New Al-Merrikh coach Clark aims for derby and league success with Sudanese club

New Al-Merrikh coach Clark aims for derby and league success with Sudanese club
Lee Clark took charge of legendary Sudanese club Al-Merrikh against African champions Al Ahly and almost pulled off a memorable win. (Facebook El Merreikh SC)
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Updated 08 April 2021

New Al-Merrikh coach Clark aims for derby and league success with Sudanese club

New Al-Merrikh coach Clark aims for derby and league success with Sudanese club
  • Former Newcastle midfielder has already led side to creditable draw against African champions Al Ahly

Lee Clark is no stranger to some of the biggest matches in world football.

The Newcastle native was a regular for his boyhood club in one of England’s most visceral matches, the Tyne-Wear derby against Sunderland.

He was also part of Kevin Keegan’s squad on the day Newcastle United played out arguably the most famous match in the history of the English Premier League, a heartbreaking 4-3 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield on April 3, 1996.

Last Saturday, exactly 25 years later to the day, Clark took charge of legendary Sudanese club Al-Merrikh against African champions Al Ahly and almost pulled off a memorable win. Only another stoppage time goal secured a 2-2 draw for the Egyptian giants. But the marker has been set.

His new team had shown they were capable of mixing with the CAF Champions League’s best.

“It was a fantastic experience for myself and the players, (playing) the most successful club in African football, one of the biggest if not the biggest,” Clark told Arab News. “They have a huge following, fantastic history and really top players, but my team were brilliant from the first whistle.

“They deserved to win the game. Unfortunately we missed a penalty and other opportunities, and then conceded a 94th minute equalizer. But the performance of my players and team gives me great belief for the future.”

Clark says his mission is not only to win the Sudan Premier League title, but to also compete in the African and Arab Champions Leagues. This could well be the challenge he has been seeking for some time.

“I’ve always expressed the desire as a coach to go overseas and experience something new. A new culture, a new way of working,” he said. “A few years ago I had the possibility of going to a club in Europe which I was on the verge of accepting. But my father was poorly at the time and I decided against it. And then just five or six weeks ago I got approached about the possibility of coming to Al-Merrikh and I looked into the club, the history, African football and thought it would be a great challenge for me, so I accepted.”

Al-Merrikh currently sit in second place in the Sudan Premier League table, three points behind their fierce rivals Al-Hilal with a game in hand. Clark said that even before he landed in Sudan he was well aware of the history between the two clubs.

“When I looked into the club, I knew straight away there was this rivalry and since I got into the country, that’s intensified,” he said. “We’re second, we’re three points behind Al-Hilal with game in hand, so it’s important that we win it. When the league restarts this month we play that game in hand, but then on the May 23 we play Al-Hilal. Both teams have been consistent in their results and performances in the league, so this is only going to intensify the rivalry between the two clubs.”

Clark — who also played for Sunderland and Fulham, and managed Huddersfield Town, Birmingham City, Blackpool, Kilmarnock, Bury and Blyth Spartans — is experiencing a whole new lifestyle now, one he is happy to embrace.

“The lifestyle’s obviously different, I am based in a hotel at the moment so I just focus on the football and everything else is taken care of,” he said. “The cultural change is something that’s completely new and different for me coming from the UK. Hopefully I’ve shown the (players and staff) the respect for their own culture and tried to adapt to this.”

In return they seem to have taken immediately to their new coach.

“They’re very respectful, and want to improve,” he said. “They want to do the work that we’re asking of them on the training pitch, which has been hard because we’ve really pushed to improve the physical output of the players. We believe they have fantastic technical ability already so we’re looking to improve in different areas. The response of the players has been really, really impressive.”

With the transfer window in Sudan opening on April 12, Clark says he wants to trim his oversized squad of 30, while also strengthening where needed. He wants two players for every position.

Clark is also aware that with the backing at Al-Hilal, there is renewed interest around the Arab world in Sudanese football, which he sees as on the rise.

“The support our club gets, it’s really passionate,” he said. “The number of fans that usually come into the Red Castle, our home stadium, is 43,000 in the Champions League, and league games anything from 20,000 up to 43,000 again. The passion is there. The players do have a lot of ability and they just need good guidance and good professional standards. I found that out very quickly; they want to learn, which is brilliant. Also the Sudan national team qualifying for the African Nations gave the whole country a boost, and was followed by our performance and result against Al Ahly.”

Despite that heroic performance, Al-Merrikh go into their last Champions League group match against Vita Club of Congo on Friday with only pride to play for.

