France eye more titles in 2021; UEFA faces Euro conundrum

France eye more titles in 2021; UEFA faces Euro conundrum
Aleksander Ceferin, UEFA president
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Updated 28 December 2020

France eye more titles in 2021; UEFA faces Euro conundrum

France eye more titles in 2021; UEFA faces Euro conundrum
  • Football, like everything, has been scarred by the Covid-19 crisis

PARIS: The last 12 months saw Euro 2020 and the Copa America postponed, the Champions League final played behind closed doors, supporters — the lifeblood of the game — shut out of stadiums, no Ballon d’Or winner crowned and clubs plunged into economic crisis. All as a result of a virus most people had not heard of when the year began.

It shows the folly of trying to predict how the next 12 months might turn out.

And some of the game’s biggest names have left us in 2020: Diego Maradona of course, but also Paolo Rossi, Nobby Stiles, Jack Charlton, Gerard Houllier, Michael Robinson and more.

Football, like everything, has been scarred by the Covid-19 crisis and it will be well beyond 2021 before the sport returns to normal, if it ever does.

Those in charge of the sport at the top level will be determined to ensure that this time, the show goes on as planned, but it is impossible to know at this stage, for example, in what conditions the Champions League final — set for Istanbul after being moved to Lisbon this year— or the European Championship will be held.

UEFA still has to decide if it can realistically organize the Euro as planned, at 12 different venues in 12 separate nations all across the continent, as far apart as Baku to Dublin.

“We’re smarter and stronger than last year as we now know that anything can happen,” UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin said recently.

He added: “But theoretically, we could hold the Euro in 12 countries, in 11, in 10 in three countries or in one.”

Wherever it takes place, and whoever is allowed to attend matches, the Euro will be the main football event of the year, as France aim to add the continental title to the World Cup they won in Russia in 2018.

Indeed 2021 presents many challenges for Didier Deschamps’ team: They begin their defense of the World Cup when the qualifiers for Qatar 2022 start in March, while in October they will join Italy, Spain and Belgium in the Final Four of the UEFA Nations League.

In between, they will fight it out for the Euro, with group games against a Germany side currently in crisis, Hungary and defending European champions Portugal, who beat Les Bleus in the 2016 final and have more to them than just a still potent 36-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo.

Take Joao Felix for example, who at 21 is almost a year younger than Kylian Mbappe, the symbol of the current France team that is aiming to match the achievement of the last French side to lift the World Cup.

With Deschamps as captain, they followed winning the 1998 World Cup by claiming Euro 2000 and holding both titles at the same time, a feat since achieved by Spain when they claimed the 2010 World Cup as well as Euro 2012. France look arguably even stronger than they did in 2018, having reincorporated players like Kingsley Coman and Adrien Rabiot and introduced Marcus Thuram, son of Lilian and a fine talent in his own right, and the 18-year-old Eduardo Camavinga.

“Our first appointment is the World Cup qualifiers in March,” pointed out Deschamps, phlegmatic as ever, recently.

“I don’t know how the Euros are going to go but I’m working on it as best as I can.”

So much uncertainty, but at the same time so much to look forward to after the trials of the last year, not least for a country like North Macedonia, who have qualified for their first major tournament.

The Euro semifinals and final are due to be played at Wembley, which will also be the scene of an England versus Scotland showdown, in a throwback to Euro ‘96.


German soccer clubs pushing to ease stadium restrictions

German soccer clubs pushing to ease stadium restrictions
Updated 24 September 2021

German soccer clubs pushing to ease stadium restrictions

German soccer clubs pushing to ease stadium restrictions
  • Most clubs are asking for fans to show they are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus
  • State officials set fan limits of either 25,000 or 50% of stadium capacity, whichever is lower, for professional games

