Much-travelled Alexander Merkel settling into Saudi lifestyle as Al-Faisaly chase first trophy

Much-travelled Alexander Merkel settling into Saudi lifestyle as Al-Faisaly chase first trophy
Alexander Merkel, the Kazakhstan-born former German youth international, left, is on the brink of major success in Saudi Arabia. (Twitter: @AlFaisaly)
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Updated 02 April 2021

Much-travelled Alexander Merkel settling into Saudi lifestyle as Al-Faisaly chase first trophy

Much-travelled Alexander Merkel settling into Saudi lifestyle as Al-Faisaly chase first trophy
  • Former German youth international will play in club’s first King’s Cup final should Al-Faisaly beat Al-Nassr on Sunday

RIYADH: Italy, England, Austria, and Germany are just a few of the countries that Alexander Merkel has experienced in his colorful footballing career.

Now, at the age of 29, the Kazakhstan-born former German youth international is on the brink of major success in Saudi Arabia.

It has been an up and down first season for Merkel at Al-Faisaly in the Saudi Pro League but there is a chance for glory this weekend. Should the Burgundy defeat Al-Nassr in the semi-final of the King’s Cup on Sunday then a first major trophy is within reach for the club and Kazakhstan full international.

The midfielder, who arrived in the city of Al-Majma’ah in the middle of last year, is looking forward to the king-sized challenge.

“It is the biggest game of the season so far and we know that we have a tough opponent, but we can win,” Merkel told Arab News.

“It would be a first trophy for the club, and it would be a huge thing. Everyone is looking forward to it, but we are not looking too far forward, however. The final would be great, but we have to get there first.”

But if Al-Faisaly do win the cup then the well-travelled 29-year-old, who has played for Milan, Genoa, Udinese, and Watford, among others will be in the 2022 AFC Champions League and playing against the region’s best teams.

“The AFC Champions League would be fantastic, and it would be a great extra bonus. Who knows what would happen?” he said.

Who indeed, especially on Sunday. Big-spending Al-Nassr with their nine league titles – to Al-Faisaly’s none – may be favorites but Merkel has found that football in the country is nothing if not unpredictable.

When the two last met in the league, the Riyadh giants needed a late goal to win a hard-fought contest 3-2. Since then, Merkel’s team have drawn with the top two sides, Al-Hilal and Al-Shabab, and defeated Al-Ittihad and Al-Ahli. It is a little surprising then that the team are just three points above the relegation zone.

“Against tough opponents we play really well but against teams at our level we are struggling a bit. Al-Hilal is the one everyone respects the most. Then you have Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad, Al-Shabab and Al-Ahli. But the other teams are not far behind. There is not a massive points gap and any team can beat any team,” he added.

“When we play big teams, they play open football and that suits us. Other teams defend more and that makes it difficult for us sometimes but often it is the small details that make a difference.

“I don’t want to think about relegation, but we play good football. I want to think positive, and we have the quality to stay up. If we win the next three games, we could be sixth.”

Whatever happens, Merkel, who arrived in Saudi Arabia from Dutch club Heracles Almelo, has enjoyed his time so far.

“They contacted me last May and at the time, the Netherlands league was already finished. I thought about it for a while as it was a big step to move to Asia for the first time. I decided with my family to try it and I am really happy and positive about the country. People in Europe don’t know about it. People are friendly and the quality of the league is really good. There are no regrets,” he said.

Having his family around makes a big difference. “In the beginning, it was a little hard with the weather as it was 45-50 degrees. After two or three months, it became easier. The lifestyle is different but if you accept it then it is really good.”

Merkel pointed out that his local team-mates were interested in his past career and he would like to see more of them try their luck in Europe, though he accepts it is easier said than done.

“The players ask about Europe and how players train there. One difference there is that we train in Europe in the morning while here we do so in the evening and that is new for us.

“It is more difficult for Saudis to go to Europe than it is for us to come from Europe to Saudi Arabia, the culture is easier. You have more time to adapt here. There is also prayer time and in Europe they don’t have that even for Muslim players. I never saw them having prayer time. In Europe you can train or play when it is prayer time,” he added.

In terms of quality, however, there would be no issues.

Merkel said: “I have seen in six or seven months a lot of young players who are exciting. They have a very good technique, and they are fast with good skills. The national team also plays good football and are always trying to make things happen.

