Al-Wehdat set for historic AFC Champions League debut

Al-Wehdat set for historic AFC Champions League debut
Saleh Rateb’s second half strike ensured Al Wehdat SC defeated Al Jazeera 1-0 to win their 17th Jordanian Pro League title, Amman, January 5, 2021. (AFC)
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Updated 13 April 2021

Al-Wehdat set for historic AFC Champions League debut

Al-Wehdat set for historic AFC Champions League debut
  • Jordanian champions Al-Wehdat SC face a baptism of fire in their AFC Champions League debut against Al-Nassr in Riyadh
  • Lebanese international Hassan ‘Soony’ Ali Saad expected to feature prominently for the Green Giants

For most of Al-Wehdat’s existence, they have had to play second fiddle to Al-Faisaly, who have tallied twice as many domestic titles as their fierce Amman rival.

But over the past eight years, the Green Giants have started to turn the tide in their direction, winning five of the last seven league titles.

And it is Al-Wehdat who will make history this week when they become the first Jordanian club to participate in the group stage of the prestigious Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League.

With the expansion of the tournament to 40 teams, up from 32, an extra four teams have been added in both the east and west zones as teams from Jordan, India and Tajikistan will appear for the first time.

Al-Wehdat will face a baptism by fire in their AFC Champions League debut as the Green Giants have been drawn alongside Qatari juggernaut Al-Sadd and last year’s semi-finalist, Al-Nassr, who they will face on Wednesday.

“This is a massive tournament,” Lebanese international Hassan ‘Soony’ Ali Saad, who recently signed with Al-Wehdat, told Arab News from the club’s centralized hub in Riyadh. 

“All eyes are on this tournament in Asia and around the world and it is an opportunity to play good football and show what the champions of Jordan are about.”

Al-Wehdat have trained in Riyadh over the past few days and they know what they are up against.

“We are drawn into a tough group,” Saad said. “We have Al-Sadd and Al-Nassr, but we are the champions of Jordan so we should be able to compete. We should be able to play our style of football to get some results.

“Our expectations are to play the best we can, we want to win as many games as possible. And hopefully, we can get out of this tough group.”

Saad was born and raised in Michigan and rose to the ranks of Major League Soccer, the top-flight league in the US. He has also had professional stints in Thailand, Lebanon and South Korea but this will be his first taste of the AFC Champions League.

The prospect of playing in Asia’s showpiece tournament figured prominently in his decision to join the reigning Jordanian champions.

“When I joined Al-Wehdat, I knew they were in the Champions League and this definitely helped my decision,” the 28-year-old said.

“A big part of my decision was also coach Abdullah Abu Zema, who I had worked with before. I knew him from my time in Lebanon and I liked his approach to dealing with players.”

Al-Wehdat sealed the Jordanian Super Cup with a 2-0 win over Al-Jazeera last week, which was Saad’s first official match with the club. Then they traveled to Riyadh and the reception the club received upon arrival gave the players an extra boost, especially Saad.

“Arriving in the airport and seeing the Al-Wehdat fans was unreal,” he said.

“They followed us to the hotel. To realize we had that kind of support everywhere we go just shows this club is massive in the region and it is a great feeling.”

Saad got an early dose of the dedicated Al-Wehdat fanbase after he arrived in Amman to sign his contract.

“The amount of support I have received on social media has been incredible and it makes you really want to play and give your all for this club,” he added.

“I am still new so hopefully I can show them what I am about. When my restrictions ease up, we can experience the fans and culture that I think this club is very well known for.”

Whatever the next fortnight in Riyadh brings, Saad is just happy to be back playing football again after a spell in South Korea with the second-division Ansan Greeners that he would rather forget.

“I was not enjoying my football in Korea,” Saad said. “I had come off a season in Korea where we were playing a lot of defensive football. The coach really liked to play counter-attack and he liked his Korean players, so I was hungry to play.”

Saad is optimistic his reunion with Abu Zema will be a huge score for Al-Wehdat.

“I knew that Abu Zema has this personality to play attacking football, and that is what I missed most.”

Saudi Arabia to hold 2021 Youth World Cup for weightlifting in October

Saudi Arabia to hold 2021 Youth World Cup for weightlifting in October
Updated 20 September 2021

Saudi Arabia to hold 2021 Youth World Cup for weightlifting in October

Saudi Arabia to hold 2021 Youth World Cup for weightlifting in October
  • More than 320 athletes to take part in the competition, to be held in the Kingdom for the first time

The Saudi Weightlifting Federation will host the 2021 IWF Youth World Cup in Jeddah from Oct. 3-12.