BERLIN: German soccer clubs are pushing for more fans to be allowed at Bundesliga games despite discrepancies in their approaches to getting them there.
Most clubs are asking for fans to show they are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, recovered from COVID-19, or to produce a negative result from a test for the virus taken in the previous 24 hours before they are allowed in to see a game.
Some, like Borussia Dortmund, are just letting in vaccinated or recovered fans, with very few exceptions for those who are neither.
Dortmund’s stadium is the biggest in Germany with a capacity of 81,000 for Bundesliga games, but even with its strict admission policies, it is only allowed up to 25,000 spectators under rules agreed on by the country’s 16 states in July.
State officials set fan limits of either 25,000 or 50 percent of stadium capacity, whichever is lower, for professional games.
Dortmund chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke believes his club’s tougher approach to restrictions means it should be allowed full capacity for matches.
“If the overwhelming majority of spectators are vaccinated and the children are tested, then I think soccer games in well-filled stadiums are a responsible risk,” Watzke told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper.
German health minister Jens Spahn said stadiums with the “2G” restrictions (vaccinated/recovered) should be able to safely accommodate more supporters than those that also allow tested fans.
The Hamburg senate agrees, deciding Tuesday to allow second-division club Hamburger SV a full stadium under the 2G rule to allow vaccinated or recovered supporters at games.
Sunday’s match against Nuremburg is too soon for the club to make the necessary arrangements, but city rival St. Pauli will likely have a full 29,546-capacity for Dynamo Dresden’s visit on Oct. 3.
The local health authority gave Eintracht Frankfurt the go-ahead for up to 31,000 vaccinated or recovered supporters at Saturday’s Bundesliga game against Cologne, though that’s also too soon for the club to organize.
However, Bundesliga rival Union Berlin said in a statement Tuesday that the 2G rule is “unworkable” because of a lack of alternatives for children under 12 and for people who cannot or don’t want to be vaccinated.
City rival Hertha Berlin and league leader Bayern Munich are among those also sticking to the “3G” solution, which also includes tested fans.
Union has been one of the most outspoken clubs against the coronavirus restrictions that largely kept fans away altogether last season, while its fans have been displaying banners this season calling for a return to full stadiums.
Some clubs like Hertha and Dortmund have threatened legal action if they are not allowed more supporters at games, particularly with 2G restrictions in place.
Others are worried that fans have been getting used to watching games on TV and are reluctant to return to stadiums. Hoffenheim, which can accommodate up to 15,000 supporters in its stadium, only had 8,014 present for its game against Union, and 8,427 for Mainz’ visit.
Hertha and Greuther Fürth have also had unsold tickets.
Fürth coach Stefan Leitl said there was currently an “insecurity” among fans, and Hoffenheim coach Sebastian Hoeneß predicted it will take some time for supporters to return, even when the rules are relaxed and restrictions lifted.


Saudi Arabia to host opening round of 2022 Extreme E season

Saudi Arabia to host opening round of 2022 Extreme E season
Updated 24 September 2021

Saudi Arabia to host opening round of 2022 Extreme E season

Saudi Arabia to host opening round of 2022 Extreme E season
  • In April, AlUla became first ever location to hold race in electric SUV series

RIYADH: The Saudi desert of AlUla is set to host the opening race of the second season of Extreme E, the provisional list of venues for 2022 has revealed.

In April, AlUla hosted the first ever event — Desert X Prix — in the electric car series, which takes place in off-road locations as part of its mission to drive awareness of climate change issues, such as global warming, melting ice caps, rising sea levels, wildfires, extreme weather, and desertification, while promoting sustainability and the adoption of electric vehicles to help protect the planet.

Founder and chief executive officer of Extreme E, Alejandro Agag, said: “We’ve had a hugely positive response to Extreme E throughout this opening season, from governments to NGOs, who see great potential, not only for utilizing our purpose-driven sports platform to educate on climate issues, but also to showcase the solutions that they and the wider global community can all be part of.

“As we approach the tail end of our first season, we wanted to be transparent about how our second season is shaping up in order to help enable our teams, drivers, and partners to prepare.

“We’ve had lots of interest, both in retaining events in locations we’ve visited in season one, and from new locations, and we are currently at a stage where we have multiple options for some of our races.

“As an engaged championship which aims to put fans at the heart of decision making, we are also keen to hear input and opinions on where we should go in future seasons too,” he added.

