LONDON: A leading Chinese football agent has warned that the financial issues facing the Chinese Super League serve as both an opportunity and a warning for Saudi Arabia.
His views come in the wake of seismic events that have rocked Chinese football and look set to have a ripple effect on the rest of the continent.
A series of mishaps, among them being Chinese champions Jiangsu FC ceasing operations last week, have for a while at least, removed the Middle Kingdom as one of the premier transfer destinations in the world. Riyadh and Jeddah, rather than Shanghai and Guangzhou, will have an increased opportunity to become Asia’s go-to destinations for big-name foreign players, but caution is needed.
“For a number of years, we were getting lots of inquiries from China to contact European clubs, and getting lots of interest from European agents to get their players into China,” a leading Chinese agent, who wished to remain anonymous, told Arab News. “Outside the big leagues of Europe, China was the place to go, but that has changed. We are already seeing attention switching to West Asia.”
Around a decade ago, Chinese president Xi Jinping made it clear to the world and the Chinese Football Association, as well to conglomerates and state-owned enterprises, that the underachievement of the country in the world game had to end. Within months, clubs in Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing were signing some of the biggest names in the sport.
In the short-term, China wanted to match the likes of Saudi Arabia and become an Asian powerhouse — The Green Falcons have been to five World Cups and won three Asian Cups, compared to one and none for China — but the longer-term ambition was a global one.
The transfer activity certainly reached world-beating levels during the winter transfer window of 2016-17, when China’s top tier spent more than any other. Oscar left Chelsea for Shanghai SIPG in December 2016 for around $80 million. In total, more than $470 million was spent, considerably more than the $300 million that left the bank accounts of English Premier League teams. Never had Asia seen such activity.
The sums spent helped bring the AFC Champions League to China for the first time ever, increased attendance to the number one spot in Asia and lifted the league’s profile to be one of the highest of any outside the traditional “Big Five” of Europe.
But ahead of the new season, headlines around the world are talking of a “China crisis.”
On March 1, Jiangsu FC ceased operating just three months after being crowned champions for the first time in their history. Owners Suning, who also control Inter Milan, have pulled the plug.
There are others. A year ago, Tianjin Tianhai went bankrupt, and at the moment, according to reports in the Chinese media, Tianjin Tigers are also close to folding. Over the past 12 months, 16 teams in the top three tiers in China have gone out of existence.
While Saudi Arabia has outperformed China in football, there are some similarities. The coronavirus pandemic meant that many Chinese clubs, already in debt, saw less revenue and were relying even more on cash injections from corporate owners who were also feeling the effects. Clubs in Saudi Arabia often struggle to be self-sustainable, and depend on owners putting hands in pockets.
The temptation to get out wallets may be hard to resist in the coming months. Already, the likes of Alex Teixeira, the Brazilian who helped Jiangsu to the title last season and is now a free agent, has been linked with moves to Saudi Arabia in the hope that clubs there can match the kind of salary he received in China. He would join stars such as Bafetimbi Gomis, Pity Martinez, Odion Ighalo and Andre Carillo, who bring talent and attention, but do not come cheap.
There have been examples of Saudi clubs overextending themselves. Al-Nassr have become embroiled in a dispute with players Maicon and Giuliano Victor de Paula, with FIFA getting involved and recently slapping the Riyadh club with a transfer ban that could last three windows. There have also been reports that Al-Ahli have been late in paying players this season.
“Now that China is not part of the conversation and won’t be for a while, Saudi Arabia will become the focus of more and more players and their agents, especially as there are some clubs and leagues in Europe that are struggling financially at the moment due to the pandemic situation,” the agent added.
“Teams may be able to sign some big talents, but China shows that you have to be careful. To see the champions go out of existence means that something is very wrong.”
Hamilton seals practice double, LeClerc crashes out on day one of historic Saudi Arabian Grand Prix
Verstappen leads Hamilton by eight points — with nine wins to seven — and is looking for points in Jeddah and Abu Dhabi to seal a maiden world title
Updated 03 December 2021
JEDDAH: History was made on Friday as Formula One drivers took to the streets of Jeddah to get to grips with the circuit during the opening practice sessions ahead of the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix on Sunday.
