Abu Dhabi hoping to welcome more live audiences after successful hosting of major sporting events

Salem AlSulaimani says previous successes could see more UAE live audiences welcomed back at major sporting events. (Supplied/Flash Entertainment)
Salem AlSulaimani says previous successes could see more UAE live audiences welcomed back at major sporting events. (Supplied/Flash Entertainment)
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Updated 04 May 2021

Abu Dhabi hoping to welcome more live audiences after successful hosting of major sporting events

Salem AlSulaimani says previous successes could see more UAE live audiences welcomed back at major sporting events. (Supplied/Flash Entertainment)
  • Salem Al-Sulaimani, operations director of Flash Entertainment, praised the work of all stakeholders after return of fans to UFC’s Fight Island

DUBAI: It was the fight event everybody wanted to be at.

In the famous Octagon, UFC 257 reached its dramatic conclusion with American underdog Dustin Poirier stunning crowd-favorite Conor McGregor with a second round TKO.

Yes, there was a crowd, a lucky 2000 after Abu Dhabi’s newly opened Etihad Arena had welcomed back live audiences for the third edition of UFC Fight Island.

For Salem Al-Sulaimani, operations director of Flash Entertainment, the presence of fight fans back on Yas Island’s in January, after the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, was a credit to all those involved in the event’s organization.

“Bringing the public to the arena was result of a great collaboration between Flash Entertainment, Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism and all the government stakeholders in Abu Dhabi,” he said. “It was about making sure health and safety were a priority, making sure to implement very strict safety measures to allow the fighters, the teams and the public to feel safe in one place.”

The first Fight Island, which kicked off with UFC 251 on July 11, 2020, set the bar high. It was the first post-coronavirus international sporting event to attract athletes from around the world. Fight Island 2 followed in late September and October with UFC 253 and UFC 254, at which Khabib Nurmagomedov memorably called time on a peerless career after defeating Justin Gaethje. 

“Over the past seven months we have successfully hosted three UFC events in a row, which shows the success of the collaboration with all the government entities that put together a role-model Fight Island,” said Al-Sulaimani. “It showed how they managed to put on the safest place possible in hosting these kinds of international events.”

“Abu Dhabi became the first city outside Las Vegas to hold two consecutive UFC numbered events.”

UFC President Dana White, the fighters and their teams all expressed a willingness to return each time.

“The main difference wasn’t just repeating the events after each other,” said Al-Sulaimani. “In each one, we wanted to make it bigger, we wanted to make it better. Ultimately we wanted to bring the public to the events, to bring it live, while also maintaining high standards of health and safety.”

Now the hope is that more fans will slowly return to major sporting events in the UAE’s capital. Creating a consistently safe zone, or the “bubble model,” has played a major part in making that possible, as has the launch of the spectacular 20,000-capacity venue on the Yas Bay Waterfront.

“With the Etihad Arena, it showed the capability of such a great venue to adapt to the current pandemic and host such an event,” Al-Sulaimani said. “The last event, Fight Island 3, created so much vibe. Not only was it the first event that saw UFC have the public back since the Covid-19 outbreak, it was also the first public-attended event in Abu Dhabi. It ticked so many boxes, and it was the perfect way of showing the world Etihad Arena.”

Al-Sulaimani believes Abu Dhabi’s travel measures and the country’s successful vaccination program has opened the genuine possibility to even more fans returning to sporting spectacles this year.

“It provides us with great hope,” he said. “The UAE’s proactive, coordinated response in tackling the global pandemic has put the country on the right track. The high rates of vaccinated citizens and residents gives a massive hope in returning to normal and having more public-attended events. Other sporting organizations are looking at the Emirates as a model for their events.”

Already, talk has turned to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in December and the possibility of having fans back at Yas Marina Circuit.

“We’re observing the global situation with the Grand Prix, making sure that we watch the pandemic on the horizon, and working with federal and local authorities here in Abu Dhabi,” said Al-Sulaimani. “Looking at what fans want, we are very aware of their appetite now, and the thrill of coming back to live events.”