Former Royal Mail ship, the St. Helena, provides the championship’s floating centerpiece, carrying the series’ vehicles, logistics equipment, and paddock infrastructure as well as playing host to scientific research with its onboard laboratory, all in a bid to lower the impact of the travel logistics compared to air travel.

Head-to-head races, known as an X Prix, take place over two days, within an area no larger than 10 square kilometers, with each team fielding a male and a female driver who each complete a lap of the racecourse, including a driver switch incorporated midway.

Course designers have been tasked with carefully selecting course options which provide the most challenging, exciting action, using existing obstacles and features with elevation changes and jumps, in order to minimize environmental impact.

Race organizers undertake thorough environmental, social, and economic assessments of each location with a local third party, overseen by EY, in order to safeguard environmental protection, social inclusivity, and fair practices. These reports have influenced the way Extreme E operates from water consumption, waste management, and on-site lighting through to land management and ensuring the series leaves without a trace after the X Prix has finished.

Additionally, in each location, Extreme E works alongside local experts, governments, and NGOs to implement positive legacy initiatives dependent on regional needs.

Examples of legacy programs in the first season included the funding of a turtle conservation project along the Red Sea coastline, the planting of 1 million mangroves with NGO TO.org and Oceanium in Senegal, cocoa agroforestry and Amazon conservation with The Nature Conservancy in the Brazilian state of Para, and the creation with UNICEF of a climate education syllabus for more than 3,500 schoolchildren in Greenland.

Prof. Carlos Duarte, Extreme E’s climate change scientist, said: “I have thoroughly enjoyed being part of Extreme E this year and very much look forward to continuing our good work into season two.

“The legacy and scientific aspects are a true cornerstone to the series and already this year I’ve been able to conduct research in Saudi Arabia and collect ice samples from the Russell Glacier (in Greenland) with Extreme E.

“This championship gives me and my peers the opportunity to reach people outside of our usual networks, it gives us a voice to reach the masses and educate on climate issues and the solutions we can all be a part of,” he added.

As well as providing a platform for climate awareness, Extreme E has had a positive economic impact on host countries. YouGov Sport, the international research and data analytics organization, calculated the series’ inaugural event in Saudi Arabia contributed more than $55 million local value. These figures included the employment of local personnel, logistics, transportation to and from the race site, as well as local food and beverage provision, and hotel nights.

The overall media exposure of the Desert X Prix was in itself a significant factor in the overall economic impact. Extreme E’s 190 global broadcast markets audience reach of 18.7 million, along with its strong media presence, resulted in an unprecedented media value of almost $38 million for the championship.

Extreme E has already surpassed its social media targets for the end of season one, hitting 100 million video views, a 400 percent increase in engagement, plus more than 1 billion impressions across its digital landscape at each of its two opening X Prix events.

Provisional Extreme E Season 2 calendar (2022):

Feb. 19-20: Saudi Arabia

May 7-8: Senegal/Egypt/Tanzania

July 9-10: Greenland/Iceland

Sept. 10-11: Brazil/Argentina/Uruguay/Italy/Costa Rica  

Nov. 26-27: Chile


Golf Saudi relaunches Dirab Golf & Country Club on 91st Saudi National Day

Golf Saudi relaunches Dirab Golf & Country Club on 91st Saudi National Day
Updated 24 September 2021

Golf Saudi relaunches Dirab Golf & Country Club on 91st Saudi National Day

Golf Saudi relaunches Dirab Golf & Country Club on 91st Saudi National Day
  • Club has undergone extensive improvements, now reopened to public

RIYADH: Following its acquisition of Dirab Golf and Country Club, Golf Saudi has now reopened the course and clubhouse to the public following an extensive redevelopment program.

Situated in the heart of the Kingdom’s capital, the club earlier this year carried out a series of improvements across the entire site including facility enhancement, landscaping, agronomy, the implementation of associate training programs, guest management, and general course renovation.

Deputy chairman of the Saudi Golf Federation and chief executive officer of Golf Saudi, Majed Al-Sorour, said: “This is an exciting phase in the course and club’s history. Golf Saudi is delighted to formally reopen Dirab Golf and Country Club following a series of wall-to-wall improvements across the entire club.

