Saudi’s call for the World Cup to be played every two years will split opinions among fans and authorities

Saudi’s call for the World Cup to be played every two years will split opinions among fans and authorities
The four-year build up to these trophies being lifted could be halved - but will their significance suffer? (AFP/File)
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Updated 19 May 2021

Saudi’s call for the World Cup to be played every two years will split opinions among fans and authorities

Saudi’s call for the World Cup to be played every two years will split opinions among fans and authorities
  • While the Women’s World Cup might benefit hugely, the idea will face resistance from Europe’s established football nations

LONDON: The proposal was always going to be met with equal embrace and resistance.

Saudi Arabia’s request that “a feasibility study to be carried out on the impact” of hosting the men’s and women’s World Cup every two years instead of four be put to FIFA’s annual meeting of all its 211 members on Friday has already been automatically dismissed in some parts of the world but the idea is worthy of debate.

The idea will no doubt be welcomed by nations that rarely, if ever, qualify to the World Cup.

Alongside the expansion of the tournament from 32 to 48 teams from 2026, increasing the frequency of FIFA’s showpiece events will multiply the chances of smaller football nation to take join the party.

Many purists, however, will not see it that way.

Already some see that having more teams will dilute the quality of football on offer.

Playing the competition every two years instead of four will be seen as further stripping of the tournament’s exclusivity, not to mention that it will be interfering with other global events such as the Euros, Copa America, Africa Cup of Nations, AFC Asian Cup and the Olympics.

That is before we get into the logistics of fitting in more qualifying campaigns.

More resistance will surely come for European nations and some of their most powerful clubs who stand to gain little from more football for their already over-utilized, often exhausted, footballers.

But when it comes to the women’s game, the arguments against a biennial tournament are much weaker than those made on behalf of men.

For a start, compared to the men, there are fewer existing demands on the top women players.

The English Premier League has 38 games compared to the Women’s Super League’s 22.

The female final played on May 16 was the ninth in the Champions League for Barcelona and Chelsea.

Chelsea’s men have also reached the same stage and their game against Manchester City on May 29 will be game number 13.

There is more room in the calendar at the top of the European game and more still when you move down the levels around the world. 

And the popularity of the women’s game is growing at rapid rate.

The 2019 Women’s World Cup in France was watched by a record-breaking 1.2 billion people.

The average live match audience more than doubled in comparison to the 2015 tournament that was held in Canada.

Much progress has been made then but there is still a long way to go. Doing it all more often would increase the audience and improve the profile of the players and teams tremendously.

Meeting every two years instead of every four would pump more money into the female game; more sponsorship, more broadcasting and more ticketing revenue.

It means more possibilities for federations around the world and especially those that do not yet invest much in the female side.

The more money there is in the women’s game the more motivation there is for federations to develop, the more coaches there are, the more facilities are built and the more attractive and realistic a professional career seems to youngsters. 

Also, qualification to the Women’s World Cup is quicker and more convenient than for the men’s.

In Asia for example, while the men play 22 games over almost three years on the road to their World Cups, the female participants had no qualifiers at all for the 2019 World Cup with places in France dependent on performances at the AFC Asian Cup.

It would not be a major issue to insert another tournament into the four-year cycle.

For Europe’s women, there are more demands on qualification for World Cups and European Championships but it could be that merging the two qualifying campaigns (as the men do in Asia) would simplify things.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino is known to be a supporter of halving the time between women’s World Cups and surely few could argue that - regardless of whether it actually happens or not - there should at least be a debate.

When it comes to the men however, the situation is very different and there is a deep-seated belief that there is nothing to discuss.

Arsene Wenger found that when he called for it back in March.

"If you look at the teams in the World Cups, usually the average age is 27 or 28,” said the former Arsenal coach who is now the Chief of Global Football development at FIFA.

“Because the World Cup is every four years there are very few chances to win it again because when they go back to the next World Cup they are 32 or 33. That's why maybe we should organize the World Cup every two years."

Players may not appreciate that so much if they are injured or exhausted. To appear in every English Premier League game and go far in the UEFA Champions League means 50 games.

