Inter’s Serie A title win sees Achraf Hakimi emerge as one of the finest Arab footballers in Europe

Inter’s Serie A title win sees Achraf Hakimi emerge as one of the finest Arab footballers in Europe
Chelsea’s Moroccan playmaker Hakim Ziyech still managed to score the goal that set Chelsea on their way to beat Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final. (File/AFP)
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Updated 10 May 2021

Inter’s Serie A title win sees Achraf Hakimi emerge as one of the finest Arab footballers in Europe

Inter’s Serie A title win sees Achraf Hakimi emerge as one of the finest Arab footballers in Europe
  • Madrid-born Moroccan international played a pivotal role in Milan club’s first championship in 11 years

DUBAI: An Egyptian, an Algerian and a Moroccan walk onto a football pitch. The punchline usually involves a curling left-footed shot into the back of the net.

When the topic of best Arab footballers currently playing in Europe comes up, three players inevitably dominate the discussion.

Since joining Liverpool in the summer 2017 Mohamed Salah has attained a level of superstardom that no other Arab footballer had come close to before.

Champions League and Premier League winners’ medals, the Golden Boot - twice, and seemingly countless individual awards, the Egyptian has cleaned up.

Even in a shockingly poor season by Liverpool, he continues to lead the Premier League’s goalscoring charts.

Just over a year before Salah’s move to Anfield, the Algerian Riyad Mahrez had played a heroic role in Leicester City’s sensational title win (which earned him the 2015-16 PFA Player of the Year award), and after joining Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in 2018 would become one of a select group players to win the Premier League title with two different clubs.

In the second half of this season Mahrez has been in stunning form and the coming weeks will surely add another title medal and potentially a Champions League winners medal to his collection.

Standing in his way in the final on May 29 will be Chelsea’s Moroccan playmaker Hakim Ziyech, who, while having a mostly frustrating, inconsistent season, has still managed to score the goal that set Chelsea on their way to a win over Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final and, at the weekend, grabbed the equaliser as the London club again beat Guardiola’s team to ensure that the Premier League coronation, inevitable as it is, will have to wait a little longer.

But it’s one of Ziyech’s international teammates that has a strong claim to being one of the outstanding Arab footballers playing in Europe in 2020-21.

And he has managed it well away from the hype machine that is the English Premier League. He also happens to be a defender, in name at least.

Inter Milan’s first Serie A title win in 11 years, ending a run of nine triumphs by Juventus, has been lit up by the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Stefan De Vrij, Lautaro Martínez and Nicolò Barella.

But one of the standout performers has been the brilliant, Madrid-born Moroccan Achraf Hakimi.

Someone at Real Madrid, Hakimi’s hometown club, will at some point have to explain how arguably the best right back in European football has been allowed to escape the Bernabéu, not once, but twice, over the last three years.

Having, at 18, been part of the squad that won the 2018 Champions League final against Liverpool - and earlier collected FIFA Club World Cup, UEFA Super Cup and Spanish Super Cup winners’ medals - Hakimi looked set for long and successful career with the Spanish giants.

But with Spanish defender Dani Carvajal - one of the team’s most trusted and senior performers - Hakimi was often reduced comes from the bench.

That summer, after being part of Morocco’s squad at the World Cup in Russia, Hakimi was loaned to Borussia Dortmund on a two-year deal.

At a club that values and encourages young talent, he flourished.

His marauding runs from defence became a feature of the team’s play, and his assists and goals have since earned comparisons with the likes of Trent Alexander Arnold and Reece James, attacking fullbacks which English football seem to suddenly be specializing in.

He won the German Super Cup in 2019, and his individual performances were increasingly drawing attention as opposition defenders struggled to cope with his speed and his deliveries.

Indeed, in February 2020, Hakimi set a Bundesliga speed record of 36.48 km/h against Union Berlin, beating the old record of 36.2 km/h he himself set earlier that season against RB Leipzig.

Hakimi must have thought he had done enough to have another crack at becoming first choice right back Real Madrid, who despite winning La Liga in the Covid-19-disrupted 2019-20 season, were now a shadow of the Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired team he had left two years earlier.

Instead he was sold to Inter for $48.69 million, and Zinedine’s Zidane’s loss would prove Antonio Conte’s gain.

Hakimi has been inspirational for his new team, scoring seven league goals and helping set up many on the way to the championship.

On May 1, he scored the second goal in a 2-0 win over Crotone to put Inter within touching distance of the coveted Seri A title.