“We’ll approach it to win, exactly the same as against Al Ahly,” Clark said from his hotel in Kinshasa. “The players know we have to keep building for the future; whether we can qualify or not, it doesn’t matter, this is a game we want to win. We’re competing in the biggest competition in Africa, we want show everybody that Saturday was not a fluke performance, we want to be a team that’s consistent.

“It might not have importance or significance in terms of where we are in any given competition but when we play, we’re playing to build for the future. To get a philosophy for our club and to show how we go about our business.”

The move to Sudan might have taken some by surprise, but his desire to work abroad was there all along for those who were close to him.

“I didn’t tell many people when I accepted the job, and then when it was announced there was quite a bit of shock,” Clark said. “But people who know me wouldn’t have been so shocked because they know I have a real passion and love for football. Wherever football takes me is not an issue. Now that my playing days are over I love to be on the pitch coaching players.

“I’ve enjoyed my first month here in Sudan and at Al-Merrikh because of the response of the players and staff to the way I work and to my methods, and they want to improve also. This is huge for me.”

With the derby, and potential league title, on the horizon, the next few months could prove defining for Clark, even this early into his new adventure.

“To win the league would be fantastic, unbelievable,” Clark said. “I’m really excited about the derby, I love high profile games. Being involved on Saturday against Al Ahly, I respected them so much but I never, ever fear any opponent that I come up against. But certainly the respect is immense and this will be the same for Al-Hilal.”


Dubai Racing Club announces new races for 2022 Dubai World Cup Carnival

Dubai Racing Club announces new races for 2022 Dubai World Cup Carnival
Updated 17 September 2021

Dubai Racing Club announces new races for 2022 Dubai World Cup Carnival

Dubai Racing Club announces new races for 2022 Dubai World Cup Carnival
  • Additions increase total prize money for horseracing season to more than $40m

DUBAI: Dubai Racing Club has announced an enhanced calendar for the 2021-22 season and 2022 Dubai World Cup Carnival which will now include a four-race Jumeirah Series on turf launched for the Classic generation, plus a new race for Super Saturday next year, Emirates News Agency WAM reported.

The announcement was made under the directives of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai.

The addition of new races increases the total prize money for the racing season to more than $40 million.

Sheikh Rashid bin Dalmook, chairman of Dubai Racing Club, said: “The introduction of new races within the framework of the Dubai World Cup Carnival is part of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum’s efforts to continually improve Dubai’s equestrian offering and also to support racing both within the UAE and overseas.”

The Dubai World Cup Carnival, which begins on Jan. 13 at Meydan Racecourse, has added several more races to its calendar. The popular Super Saturday card, sponsored by Emirates airline and scheduled for March 5, will welcome the addition of a new race in the form of the $300,000 Ras Al Khor over 1,400 meters on turf.

Sheikh Rashid added: “The 1,400 meters or seven furlongs is one of the most popular distances in thoroughbred racing, yet it has very few high-valued feature events run over the trip. We believe the Ras Al Khor will eventually become a global fixture that will be promoted to our Dubai World Cup meeting.

“Moreover, the Classic generation are well catered for on both turf and dirt in the upcoming season. Longstanding three-year-old dirt events such as the UAE 2000 Guineas, Al-Bastikaya, and the UAE Derby have all been given prize money increases.

“We have also introduced the Jumeirah Series of turf races which is a significant addition to the program. The series features the $150,000 Jumeirah Classic Trial over 1,400 meters, the $75,000 Jumeirah Derby Trial over 1,800 meters, the $150,000 Jumeirah Classic over 1,600 meters, and the $200,000 Jumeirah Derby over 2000 meters.”

Meanwhile, the prize money for the Dubai World Cup, which includes a card of six Group 1 and three Group 2 contests, has been enhanced to a value of $30.5 million. Due to take place on Saturday, March 26, all races will be run for at least $1 million.

Dubai Racing Club also announced that the Longines Dubai Sheema Classic will have a $6 million purse, moving it back to its pre-coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic value. The Group 1 Dubai Turf, sponsored by DP World, is being increased to $5 million, while the flagship event – the Dubai World Cup, sponsored by Emirates airline – is maintaining the highest purse of the night at $12 million.


Saudi clubs kept apart in AFC Champions League quarter-final draw

Saudi clubs kept apart in AFC Champions League quarter-final draw
Updated 17 September 2021

Saudi clubs kept apart in AFC Champions League quarter-final draw

Saudi clubs kept apart in AFC Champions League quarter-final draw
  • Al-Hilal face Iran’s Persepolis and Al-Nassr take on UAE’s Al-Wahda in the last eight

The road to an all Saudi Arabian semi-final in the AFC Champions League was left wide open as Riyadh rivals Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr avoided each other in Friday’s draw for the quarter-finals.