Add domestic cups and international commitments and it is a heavy schedule and while there is rotation, the demands on the players would be serious.   

The top clubs would be dead against it and what of the confederations?

Europe and South America are concerned about what it would mean for their continental competitions that are held every four years.

If football moves in a four-year cycle, then if two of those are filled with World Cups then it doesn’t leave much time for anything else.

At the very least, qualifying for global and continental tournaments would have to change which is something that Wenger suggested.

If Saudi Arabia is serious then conversations should start in Asia where there are federations interested in the possibilities that open up if the World Cup doubles in frequency.

It will be an uphill battle convincing the football family about the men but the audience when it comes to the women's game should be more receptive.

A tale of two captains after South Africa shock favorites India with series win

A tale of two captains after South Africa shock favorites India with series win
Updated 20 January 2022

A tale of two captains after South Africa shock favorites India with series win

A tale of two captains after South Africa shock favorites India with series win
  • Dean Elgar acknowledged the challenge to get all players to buy into his vision, something his defeated counterpart Virat Kohli had managed for years

During recent days, when Australia’s mauling of England in the Ashes entered its final throes, another series concluded in exciting and unexpected fashion. South Africa, with a new captain, beat India, with an established one, 2-1 in a three-match series at home.

In historical and statistical terms, this should not be a surprise. India have never won a Test series in South Africa. Out of seven series contested since 1992-93, India had lost six and drawn one. These series yielded twenty Test matches, out of which India had won only three, with three draws and ten losses.

However, going into the series, India were in superior form, having beaten Australia away in 2020-21 and leading England 2-1 away in the summer of 2021, before failing to engage with the final and deciding match on Sept. 10 on the grounds of mental health issues. There was a sense at that time of all not being harmonious between the Indian camp and its authority, the Board of Control for Cricket in India.

South Africa, on the other hand, have been through tough times, losing five of their previous eight Test series. They have had to cope with the retirement of fourteen match-winning world-class players in the last ten years, plus off-field distractions involving the suspension and dismissal of administrators for alleged misconduct and malpractice. More recently, a call by one player for Cricket South Africa to stand in support of the Black Lives Matter movement received mixed responses.

The loss of a key bowler to injury before the first Test on Dec. 26 was a further setback, and South Africa were beaten. However, in a remarkable turnaround, they won the second and third hard-fought matches to win the series.

Captain Dean Elgar said that he had challenged the players within the group, knowing that immense character was needed to stand up to tough situations. His bowling unit responded by capturing all of India’s wickets in the Tests and a star batting performance from a player in only his fifth Test proved to be crucial. Elgar acknowledged that it is one of the biggest challenges to get all players on the captain’s side and buy into his vision.

This is something easier said than done, an achievement that the defeated Indian captain, Virat Kohli, has managed in his seven years in charge. Prior to the series, he had become his country’s most successful captain in Test cricket and, as captain of T20 internationals and one-day internationals, fourth overall. In his sixty-eight Tests, forty were won, eleven drawn and seventeen lost, a win ratio of 58.8 percent.

His belligerent, aggressive, intimidating, self-confident, win-orientated style of leadership, with great emphasis on fitness, earned him a few critics along the way, possibly within the BCCI. It was hoped that the appointment of a new president, a former Indian captain, in October 2019, would lead to improved communications between the board and the players. This does not appear to have happened.

In September, Kohli announced that he would stand down as T20 captain after the T20 World Cup in the UAE in November, but continue as ODI and Test captain. On Nov. 7, it was clear that India would fail to make the semi-finals. Combined with failure to win the World Test Championship in June 2021 and the 2019 ODI World Cup, criticism mounted. On Dec. 8, ninety minutes before Kohli was due to join a call with the selectors to discuss the squad to tour South Africa, he claims that he was told that there would be a change of leadership for the 50-over format as the selectors preferred to have one person to captain both of two short formats.

Subsequently, there was claim and counter claim about what was said and by whom. Prior to this, there had been signs of tetchiness in Kohli’s on-field behaviour and, in the third test in South Africa, he was especially incensed that an umpire’s decision was overturned on appeal to the off-field decision review technology, for which he may yet be censured.