Months of hard work and planning came to fruition as Lewis Hamilton pipped his title rival Max Verstappen by five hundredths of a second in the first session, and stretched the margin further ahead of the pack in the second evening session.
The two world championship title contenders were clear of their rivals and well on top during the first two sessions, to the delight of the crowds in the grandstands.
All eyes will be on Jeddah on Sunday for the race, but for a fully focused Hamilton and Verstappen, Friday was all about finding an early edge in one of the tightest F1 championship battles for years.
Teams wasted no time getting drivers out on track to collect data on the championships’ newest circuit, and it was a good first run out for the drivers, with Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas claiming third in the first session — while the honor of first F1 driver round the record-breaking Jeddah Corniche went to Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz Jr.
Grip was expected to be at a premium given the new asphalt, but drivers reported it was better than expected.
“Grip seems pretty high in general,” Esteban Ocon said over team radio. “I think it’s a big surprise, everywhere, traction through the mid-corner.”
First impressions of the track appeared positive from the rest of the field with Bottas declaring the circuit “cool,” and Mercedes’ sporting director, Ron Meadows, complimenting Race Director Michael Masi at how well circuit personnel had prepared the track surface overnight.
Hamilton continued his on-track dominance over his rivals as he led the second session by six-hundredths of a second over Bottas, with Verstappen nearly two-tenths back in fourth.
The session was a calamitous one for Ferrari driver Charles LeClerc, who crashed heavily with five minutes remaining, his car suffering considerable damage.
The Monaguesque lost control at turn 22, already pinpointed by teams and drivers as one of the hardest corners on the circuit.
With two sessions under their belt, one at sunset and another under the lights in the evening, the drivers will be looking to push their times down even further when the final practice and qualifying sessions get underway on Saturday.
Verstappen leads Hamilton by eight points — with nine wins to seven — and is looking for points in Jeddah and Abu Dhabi to seal a maiden world title.
‘Valued’ Joelinton reaping the benefits of Eddie Howe’s faith
The Brazilian forward has been one of the success stories since the arrival of the new manager
Matt Ritchie and Jamaal Lascelles return to the fold for the game against Burnley at St James’ Park on Saturday
Updated 03 December 2021
NEWCASTLE: Eddie Howe has revealed how making £40 million Newcastle United flop Joelinton feel “valued” is getting the best out of the Brazilian.
The forward has been outstanding since the arrival of Howe, putting in a man-of-the-match, all-action display on the right-hand side in the 1-1 home draw with Norwich City on Tuesday, in a game that saw United down to 10 men in the ninth minute.
Joelinton is a figure who has starkly divided opinion on Tyneside since his 2019 arrival from Hoffenheim for a club record fee.
And while his first couple of years with the Magpies may have seen Joelinton labelled a frontline failure, Howe believes showing the player a bit of love is making a huge difference to this “outstanding” talent.
“Joe has been fantastic for me. We really like him,” said head coach Howe, speaking ahead of Newcastle’s game against Burnley at St James’ Park on Saturday. “He has a good mix of physicality and technical ability. His work rate has been a real feature of his play, he has covered every blade of grass for the team — a real selfless mindset.
“We are really pleased with him, but we think there is more to come,” Howe added. “We have made him feel valued. There’s just eagerness to prove himself. We think he is going to be a huge player for us.”
The South American striker, who netted his first goal of the season in Howe’s debut match in charge against Brentford, is expected to retain his place in the side against Sean Dyche’s men. Howe argues Joelinton could play any number of positions, such has been the versatility shown since his arrival.
Howe said: “Against Norwich he started as a No.10, then moved to a No.8, into midfield. In terms of his best position, he can play in a number of areas. He has already played three or four positions for me, and played them well.
“He has work ethic, a high technical level, physicality, the ability to score, and you have an outstanding individual.”
United have gone 15 games in all competitions without a win this season, 14 of those have come in the Premier League.
And it’s not lost on Howe that no team has ever stayed in the top flight having not won in their opening 14 games.
“We are so desperate for those three points,” he said. “There were so many positives to take from Tuesday, although it wasn’t the result we wanted. The manner of the performance in the circumstances was really, really encouraging.
“So, if we can go into (Saturday’s) game with the same fundamentals, the same fight and spirit, I back the players to get the win sooner rather than later. A win would transform everything,” said Howe. “It would transform the feeling of the squad, the fans, the confidence.”