“Our hope is to enhance and grow the game of golf in the Kingdom and encourage Saudis to pick up a club for the first time and give golf a go but also unlock employment opportunities within the wider golf industry.

“Golf is a game for everyone and as part of Vision 2030, this is just one of the steps Golf Saudi has undertaken to ensure that golf is accessible to all,” he added.

Dirab Golf and Country Club was the first grassed 18-hole Par 72 Championship course built in Saudi Arabia. Located 45 kilometers southwest of Riyadh and nestled in the picturesque Tawfiq valley, the club features tree-lined fairways and manicured greens.

The reopening celebrations coincided with the 91st Saudi National Day on Sept. 23, with the club organizing activities for golfers, children, and families. As part of Golf Saudi’s Mass Participation program, there were also opportunities for visitors of all ages to try golf through a series of fun events, including The Stadium Concept, and SNAG. Saudi heritage was also celebrated with a traditional food tent and Najdi folk dancing.

A series of events has been planned by the club to engage with local culture and the Saudi public, as part of its long-term aim to become a destination for local golf fans.

Al-Sorour said: “Through making these improvements, we hope that Dirab Golf and Country Club will become the capital’s go-to golf course.

“I have no doubt that it will become one of the best golf courses in Saudi Arabia and I am confident that our extensive investment into the club will entice members, visitors, golfers, and non-golfers to enjoy the new range of benefits and remarkable golfing facilities that are now on offer, thanks to the efforts of the Golf Saudi team who have overseen this redevelopment.”


Al-Nassr joy, Al-Ahli misery: 5 things we learned from latest Saudi Professional League matches

Al-Nassr joy, Al-Ahli misery: 5 things we learned from latest Saudi Professional League matches
Updated 24 September 2021

Al-Nassr joy, Al-Ahli misery: 5 things we learned from latest Saudi Professional League matches

Al-Nassr joy, Al-Ahli misery: 5 things we learned from latest Saudi Professional League matches
  • Al-Hilal’s 2-2 draw with Al-Shabab means Al-Ittihad stay top of the table

There were plenty of talking points after Thursday’s games in the Saudi Professional League, and below are five things we learned.

1. Even understrength, Al-Hilal are hard to beat

The champions were not at their best against Al-Shabab but still managed to come from behind twice to draw 2-2. 

The goals were not spectacular either. Bafetimbi Gomis fired home from the penalty spot after a defender had somehow fallen in front of him and then, with 20 minutes remaining, Ali Al-Bulaihi headed home from a corner.

Yet it could turn out to be a valuable point for Al-Hilal against a team desperate to win. This is partly because they were without a number of key players such as Salman Al-Faraj, Andre Carrillo, Abdullah Otayf, Salem Al-Dawsari and Mohammed Al-Breik. Any team in Saudi Arabia would miss such stars and, yet, after a mediocre first half, Leonardo Jardim’s men improved after the break.

Al-Shabab may have struggled so far this season, but it was only a few months ago when they finished second in the league. This was always going to be a difficult game for Al-Hilal, and to be understrength and still come away with a point may well be seen as a valuable result at the end of the season.

2. Al-Ahli lose to leave Hasi on the brink

Coach Besnik Hasi is in real danger after Al-Ahli lost 2-0 against Al-Fayha, and the Kosovo Albanian boss is unlikely to be in charge in next week’s Jeddah Derby against Al-Ittihad. He sounded a defiant note after the defeat, which leaves Al-Ahli winless after six games of the season with just five points. “We played well and created many opportunities but just could not take them,” he said. “I am not afraid of being fired and I have been giving my all in the job.”

What was disappointing however is that Al-Ahli seemed to lack spirit and energy from the start, and once the first goal went in on the hour, heads dropped and defeat seemed inevitable. Despite the coach’s comments, Al-Fayha deserved the win and simply worked harder than the opposition. It now leaves Al-Ahli hovering just outside the relegation zone and the coach on the brink.

3. Al-Nassr are very much in the title race

A team that has just dismissed the coach often comes back with a quick win, and just four days after firing Mano Menezes, Al-Nassr defeated Al-Fateh 1-0. While they could have scored more goals, it did mark the first clean sheet of the season. 

