Saudi footballers ready for Olympics opener against Ivory Coast

Saudi footballers ready for Olympics opener against Ivory Coast
Saudi Arabia have managed to play more games than most of their Olympic rivals in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. (Twitter: @SaudiNT)
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Updated 14 July 2021

Saudi footballers ready for Olympics opener against Ivory Coast

Saudi footballers ready for Olympics opener against Ivory Coast
  • Two draws against Romania conclude training camp for the young Green Falcons, who will also face Germany and champions Brazil in Japan
  • Romania coach Mirel Radoi: Saudi Arabian players have always been technically good and fast but I can see that they have become stronger tactically too

RIYADH: The preparations are over and the next game for Saudi Arabia will be at the Tokyo Olympics against the Ivory Coast in their Group D opener in Yokohama on July 22.

It is a long-awaited fixture and not just because the 2020 Olympics have been delayed by a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, but because it will be the country’s first game at the event since 1996. 

While the Atlanta tournament ended in three defeats, the buildup to this campaign has gone as well as it could have done. In the past six weeks alone, there have been training camps in Spain, with friendly games against Argentina and Mexico, back home in Saudi Arabia, including two tests against Uganda, and finally in Romania. Two games against that European team, which is also heading to the Olympics after a long gap (in fact, the last time Romania made it was when Tokyo last hosted the Games back in 1964), both ended in draws.

“We are taking things step by step,” said coach Saad Al-Shehri. “Our focus is currently on the Ivory Coast, how the team plays and how we deal with their strengths and weaknesses — this game will be key (if we are) to qualify for the second round.”

“We also have been working in non-competitive games to form the principles of how we play, and our identity.”

It is true that the Romanian tests were not about winning. The focus was much more on a final tune-up and giving as many players as possible some time on the pitch ahead of a very difficult Group D that includes Germany and Brazil, as well as the talented Ivory Coast. That could be seen by the amount of substitutions made by Al-Shehri.

In the first match on Saturday, when Salem Al-Dawsari equalized after 33 minutes to give the visiting team a 1-1 draw, the boss made eight changes in the second half. In Tuesday’s game, which ended goalless, there were a further eight substitutions made. What is of more interest is that the two starting lineups were almost the same, except that Al-Wehda midfielder Ayman Al-Khulaif was dropped to the bench for the second game and replaced by Ayman Yahya of Al-Nassr.

All three overage players — each squad is allowed three “wildcards” of any age in what is otherwise an under-23 tournament — started both games and looked solid. Al-Dawsari got the only goal of the 180 minutes and his movement also caused Romania’s defense problems, while his Al-Hilal teammate Salman Al-Faraj kept the ball well in the middle and was constantly looking for ways through the home team’s backline. Full-back Yasser Al-Shahrani, also of Al-Hilal, got forward well though, in truth, both games were fairly gentle affairs.

Romania coach Mirel Radoi was impressed, however. The 40-year-old knows Saudi football well after spending almost three seasons with Al-Hilal from 2009 to 2011, before moving to the UAE. The tough-tackling former defensive midfielder, who could also play at the back, was popular with fans and has been linked with a return to the Riyadh giants as a coach. He has other concerns on his mind, however, as he is also in charge of the senior Romanian side as they attempt to qualify for the 2022 World Cup.

“They gave us two good games,” Radoi said. “Saudi Arabian players have always been technically good and fast but I can see that they have become stronger tactically too. It was great to play against them and I hope they have a successful time at the Olympics.”

One issue for the Green Falcons is a lack of goals, with just four coming in the last seven games. Not enough chances have been made for striker Abdullah Al-Hamdan and coach Al-Shehri will be hoping that the new Al-Hilal star can burst into life in Japan or the criticism that he should have included Al-Nassr star Firas Al-Buraikan will intensify. At the back, however, the young Saudis are looking fairly settled, but they are sure to be tested by the talented forwards of Ivory Coast.