On Jan. 15, one day after the defeat and series loss, Kohli announced that he was standing down as Test captain. Thus, in a little over two months, he has gone from being leader across all three formats to leader in none. The question on many lips is did he jump before being pushed? The coach with whom he enjoyed so much success, especially in maintaining a position at the top of ICC Test rankings for forty-two months, finished his stint in Nov. 2021. Together, they changed the culture of the team to fit their own philosophy, style and vision.

The new coach, another legend of Indian cricket, has a different personality and approach. Now, a new captain has to be appointed. This is the task of the selectors. Neither captain or coach has voting rights in the selection process but, normally, are asked for input. India’s men’s national cricket seems set for transition, along with amendments to its approach. Such change must have the support of the BCCI. It may even be the place where the change was initiated.

During the years in which Kohli was in charge, South Africa’s Test team has had five captains, one of whom captained 36 Tests. it was a surprise that it was Elgar who took the reins in March 2021. His no-nonsense, steely approach may be just what is required to mould a team that is short of proven world-class players but looks to be genuinely inclusive and representative, working towards a common goal of success based on teamwork.

The series with India proved to be a catalyst for change in the leadership of both teams. Captaincy is such a vital role, both on and off the field. Harmony, not just with players, but coach and governing Board, are key factors. When harmony breaks, it is usually the captain who is first to go.

5 talking points from group stage finales at Africa Cup of Nations

5 talking points from group stage finales at Africa Cup of Nations
Updated 20 January 2022

5 talking points from group stage finales at Africa Cup of Nations

5 talking points from group stage finales at Africa Cup of Nations
  • Egypt and Morocco progress to round of 16, while an anxious final day awaits Comoros and Algeria

With the Africa Cup of Nations’ group stage almost complete, we ponder five things about the Arab teams’ latest efforts.

1. Egypt get the job done, but need to be more clinical

Egypt needed just a point against Sudan, but ran out as 1-0 winners, which was enough to seal second place in Group C and a spot in the last 16. It remains to be seen if finishing below Nigeria will work out well in terms of opposition faced in the next round.

It was a deserved win against a team that sat back for much of the game and did not offer much going forward. Egypt will be happy at recovering from the opening game defeat against Nigeria to take six points but there will be some concern that only two goals have been scored in 270 minutes of football.

Against Sudan, Egypt had over 70 percent possession and while chances were made, none were put away apart from the first-half header from Mohamed Abdelmonem. Mohamed Salah looked lively in flashes but was well-handled by the Sudan defense. 

Despite a lack of creativity in midfield, Egypt have done what they needed to do and have got out of the group stage. Coach Carlos Queiroz said: “The real tournament starts now.” He has a point, but Egypt will have to take more of their chances in the knockout stages or they will not be around too much longer.

2. Textbook group stage performance from confident Morocco

It has been a stress-free group stage for Morocco. Wins from the opening two games ensured a place in the knockout stage even before the final group showdown against Gabon. It meant that coach Vahid Halilhodzic could make six changes, rest some players and give others a chance to get a taste of the tournament.

Solid in defense and creating chances, Morocco fought hard when they had to against Ghana to win the big opener 1-0 and would have defeated Comoros by more than 2-0 had they not come up against an inspired goalkeeper. 

If the Atlas Lions keep going then the boss may not have to answer questions about leaving out Chelsea star Hakim Ziyech, but is sure to still focus on what is developing into a solid team spirit.

“Now we play faster and there is more movement off the ball,” said Halilhodzic. “The goals were scored by defenders, midfielders and forward, because our strength is the collective and that’s very important.”

It is all going smoothly. With Algeria missing the chance to equal Italy’s world record of 37 unbeaten games, Morocco may be the next in line as they now have gone 24 games without defeat. 

3. Sudan tough opponents, but will leave with some regrets

Sudan lost the Nile Valley Derby 1-0 to Egypt to be eliminated, but it is worth remembering that when these two teams met just last month at the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup in Qatar, Egypt — without Mo Salah and their Eurostars — ran out 5-0 winners. That result played a part in coach Herbert Velud getting his marching orders and Burhan Tia being handed the reins temporarily. This was a very different line-up and a different result.