The following day, Atalanta’s failure to win at Sassuolo meant the title was heading to the blue and black half of Milan. At 22, Hakimi was a title champion.

No doubt Hakimi and Inter will have their eyes on Champions League success next season, and the Moroccan will also be eyeing glorying with his country at the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations Cup (taking place at the start of 2022) and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Before that, Middle East, Arab and African audiences could well be hoping to see him take part in FIFA Arab Cup in Qatar next November.

He may not have achieved quite what Salah, Mahrez and Ziyech have and will in the near future, yet, but at only 22 he has plenty of time to catch up with that exalted trio with magical left feet.

And he’ll be doing it all with those devastating runs from way back in the defense.


Japan’s leader says Olympics were ‘symbol of global unity’

Japan’s leader says Olympics were ‘symbol of global unity’
Updated 24 September 2021

Japan’s leader says Olympics were ‘symbol of global unity’

Japan’s leader says Olympics were ‘symbol of global unity’
  • “Tokyo 2020 Games proved to be a symbol of global unity among people around the world,” Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said
  • Suga and the International Olympic Committee ultimately decided the Games would go on with extremely strict virus safety protocols

UNITED NATIONS: At a UN General Assembly meeting packed with global gloom, Japan’s outgoing leader highlighted what he cast as a moment of inspiration: the Tokyo Olympics, controversially held in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
“While humanity has been faced with immeasurable hardships, the Tokyo 2020 Games proved to be a symbol of global unity among people around the world,” Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said as he began his speech Thursday.
After the Games were delayed from their original 2020 date because of the pandemic, Japan deliberated for months about whether to hold them at all. Suga and the International Olympic Committee ultimately decided the Games would go on with extremely strict virus safety protocols.
The requirements included multiple tests for all Olympic visitors before arrival and tests and soft quarantine upon arrival. Most events and venues were spectatorless, and travel was heavily regulated.
Still, many Japanese objected to holding the event at a time when the country’s virus outbreak was worsening. There were protests as the Games approached, but opposition softened after they began and residents got engaged in following — on TV — a competition that ended with a record 58 medals for Japan, including 27 gold.
Infections inside the so-called “Olympic bubble” ultimately were kept to a few hundred. But outside it, surging coronavirus cases produced several declarations of states of emergency around the country as the Games unfolded.
“While there were various views about holding the Games this summer, we, as the host country of the Games, fulfilled our responsibilities and achieved what we set out to do,” Suga said. He commended the athletes for giving “hopes and dreams to everyone across the globe.”
Suga is stepping down when his term ends at the conclusion of this month. He saw support for his government plunge because of his handling of the virus.
He has served only a year after taking over from predecessor Shinzo Abe.


German soccer clubs pushing to ease stadium restrictions

German soccer clubs pushing to ease stadium restrictions
Updated 24 September 2021

German soccer clubs pushing to ease stadium restrictions

German soccer clubs pushing to ease stadium restrictions
  • Most clubs are asking for fans to show they are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus
  • State officials set fan limits of either 25,000 or 50% of stadium capacity, whichever is lower, for professional games

BERLIN: German soccer clubs are pushing for more fans to be allowed at Bundesliga games despite discrepancies in their approaches to getting them there.
Most clubs are asking for fans to show they are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, recovered from COVID-19, or to produce a negative result from a test for the virus taken in the previous 24 hours before they are allowed in to see a game.
Some, like Borussia Dortmund, are just letting in vaccinated or recovered fans, with very few exceptions for those who are neither.
Dortmund’s stadium is the biggest in Germany with a capacity of 81,000 for Bundesliga games, but even with its strict admission policies, it is only allowed up to 25,000 spectators under rules agreed on by the country’s 16 states in July.
State officials set fan limits of either 25,000 or 50 percent of stadium capacity, whichever is lower, for professional games.
Dortmund chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke believes his club’s tougher approach to restrictions means it should be allowed full capacity for matches.
“If the overwhelming majority of spectators are vaccinated and the children are tested, then I think soccer games in well-filled stadiums are a responsible risk,” Watzke told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper.
German health minister Jens Spahn said stadiums with the “2G” restrictions (vaccinated/recovered) should be able to safely accommodate more supporters than those that also allow tested fans.
The Hamburg senate agrees, deciding Tuesday to allow second-division club Hamburger SV a full stadium under the 2G rule to allow vaccinated or recovered supporters at games.
Sunday’s match against Nuremburg is too soon for the club to make the necessary arrangements, but city rival St. Pauli will likely have a full 29,546-capacity for Dynamo Dresden’s visit on Oct. 3.
The local health authority gave Eintracht Frankfurt the go-ahead for up to 31,000 vaccinated or recovered supporters at Saturday’s Bundesliga game against Cologne, though that’s also too soon for the club to organize.
However, Bundesliga rival Union Berlin said in a statement Tuesday that the 2G rule is “unworkable” because of a lack of alternatives for children under 12 and for people who cannot or don’t want to be vaccinated.
City rival Hertha Berlin and league leader Bayern Munich are among those also sticking to the “3G” solution, which also includes tested fans.
Union has been one of the most outspoken clubs against the coronavirus restrictions that largely kept fans away altogether last season, while its fans have been displaying banners this season calling for a return to full stadiums.
Some clubs like Hertha and Dortmund have threatened legal action if they are not allowed more supporters at games, particularly with 2G restrictions in place.
Others are worried that fans have been getting used to watching games on TV and are reluctant to return to stadiums. Hoffenheim, which can accommodate up to 15,000 supporters in its stadium, only had 8,014 present for its game against Union, and 8,427 for Mainz’ visit.
Hertha and Greuther Fürth have also had unsold tickets.
Fürth coach Stefan Leitl said there was currently an “insecurity” among fans, and Hoffenheim coach Sebastian Hoeneß predicted it will take some time for supporters to return, even when the rules are relaxed and restrictions lifted.


