the men’s doubles final, Marcel Granollers of Spain and Horacio Zeballos of Argentina defeated Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic of Croatia 1-6, 6-3, 10-8.
The Madrid Open was one of the first sporting events in Spain that allowed the presence of a limited number of fans. The tournament was among those canceled last year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Local health workers were honored by tournament organizers before the final on Sunday.
In the women’s edition, Aryna Sabalenka beat top-ranked Ash Barty 6-0, 3-6, 6-4 in Saturday’s final.


Mercedes masterstroke in Spain helps Hamilton deny Verstappen

Mercedes masterstroke in Spain helps Hamilton deny Verstappen
Updated 09 May 2021

Mercedes masterstroke in Spain helps Hamilton deny Verstappen

Mercedes masterstroke in Spain helps Hamilton deny Verstappen
  • Hamilton moved on to 98 career wins after a surprise second change of tires hoodwinked Red Bull to lift him 14 points clear of Verstappen
  • Bottas took third in the second Mercedes with Leclerc’s Ferrari in fourth and Sergio Perez in the second Red Bull completing the top five

BARCELONA: Lewis Hamilton claimed his fifth successive Spanish Grand Prix on Sunday ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen after a Mercedes pit-stop masterstroke.
Hamilton moved on to 98 career wins after a surprise second change of tires hoodwinked Red Bull to lift him 14 points clear of Verstappen in the drivers’ standings.
“It was a really great strategy by the team. What a day!” beamed Hamilton, who was quick to acknowledge the smattering of fans allowed in to watch, a rare occurence in the time of coronavirus.
“It is great to see. I saw a British flag out there which I haven’t seen for a long, long time. I feel great after this. I feel like I could go again.”
Hamilton had set off from pole for the 100th time but was beaten to the first corner by Verstappen, with Charles Leclerc for Ferrari dishing out the same treatment on Valtteri Bottas on turn two.
On lap eight Yuki Tsunoda’s Sunday drive in Catalonia suffered a premature end when his AlphaTauri came to a grinding halt.
“Engine stop” the Japanese rookie lamented as the safety car emerged briefly to remove the immobile obstacle.
Verstappen held off Hamilton comfortably on the restart on lap 11, with Leclerc continuing to split the two Mercedes.
With a third of the race completed the first round of pit stops began, with all eyes on which of the front two with less than a second between them would blink first.
Verstappen it was who came in on lap 25, but the pit stop was slow by a couple of seconds in another minor but potentially critical error by the Red Bull title pretenders.
The Mercedes pit wall pulled Hamilton in for a lightning stop a few laps later as they pinned their hopes on fresher medium tires making the difference toward the finish.
At the midway point Hamilton set the fastest lap to go less than two and a half seconds behind his Dutch rival. The gap was less than a second shortly after.
On lap 43 Mercedes played their ace card.
Hamilton, half a second off the lead, came into the pits for a second new set of mediums.
He reemerged with under 23sec to make up on Verstappen, who with tire wear was in danger of becoming what he would describe afterwards as “a sitting duck” for the man in pursuit of a record eighth drivers’ title.
Hamilton asked his pit wall: “How far have I got to catch up?“
“Currently 22 seconds... we’ve done it before...” came back the reply.
There was a note of desperation on Red Bull’s radio with Verstappen suggesting “I don’t know how we are going to make it to the end.”
Hamilton moved into second but there was no hint of team orders with Bottas forcing his teammate into full overtaking mode.
Ten laps to go and Hamilton had only three seconds to make up on Verstappen and on lap 60 he did it, surging past the Dutchman on turn one — Toto Wolff, his team boss, punching the air with delight as their masterstroke paid off.
Hamilton said he was in two minds as to whether to obey the order to come in.
“I was about to get a shot to get past him as I pitted. I was really conflicted — ‘do I come in or ignore the call?’.
“I did what the team asked because there is a great trust between us. Remarkable job by everyone in this team. What a day.”
Red Bull boss Christian Horner was magnanimous in defeat, saying: “In fairness, hats off to Mercedes and Lewis.”
Verstappen said: “We’re not where we want to be and we still need to push hard and catch up because at the moment we are a little bit slower. But compared to last year, it has been a jump for us.”
Bottas took third in the second Mercedes with Leclerc’s Ferrari in fourth and Sergio Perez in the second Red Bull completing the top five.
Formula One takes a breather next weekend before returning for the Monaco Grand Prix with Hamilton possibly having a tilt at his century of wins in Azerbaijan at the start of June.