“I enjoy it. I have a contract for one more year but in football you never know. I have really enjoyed my time here and want to stay next year and develop with the team.”

But first, a shot at glory on Sunday. “We can win, I know it for sure,” he added.


Ireland thrashes Netherlands in T20 World Cup

Ireland thrashes Netherlands in T20 World Cup
Updated 12 sec ago

Ireland thrashes Netherlands in T20 World Cup

Ireland thrashes Netherlands in T20 World Cup
  • Fast bowler Curtis Campher takes four wickets in four balls
  • He is just the second player with a hat-trick in the men’s T20 World Cup
ABU DHABI: Fast bowler Curtis Campher took four wickets in four balls to help Ireland thrash Netherlands by seven wickets in a first round match of the Twenty20 World Cup on Monday.
Campher took a hat-trick and then struck again to return figures of 4-26 as Netherlands were dismissed for 106 in the Group A opener in Abu Dhabi.
In reply, Ireland lost two early wickets but veteran opener Paul Stirling, who made an unbeaten 30, and Gareth Delany, who scored 44, put on 59 runs for the third wicket to ease into their chase.
Ireland achieved their target with 4.5 overs to spare as Campher hit the winning runs for his team’s first win over the Netherlands in a World Cup.
“(We wanted) just to attack the stumps as much as possible and, obviously, with Curtis’ four-wicket over he did exactly that,” skipper Andy Balbirnie said after the win.
“We’ve had a slow but good build-up, I think we’re peaking at the right time.”
Campher became only the third bowler in T20 International history to claim four wickets in four balls after Afghanistan’s Rashid Khan and Lasith Malinga of Sri Lanka in 2019.
Campher sent back Colin Ackermann (11), Ryan ten Doeschate (0) and Scott Edwards (0) for a hat-trick and then bowled Roelof van der Merwe (0) in a sensational over.
The Johannesburg-born Campher is also just the second player with a hat-trick in the men’s T20 World Cup after Australia fast bowler Brett Lee, who achieved the feat against Bangladesh in the inaugural edition in 2007.
Campher, 22, had a T20 best of 3-19 from his previous four matches since making his debut in August against Zimbabwe in Dublin.
He switched ends in the match on Monday and got instant success after Ireland reviewed a caught behind for Ackermann with the ultra edge technology showing a spike when the ball passed the batsman’s gloves.
Technology helped Campher once again on the hat-trick ball when Edwards was given not out for an lbw call by the on-field official but replays suggested the ball would have hit the leg stump.
Earlier this season, Campher underwent ankle surgery.
“I didn’t feel the best, coming back from injury,” he said.
“First over didn’t go as planned but Bal (Balbirnie) kept faith with me.”
Skipper Pieter Seelaar scored 21 to take Netherlands past the 100-run mark before quick bowler Mark Adair ran through the tail to return impressive figures of 3-9 — Ireland’s most economical bowling ever in T20 World Cup.
Sri Lanka, the 2014 champions, face Namibia later Monday in the second fixture in Group A.

English Premier League block on club sponsor deals linked to owners

English Premier League block on club sponsor deals linked to owners
Updated 19 October 2021

English Premier League block on club sponsor deals linked to owners

English Premier League block on club sponsor deals linked to owners
  • Newcastle was joined by Manchester City in resisting the move, which passed with 18 votes in favor

English Premier League clubs moved on Monday to prevent Newcastle immediately striking lucrative sponsorship deals with companies linked to its new Saudi ownership.
Clubs held an emergency meeting to impose a freeze on any of them agreeing to commercial arrangements with businesses their owners are associated with, a person familiar with the decision told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to confirm details of a report published by The Guardian late Monday.
Newcastle was joined by Manchester City in resisting the move to prohibit clubs agreeing to related-party transactions, the person said.
But it passed with 18 votes in favor as Newcastle opposed and City abstained after it questioned the legality of the ban, another person said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss a private meeting.
Since being bought by Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour in 2008, City has amassed sponsorships from companies linked to the emirate with Etihad Airways having the naming rights to the stadium and appearing on team jerseys. City has insisted they are paying fair market value rather than inflated fees for sponsorship to provide revenue to allow the club to comply with financial regulations.
Premier League rivals are worried Newcastle will use friendly sponsorship deals with related parties to help it comply with financial fair play rules that are in place to prevent rich clubs from spending unchecked. Under league rules, clubs are allowed to make losses of 105 million pounds ($144 million) over a rolling three-year period.