The Africans are due to arrive in Japan on Saturday after a disappointing preparation period. The runners-up from the African U-23 Cup of Nations in 2019 had been expecting to head to South Korea to face the East Asian team and France before taking on Saudi Arabia, but none of that has happened. 

“It’s complicated for us because we haven’t prepared well for the Olympics,” said coach Soualiho Haidara. “We didn’t have the preparation we needed before leaving.”

Despite the problems, he is looking forward to the Saudi game. “We have an obligation to outperform ourselves,” he said. “We don’t go as designated victims. Trust us. We will do everything we can to be up to the task.”

So will Saudi Arabia.


Tennis star Naomi Osaka crashes out of Tokyo Olympics

Tennis star Naomi Osaka crashes out of Tokyo Olympics
Updated 27 July 2021

Tennis star Naomi Osaka crashes out of Tokyo Olympics

Tennis star Naomi Osaka crashes out of Tokyo Olympics
  • The 23-year-old had not played since May, when she walked out of the French Open saying media commitments were harming her mental health

TOKYO: Japanese star Naomi Osaka crashed out of the Tokyo Olympics tennis competition on Tuesday as Brazil’s Italo Ferreira and America’s Carissa Moore claimed the first-ever gold medals in surfing.
Osaka, who lit the Olympic cauldron in the opening ceremony, lost 6-1, 6-4 to Marketa Vondrousova after an error-strewn performance, ending her cherished dream of winning on home soil.
The 23-year-old — one of the faces of the Tokyo Games — had not played since May, when she walked out of the French Open saying media commitments were harming her mental health.
The second seed will be bitterly disappointed at missing out on a chance of Olympic gold, especially after the early exits of world number one Ashleigh Barty and third seed Aryna Sabalenka.
“How disappointed am I? I mean, I’m disappointed in every loss, but I feel like this one sucks more than the others,” said the four-time Grand Slam-winner.
Asked what went wrong, she replied: “Everything — if you watch the match then you would probably see. I feel like there’s a lot of things that I counted on that I couldn’t rely on today.”


How boxing clever during COVID-19 lockdown helped Dubai gym emerge fighting fit

How boxing clever during COVID-19 lockdown helped Dubai gym emerge fighting fit
Updated 27 July 2021

How boxing clever during COVID-19 lockdown helped Dubai gym emerge fighting fit

How boxing clever during COVID-19 lockdown helped Dubai gym emerge fighting fit
  • Founder of dedicated Real Boxing Only turns to franchising as city residents fuel expansion plans

RIYADH: One year ago, the idea would have been unthinkable: Michelle Kuehn, founder of Dubai’s Real Boxing Only (RBO), in her Al-Quoz office fielding questions about franchising the gym dedicated solely to the noble art.

That she can even talk about it after the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic nearly devastated the business she started in 2018 is a testament to the resilience of her and her staff. And, above all, people’s desire to re-embrace exercise, and embrace boxing, during a year like no other.

For Kuehn, the response after the lockdown was lifted and many restrictions eased would eventually exceed all expectations, but for business owners such as her, it was a situation they had never experienced before.

She said: “I wouldn’t say it was back to normal at all, especially in June 2020. Although we were allowed 50 percent capacity, we were probably only running at 30 percent. We found that a lot of people, although keen to go out, were afraid to go to the gym, being around others was definitely at the back of their minds.”

At first, the customers came back slowly, dipping their toes into uncharted waters, but their welcome return would not be, on its own, enough to ameliorate the financial hit that RBO had taken.

“The good news is we have a lot of loyal customers, so they were here first day, ready with their masks on. We had a lot of restrictions, so we had to redo the entire gym to make everything two meters apart which meant taking out boxing bags, moving treadmills. Class capacity was so small. By the end of June, I almost considered closing because we weren’t going to make it if we continued like that,” Kuehn added.

Real Boxing Only has seen an increase in new memberships in 2021. (RBO)

“Then I decided that was just not going to happen. So, we worked really hard from July to September, and in October I had a consultant come in and talk about the best ways to approach growth at a time that you can’t really grow because you can’t have that many people in your gym.