It was exactly what Al-Nassr needed. Now the Riyadh giants are only three points behind the leaders Al-Ittihad.

Caretaker coach Marcelo Salazar set up the team well, and Al-Nassr had over two-thirds of possession. He will be a little annoyed at not winning more convincingly as there were chances to do so. The boss went with a 4-2-3-1 formation and started striker Abderrazak Hamdallah on the bench. The Moroccan looked hungry when he replaced Vincent Aboubakar midway through the second half and came close to extending Al-Nassr’s lead. In midfield, Ali Al-Hassan and Abdullah Al-Khaibari don’t often make the headlines but had a very solid game.

It remains to be seen who the new coach is, but he is going to come and take over a talented team that will be able to challenge for titles at home and abroad.

4. Al-Shabab are showing signs of improvement

After a poor start to the season, the job of coach Pericles Chamusca was under threat. It still may be, but last season’s runners-up produced a good performance against the champions Al-Hilal to draw 2-2. This was a well-organized counter-attacking performance with Senegalese midfielder Alfred N’Diaye everywhere, protecting the defense and using the ball well to instigate attacks. 

Whatever happens, Chamusca knows that his players are playing for him as they gave their all. Results have improved of late with a win and two draws from the last three games. 

The fluidity is not yet there, and the team needs to use possession better, but this was a hard-working display, something to build on and much better than the 5-1 loss suffered in the last Riyadh Derby in May. The Brazilian boss may just have saved his job, for now at least, but more points are needed from the coming games.

5. Al-Ittihad will be smiling

The Tigers stay top after Al-Hilal failed to win and will be looking to take a four-point lead ahead of their rivals on Friday against bottom club Al-Taawoun in front of a sell-out crowd. Despite losing the first game of the season and firing their coach, Al-Ittihad are the only team so far to really put a run together. Al-Hilal have yet to lose but have dropped points, and the ups and downs of Al-Nassr have been well-documented.

There is still a long way to go this season of course, but with other teams dropping points, Al-Ittihad are in the winning groove and have the chance to put some daylight between themselves and their rivals. Even better is the fact that Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr will be busy with Asian commitments next month too. 

The rest of the league should be careful that they don’t allow Al-Ittihad to get too far ahead, but with the likes of Igor Coronado in great form, few would bet against them recording a fifth straight victory on Friday.


Prince Abdullah Al-Faisal Stadium set to reopen after renovation

Media got a first glimpse of the new renovations at Prince Abdullah Al-Faisal Stadium in Jeddah on Thursday. (AN Photo)
Media got a first glimpse of the new renovations at Prince Abdullah Al-Faisal Stadium in Jeddah on Thursday. (AN Photo)
Updated 23 September 2021

Prince Abdullah Al-Faisal Stadium set to reopen after renovation

Media got a first glimpse of the new renovations at Prince Abdullah Al-Faisal Stadium in Jeddah on Thursday. (AN Photo)
  • Media delegations, including radio and TV crews, get tour of newly reopened stadium

JEDDAH: Media got a first glimpse of the new renovations at Prince Abdullah Al-Faisal Stadium in Jeddah on Thursday.

The tour for members of the press and TV included the mixed zone, press conference room, the players changing rooms, media centers, as well as the VIP room, which features an exhibition of rare photos reflecting the history of the stadium since its establishment.

Bandar Asiri, director of Prince Abdullah Al-Faisal Stadium, told media that the stadium is fully prepared to host matches, noting that they are in the final procedures of completing the stadium, which is likely to be opened in October.

It was originally opened in 1976, then called the Youth Welfare Stadium, before it had a name change in 2001 in honor of Prince Abdullah Al-Faisal, the Kingdom's first Minister of Sports.

The stadium accommodates 27,000 spectators, up from its previous capacity of 18,000, in addition to 2,400 car-parking spaces, 81 ticket offices, 60 electronic gates, two media centers, 15 VIP rooms and four analytical studios.

The stadium will open next month with a derby match that brings together Al-Ittihad and Al-Ahli in the seventh round of the Mohammed bin Salman Professional Cup, according to a source.