 


Real Madrid star Benzema goes on trial in sextape case

Real Madrid star Benzema goes on trial in sextape case
Updated 18 October 2021

Real Madrid star Benzema goes on trial in sextape case

Real Madrid star Benzema goes on trial in sextape case
  • Benzema, 33, stands accused of helping a group of alleged blackmailers to approach Valbuena in an attempt to extort money
  • The case centres on the role that Benzema is suspected of playing in the murky affair six years ago

VERSAILLES, France: Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema goes on trial in France on Wednesday accused of complicity in the attempted blackmail of former international teammate Mathieu Valbuena in a case known as the “sextape affair.”
Benzema, 33, stands accused of helping a group of alleged blackmailers to approach Valbuena in an attempt to extort money. Four other men are also on trial.
The case cost both Benzema and 37-year-old Valbuena their place in the French national team, although Benzema was restored to the lineup for this year’s European championship.
The case centers on the role that Benzema is suspected of playing in the murky affair six years ago, which started when Valbuena handed his smartphone to Axel Angot, a man connected to footballing circles in the southern port city of Marseille, with the request to transfer its contents to a new device.
Angot, now on trial for breach of trust, came across sexually explicit footage on the phone involving Valbuena.
Prosecutors say he then explored ways — together with a friend, Mustapha Zouaoui — to approach Valbuena and threaten publication of the footage unless he paid them.
Valbuena received several calls in June 2015 threatening exposure of the footage, which he reported to police.
The blackmailers then went to former French international Djibril Cisse, who refused to act as their messenger, instead warning Valbuena of what was brewing.
Cisse, who played for Premier League club Liverpool during his career, was initially charged in the case, but later cleared.
What followed is an imbroglio involving several shadowy middlemen, one of whom turned out to be an undercover agent called “Luka” placed by police who were trying to get proof before taking action against the protagonists.
Eventually the presumed blackmailers went to one of Benzema’s old friends, Karim Zenati, who prosecutors say enlisted Benzema’s help to reach Valbuena.
On Oct 6, 2015, Benzema went to see Valbuena in his room at the French national team’s training center at Clairefontaine, west of Paris.
He told his teammate that he could introduce him to a “trustworthy person” to help him “manage” the possible publication of a compromising video.
In what Benzema later claimed was an attempt to help his teammate out of a difficult situation, he told him: “Be careful ‘Math’, these are very, very heavy criminals.”
Benzema then called his childhood friend Karim Zenati, who was by then acting as an intermediary for the alleged blackmailers and told him in a conversation wiretapped by police: “He’s not taking us seriously.”
Prosecutors say that the word “us” proves that Benzema saw himself as part of the blackmail scheme.
Valbuena said later that the conversation left him with the feeling that he was “being played for a fool.”
“If he doesn’t want us to handle this for him, he’ll have to deal with the piranhas,” Zenati said, claiming later that all he wanted to do was alert Valbuena to the existence of the video.
Benzema replied that “they will piss on him,” and in a subsequent conversation referred to Valbuena with a derogatory term for a homosexual, which he said later was meant “in a friendly way.”
The maximum sentence for complicity in attempted blackmail is five years in prison and a fine of 70,000 euros ($81,000).
Benzema has argued that the undercover police officer used dishonest methods to draw him into the affair.
It was unclear on Monday whether the striker, who is scheduled to play for Real Madrid against Shakhtar Donetsk in a Champions League match in Ukraine on Tuesday, will attend the trial. His lawyers did not respond to AFP’s requests for clarification.
Valbuena, who now plays for Greek club Olympiakos, will be present, his lawyer said.
The sextape case caused Benzema to be exiled from France’s national football team for years — a decision he called ‘racist’ — but the striker returned to “Les Bleus” this year in time for the European championship.
France coach Didier Deschamps said this month that “he’s no longer the same person, he’s matured.”
Benzema has scored a total of 243 goals for Real and remains a key part of their side.