Al-Hilal face Iranian giants Persepolis, while their neighbours play Al-Wahda of the UAE on Oct. 16.

In the eastern zone (the tournament is divided into two until the final) there is an all South Korean affair between defending champions Ulsan Horang-I and Jeonbuk Motors and a meeting between Pohang Steelers, also South Korean, and Nagoya Grampus of Japan.

Saudi Arabian fans will be thinking about a potentially titanic semi-final clash. Both teams would be favourites to win their quarter-final ties even if they were in the usual two-legged format. With the global pandemic however, the remaining ties will be single-game affairs and in the western zone they will all take place in Riyadh. There will never be a better chance of seeing Saudi hands on the trophy on Nov 23.

Al-Nassr will be especially happy, on paper at least, at meeting the weakest team in their half of the draw. After losing to Persepolis on penalties in the semi-final last year, there may have been some thoughts of revenge but the Iranian giants are a tough nut to crack. Al-Hilal know that, too, but have happier recent memories with a 6-2 aggregate win over the Reds in the 2017 semi-final.

October’s meeting should be just as memorable, however, and fit for any final. With the Asian Football Confederation suggesting that fans will be back in the stadiums for the quarter-finals, it should be quite an atmosphere. The one regret is that the Riyadh club will not be able to go to Tehran for the second leg with 100,000 fans in attendance at the legendary Azadi Stadium. Just having one game to play at home may increase Al-Hilal’s chances of progressing but the players are missing out on an incredible football experience.

Persepolis, bitter rivals of Esteghlal, the team Al-Hilal defeated 2-0 on Monday, will be hard to beat. The Reds have won the last five Iranian league titles, reached two of the last three Champions League finals and conceded just 14 goals last season. However, October’s match could favour Al-Hilal’s as the new Iranian season is yet to start and Persepolis may be a little rusty.

If that quarter-final is between Asian royalty, the other in the western zone is between two teams that have yet to be champions. The best Al-Nassr have managed is a runners-up spot in 1995 with Al-Wahda making the last four back in 2007. The Saudi side will be strong favourites against a team that finished mid-table in the UAE Pro League last year and have not set this tournament alight — so far at least. Al-Nassr have some of the best attacking talent in Asia and if coach Mano Menezes can get the team playing to its potential, then Henk ten Cate, his opposite number at Al-Wahda, will find it very difficult indeed.

Looking to the final and the likely Eastern zone opposition, many believe the winner of the Ulsan-Jeonbuk tie will make it through. Ulsan are the defending champions, on top of the K-League and a well-balanced outfit with a pleasing mixture of talented veterans and exciting youngsters. Jeonbuk, winners in 2006 and 2016, have lifted the K-League title in six of the past seven years and are still very much in this year’s race.

Pohang Steelers have, like Al-Hilal, three continental championships sitting in their trophy cabinet and would love to make it a record four. Unlike the Korean trio, with seven titles between them, Nagoya have yet to triumph in Asia. Hard to beat with a fine defence and an Australian goalkeeper in Mitch Langerak who breaks clean sheet records on a regular basis, they should not be underestimated in a knock-out format.


Saudi Arabia rise to 56th in latest FIFA World Men’s Rankings

Saudi Arabia rise to 56th in latest FIFA World Men’s Rankings
Updated 17 September 2021

Saudi Arabia rise to 56th in latest FIFA World Men’s Rankings

Saudi Arabia rise to 56th in latest FIFA World Men’s Rankings
  • Herve Renard’s team is now the fifth highest among AFC nations and second highest among Asia’s Arab teams

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia have risen to 56th position in the latest FIFA Men’s Rankings after a perfect start to their 2022 World Cup qualification campaign.

September’s wins over Vietnam (3-1) and Oman (1-0) in the final round of the Asian Qualifiers have helped Herve Renard’s team from the Kingdom add 20.31 coefficient points to now rank as the fifth best of the Asian Football Confederation member nations behind Iran (22), Japan (26), Australia (32), Korea (36) and Qatar (43).

It also means that Saudi Arabia are the second-highest among Asia’s Arab contingent behind Qatar, with the UAE, 69th overall, in third.

Of the other Arab nations in the AFC, Iraq are 72nd, Oman 78th, Syria 81st, and Bahrain 91st.