Saudi Arabia to host opening round of 2022 Extreme E season

Saudi Arabia to host opening round of 2022 Extreme E season
Updated 24 September 2021

Saudi Arabia to host opening round of 2022 Extreme E season

Saudi Arabia to host opening round of 2022 Extreme E season
  • In April, AlUla became first ever location to hold race in electric SUV series

RIYADH: The Saudi desert of AlUla is set to host the opening race of the second season of Extreme E, the provisional list of venues for 2022 has revealed.

In April, AlUla hosted the first ever event — Desert X Prix — in the electric car series, which takes place in off-road locations as part of its mission to drive awareness of climate change issues, such as global warming, melting ice caps, rising sea levels, wildfires, extreme weather, and desertification, while promoting sustainability and the adoption of electric vehicles to help protect the planet.

Founder and chief executive officer of Extreme E, Alejandro Agag, said: “We’ve had a hugely positive response to Extreme E throughout this opening season, from governments to NGOs, who see great potential, not only for utilizing our purpose-driven sports platform to educate on climate issues, but also to showcase the solutions that they and the wider global community can all be part of.

“As we approach the tail end of our first season, we wanted to be transparent about how our second season is shaping up in order to help enable our teams, drivers, and partners to prepare.

“We’ve had lots of interest, both in retaining events in locations we’ve visited in season one, and from new locations, and we are currently at a stage where we have multiple options for some of our races.

“As an engaged championship which aims to put fans at the heart of decision making, we are also keen to hear input and opinions on where we should go in future seasons too,” he added.

Former Royal Mail ship, the St. Helena, provides the championship’s floating centerpiece, carrying the series’ vehicles, logistics equipment, and paddock infrastructure as well as playing host to scientific research with its onboard laboratory, all in a bid to lower the impact of the travel logistics compared to air travel.

Head-to-head races, known as an X Prix, take place over two days, within an area no larger than 10 square kilometers, with each team fielding a male and a female driver who each complete a lap of the racecourse, including a driver switch incorporated midway.

Course designers have been tasked with carefully selecting course options which provide the most challenging, exciting action, using existing obstacles and features with elevation changes and jumps, in order to minimize environmental impact.

Race organizers undertake thorough environmental, social, and economic assessments of each location with a local third party, overseen by EY, in order to safeguard environmental protection, social inclusivity, and fair practices. These reports have influenced the way Extreme E operates from water consumption, waste management, and on-site lighting through to land management and ensuring the series leaves without a trace after the X Prix has finished.

Additionally, in each location, Extreme E works alongside local experts, governments, and NGOs to implement positive legacy initiatives dependent on regional needs.

Examples of legacy programs in the first season included the funding of a turtle conservation project along the Red Sea coastline, the planting of 1 million mangroves with NGO TO.org and Oceanium in Senegal, cocoa agroforestry and Amazon conservation with The Nature Conservancy in the Brazilian state of Para, and the creation with UNICEF of a climate education syllabus for more than 3,500 schoolchildren in Greenland.

Prof. Carlos Duarte, Extreme E’s climate change scientist, said: “I have thoroughly enjoyed being part of Extreme E this year and very much look forward to continuing our good work into season two.