Five talking points ahead of all-Saudi AFC Champions League semifinal between Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr

Five talking points ahead of all-Saudi AFC Champions League semifinal between Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr
Updated 18 October 2021

Five talking points ahead of all-Saudi AFC Champions League semifinal between Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr

Five talking points ahead of all-Saudi AFC Champions League semifinal between Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr
  • Teams meet in the most high profile Riyadh Derby in years on Tuesday with a place in Asia’s premier club competition up for grabs against either Pohang Steelers or Ulsan Horang-i from South Korea

On Tuesday, Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal meet in the semifinal of the AFC Champions League in Riyadh. Thanks to the fallout from the coronavirus disease pandemic, the game will be a one-legged affair instead of the usual two legs. This means the last four tie will be over on the night, and with the final also being held in the capital next month (against Pohang Steelers or Ulsan Horang-i from South Korea), this is a great opportunity for the continental championship to return to Saudi Arabia.

Here are five talking points ahead of this eagerly-awaited game:

1. Al-Nassr need to beat history to beat Al-Hilal

While this is a first ever meeting in Asia, there have been a number of knockout clashes between the two rivals over the years and Al-Hilal have usually come out on top.

One of the biggest non-league meetings between these two teams came back in the final of the 2015 King’s Cup. On that June day, Riyadh decamped to Jeddah and there were more than 60,000 packed into the newly-built King Abdullah Sports City Stadium. 

It was a tense affair that ended goalless after 90 minutes. Early in extra-time, Mohammad Al-Sahlawi put Al-Nassr ahead, and the Yellows were on course for the cup with the 120 minutes almost up. But then came a last-gasp equalizer from Mohammed Jahfali to send the Al-Hilal fans wild.

Both teams scored their first six penalties in the shootout. Salman Al-Faraj, the current Al-Hilal skipper, scored number seven but then Shaye Sharahili missed his, and that was that. Al-Hilal also beat their rivals in the 2020 King’s Cup final.

The pair have met in the Crown Prince Cup final twice, with one victory each. Al-Hilal also defeated Al-Nassr at the semifinal of the 1995 Arab Champions League and the final of the 2000 Arab Cup Winners Cup.

2. A Portuguese battle of wits and emotion

There has already been plenty of attention in Portugal paid to the quarterfinals of the Champions League due to the fact that two of their coaches are in charge of the Saudi pair. Al-Hilal hired Leonardo Jardim in June and Al-Nassr appointed Pedro Emanuel, a lesser-known coach, at the start of this month. 

It means a Portuguese head-to-head in the semifinal. Jardim has started to get to grips with this Al-Hilal team and is trying to get all of his attacking talent into a balanced line-up. Emanuel just has one game under his belt — though it was an impressive 5-1 thrashing of Al-Wahda of the UAE.

There is a strong streak of pragmatism among some Portuguese coaches and the key to this tie may well rest on which boss can instil a sense of normality and calm among his players. The atmosphere is sure to be frenetic and loud. The team that settles first may end up triumphant at the last.

3. It could be the Talisca vs Pereira show

There will be plenty of top-class talent on display on Tuesday but mouths around Asia will be watering at the prospect of two attacking midfielders, Al-Nassr’s Talisca and Al-Hilal’s Matheus Pereira, lining up against each other.

Both have made their mark in the league season so far and have established themselves as two of the best players in Asia, never mind the Saudi Professional League. Talisca has been a little more flamboyant, with blond hair, physical presence and delicious goals from outside the area. Pereira’s influence is not quite as spectacular but he pulls the strings in attack and increasingly sets the tempo of all the games he appears in.

The pair are both potential match-winners, and whichever one shines the brightest could end up being the one that pushes his team towards victory. 

4. It is hard to say who wants this more

Both sets of fans will be desperate to win this match — that goes without saying — but it is harder to say who are more desperate to lift the trophy.

You cannot talk to any Al-Hilal fan for more than a minute or two before being reminded that the club have won three Asian championships, more than any other on the continent except Pohang Steelers. There is a huge amount of pride at the record in Asia and fans would love nothing more than to become the only team on the continent to have won four championships. Asia is woven into Al-Hilal’s DNA.

Al-Nassr have yet to win one, though they reached the final back in 1995. That failure rankles more when your neighbours have been so successful. For the Yellows, winning the Champions League will mean many things and not just defeating their rivals along the way. It will mean being the best in Asia and moving out of the shadow of Al-Hilal’s continental exploits. And it will also mean that whatever happens for the rest of this season, it will already be a success.

5. It should be remembered that this is not the final

It is tempting to see this as a clash for the ages, a semifinal between bitter city rivals, but whoever wins will not get a trophy. There will still be a game left to play and that will come against a battle-hardened South Korean team.