Sudan had been vulnerable to set pieces throughout the tournament and there was always a feeling that Egypt would benefit from having plenty of firepower in that regard, and so it proved.

The Sudanese team performed creditably in the tournament overall, but they may have some regrets about the final game. They just did not ask enough questions of Egypt, and when they did find themselves in interesting positions in the Pharaohs’ half, were too happy to unleash a wild shot from long range. Egyptian goalkeeper Mohamed El-Shenawy had little to do and it was all too comfortable. 

It is no disgrace to exit the competition at this stage, but Sudan will surely regret not laying a glove on Egypt. Only in the last 10 minutes or so did they start to push forward, but it was too little, too late.

4. Do-or-die for Algeria  

Thursday evening should be interesting, indeed. Who would have thought that Algeria, the defending champions and unbeaten for 34 games heading into the tournament, would be bottom with no goals and one point from two games? They simply have to beat Ivory Coast to go through. If they do, they could progress as group winners. 

At the moment, Algeria will be happy just to progress as they have been awful so far. They seemed complacent against Equatorial Guinea in the second game and crashed to a 1-0 defeat. They have one last chance but cannot afford to mess up again. As coach Djamel Belmadi said: “We are in a difficult situation, a big difficult situation that we have not experienced for a long time.”

Now we will see what Algeria are made of. 

Tunisia are already through, but will not want to finish in their current third position as that would mean a meeting with Nigeria, perhaps the best team of the tournament so far. A win against Gambia will guarantee at least second. 

5. Nigeria and Egypt did Comoros a favor, and so can Ivory Coast and Equatorial Guinea

Anyone with even the slightest interest in African and Arab football will be aware that tournament debutants Comoros defeated four-time champions Ghana 3-2 on Tuesday.

Those three points, the first the islanders had managed at the tournament, eliminated the Black Stars and put Comoros in the running to progress to the second round. The margins were tight, as if either Guinea-Bissau defeated Nigeria or Sudan defeated Egypt then it was all over. Both lost, however.

There is still one more danger on the final matchday of the opening round. At the moment, Sierra Leone will move above Comoros on goal difference if they draw against Equatorial Guinea. But if Algeria, currently bottom of Group E, defeat Ivory Coast then it will also be over for Comoros.

Saudi Arabia maintain perfect start to Asian Handball Championship and eye top spot against Iran

Saudi Arabia maintain perfect start to Asian Handball Championship and eye top spot against Iran
Updated 20 January 2022

Saudi Arabia maintain perfect start to Asian Handball Championship and eye top spot against Iran

Saudi Arabia maintain perfect start to Asian Handball Championship and eye top spot against Iran
  • Comfortable 30-13 victory over Australia in Dammam leaves hosts in good position to win group B

Saudi Arabia continued their perfect start to the 20th Asian Handball Championship with a 30-13 win over Australia at the Ministry of Sports Hall in Dammam.

The top five teams in the tournament will qualify for the 2023 World Handball Championships to be held in Poland and Sweden.

The Saudi team will face Iran — who also have maximum points after beating India 42-29 — on Thursday, knowing a win will ensure top spot in group B.

This will be a new feat for a Saudi team that has never topped its group before, having previously finished runners-up seven times, along with two third and four fourth-place finishes.

India will take on Australia in the other group match.

Eclipse nominee Jessica Pyfer set for Saudi Cup weekend appearance

Eclipse nominee Jessica Pyfer set for Saudi Cup weekend appearance
Updated 20 January 2022

Eclipse nominee Jessica Pyfer set for Saudi Cup weekend appearance

Eclipse nominee Jessica Pyfer set for Saudi Cup weekend appearance
  • Pyfer and Argentina’s Andrea Marinhas latest female riders confirmed for stc International Jockeys Challenge a day before $20m showpiece event

RIYADH: Jessica Pyfer, a rising star of the weighing room in the US, has been confirmed to ride in the stc International Jockeys Challenge next month.

The event will be held the day before the $20 million Saudi Cup at King Abdul Aziz Racetrack on Feb. 25, and is sponsored for a third year by platinum partner, stc, the digital enabler in the telecommunication industry in the Kingdom.