More than 320 male and female U-17 weightlifters from 45 countries are expected to take part in the competition, which is being held in the Kingdom for the first time.

“Hosting the tournament for the first time in Saudi Arabia, despite the circumstances the world is going through as a result of the pandemic, (shows) the unlimited support that the sports sector enjoys from our leadership toward achieving the goals of Vision 2030 and contributing to the growth of the domestic product in Saudi Arabia,” said Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, sports minister and president of the Saudi Olympic Committee.

The Saudi team’s weightlifters have claimed four medals in previous tournaments, with Ali Al-Othman winning two gold and a silver at the 2019 IWF Youth World Cup in Las Vegas  while Ali Majeed took bronze in the IWF Online Youth World Cup in Peru last year.

Golf fans set to return to 2021 DP World Tour Championships in Dubai

Golf fans set to return to 2021 DP World Tour Championships in Dubai
Updated 20 September 2021

Golf fans set to return to 2021 DP World Tour Championships in Dubai

Golf fans set to return to 2021 DP World Tour Championships in Dubai
  • European Tour’s season-ending tournament will take place at Jumeirah Golf Estates from Nov. 18-21

DUBAI: Spectators are set to return to the European Tour’s season-ending DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, where the world’s best golfers will battle it out to be crowned European No.1 at the fourth Rolex Series event of the 2021 season.

The 13th edition of the DP World Tour Championship will take place from Nov. 18-21 at Jumeirah Golf Estates in Dubai.

“It’s great to see the return of major sporting events into Dubai’s social calendars,” Tom Phillips, European tour head of Middle East, said.

“The UAE has become synonymous with hosting world-class events and now, while celebrating the country’s 50th anniversary, we hope to set a new example of how to do so safely for all to enjoy.”

The 50 highest-ranked players on the Race to Dubai rankings will take on the Earth Course at Jumeirah Golf Estates — designed by two-time Open champion Greg Norman — competing for a share of the $9 million prize pot. 

Free tickets to watch the golf, along with other hospitality options for the event, are now on sale.

As part of the ultimate fan experience, spectators can enjoy access to the 16th green hospitality lounge, with views of the course as well as access to the Jumeirah Golf Estates clubhouse and the preferential viewing platform on the 18th green.

The 18th fan experience will offer spectators access to the preferential viewing platform on the 18th green and to the clubhouse.

The DP World Tour Championship will again host the European Disabled Golfers Association Dubai final from Nov. 19-20, with eight of the leading players already having qualified to battle it out on the Earth Course in their bid to become champion.

It will be the first time the DP World Tour Championship will have fans attending since the 2019 edition after last year’s tournament, which was won by England’s Matt Fitzpatrick, was played behind closed doors due to pandemic restrictions.

The European Tour will work closely with the Dubai government and Dubai Sports Council on precautionary measures to ensure player and spectator safety.

Mano Menezes pays heavy price for Al-Nassr’s poor start to Saudi Pro League season

Mano Menezes pays heavy price for Al-Nassr’s poor start to Saudi Pro League season
Updated 20 September 2021

Mano Menezes pays heavy price for Al-Nassr’s poor start to Saudi Pro League season

Mano Menezes pays heavy price for Al-Nassr’s poor start to Saudi Pro League season
  • Coach fired as criticism mounts despite Riyadh club’s progress to AFC Champions League final eight

Al-Nassr coach Mano Menezes has been fired just five days after leading the team into the quarterfinals of the AFC Champions League.

The dismissal, which ends the 62-year-old’s five months in charge, does not come as a surprise. Fair or not, it had been coming.

Saturday’s 3-1 loss at home to Al-Ittihad meant that Al-Nassr had collected six points from the first four games of the season, leaving the Riyadh giants six points behind the leaders, although with a game in hand.

“Mano Menezes is not Al-Nassr’s coach anymore,” Menezes posted on his social media accounts. “The club has decided to interrupt the contract. Mr. Menezes and his crew would like to thank Al-Nassr supporters and players for the time they spent together and also the Saudi people for the kind reception. We’ve learned a lot during this period.”

