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.


Italian boxer of Moroccan origin beats Nazi-tattooed rival

Italian boxer of Moroccan origin beats Nazi-tattooed rival
Updated 21 September 2021

Italian boxer of Moroccan origin beats Nazi-tattooed rival

Italian boxer of Moroccan origin beats Nazi-tattooed rival
  • Hassan Nourdine: Michele Broili’s tattoos ‘disgusted me … I had more of a taste to win’
  • Nourdine gained Italian super-featherweight title on points

LONDON: An Italian boxer born in Morocco has claimed victory over a fighter whose body is tattooed with Nazi symbols.

Hassan Nourdine, 34, beat Michele Broili, 28, on points to win the Italian super-featherweight title in the northeastern city of Trieste.

Nourdine, who moved to the Italian town of Asti with his parents when he was 6, said Broili’s tattoos motivated him to win.

“I tried to stay focused and undistracted the whole evening, but seeing Broili’s tattoos glorifying Nazism disgusted me, not to mention the spectators giving stiff-armed fascist salutes,” Nourdine told Italy’s La Stampa newspaper. “I wanted to have a good fight and given the situation I had more of a taste to win.”

He said the Federazione Pugilistica Italiana, Italian boxing’s governing body should not allow Broili to compete due to his tattoos.

“They should have realized this boxer had certain leanings — the incitement of hatred is punishable by law,” Nourdine added.

“Anyone who has been to school knows what the Nazis did, and even those who didn’t go to school know what the Holocaust was.”

Broili’s tattoos include the SS logo, a Celtic cross and the number 88, neo-Nazi shorthand for the expression “Heil Hitler.” 

Nourdine, who works night shifts at a factory making industrial machinery to support his family and boxing career, said: “You need to make young people understand these are dangerous messages. You need to remind them these symbols encouraged genocide.”

After the fight, the FPI said it was considering action against Broili for his tattoos. 


Blow for Al-Hilal, Saudi Arabia as Salem Al-Dossari ruled out for month

Blow for Al-Hilal, Saudi Arabia as Salem Al-Dossari ruled out for month
Updated 21 September 2021

Blow for Al-Hilal, Saudi Arabia as Salem Al-Dossari ruled out for month

Blow for Al-Hilal, Saudi Arabia as Salem Al-Dossari ruled out for month
  • 30-year-old set to miss at least two SPL matches, Saudi Arabia’s World Cup qualifiers against Japan, China in October

RIYADH: Al-Hilal and the Saudi national football team have been dealt a major blow with news that Salem Al-Dossari will be sidelined for up to four weeks as he recovers from a recent injury.

According to Al-Hilal, medical tests confirmed that the 30-year-old winger had torn a joint ligament.

Al-Dossari will now miss the club’s matches against Al-Shabab and Al-Hazem in the sixth and seventh rounds of the Saudi Pro League, and the Asian qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup against Japan and China on Oct. 7 and 12, respectively.

His participation in Al-Hilal’s AFC Champions League quarterfinal against Iran’s Persepolis on Oct. 16, however, will depend on how quickly his injury responds to treatment.

Al-Dossari was injured during his team’s 3-2 victory over Al-Ettifaq in their last SPL match.

Meanwhile, Al-Hilal captain Salman Al-Faraj on Monday edged closer to a first team return with another training session with the club’s youth team, but Peruvian forward Andre Carrillo was still three to four weeks away from a full recovery.

The reigning champions will meet Al-Shabab in the sixth round of the 2021-22 SPL season matches at King Fahd International Stadium on Thursday.


Alhasnaa Al-Hammad, Leen Al-Fozan, Nada Abed claim titles at Saudi Fencing Championship

Alhasnaa Al-Hammad, Leen Al-Fozan, Nada Abed claim titles at Saudi Fencing Championship
Updated 21 September 2021

Alhasnaa Al-Hammad, Leen Al-Fozan, Nada Abed claim titles at Saudi Fencing Championship

Alhasnaa Al-Hammad, Leen Al-Fozan, Nada Abed claim titles at Saudi Fencing Championship
  • Trio of fencers won sabre, foil, epee titles at end of Gold Round in Alkhobar

RIYADH: Fencing trio Alhasnaa Al-Hammad, Leen Al-Fozan, and Nada Abed have been crowned overall champions in the sabre, foil, and epee categories, respectively, at the conclusion of the Saudi Fencing Championship Gold Round in Alkhobar.