The 2020 edition was held successfully without an audience, but this year there is even the tantalizing possibility of post-race entertainment making a comeback.

“Interestingly, usually with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, we approach artists to come and participate, but we already have had inquiries from very big artists,” he added. “So it’s them reaching out to us as opposed to us trying to chase them.”

Thanks to the success of the recent competitions in the capital, Al-Sulaimani and Flash Entertainment are looking to organize more events in Abu Dhabi and, potentially, further afield.

“In general that’s what we are always doing, that’s what we do on daily basis. As part of our growth strategy, we have ambitions to expand further into the region, and into the markets in the UAE,” he said. “We want to build on the previous work we did in Dubai, bringing in world-class entertainment. It’s a market that’s just an hour away from the capital. We have over the past few years managed to put more than 8.5 million smiles among the people, and we want to keep that going.”

And sports fans can look forward to more than just Formula 1 later this year.

“In December we will be hosting the 15th FINA World Swimming Championship at the Etihad Arena, and we also have the Mubadala Tennis Championship back this year, so there’s a lot to look forward to,” Al-Sulaimani said. “We are ready to bring all these international events to Abu Dhabi. Our goal here is to support Abu Dhabi’s Vision 2030. Flash entertainment will continue providing that platform for emerging talent, and inspiring the next generations.”


Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour to cover fan travel costs to Champions League final

Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour (L) is to pay the travel costs of the newly crowned English champions’ fans attending the Champions League final in Portugal. (AFP/File Photos)
Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour (L) is to pay the travel costs of the newly crowned English champions’ fans attending the Champions League final in Portugal. (AFP/File Photos)
Updated 18 May 2021

Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour to cover fan travel costs to Champions League final

Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour (L) is to pay the travel costs of the newly crowned English champions’ fans attending the Champions League final in Portugal. (AFP/File Photos)
  • City have received an allocation of 6,000 tickets for the May 29 showpiece against Chelsea in Porto
  • Fans are permitted to stay in the country for just 24 hours

ABU DHABI: Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour is to pay the travel costs of the newly crowned English champions’ fans attending the Champions League final in Portugal later this month the club announced on Tuesday.

City have received an allocation of 6,000 tickets for the May 29 showpiece against Chelsea in Porto and Sheikh Mansour has said all those travelling on the official package will see their costs covered.

Fans are permitted to stay in the country for just 24 hours — subject to furnishing a negative coronavirus test — due to COVID-19 protocols.

“Thousands of City supporters will benefit from the initiative which is designed to ease the financial pressure on fans who have faced — and are still facing — challenging circumstances due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic,” a club statement read.

“The COVID inflated costs, combined with necessary but expensive PCR testing, would have rendered the trip to the final unmanageable for many of those supporters lucky enough to qualify for a ticket.

“Due to the necessary Covid related restrictions in place, the majority of fans wishing to attend the historic first final for the Club, are required to do so within a 24 hour trip, meaning that His Highness’ initiative will fund the transport of several thousand City fans on the official travel package on the day of the final.”

Sheikh Mansour said the gesture was a reward to those fans who had stuck with the club through thick and thin.

“Pep (Guardiola the manager) and the team have had such a remarkable season and their reaching the Champions League Final after a very challenging year represents a truly historic moment for the Club,” he said in a statement.

“It is therefore incredibly important that as many fans as possible have the opportunity to attend this special game.

“Especially those who have supported Manchester City through good and bad times for so many years.”

Sheikh Mansour’s generosity will go down well with fans who were furious when the club signed up to the European Super League last month.

City withdrew like their five fellow Premier League clubs 48 hours later.