Menezes’ time in Saudi Arabia began well. His first act in April was to steer Al-Nassr to top spot in a tough Champions League group, finishing above the lauded Al-Sadd and Xavi Hernandez, the coach of the Qatari team who is tipped to be heading back to Barcelona before too long.

Al-Nassr recruited well in the summer, adding the Brazilian Talisca and striker Vincent Aboubakar — though Menezes seemed unsure at times just how to use the Cameroonian — and there was an expectation of a title challenge.

Defeat to Al-Faisaly in the second game put the pressure on, but there was a vote of confidence from the board. Despite that there were still noises coming out of the club that all was not quite well.

Menezes had come in for plenty of criticism from the media and former players in recent weeks. The play was seen as predictable, with a lack of creativity coming from midfield despite the arrival of the talented Talisca.

Performances were disjointed and with big characters such as Morocco’s Abderrazak Hamdallah in the team, there were concerns about whether Menezes was strong enough to keep everyone in line and the team happy.

All knew, rightly or wrongly, that an exit from the Champions League last Monday would spell the end of the Brazilian’s time in Riyadh, but Al-Nassr defeated Tractor of Iran 1-0. The victory, coming against an understrength opposition, failed to convince the critics, but at least the club were in the last eight with a favorable draw against Al-Wahda of the UAE.

The loss to Al-Ittihad was the end, however. The Tigers played with more intensity and discipline, and deserved the 3-1 win. It did not go unnoticed at Al-Nassr that their opponents, and SPL leaders, had moved quickly earlier this season to change their coach and had won all four games since doing so.

With just four games of the season gone, it seems a knee-jerk reaction but, like their counterparts in Jeddah, Al-Nassr’s board felt it was best to act quickly while there is still time for a new man to come in and mount a title challenge.

It now remains to be seen who that new man will be. The team’s next three league games are all very winnable, coming against opponents who are in the bottom four. Nine points will put Al-Nassr in the midst of a title race.

The  names already in the hat will be familiar to fans of Al-Hilal. Cosmin Olaroiu was last seen winning the Chinese Super League title with Jiangsu FC before the team folded earlier this year. The Romanian led Al-Hilal to the league title in 2008 and had a brief spell in charge of the Saudi national team.

Also mentioned is Jose Morais, the Portuguese boss who came to Riyadh toward the end of last season to deliver the title.

That will be the job of the new man at Al-Nassr.

Gaikwad stars as Chennai wins opener of revived IPL

Gaikwad stars as Chennai wins opener of revived IPL
Updated 20 September 2021

Gaikwad stars as Chennai wins opener of revived IPL

Gaikwad stars as Chennai wins opener of revived IPL
  • The 14th edition of the COVID-19 hit Twenty20 tournament resumed in the United Arab Emirates with limited spectators back in the stands in Dubai

DUBAI: India’s Ruturaj Gaikwad smashed an unbeaten 88 as Chennai Super Kings beat holders Mumbai Indians by 20 runs in the first match of the revived Indian Premier League on Sunday.
The 14th edition of the COVID-19 hit Twenty20 tournament resumed in the United Arab Emirates with limited spectators back in the stands in Dubai.
The tournament was halted in May because of a devastating surge in pandemic deaths in India, prompting foreign players to rush home.
Many have not come back including England’s Ben Stokes and Pat Cummins of Australia to take some sheen out of the world’s most popular T20 league.
The event restarted with Gaikwad, an opening batsman, lifting the team from a precarious 24-4 to 156-6 with key partnerships which took the attack to the opposition bowlers.
Pace bowler Dwayne Bravo then returned figures of 3-25 from his four overs as Chennai bowlers kept down five-time champions Mumbai to 136-8.
“I felt Rutu and Bravo got us more than what we expected,” said skipper M.S. Dhoni. “We thought of 140, to get close to 160 was tremendous.”
Bravo, who also hit a useful eight-ball 23 batting at number eight, was ably supported by pace spearhead Deepak Chahar who took two key wickets including Quinton de Kock for 17.
Gaikwad though remained the hero as he hit nine fours and four sixes in his 58-ball knock after the Kieron Pollard-led side were invited to bat by Dhoni.
Five-time champions Mumbai were without regular skipper Rohit Sharma but began with a flourish as pace bowlers Trent Boult and Adam Mile rattled the Chennai top-order.
The pace duo took two wickets each and a quick delivery from Boult hit Ambati Rayudu on the forearm with the batsman retired hurt on nought.
Dhoni said Rayudu “was smiling, so he hasn’t broken his arm.”
Jasprit Bumrah also took two wickets in his 100th IPL appearance.
Gaikwad hit back with a 81-run stand with Ravindra Jadeja, who made 26, to take the team to what turned out to be a winning total.
The win took Chennai to top of the eight-team table with Delhi Capitals second, Virat Kohli’s Royal Challengers Bangalore third and Mumbai fourth.
Bangalore will take on Kolkata Knight Riders in Abu Dhabi on Monday.