Among the Arab nations in Africa, Tunisia are 25th in the FIFA rankings, ahead of Algeria (30), Morocco (33) and Egypt (48).

Globally, Belgium head the rankings and are followed by Brazil, England, France and Italy in the top five.


Saudi Arabia overcome Thailand at 2021 Asian Men’s Volleyball Championship

Saudi Arabia overcome Thailand at 2021 Asian Men’s Volleyball Championship
Updated 17 September 2021

Saudi Arabia overcome Thailand at 2021 Asian Men’s Volleyball Championship

Saudi Arabia overcome Thailand at 2021 Asian Men’s Volleyball Championship
  • 2-1 win puts Kingdom’s team in semifinals of section to determine positions 9-12

RIYADH: The Saudi Arabian national team has beaten Thailand 2-1 to reach the semifinals of the section that will determine positions nine to 12 at the 2021 Asian Men’s Volleyball Championship in Tokyo.

The Kingdom’s team overcame their opponents (25-20, 20-25, 25-19) at the Funabashi Gymnasium in the Japanese capital on Friday morning to top Pool H, one of two pools that split from the top eight teams fighting for the championship after the initial group stages.

The semifinal will be played on Saturday.

On Thursday, Saudi Arabia beat Hong Kong 3-0 (25-12, 25-18, 25-19) and are now on a three-match winning run.

Previously, the Saudis had defeated Kazakhstan in straight sets (25-23, 25-21, 25-23) at Chiba Port Arena in the final Group D match, to leave them in third place in the table and heading into the round that will determine positions nine-16 in the tournament.

The Saudi players had lost in their other Group D matches to South Korea and Chinese Taipei. Finishing third meant that while the Saudi team was not among the final eight that could contest the championship, it still had a chance to finish highest in the final nine to 16. After their latest result, ninth place has edged closer while the lowest they can finish will be 12th.


FIFA intensifies push to stage men’s World Cup every 2 years

FIFA intensifies push to stage men’s World Cup every 2 years
Updated 16 September 2021

FIFA intensifies push to stage men’s World Cup every 2 years

FIFA intensifies push to stage men’s World Cup every 2 years
  • In its latest survey, FIFA players all agreed it was a good idea to double the number of men’s World Cups in each four-year period
  • Staging more tournaments would increase opportunities and enthusiasm in most of the 211 member countries, says FIFA chief

GENEVA: FIFA intensified its push for hosting the men’s World Cup every two years on Thursday by garnering support from soccer fans around the world to help combat resistance from Europe and South America.
The latest public relations tactic came in the form of an online survey commissioned by FIFA. The Associated Press does not routinely report the claims of opinion polls conducted over the Internet.
FIFA claimed its findings from more than 15,000 respondents aged at least 18 identified in 23 countries showed “considerable differences between the so-called traditional markets and the developing football markets” and younger fans more enthusiastic than older ones.
A follow-up survey involving 100,000 people in more than 100 countries is now being done, FIFA said.
European soccer body UEFA and South American counterpart CONMEBOL oppose FIFA’s plan and have threatened to boycott additional World Cups. Europe and South America combine for 65 of the 211 FIFA members — fewer than the one-third total likely needed to block any proposal.
The governing bodies of the six continental soccer federations all stage their own championships, with Europe hosting its tournament every four years halfway between the World Cups. Adding an extra World Cup in every four-year cycle would likely cut into the European event’s revenue stream.
The women already have two major world tournaments in every four-year cycle because the top teams and best players compete at the Olympics as well as the Women’s World Cup.
FIFA’s latest survey follows one week after it hosted about 80 former international players, including several World Cup winners, for a two-day meeting in Qatar — the 2022 World Cup host country.
The players reported they all agreed it was a good idea to double the number of men’s World Cups in each four-year period.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino believes staging more tournaments would increase opportunities and enthusiasm in most of the 211 member countries, many of which never qualify to play at the World Cup.
Expanding the World Cup from 32 teams to 48 starting at the 2026 tournament in North America was one of the biggest early decisions of Infantino’s presidency, which began in 2016. FIFA also wants to distribute extra World Cup revenue to improve talent development and help national teams globally close the gap on Europe.
European teams have won the past four World Cups and filled 13 of the 16 semifinal slots. The other three semifinalists from 2006-18 were from South America.
The UEFA-backed Football Supporters Europe group also opposed the biennial World Cup plan, claiming it would distort the balance between domestic and international soccer, and club and national teams.
Global players’ union FIFPRO has also warned of burnout in the increasingly congested soccer schedule.