“The legacy and scientific aspects are a true cornerstone to the series and already this year I’ve been able to conduct research in Saudi Arabia and collect ice samples from the Russell Glacier (in Greenland) with Extreme E.

“This championship gives me and my peers the opportunity to reach people outside of our usual networks, it gives us a voice to reach the masses and educate on climate issues and the solutions we can all be a part of,” he added.

As well as providing a platform for climate awareness, Extreme E has had a positive economic impact on host countries. YouGov Sport, the international research and data analytics organization, calculated the series’ inaugural event in Saudi Arabia contributed more than $55 million local value. These figures included the employment of local personnel, logistics, transportation to and from the race site, as well as local food and beverage provision, and hotel nights.

The overall media exposure of the Desert X Prix was in itself a significant factor in the overall economic impact. Extreme E’s 190 global broadcast markets audience reach of 18.7 million, along with its strong media presence, resulted in an unprecedented media value of almost $38 million for the championship.

Extreme E has already surpassed its social media targets for the end of season one, hitting 100 million video views, a 400 percent increase in engagement, plus more than 1 billion impressions across its digital landscape at each of its two opening X Prix events.

Provisional Extreme E Season 2 calendar (2022):

Feb. 19-20: Saudi Arabia

May 7-8: Senegal/Egypt/Tanzania

July 9-10: Greenland/Iceland

Sept. 10-11: Brazil/Argentina/Uruguay/Italy/Costa Rica  

Nov. 26-27: Chile


Golf Saudi relaunches Dirab Golf & Country Club on 91st Saudi National Day

Golf Saudi relaunches Dirab Golf & Country Club on 91st Saudi National Day
Updated 24 September 2021

Golf Saudi relaunches Dirab Golf & Country Club on 91st Saudi National Day

Golf Saudi relaunches Dirab Golf & Country Club on 91st Saudi National Day
  • Club has undergone extensive improvements, now reopened to public

RIYADH: Following its acquisition of Dirab Golf and Country Club, Golf Saudi has now reopened the course and clubhouse to the public following an extensive redevelopment program.

Situated in the heart of the Kingdom’s capital, the club earlier this year carried out a series of improvements across the entire site including facility enhancement, landscaping, agronomy, the implementation of associate training programs, guest management, and general course renovation.

Deputy chairman of the Saudi Golf Federation and chief executive officer of Golf Saudi, Majed Al-Sorour, said: “This is an exciting phase in the course and club’s history. Golf Saudi is delighted to formally reopen Dirab Golf and Country Club following a series of wall-to-wall improvements across the entire club.

“Our hope is to enhance and grow the game of golf in the Kingdom and encourage Saudis to pick up a club for the first time and give golf a go but also unlock employment opportunities within the wider golf industry.

“Golf is a game for everyone and as part of Vision 2030, this is just one of the steps Golf Saudi has undertaken to ensure that golf is accessible to all,” he added.

Dirab Golf and Country Club was the first grassed 18-hole Par 72 Championship course built in Saudi Arabia. Located 45 kilometers southwest of Riyadh and nestled in the picturesque Tawfiq valley, the club features tree-lined fairways and manicured greens.

The reopening celebrations coincided with the 91st Saudi National Day on Sept. 23, with the club organizing activities for golfers, children, and families. As part of Golf Saudi’s Mass Participation program, there were also opportunities for visitors of all ages to try golf through a series of fun events, including The Stadium Concept, and SNAG. Saudi heritage was also celebrated with a traditional food tent and Najdi folk dancing.

A series of events has been planned by the club to engage with local culture and the Saudi public, as part of its long-term aim to become a destination for local golf fans.

Al-Sorour said: “Through making these improvements, we hope that Dirab Golf and Country Club will become the capital’s go-to golf course.

“I have no doubt that it will become one of the best golf courses in Saudi Arabia and I am confident that our extensive investment into the club will entice members, visitors, golfers, and non-golfers to enjoy the new range of benefits and remarkable golfing facilities that are now on offer, thanks to the efforts of the Golf Saudi team who have overseen this redevelopment.”


Al-Nassr joy, Al-Ahli misery: 5 things we learned from latest Saudi Professional League matches

Al-Nassr joy, Al-Ahli misery: 5 things we learned from latest Saudi Professional League matches
Updated 24 September 2021

Al-Nassr joy, Al-Ahli misery: 5 things we learned from latest Saudi Professional League matches

Al-Nassr joy, Al-Ahli misery: 5 things we learned from latest Saudi Professional League matches
  • Al-Hilal’s 2-2 draw with Al-Shabab means Al-Ittihad stay top of the table

There were plenty of talking points after Thursday’s games in the Saudi Professional League, and below are five things we learned.