“So, I doubled down on classes. Instead of having one at 6.30, one at 7.30, I’d run three at 6.30. They were spaced out, smaller classes but at least I was running the same amount of people in the gym as I would have in one class normally before.”

With many customers losing their jobs or put on unpaid leave, and others facing uncertain futures, RBO had frozen memberships during lockdown and into July 2020. To attract new members, Kuehn’s team went on what she called a “discount spree.”

She said: “The only thing I could do was focus on new business, so I did a sales and marketing drive with my team, and we focused on just getting new business in. Luckily by September you could see people were happy to be out again, and they were feeling more confident because by October, November we broke records. That continued all the way into the new year, that’s when I decided to look at an extension.”

Kuehn noted that people had flocked back to the gym for health reasons.

“I definitely think health was on top of their minds and doing something fun. Having been stuck in the house for five months, no one wanted to feel overweight and just start jogging again. Boxing’s fun, everything about training here is fun. But it’s high fitness, these people were sweating off weight and they were feeling fitter than they ever felt. And that in itself is addictive, they were telling their friends and I had so many referrals coming in.”

Getting people to pay, or commit to long-term memberships, remained a challenge.

The new extension at Real Boxing Only gym. (RBO)

“We had to be serious and hit numbers. I also trained the other side of the team, the ones that interact with clients. I wrote all the class programs, I worked with coaches to make sure that there was some consistency, uniformity and when people came, they were spoken to well, they were treated well, there was no judgement. The coaches were encouraging and some of the best coaches in the city work here, they’re boxers that we brought from around the world,” she added.

Redeveloping the business in the circumstances reignited Kuehn’s interest in growing RBO, though eventually not in the way she had initially intended.

“Expanding was something I was looking at in 2019, toward the end of the year, I was starting to consider options for expanding. We get a lot of questions from Abu Dhabi, from Deira, asking if we have branches, all over the Emirates really. But I wasn’t convinced on whether to expand or franchise.

“I was leaning toward expanding but then when we were shut down during COVID, I realized the risk I was at. If I had five gyms like this, I would have closed probably four because the overheads would have been too much for one company to support. So, that kind of answered my question.”

Having decided that franchising was lower risk than expanding, Kuehn and her team had to make sure that the business could be duplicated, with new staff trained to ensure the same quality of service would be on offer.

It was, ironically, the original RBO’s expansion into an abandoned warehouse next door that helped solidify the franchise model.

“We set a target for March 1, for how many members I needed to have to be able to afford the new extension, and we hit that by January,” she said.

“I had to rush into the new extension which is 4,000 square feet. We went from 6,000 to 10,000. In the last 12 months we’ve grown 206 percent. With growth come larger challenges; now I have a much bigger team, a lot more clients, a lot more expectations to uphold, which has helped me write my franchise model.

“Every mistake we make, I change it, and I write that into the franchise model. For the last 12 months I’ve been creating the operating manual for my franchise, everything is systemized.”

With extra space, the number of classes doubled to 360 a month; higher staff salaries had to be met while ensuring RBO still had some of the most competitive rates in the city.

With business considerably more secure than a year ago, Kuehn is now in a position to negotiate her first franchise of RBO.

“Abu Dhabi will have one, but not until next year, and then I would consider a second, smaller franchise in the UAE, maybe in Dubai as well,” she added.

“And the UK next year is my target. Should the UAE and the UK go well, you want the franchise to sell itself. You don’t need me and my numbers, they can go and speak to any franchisee. As long as that goes well, Saudi and Oman I’ve considered as targets as well.”


Saudi footballers look to end Tokyo 2020 campaign with flourish against Brazil as Egypt eyes bigger goals

Saudi footballers look to end Tokyo 2020 campaign with flourish against Brazil as Egypt eyes bigger goals
Updated 27 July 2021

Saudi footballers look to end Tokyo 2020 campaign with flourish against Brazil as Egypt eyes bigger goals

Saudi footballers look to end Tokyo 2020 campaign with flourish against Brazil as Egypt eyes bigger goals
  • Already eliminated, Saudi coach Saad Al-Shehri wants team to play without fear, pressure against reigning Olympic champions

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s U-23 team will on Wednesday play its final match at the Tokyo 2020 football tournament when it takes on Rio 2016 gold medalists Brazil at Saitama Stadium.