Pyfer, 23, who only began riding in September 2020, notched an impressive 59 winners from 557 rides in her second full season as a jockey in 2021, amassing prize money of $2.8 million.

Her achievements in such a short time have seen her nominated for an Eclipse Award, which recognizes the achievements of both horses and participants across the US thoroughbred industry.

After being confirmed for the IJC, Pyfer said: “I am super excited. It feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’ve only been race-riding for about a year-and-a-half and have never competed outside the US, so for an opportunity like this to come along is pretty cool.”

She added: “I’ve spoken to Mike Smith, who has ridden in Saudi a lot, and he told me that I’ll have the time of my life, so I couldn’t be more excited,” she said.

“My season has been amazing so far and I couldn’t have ever imagined that I’d be where I am now, with both an invite to the International Jockeys Challenge at the Saudi Cup and a nomination for an Eclipse Award.”

Pyfer said: “It will be amazing to line up against so many great jockeys, and a pleasure to ride alongside some of the world’s best female jockeys.”

Joining the up-and-coming US star is Argentine rider Andrea Marinhas, who began her career in the US, and is now based there and in her native Argentina.

Marinhas, 40, has 94 career wins to her name, with 15 of those coming this season, 11 in Argentina and four in the US.

“I’m so pleased to have been invited. The first thing that came to my mind was I could be riding with many of my favorite jockeys. It will be a beautiful experience,” Marinhas said.

“My season has been great,” she said. “I lead the national and La Plata racecourse female jockeys’ statistics with 18 winners and an 18 percent strike rate, so it’s great to get some international recognition. The opportunity to compete against some of the world’s best in Saudi is massive for me.”

Pyfer and Marinhas are the second and third female jockeys confirmed to ride in the IJC, after the UK’s Hayley Turner, and will be joined by a further four female riders.

Seven male jockeys — five international and two home-based riders — will make up the 14 strong IJC field, with last year’s winner, Shane Foley, and Australia’s Glen Boss already confirmed.

The stc International Jockeys Challenge features four $400,000 handicaps, with a further $100,000 for the challenge itself and riders receiving 15 percent of prize money won.

Saudi Dania Akeel on fast track to glory after courageous eighth-place finish in Dakar Rally

Saudi Dania Akeel on fast track to glory after courageous eighth-place finish in Dakar Rally
Updated 20 January 2022

Saudi Dania Akeel on fast track to glory after courageous eighth-place finish in Dakar Rally

Saudi Dania Akeel on fast track to glory after courageous eighth-place finish in Dakar Rally
  • ‘Motorsports athlete’ is first Arab driver to claim top 10 place in punishing desert event

RIYADH: Dania Akeel is a woman in a hurry.

The Saudi racer and self-described “motorsports athlete” last year became the first Arab woman to win the World Cup for the T3 Desert Baja Rally in Italy, and added another first to her achievements by becoming the first Saudi and Arab to claim a top 10 finish in the international Dakar Rally, which finished in Jeddah on Jan. 14.

The two-week, multi-stage Dakar Rally is widely regarded as one of the toughest and most challenging motorsports events in the world.

The 2022 event held in Saudi Arabia lived up to its reputation, with most competitors happy just to have completed the demanding desert course.

For Akeel, however, there was a lot more at stake.

“At last I have achieved my goal,” she said after crossing the finish line in Jeddah in eighth place — in a historic first for herself and her Saudi homeland.

“My biggest ambition was to finish the rally, but I discovered that I had the opportunity to achieve a better result,” she said.

Akeel survived the demanding rally stages thanks to a strategy developed with the help of her experienced copilot, Uruguayan Sergio Lafontier.

“The strategic plan helped us a lot. The most important aim was to avoid mistakes and delays in order to be among the top 10in the T3 category,” she said.

“After reaching the finish line, I thanked all those who supported me in making this achievement, and especially the companies that provided all the necessary support.”

Akeel achieved her goal by meticulously executing her strategy in the second half of the rally.

After 14 days of unrelenting competition in the demanding event, she is now looking forward to further success in the 2022 season.

She expressed joy for her historic achievement and appreciation to her growing numbers of fans around the world.