Ahmed Al-Sabban, president of the Saudi Fencing Federation, presented the overall winners with their prizes after the championship’s final round held at the fencing arena in Prince Saud bin Jalawi Sports City.

Dai Al-Amiri won the epee category in the competition for under-15s, while Aya Ammar claimed the foil title in the same age group.

The results of the Gold Round had seen top places go to Shahd Al-Kloub in epee, Leen Al-Fozan in foil, and Alhasnaa Al-Hammad in sabre.


Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr have most valuable squads in AFC Champions League

Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr have most valuable squads in AFC Champions League
Updated 21 September 2021

Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr have most valuable squads in AFC Champions League

Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr have most valuable squads in AFC Champions League
  • The 2019 winners’ players are worth $71.76m, while Riyadh neighbors Al-Nassr’s are valued at $71.33m

It is no surprise that Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr, the latter despite their managerial change last week, are two of the favorites to lift the AFC Champions League trophy on Nov. 23 — and not just because the final will be held in their home city of Riyadh.

If you follow the money, these rivals should be there or thereabouts. Of the eight teams left in Asia’s premier club competition, the two Saudi Arabian representatives have the most valuable squads. That is according to Transfermarkt, the website used around the world to track and rank such things.

Al-Hilal have the most expensive assets of all, worth a collective $71.76 million, just slightly more than Al-Nassr’s $71.33 million.

The 2019 Asian champions, who defeated Esteghlal 2-0 in the round of 16 of the AFC Champions League last week, have two players whose worth can be measured only by using eight figures. Moussa Marega, who arrived this year from FC Porto, has a value of $11.74 million, but the player worth the most is, unsurprisingly, Matheus Pereira at $17.60 million.

The Riyadh giants beat a number of clubs from the English Premier League and elsewhere to sign the Brazilian from West Bromwich Albion in August. The playmaker showed his worth against Esteghlal with a fine assist for the opening goal. His pass was converted by Bafetimbi Gomis, whose relatively low valuation of $1.88 million is influenced by his 36 years and short contract. The highest-rated local player in the squad is the talismanic Salem Al-Dawsari at $3.76 million. Next is central midfielder Mohammed Kanno at $3.05 million.

Al-Nassr have plenty of gems of their own after a busy 12 months or so in the transfer market. Injury-hit Argentine Pity Martinez has a $14.08 million valuation, which is not that much below the $17.60 million or so the nine-time Saudi champions paid out for the playmaker in 2020. This is something of a surprise given his inactivity in recent months. The club has so far had better luck with its more recent additions, with Talisca valued at $11.74 million, the same as Cameroonian striker Vincent Aboubakar. The highest-rated Saudi player is the excellent full-back Sultan Al-Ghanam at $3.17 million, $821,500 above midfielder Abdulfattah Asiri.

In terms of the AFC Champions League, none of the other six clubs can boast such expensive assets. Persepolis have reached two of the last three finals, but the Tehran giants have only one player worth seven figures. Mehdi Torabi headed the only goal against Istiklol of Tajikistan in the last minute of their second-round match and that can only add to his current valuation of $1.17 million. There is still talent in the squad, however. If Jalal Hosseini was a little younger than 39, then the center-back, who has made more than 100 appearances for Iran, would be worth his weight in gold.

Al-Wahda complete the West Asian quartet after their penalty shootout win in the all-UAE clash with Sharjah. According to Transfermarkt, Sharjah’s squad is valued at $36.44 million — almost three times more than Al-Wahda’s. If so, then coach Henk ten Cate has done well to take the Abu Dhabi club so far. Their two most valuable assets are Joao Pedro of Brazil and Syrian striker Omar Khribin, worth $3.52 million and $2.11 million, respectively. Again, if Ismail Matar was 28 instead of 38 then the winger would be one of the hottest and most expensive properties in Asian football. One also wonders how much more than $176,000 20-year-old midfielder Abdullah Hamad will be worth in the years to come.