Howe also revealed that, despite a bruising encounter against Norwich, he has no new injury concerns ahead of the Clarets clash. And while Ciaran Clark sits it out following his straight red card in midweek, Matt Ritchie and Jamaal Lascelles return to the fold.
“We have a few bumps and bruises, but hopefully nothing too serious,” said Howe. “The squad has come through unscathed and of course we have the two boys returning from suspension.”
One player who remains on the sidelines, however, is defensive stalwart Paul Dummett.
The 30-year-old is yet to kick a competitive ball this campaign, and Howe said Dummett is still a long way from doing so.
“He is back running on the grass with the physios but still has quite a bit to go through to declare himself fit to play,” he said.
Lewis Hamilton gunning for glory at first ever Saudi Arabian Grand Prix
Reigning champion heads into F1 race 8 points behind Max Verstappen, tells Arab News of balancing pressures of racing with interests off track
Updated 03 December 2021
JEDDAH: The first ever Saudi Arabian Grand Prix is almost here, and the greatest Formula 1 driver of all time could not be more relaxed, considering what is at stake.
A potential record-breaking eighth championship is back within tantalizing reach. And as the eyes of the world turn to the newly completed Jeddah Corniche Circuit, F1 has never been more popular.
And some of its newest fans have come from a most unexpected source. “I think it’s changed the game,” said Lewis Hamilton.
High praise indeed. Not for a new car, or some revolutionary technical innovation, though. Hamilton was referencing the Netflix show “Formula 1: Drive to Survive,” and how it had brought the sport to a whole new global audience.
“I don’t think anybody knew what it was going to do for the sport exactly. Definitely thought it would be positive, but it’s changed the sport for good I think,” the reigning world champion added.
“I think it’s been the best thing because our sport is often quite difficult for people to understand. If you turn the TV on, you have no clue what’s going on. It’s very intricate, very complex, and there’s so many moving parts.”
The world’s most exclusive sport suddenly seems that little bit more welcoming to outsiders these days.
The 36-year-old Mercedes driver said: “Most people play football at school, play tennis, or try out these other sports. Most people don’t get the chance to race cars, so it’s been great for that show to be able to showcase that there are actual personalities within sport and the excitement in depth rather than just what you see on TV.
“And now there’s this whirlwind of new fan following, and yes the close championship makes it even more exciting.”
Not that Hamilton’s profile needed boosting.
Seven-time world champion, possessor of most pole positions (102) and race wins (102), and now gunning for a record eighth driver championship with Mercedes, Hamilton is coming off a sensational win at the first ever Qatar Grand Prix which has cut Max Verstappen’s lead at the top of the standings to eight points.
“The track was awesome. When we started driving it, just with the wind direction and the grip level, the speed of all the corners, they were all medium- and high-speed corners, I was sure the racing was not going to be great there. But it actually was, surprisingly.
“Qualifying lap, single lap, felt incredible and we had good preparation,” Hamilton added.
Having won the previous weekend in Brazil, Hamilton and Mercedes initially struggled in Doha.
“The Friday was a difficult day for me, I was nowhere, and I just kept my head down and studied hard and was fortunate, I felt, to turn it around and have a great Saturday and Sunday.
“I definitely didn’t know that at this point I’d be this close (to Verstappen in the standings) and have the performance that we finally were able to unlock with the car. I’m super grateful for it,” he said.
Next up for the rivals is this weekend’s inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, and yet another new track in Jeddah Corniche Circuit.
“I think all the drivers have driven the simulator; it is incredibly quick. It is a bit reminiscent of Montreal in terms of the long straight track that they have there, but they’re all curved at this track, and also there’s not a lot of run-off area so it really is quite a street circuit, and right in the city.
“It looks pretty epic to be honest, but we won’t fully know until we feel the rollercoaster ride of the real G-Force and speed, once we get there,” Hamilton added.
The British driver will be hoping to take the championship to the last race in Abu Dhabi, where the Yas Marina Circuit has been reconfigured for the first time since its completion in 2009.
He said: “It’s obviously an incredible circuit with the whole build-out of the place, I think they spent the most on that circuit than any other circuit, so it’s a great spectacle, beautiful last race of the season. But the layout has always been very, very difficult to follow and overtaking is quite difficult.