Two previous Group D losses to Ivory Coast and Germany means the Young Falcons cannot advance to the quarterfinals even with a win against the reigning champions.

But coach Saad Al-Shehri will be hoping that with no pressure and nothing to play for except pride, his team will put on a performance as good as the ones in the earlier matches, particularly the hugely unlucky 3-2 defeat against a 10-man German team.

He will also take the chance to give some game time to players who have not yet taken part in the tournament.

Goalkeeper Amin Bukhari and midfielder Mukhtar Ali were unused substitutes against Ivory Coast and Germany, while Zaid Al-Bawardi, the third-choice goalkeeper, right back Abdullah Hassoun, midfielder Nasser Al-Omran, and Firas Al-Buraikan, the striker who joined the squad after the first match as a replacement for the injured Turki Al-Ammar, have yet to make the bench.

Egypt, meanwhile, still have major ambitions to reach the quarterfinals after drawing with Spain and narrowly losing to Argentina in the first two matches of Group C.

But it will not be easy. The team will have to beat an Australian side that has already defeated Argentina, and then hope that the South Americans do not win against Spain. Even then, goal difference will come into play.

The Pharaohs will know that the first part, at least, remains a distinct possibility despite the Olyroos’ fine form. Thanks in large to the leadership of the excellent Amr Hegazi and the solid contribution of his fellow defenders, the Egyptians have conceded only one goal, though it proved decisive against Argentina.

A clean sheet would give the team a platform to attack the Australians but there would have to be a major improvement in finishing. Egypt must break the scoreless run in the tournament to have any hope of progress.


Weightlifter Diaz wins first ever Olympic gold for Philippines

Weightlifter Diaz wins first ever Olympic gold for Philippines
Updated 27 July 2021

Weightlifter Diaz wins first ever Olympic gold for Philippines

Weightlifter Diaz wins first ever Olympic gold for Philippines

TOKYO: Weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz made history on Monday when she became the first athlete from the Philippines to win an Olympic gold medal.
The 30-year-old Rio 2016 silver medallist from the southern city of Zamboanga realized her dream in the women’s 55kg class at the Tokyo International Forum, smashing her personal best to see off world record holder Liao Qiuyun of China who had to settle for silver.
With Liao setting a target of 223kg, just four kilogrammes shy of her own world record, Diaz was faced with a final clean and jerk of 127kg to win — fully 5kg more than she had ever achieved in competition.
With a massive effort she hoisted the huge Olympic record weight and the tears of joy began to flow even before she dropped the bar to the floor after a triumphant effort.
Liao took the silver, with Kazakhstan’s Zulfiya Chinshanlo the bronze 10kg adrift of the top two.
“It’s unbelievable, it’s a dream, come true,” Diaz told AFP moments after the Philippines Air Force woman shed more tears on the podium as she saluted her flag and sung the national anthem.
“I want to say to the young generation in the Philippines, ‘You can have this dream of gold too’.
“This is how I started and finally I was able to do it.”
Diaz was already assured a place in her country’s sporting folklore, alongside the likes of boxing icon Manny Pacquiao, as the only woman from the sprawling archipelago ever to win an Olympic medal — her surprise silver five years ago breaking a 20-year medal drought for the Philippines.
Diaz spent the last year and a half training in exile in Malaysia because of Covid restrictions, so dedicated was she to claim an unprecedented gold in her fourth and probably final Games.
“I’m looking forward to going back home to the Philippines to be with my family because I really miss them,” she said, choking up once more with emotion.
“I’m looking forward now to enjoy my life after so many sacrifices.”
Diaz’s medal was just the 11th by the Philippines since they first took part in the Olympics in 1924, and now the only gold.
Diaz became just the second athlete from her country to win multiple Olympic medals, joining swimmer Teofilo Yldefonzo who won bronze in the men’s 200m breaststroke in 1928 and 1932.
She became a national hero for her exploits in Rio and her profile soared when she won Asian Games gold in Jakarta in 2018.
But on that occasion China were suspended by the International Weightlifting Federation for multiple doping violations.
China have been dominant since their return later in 2018 and have had it all their own way so far in Tokyo in the absence of fierce rivals North Korea.
The first three weightlifting golds were all won by Chinese athletes — in the women’s 49kg through Hou Zhihui on Saturday and men’s winners Li Fabin (61kg) and Chen Lijun (67kg) on Sunday.
Liao was gracious in defeat as the Chinese gold rush in weightlifting was halted in stunning fashion.
“I really respect Diaz as an opponent because she did the best she could, in fact better than that and that is the ultimate,” Liao said.
“She did a better job and it is nice for all the people that were supporting her.”
Diaz, known as “Haidee,” has a huge social media following in her home country which is set to grow.
Internet platforms instantly turned her into the country’s top trending topic on Twitter as news of her win spread, upstaging President Rodrigo Duterte’s final State of the Nation address.
“Congratulations, Sgt Hidilyn Diaz!” tweeted the Armed Forces of the Philippines where the weightlifter is enlisted.
Vice President Leni Robredo said: “Big win for the Philippines!! Thank you for making us proud, Hidilyn.”
Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, congratulated Diaz “for bringing pride and glory to the Philippines.”