Saudi Arabia has a fine record in Asian club competitions but cannot match the exploits of its counterparts from the K-League. In the other semifinal Ulsan Horang-i, defending champions and winners in 2012 (against Al-Ahli in the final), will take on Pohang Steelers, three-time champions who defeated Al-ittihad in the 2009 final. Ulsan beat Jeonbuk Motors, another Korean team, in the quarterfinals, who lifted the trophy in 2006 and 2016.

These are teams that are used to winning in Asia and will not bat an eyelid at playing in front of a passionate Riyadh crowd on Nov. 23. After the semifinal, there will still be work to do.


Scotland shocks Bangladesh, Oman thumps Papua New Guinea as Twenty20 World Cup gets underway

Scotland shocks Bangladesh, Oman thumps Papua New Guinea as Twenty20 World Cup gets underway
Updated 18 October 2021

Scotland shocks Bangladesh, Oman thumps Papua New Guinea as Twenty20 World Cup gets underway

Scotland shocks Bangladesh, Oman thumps Papua New Guinea as Twenty20 World Cup gets underway
  • Scotland holds its nerve to pull off a major upset against Bangladesh

AL AMERAT, Oman: Scotland held its nerve to pull off a major upset against Bangladesh with a six-run victory in their opening group game in the first round of the Cricket Twenty20 World Cup on Sunday.
In the other Group B game, co-host Oman thrashed debutant Papua New Guinea by 10 wickets.
Chris Greaves first lifted Scotland to 140-9 after Bangladesh won the toss and its spinners had reduced the Scots to 53-6 in the 12th over.
Greaves then picked up two key wickets of Mushfiqur Rahim (38) and Shakib Al Hasan (20) with his leg-spin which eventually restricted Bangladesh’s chase to 134-7.
“It was a great game,” Greaves said. “I’m just glad I could contribute in the way I did. Incredible.”
The top two teams from each of the two groups in the first round will advance to the Super 12 stage that starts in co-host United Arab Emirates next Saturday.
Bangladesh, a favorite to qualify for Super 12, struggled against Scotland’s seam and spin and could hit only eight boundaries and four sixes.
Medium fast bowlers Brad Wheal (3-24) and Josh Davey (1-24), along with spinner Mark Watt (1-19) combined well, but it was Greaves’ two wickets in the middle overs which completely unsettled Bangladesh.
Calum MacLeod took a brilliant running catch at deep mid-wicket to dismiss Shakib and Mushfiqur played a reckless ramp shot and his leg stump was knocked back by Greaves’ googly.
Earlier, Greaves revived Scotland with four boundaries and two sixes after Mahedi Hasan (3-19) and Shakib (2-17) picked up five wickets in the space of eight runs and reduced Scotland to 53-6.
Shakib also became the world’s leading wicket-taker in T20 internationals by claiming his 108th wicket when he removed Michael Leask for a duck.
Group A comprises Ireland, Namibia, Sri Lanka and the Netherlands.
Co-host Oman’s openers Jatinder Singh and Aqib Ilyas smashed unbeaten half centuries in their team’s thumping win over PNG.
Singh scored 73 off 42 balls and Ilyas made 50 that eased the host to 131-0 with more than six overs to spare.
Earlier, skipper Zeeshan Ashraf (4-20) registered Oman’s best figures in a T20 and pinned down PNG to 129-9.
“These are our home conditions, we knew even 140 could be chased easily,” Ashraf said. “We knew the wicket was playing very well, we needed to make sure we didn’t give away loose balls and easy boundaries.”
PNG captain Assad Vala (56) and Charles Amini (37) did well to share an 81-run stand after openers Tony Ura and Lega Siaka had played Oman fast bowlers back onto their stumps without a run on the board.
But Amini’s run-out was followed by Singh taking a brilliant running catch at long-on before Ashraf, the left-arm spinner, grabbed three wickets in an over to derail the PNG innings.
Singh, played several impressive reverse sweeps, hitting seven fours and four sixes without any of the seven bowlers used by Vala able to trouble the batsman. He raised the victory with a six over mid-wicket in the 14th over.
The 131-run stand was Oman’s best partnership for any wicket in a T20 and the chase, without losing a wicket, was the third-highest in men’s T20 internationals.
“On that wicket, 129 was never going to be enough,” Vala said. “We were looking at 160-plus to give ourselves a chance. (First) Charles got run out, then myself getting out, (and) we lost our way. I think a lot of credit goes to Maqsood and his boys.”