“It’s quite interesting that they’ve made these changes and I really think it’s going to unlock the potential of that circuit, to be more of a racing circuit. Because it’s so hard for us to follow each other, when they make these types of small changes, it’s hard to follow those through.
“So, from the simulator driving that I’ve done it looks like it’s going to make it very, very difficult to hold, to even keep position. It looks like it could be something where you’re constantly switching and changing. They might move to one of the best racing circuits, we’ll see when we get there,” he added.
Of Hamilton’s seven titles, six have been won with Mercedes in the last seven years, and such was his dominance at times, often it seemed that he was racing against himself, and history.
The closeness of this season’s battle with Verstappen and Red Bull is something Hamilton is cherishing.
“I really am because each year you’re faced with different scenarios. I wouldn’t say that it’s ever been a choice for me. I’ve never had it easy, in my younger days starting with an old go-kart, having to always race from the back.
“And particularly in karting, there was always wheel-to-wheel racing, super close. It was always down to that last lap, you had to be very, very tactical to make sure you came out first. I miss that in racing, and as you get through your cars you get less and less of that, and it’s more about positioning and holding the position.”
Red Bull have certainly raised the stakes this season, but Hamilton and Mercedes have risen to the challenge in recent weeks; the gap to Verstappen is down to only eight points in the drivers’ championship, while the team now leads Red Bull by five points.
Hamilton said: “Then of course we have all these disparities between cars each year, one team does well, and the other team doesn’t. We’ve done well for quite a few years, it’s amazing to now have this close battle again because it’s reminiscent of my karting days in terms of how close it is.
“But it also meant that we all have to elevate and perfect our craft even more. That’s what sport is about, right? That’s why it’s been super exciting. It’s been challenging for my engineers, for the mechanics, how do they dig deep and squeeze more out of their potential. It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions, but something I’ve really enjoyed.”
Should Hamilton win the title in Abu Dhabi, it will be a very popular victory among the natives. The organizers of the race at Yas Marina Circuit still speak with pride at how Hamilton — who races in No. 44 — took part in the UAE’s 44th National Day celebrations in 2015.
Having spent a significant part of his life racing around the world, Hamilton has seen first-hand how F1 has grown in the Middle East.
“Each time we go out to Bahrain, the crowds seem to get bigger and bigger. Abu Dhabi gets bigger and bigger each time we go and of course we have more and more presence now particularly with Qatar and Saudi,” he added.
Crucially, more young people are taking up motorsports in this part of the world, especially karting.
“I just spoke to someone from Saudi, I don’t know a lot of people in Saudi, but they are talking to me about how there are a lot of girls, and boys, where their first choice is not football, it’s racing,” Hamilton said.
“It’s quite cool to see there is a new generation out in the Middle East that are car crazy and want to be racing. So, who knows, maybe in the future we’re going to see a Formula 1 driver from somewhere in the Middle East, I think that could be quite cool. Would be even better if that was female.”
Hamilton, famously, has developed many interests, and supported many causes, outside racing.
“Being an athlete, being a sportsman, most often that’s all you do and for me it’s been important to find other outlets, other areas, because if you focus on one thing it doesn’t always lead to happiness.
“You’ve got to be able to fill and explore your other potential, other avenues that you might be good at. It’s always great to be able to turn your mind off from racing, and focus on something else, something that you can be creative with,” he added.
Unlike most other drivers, or athletes, Hamilton has had ventures into music and fashion. He has also built a close relationship with Swiss watch manufacturer IWC Schaffhausen — for whom he is an ambassador — over the last few years, helping design his very own timepiece, Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar Edition Lewis Hamilton.
“So, I really enjoyed the whole process, from sitting in the car at Hockenheim with Christopher (Grainger-Herr, chief executive officer of IWC Schaffhausen), driving to the airport and talking about a potential collaboration, and talking about the intricacies of a watch, and saying I want my own watch one day, to now having my own timepiece.
“It was really challenging for me, sitting there working with them because I have a lot of appreciation for the brand’s work and expertise, but I also wanted to add my own touch. I had questions like, what can we change on the dial? The tourbillon, I want to get the tourbillon in one of my pieces because it’s one of my favorite movements, if not my favorite movement,” he said.