Should Al-Nassr or Al-Hilal make it all the way to the final, then they will meet East Asian opposition and there is a good chance that the team will be from South Korea. The third most-valuable squad left in the competition belongs to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors at an estimated $25.56 million. The two-time Asian champions have the usual sprinkling of foreign players, with Russian striker Stanislav Iljutcenko worth $2.35 million and Gambian winger Modou Barrow just $352,000 less. There are also plenty of local players worth $1 million or more, signifying the strength in depth that Jeonbuk possess. There are current or former Korean internationals such as attackers Song Min-kyu, Han Kyo-won and Lee Seung-ki. At the back, former FC Augsburg center-back Hong Jeong-ho marshals the defense.

Jeonbuk’s rivals for the Korean title and defending Asian champions Ulsan Hyundai have players with valuations that reflect the talent at the club. There are no huge stars, with Georgian midfielder Valeri Qazaishvili the highest valued at $1.88 million. There are two local players who are worth almost as much, with talented midfielder Yoon Bit-garam and goalkeeper Cho Hyun-woo, who starred for Korea at the 2018 World Cup, valued at $1.76 million. Then there are young players such as Lee Dong-jun and Lee Dong-gyeong, who seem a little undervalued.

Pohang Steelers are one of two teams, along with Al-Hilal, with three Asian club championships under their belt. Despite having 39 players in their squad — one of the biggest in the entire 40-team tournament — the Steelers’ entire roster is worth only $12.65 million, about a sixth of those of Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr. No player is estimated to be worth even $1 million. Left-back Kang Sang-woo is the highest valued at $997,500.

Japan has one club left compared to Korea’s three. Nagoya Grampus’ most expensive player, for any club looking to buy, is Jakub Swierczok. The Polish striker scored a hat-trick in a 4-2 win over Daegu FC last week. There are some other talented strikers at the club, such as Yoichiro Kakitani and Mu Kanazaki, but they are valued lower as they are the wrong side of 30. The most expensive domestic player is 25-year-old center-back Shinnosuke Nakatani.

Fans in Saudi Arabia will get a chance to check out some of these talents in the coming weeks, allowing them to judge just how accurate such valuations are and whether they will increase or decrease.


Over 100 Saudi athletes compete in 2nd Women’s Karate Championships in Jeddah

Over 100 Saudi athletes compete in 2nd Women’s Karate Championships in Jeddah
Updated 21 September 2021

Over 100 Saudi athletes compete in 2nd Women’s Karate Championships in Jeddah

Over 100 Saudi athletes compete in 2nd Women’s Karate Championships in Jeddah
  • Saudi Karate Federation President Dr. Musharraf Al-Shehri praises tournament which hosted 10 clubs at the Asian Arts Center

RIYADH: Women’s sport in Saudi Arabia continued its rapid rise with the hosting of the 2nd Women’s Karate Championship at the Asian Arts Center in Jeddah this week.

The tournament was attended by Saudi Karate Federation President Dr. Musharraf Al-Shehri, who praised the standard of the competition, the organization of the event and the large number of participants, saying all are an indication of the sport’s rising popularity in the Kingdom.

The winners were crowned by Dr. Nouf Al-Hammad, women’s sports officer at the federation, and Dr. Iman Al-Husseini at the end of the tournament in which more than 100 athletes from 10 centers from across the nation took part.

In the individual kata competitions, Lama Abdelaziz from the Heroes’ Steps Center came first , ahead of Sabah Yamen from the Expressions Fitness Center in second and Malak Al-Khalidi from the Heroes’ Steps Center in third.

In the group kata competitions, the Heroes’ Steps Center took first place, with the Asian Arts Center and the Sartieh Center second and third, respectively.

In the fighting disciplines, Malak Al-Khalidi from the Steps of Champions Center won the under 50kg category, while Noura Al-Rashed from the same club won the under 55kg competition.

Dana Mansour from the Asian Arts Center won the under 61kg category  and Rana Viad from the Bagdo Sports Center claimed top spot in the under 68kg.

Al-Shehri also presented the Shield of the Federation to the Asian Center for Martial Arts in appreciation of their hosting of the tournament.