Saudi football fans set for stadium return at SPL clash between Al-Hilal and Al-Ahli

Saudi football fans set for stadium return at SPL clash between Al-Hilal and Al-Ahli
Updated 18 May 2021

Saudi football fans set for stadium return at SPL clash between Al-Hilal and Al-Ahli

Saudi football fans set for stadium return at SPL clash between Al-Hilal and Al-Ahli
  • Supporters can attend last three rounds of the season at 40 percent capacity

JEDDAH: When Al-Hilal and Al-Ahli from Jeddah meet tomorrow night at the Prince Faisal bin Fahad stadium in Riyadh in the 28th round of Saudi Professional League (SPL), it will mark the first presence of a live audience at a football stadium since the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

The Saudi Ministry of Sports announced on March 29 that it had given the green light for the return of a limited number of fans to SPL football matches, with strict health and security measures still in place. 

The last time spectators in the Kingdom were allowed inside a football stadium was March 7, 2020, just as the COVID-19 crisis was about to disrupt almost all sporting activities and competitions across the globe.

Now, returning fans will be given 40 percent of the ground’s capacity in assigned, socially distanced seats.

According to the ministry’s decision, fans are expected to be able to attend the last three rounds of the current SPL season, with Al-Hilal leading the table by four points from Al-Shabab and the remaining relegation spots still to be decided.

The ministry specified that the protocols allowing certain categories to attend will be in accordance with the individual’s Tawakkalna application status.

Those who have received either one or two vaccine doses or who have recovered from the virus will be allowed in, while fans under the age of 18 are required to only show their “non-infected” or “non-contacted” status on the Tawakalna app.

Tickets for the last three rounds of matches will be posted on the Saudi Tickets platform, and fans will be able to get their specifically numbered ticket online. Tickets will be provided by the hosting club.

Tickets for the game between Al-Hilal and Al-Ahli were reportedly sold out within minutes of going on sale.

Al-Hilal currently leads the standing in the SPL with 51 points gained from 27 games, followed by Al-Shabab with 48 points. Al-Taawoun and Al-Ittihad are fighting it out for third place with 47 points each.


Extreme E leaders look back on AlUla race ahead of Ocean X Prix in Senegal

Extreme E leaders look back on AlUla race ahead of Ocean X Prix in Senegal
Updated 18 May 2021

Extreme E leaders look back on AlUla race ahead of Ocean X Prix in Senegal

Extreme E leaders look back on AlUla race ahead of Ocean X Prix in Senegal
  • First-ever electric SUV event across Saudi Desert saw RXR lead the standings, followed by X44 and Andretti United

The very first Extreme E event in the Saudi Arabian deserts of AlUla just six weeks ago saw Rosberg X Racing (RXR) take both the race victory and the lead in the overall standings, to currently sit pretty at the top of the table on 35 points.

Although Lewis Hamilton’s X44 crossed the finish line in third, they currently occupy second in the overall table on 30 points after amassing more points in qualifying than Andretti United, who eventually finished second in the Final and are now in third place with 28 points.

With just seven points separating them, the trio of table-toppers is now in the final stages of preparations for the upcoming Ocean X Prix at Lac Rose, Dakar, Senegal, from May 29-30.

“To take victory in the first-ever Extreme E event was an amazing achievement,” Molly Taylor, half of RXR’s pairing, said. “Everyone in the team had worked so hard in the build-up to the event, so for me and Johan [Kristoffersson] to repay them all with the victory felt so special. The beauty of Extreme E is the extra buzz you get from racing for purpose, too, and it’s an even better feeling when you win for purpose.”

The team has spent the last few weeks analyzing the data taken from the dunes in Saudi Arabia with a view to preparing for the second X Prix in Senegal, where RXR will attempt to make another win.

“Senegal will be a brand new challenge for everyone, but that’s one of the greatest things about Extreme E: Every event is so unique,” said Taylor’s RXR teammate, Kristoffersson. “Despite the differences, we’ll do our best to improve on our performance in AlUla and aim to be competitive once again.”

Team founder and former Formula 1 champion Nico Rosberg was cautious about maintaining the lead in Senegal.