In recent years, activism has played a big part in Hamilton’s life away from F1, and he has become an outspoken advocate for social equality, diversity in sport, and environmental sustainability, his own X44 team taking part in the first ever electric SUV rally series, Extreme E, this year.
Hamilton noted that it was vital for him to work with people who shared his values.
“So, I’ve been on calls with my partners at IWC Schaffhausen talking about things like, what are you doing during this time about diversity? How diverse is your company, what are your goals, how are you going to be more inclusive moving forward? And they’re fully on board with that.
“That for me is amazing to see, that people are conscious of sustainability, brands are conscious of the impact that we’re having on the planet. I only really like to engage with people that are like-minded in that sense, rather than just business-minded,” he added.
Far from being distractions, his interests away from racing have helped him keep an almost zen-like sense of perspective in his career, as his continued brilliance on the track has shown.
He said: “Tapping into different things helps take the pressure off this crazy, intense world that I have over here. Because if I stop and think about that and only think about the racing, I have 2,000 people working flat out, depending on me at the end to pull it through.
“Partners, and my own expectations can be super overwhelming, so these other things help me dilute that pressure and feed that energy into something positive.”
Still, when he lands in Jeddah for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix this weekend, expect one thing, and one thing only, to be on Lewis Hamilton’s mind.
Jailed former paralympic athlete Pistorius moved closer to victim’s family
Pistorius went from public hero to convicted murderer in a trial that drew worldwide interest
He is set to speak to Steenkamp's parents in a process known as victim-offender dialogue
Updated 02 December 2021
CAPE TOWN: Former South Africa paralympic superstar, Oscar Pistorius, jailed in 2016 for killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, has been moved closer to her family ahead of reconciliation talks that could help pave the way for his early release from prison.
Pistorius, known as “Blade Runner” for his carbon-fiber prosthetic legs, went from public hero to convicted murderer in a trial that drew worldwide interest. He becomes eligible for parole after serving half of his 13-year sentence.
Pistorius is set to speak to Steenkamp’s parents, June and Barry Steenkamp, in a process known as victim-offender dialogue — an integral part of South Africa’s restorative justice program in its prison system that brings parties affected by a particular crime together in a bid to achieve closure.
“They are participating in the process because they have committed themselves to being part of the victim-offender dialogue. They feel they have to do this for Reeva,” Tania Koen, lawyer for the Steenkamps, said of the family.
Pistorius’ lawyer did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Gold medalist Pistorius, once the darling of the Paralympic movement for pushing for greater recognition and acceptance of disabled athletes, shot dead Steenkamp, a model and law student, in his bathroom in 2013.
Pistorius said he had believed she was an intruder but was jailed in 2016, initially for a six-year term. After an appeal by prosecutors who said this was too lenient the term was increased to 13 years.
He has now been moved from a prison near Johannesburg to one on South Africa’s east coast, near where Steenkamp’s parents live.
Neither their lawyer Koen nor Singabakho Nxumalo, a spokesman for the department of correctional services, could provide Reuters with a timeline for the discussions.
“It is very sensitive process, highly emotional... and we do not force people to participate in it,” Nxumalo said.
“But we are saying at least it does lay a foundation where people can, if possible, forgive each other, find one another and then try to move forward in harmony,” he said.
COVID-19 hits Williams F1 team ahead of Saudi Grand Prix
Team Principal Jost Capito tests positive for Covid before traveling to Jeddah, Williams ‘team will continue to operate trackside as planned’
Still mourning the loss of founder Frank Williams, the team goes to the Jeddah Corniche Circuit having garnered 23 points so far this season
Updated 03 December 2021
PARIS: Williams’ Team Principal Jost Capito has tested positive for COVID-19 before traveling to Jeddah for this weekend’s Saudi Arabia Grand Prix, the British Formula One outfit announced Thursday.
“Jost is now following UK national health authority guidelines,” the team said in a statement. “There has been no wider impact on Williams Racing personnel and the team will continue to operate trackside as planned.”
Still mourning the loss of founder Frank Williams, the team goes to the Jeddah Corniche Circuit having garnered just 23 points so far this season.
The penultimate round of the 2021 World Championship season sees Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton of Britain clinging to the tail of Dutch championship leader Max Verstappen of Red Bull with just eight points separating the pair.