Saudi Arabia open to hosting two F1 races if required: Prince Khalid bin Sultan

Prince Khalid bin Sultan said that he hoped for an early slot in Saudi Arabia next season and would love to host one of the new-format Saturday sprints. (AFP/File Photo)
Prince Khalid bin Sultan said that he hoped for an early slot in Saudi Arabia next season and would love to host one of the new-format Saturday sprints. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 27 July 2021

Saudi Arabia open to hosting two F1 races if required: Prince Khalid bin Sultan

Prince Khalid bin Sultan said that he hoped for an early slot in Saudi Arabia next season and would love to host one of the new-format Saturday sprints. (AFP/File Photo)
  • The Kingdom is due to make its debut with a night race in Jeddah on Dec. 5
  • Previous race weekend had been allocated to Australia, which is now cancelled

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia would be willing to step in and host an extra race this year to help Formula One fill a gap on the calendar due to the COVID-19 pandemic, promoter Prince Khalid Bin Sultan Al Faisal said on Monday.

The country is due to make its debut with a night race in Jeddah on Dec. 5 that would be the penultimate round of the season.

The previous slot had been allocated to Australia, which is now cancelled.

“We haven’t been asked by Formula One to accommodate a second race but everything is going on schedule regarding our preparation, our construction,” the prince told reporters on a video call as tickets went on sale.

“So if needed to host a race before our race, I think we can accommodate that.”

The prince said the Saudi organisers wanted to focus on their debut, with plans for promotional activities and an opening ceremony before an event that could attract a full crowd.

“In the end if it’s a must and they need another country, we can be an option if it will help Formula One,” he added.

Bahrain hosted two races last year in a championship confined to Europe and the Middle East. Austria has already hosted two this year after Canada’s race in Montreal was cancelled.

Qatar has been mooted as a possible stand-in, along with talk of two races in Texas.

The Saudi promoter said also that he hoped for an early slot next season and would love to host one of the new-format Saturday sprints.

Bahrain was this year's opener instead of Australia when that race in Melbourne was initially postponed.

“We wanted to have the race in the beginning (of the year) but the time we had to do the work for the track and prepare the track, we couldn’t have a race in 2021 at the beginning of the year,” said the prince.

“We are now discussing with Formula One about when is best for us to have our race in 2022, and hopefully we can get to an agreement.”

The promoter said he had discussed human rights issues with some of the drivers during the recent British Grand Prix and would be happy to meet Mercedes’ outspoken seven-times world champion Lewis Hamilton to address any concerns.

He said the plan was also to have some female Saudi drivers competing in support races.