“The team did an incredible job in Saudi Arabia to get the win, and we’re very proud to be the first X Prix winners in Extreme E history, but we know we need to stay focused if we are to remain at the front,” he said. “The series is already so competitive, but this team loves a challenge, and we can’t wait to go racing again in Senegal.”

X44 driver pairing Cristina Gutiérrez and Sébastien Loeb also had a successful weekend in Saudi Arabia, topping the qualifying standings and heading straight through to Semi-Final 1, and with a second-place finish, progressing to the Final. The team is now aiming for victory in Senegal.

“I’m looking forward to racing again in Senegal with Cristina. In the last race, obviously, there were things that didn’t go our way, but we showed that we’re a very competitive team and that we’re able to get results under pressure,” said Loeb. “The Ocean X Prix will be a totally new terrain and we have an incredible group of people working with us, so I’m excited to go to Senegal and fight again for a win.”

The team has been particularly focused on the all-important start, which proved vital for the final race position at the Desert X Prix. Senegal, however, poses a very different challenge.

“I’m really excited to get back in the car and race again in Senegal. Obviously, the final race in Saudi didn’t go exactly as planned but we got a great result overall, and it put us in a good position in the championship,” Gutiérrez said. “We learned a lot from the last race, and we’re going to take those learnings and make sure that we’re as competitive as possible.”

Meanwhile, Andretti United’s Catie Munnings proved herself to be one to watch following her epic three-wheel drive after suffering a puncture. Her strength and determination saw her bring the car home in one piece.

“Saudi Arabia certainly wasn’t plain sailing for us, especially with the puncture, but Timmy [Hansen] and I learned so much and to finish second in the final after a tricky start to the event was just awesome. Now we go into Senegal third in the standings, which is a really strong position to be in. We definitely feel well-prepared and ready to apply what we learned from Saudi at the Ocean X Prix — and hopefully score another podium!”

Ahead of Senegal, Hansen has been busy keeping physically fit through lots of running, even finishing the virtual Wings for Life Run to raise money for spinal cord research. He has completed some off-road training in the Polaris, supported Munnings in her RallyX Nordic debut in Höljes and also taken some important time off to celebrate his son Sam’s third birthday.

“I’ve had a productive few weeks, continuing with my training, fulfilling some sponsor obligations and also spending a bit of time with my family. It feels good to strike the right balance,” said Hansen. “It’s been great having Catie over in Sweden again too. We’ve done a full debrief from Saudi and know the areas where we can improve. We’re both feeling confident going into Senegal with a refreshed state of mind.”

The Ocean X Prix starts on May 29, and as the all-electric SUVs have been at sea traveling the globe on the series’ floating centerpiece, the St. Helena, teams will not be able to start preparations with the cars themselves until they touch down in Senegal.


Taif Racing Season to offer $4.87m in prize money

Taif Racing Season to offer $4.87m in prize money
Updated 18 May 2021

Taif Racing Season to offer $4.87m in prize money

Taif Racing Season to offer $4.87m in prize money
  • Chairman of Saudi Jockey Club confirms introduction of new race categories for upcoming season

RIYADH: The Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia has announced that the Taif Racing Season, which runs for four months from June 4, will consist of 24 events of eight races per day taking place on Fridays and Saturdays, Arabic sports daily Arriyadiyah reported.

The total prize money for the season will be $4.87 million (SR18.26 million), covering the 192 scheduled races.

Prince Bandar bin Khalid Al-Faisal, chairman of the Jockey Club, revealed that the season will see the introduction of a number of new races.

“The Taif season will witness the two Taif Cups for foals and foals aged two years, the two cups for mares and horses of ages three years, in addition to the Okaz Cup which is open for horses aged three years and more, and the King Faisal Cup for Arabian horses with a prize of 1 million riyals,” he said.