1. Even understrength, Al-Hilal are hard to beat

The champions were not at their best against Al-Shabab but still managed to come from behind twice to draw 2-2. 

The goals were not spectacular either. Bafetimbi Gomis fired home from the penalty spot after a defender had somehow fallen in front of him and then, with 20 minutes remaining, Ali Al-Bulaihi headed home from a corner.

Yet it could turn out to be a valuable point for Al-Hilal against a team desperate to win. This is partly because they were without a number of key players such as Salman Al-Faraj, Andre Carrillo, Abdullah Otayf, Salem Al-Dawsari and Mohammed Al-Breik. Any team in Saudi Arabia would miss such stars and, yet, after a mediocre first half, Leonardo Jardim’s men improved after the break.

Al-Shabab may have struggled so far this season, but it was only a few months ago when they finished second in the league. This was always going to be a difficult game for Al-Hilal, and to be understrength and still come away with a point may well be seen as a valuable result at the end of the season.

2. Al-Ahli lose to leave Hasi on the brink

Coach Besnik Hasi is in real danger after Al-Ahli lost 2-0 against Al-Fayha, and the Kosovo Albanian boss is unlikely to be in charge in next week’s Jeddah Derby against Al-Ittihad. He sounded a defiant note after the defeat, which leaves Al-Ahli winless after six games of the season with just five points. “We played well and created many opportunities but just could not take them,” he said. “I am not afraid of being fired and I have been giving my all in the job.”

What was disappointing however is that Al-Ahli seemed to lack spirit and energy from the start, and once the first goal went in on the hour, heads dropped and defeat seemed inevitable. Despite the coach’s comments, Al-Fayha deserved the win and simply worked harder than the opposition. It now leaves Al-Ahli hovering just outside the relegation zone and the coach on the brink.

3. Al-Nassr are very much in the title race

A team that has just dismissed the coach often comes back with a quick win, and just four days after firing Mano Menezes, Al-Nassr defeated Al-Fateh 1-0. While they could have scored more goals, it did mark the first clean sheet of the season. 

It was exactly what Al-Nassr needed. Now the Riyadh giants are only three points behind the leaders Al-Ittihad.

Caretaker coach Marcelo Salazar set up the team well, and Al-Nassr had over two-thirds of possession. He will be a little annoyed at not winning more convincingly as there were chances to do so. The boss went with a 4-2-3-1 formation and started striker Abderrazak Hamdallah on the bench. The Moroccan looked hungry when he replaced Vincent Aboubakar midway through the second half and came close to extending Al-Nassr’s lead. In midfield, Ali Al-Hassan and Abdullah Al-Khaibari don’t often make the headlines but had a very solid game.

It remains to be seen who the new coach is, but he is going to come and take over a talented team that will be able to challenge for titles at home and abroad.

4. Al-Shabab are showing signs of improvement

After a poor start to the season, the job of coach Pericles Chamusca was under threat. It still may be, but last season’s runners-up produced a good performance against the champions Al-Hilal to draw 2-2. This was a well-organized counter-attacking performance with Senegalese midfielder Alfred N’Diaye everywhere, protecting the defense and using the ball well to instigate attacks. 

Whatever happens, Chamusca knows that his players are playing for him as they gave their all. Results have improved of late with a win and two draws from the last three games. 

The fluidity is not yet there, and the team needs to use possession better, but this was a hard-working display, something to build on and much better than the 5-1 loss suffered in the last Riyadh Derby in May. The Brazilian boss may just have saved his job, for now at least, but more points are needed from the coming games.

5. Al-Ittihad will be smiling

The Tigers stay top after Al-Hilal failed to win and will be looking to take a four-point lead ahead of their rivals on Friday against bottom club Al-Taawoun in front of a sell-out crowd. Despite losing the first game of the season and firing their coach, Al-Ittihad are the only team so far to really put a run together. Al-Hilal have yet to lose but have dropped points, and the ups and downs of Al-Nassr have been well-documented.

There is still a long way to go this season of course, but with other teams dropping points, Al-Ittihad are in the winning groove and have the chance to put some daylight between themselves and their rivals. Even better is the fact that Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr will be busy with Asian commitments next month too. 

The rest of the league should be careful that they don’t allow Al-Ittihad to get too far ahead, but with the likes of Igor Coronado in great form, few would bet against them recording a fifth straight victory on Friday.