Paulinho won’t be missed by Al-Ahli after sudden departure

Paulinho won’t be missed by Al-Ahli after sudden departure
Updated 19 September 2021

Paulinho won’t be missed by Al-Ahli after sudden departure

Paulinho won’t be missed by Al-Ahli after sudden departure
  • Brazilian midfielder has had his contract terminated by the club after returning home for personal reasons

Paulinho’s last meaningful act as an Al-Ahli player was getting bundled over in the box after 15 minutes to earn his team a penalty against Al-Fateh. That was on Friday but the very next day it was announced that his three-year contract with the Saudi Arabian giants had been terminated after just two months.

It is a blow to the club, struggling with five points from the first five games constituting the second worst-ever start to the season, and the league. Paulinho’s arrival after six successful years in China (a spell punctuated by a year in Barcelona) was another suggestion that the Saudi Professional League had become Asia’s go-to competition for talented foreign stars.

The understandable question for those fans in Jeddah and around the country is: What happened? 

The club’s official statement revealed little. “Al-Ahli club management, headed by Mr. Majed bin Ayed Al-Nefaie, has completed the procedures for terminating the contract of the Brazilian professional player “Paulinho” by mutual consent,” it said. It added: “The termination of the contract with Paulinho comes due the emergency circumstances, he spoke with the club’s management recently, which was reflected in his performance on the field during the past rounds, expressing his inability to provide the desired addition to the team.”



Speaking to Saudi television, Paulinho, who scored two goals in his four appearances, said that many things had been happening in life, including a fire breaking out at his house in Brazil, also home to his parents. A Brazilian radio show said that Paulinho was leaving Saudi Arabia for personal reasons and had recently been approached by Luiz Felipe Scolari, his former coach in Guangzhou and Brazil, currently in charge of Gremio.

The expectation in Brazil had been that the 33-year-old would return home after his China spell ended — his contract at Guangzhou was terminated because travel restrictions in place in China meant he could not enter the country. The expectation will now again be that he will return to sign either for his former club Corinthians, which he left in 2013 to sign for Tottenham Hotspur, or Gremio. This is the feeling at Al-Ahli too. 

Al-Nefaie added to the club’s statement, saying that there was no reason to keep a player who did not want to be there. 

“We tried a lot but it was clear that he didn’t want to stay,” Al-Nefaie said, according to Saudi radio station UFM. “After several such attempts, we decided to terminate the contract rather than pay a high salary to a player who doesn’t want to be there. The club is more important than any player.”

The message coming from Al-Ahli is clear: Paulinho didn’t want to stay and so there was little point in keeping him.

The midfielder is not the first and won’t be the last foreign player to sign a lucrative contract in Asia only to leave soon after. Only he knows whether there was a genuine emergency at home that means he can’t stay in Saudi Arabia or whether he simply wants to go and play elsewhere. It is credit to the club that the situation has been dealt with and resolved so quickly. There is not going to be any distracting saga developing here. Paulinho has gone and Al-Ahli have to move forward.

It could be that Paulinho’s most significant contribution to the long-term success of Al-Ahli was his parting request for fans to be patient. After a disappointing season last time when the club finished eighth in the league and there were rows about reported unpaid salaries, there were high hopes this time around with a new coach in Besnik Hasi and new players like, well, Paulinho.

“It is difficult to change a club in just a few days,” Paulinho said. “I know that Al-Ahli is a big project and I say to the fans that they need to be patient for some time because the current administration will take the club back to the top.”

“I know that last season was not great and we did not start well in the league this season with all these draws not normal for a club the size of Al-Ahli. The situation will improve because those in charge are professional, they will definitely change this situation.”

That attempt will continue without him on Thursday with an important game against Al-Feiha. Fans will be curious to see where Paulinho turns up next, but he wasn’t around long enough to be missed.