Talisca snubs Al-Hilal for Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr via social media video

Talisca snubs Al-Hilal for Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr via social media video
Updated 18 May 2021

Talisca snubs Al-Hilal for Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr via social media video

Talisca snubs Al-Hilal for Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr via social media video
  • The Brazilian was expected to join the reigning champions, but confirmed his move from Guangzhou FC to AL-Nassr in a clip that will ensure next season’s derby will have added spice

LONDON: Next season’s Riyadh Derby is going to be even more electric than usual.

Reigning Saudi Pro League champions Al-Hilal had spent much of May negotiating with Brazilian star Talisca, but there he was on Tuesday on Al-Nassr’s Twitter channel announcing a quite unexpected move to the Saudi capital.

In a video that showed him watching a video of Al-Hilal in action, and then laughing out loud, the 27 year-old held up that famous yellow shirt to the camera to inform fans that he was joining Al-Nassr from Guangzhou FC.

 

 

It remains to be seen who will be laughing next season.

The player who was hailed as the next big Brazilian star in his teenage years, and despite being linked at one time with Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, still has much to prove.

The move has upset a few people in China as well. The attacking midfielder, who can also play further up the pitch, enjoyed two-and-a-half successful seasons in China with Guangzhou FC and won the Chinese Super League title in 2019.

Fans of the two-time Asian champions feel that their club should have held out for more than the reported fee of one million euros.

With just a year remaining on his contract, the figure should perhaps have been five or six times that.

For a player who scored 39 goals in 65 appearances in China and managed 13 assists, Al-Nassr have got themselves a bargain.

One reason for that is that Al-Nassr’s new star hasn’t played this year.

This was not due to injuries or form, but regulations stopping him from re-entering China.

Talisca has been stuck in Brazil and unable to actually get inside the country to play for Guangzhou.

Club coach Fabio Cannavaro, understood that the time was right to release him.

The concern for Guangzhou is that Talisca’s colleague and compatriot Paulinho has the same travel issues, and the club are now keen not to lose their biggest star.

That is not Al-Nassr’s concern, though they will want to know how to get the best out of the player who moved to Benfica in 2014 for $5.790 million.

He started well in Portugal with eight goals in his first 10 games there and was hailed as one of the brightest young talents in Europe, even compared to the likes of Yaya Toure and Rivaldo.

The talent was there for all to see, the left foot was especially beautiful, he could play anywhere in attack — on the wings, in the middle or as a second striker — and cut an imposing figure.

After two years at Benfica during which he won two Portuguese league titles, he didn’t move to the English Premier League as many had predicted, but was loaned out to Besiktas in Turkey.

There, he won the  Super League and then headed to China in 2018.

There was some disappointment when he chose to head east, but some of the best players in the world were doing the same at the time.

Another league title followed for Talisca in 2019.

Everywhere he has been outside his homeland, Talisca has won league championships which bodes well for Al-Nassr fans.

There has been some criticism in China of a tendency to drift through games especially last season, though 2020 was tough for all, with players confined to their hotel rooms for seven months.

He scored and made goals but rarely took control of games. 

Talisca’s arrival may, however, spell the end of Pity Martinez in Riyadh.

The Argentine made headlines last September when joining the club for around $18 million.

Martinez has since endured something of a difficult first season in Saudi Arabia and while he has shown sporadic flashes of the form that made him the 2018 South American Player of the Year, he did not do so on a consistent basis.

And when injury cut his season short and ruled him out of the AFC Champions League group stage, he wasn’t really missed.

New Al-Nassr coach Mano Menezes came in to replace Alen Horvat and the former Brazilian boss guided the Al-Nassr through a difficult group and into the second round.

There have been regular rumors of Martinez leaving Saudi Arabia for months and with Talisca now in the team and playing a similar role, the route back to South America, or as many think, back to MLS, is now open. 

For Al-Nassr, they have got a player who should be at the peak of his career and still has something to prove.

And, thanks to that welcome video and the fact that he had been talking to Al-Hilal for some time, it means that next season will have even more spice than usual.