Disappointing Olympic campaign reignites debate that more Saudi footballers should play abroad

Disappointing Olympic campaign reignites debate that more Saudi footballers should play abroad
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Brazil’s defender Abner, center, fights for the ball with Saudi Arabia’s forward Salem Al-Dawsari, left, during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games men’s group D first round football match on July 28, 2021. (AFP)
Disappointing Olympic campaign reignites debate that more Saudi footballers should play abroad
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International experience is not the be-all and end-all but is a major factor in a country’s development. (Twitter: @saudiolympic)
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Updated 31 July 2021

Disappointing Olympic campaign reignites debate that more Saudi footballers should play abroad

Disappointing Olympic campaign reignites debate that more Saudi footballers should play abroad
  • The Young Falcons performed well in all three matches at Tokyo 2020 but failed to win a single point
  • The Kingdom could follow Japanese and Korean model of producing international-class players

Saudi Arabia Olympic football coach Saad Al-Shehri must have had plenty of time to think about what happened in Japan on the plane back from Tokyo to Riyadh. While there were positives, the fact remains that the Young Falcons lost all three games.

Many will have opinions about what happened but there is one major factor that stands out. Saudi Arabia were the only team of the 16 in Japan with a squad completely made up of home-based players. This is a debate that has been had before but, in truth, there is not much of a debate. Everyone knows that this is something that needs to be addressed, and it was mentioned again by Al-Nassr president Musalli Al-Muammar.

“It was a good performance from the Greens in the Olympics but not good in terms of results,” Al-Muammar wrote on social media. “Saad Al-Shehri selected talented players, none of them play in Europe, and some of them are reserves in the local league. If we want positive results for the national teams, we should think about transferring the Saudi players to a different stage.”

Two Asian teams made the last eight without much fuss. Takefusa Kubo was the star for Japan and Lee Kang-in has been the standout for South Korea. Lee, who was named the MVP of the 2019 U-20 World Cup, joined Valencia aged 10. Kubo was at Barcelona’s youth academy at the same age. The pair have been two of the best performers at the entire tournament so far and as well as showing their talents on the pitch, they have also revealed one reason why South Korea and Japan have been at the top of the Asian football tree for years.

“Lee has an outstanding football brain and playing at a high level in Europe has helped,” said South Korea coach Kim Hak-beom. “He has a fantastic attitude and always wants to learn and improve no matter what the situation.”

Put simply, players from these East Asian nations are happy to go to Europe at a very early age. There is a solid youth development structure in both countries but the best are getting a European education at some of the continent’s top clubs. Son Heung-min is currently the biggest name in Asian football, and probably the biggest ever. It should not be forgotten however that the English Premier League star dropped out of high school at 16 and joined Hamburg’s youth academy.

Most Koreans and Japanese players who go to Europe — and Japan recently announced a World Cup qualification squad that was entirely European-based — transfer the more conventional way. They impress in the domestic leagues or at international tournaments and get the call.

Increasingly, the national team members of Korea and Japan have experience in high-profile international leagues. This helps in many ways, but it does bring more street smarts. While the Korean and Japanese Leagues, as well as the Saudi Premier League, are technically at a high level, the big leagues of Europe are more testing mentally, physically, professionally and psychologically — the environment is much more pressurised. This helps to produce players who are more street smart and possess stronger in-game management.

The fact that Saudi Arabia came back from a goal down in the second half in all three games yet still lost suggests that there is a certain naivety. The defeat against Germany was especially painful. Coming back twice to bring the game to 2-2 was commendable and when the Germans were reduced to 10 men midway through the second half, Saudi Arabia should have been able to manage the situation to take the first Olympic point in their history. Really, it should have been all three.

Yet the team switched off almost immediately and allowed a number of German attacks, one of which resulted in a goal and then defeat. A smarter approach from both coach and players was needed and had there been more international experience in the squad, it would have been easier.

International experience is not the be-all and end-all, but it is a major factor in a country’s development. The more Japanese and Koreans that go West, the more agents become involved in those countries, the better the reputation of the players becomes and the more clubs become interested. Not only that, but more players at home become inspired to follow them, and even the ones who fail to settle in Europe return as better players having faced huge challenges both on and off the pitch.

For Saudi Arabia, it only takes one or two to go to a decent European league and do reasonably well for things to change. Then agents and clubs will start to see the country as a place to look for talent. This will allow more players to go and the whole process gathers momentum. If things go well, the Kingdom could expect to reach the sweet spot that Japan looks to be in right now: Sending lots of players to play at a high level in Europe, which gives more opportunities for young talents in the domestic league, talent that is good enough to head to Europe a few years later.

That is a long way in the future, but the first steps need to be made as soon as possible. The Olympics confirmed what we already knew: There has to be a Saudi Arabian pioneer in Europe and the sooner they lead the way, the better.


Pakistan battling isolation as cricket host after New Zealand pull out

Pakistan battling isolation as cricket host after New Zealand pull out
Updated 18 September 2021

Pakistan battling isolation as cricket host after New Zealand pull out

Pakistan battling isolation as cricket host after New Zealand pull out
  • New Zealand would have been the highest profile team to play in Pakistan in more than a decade
  • Pakistan have only hosted South Africa, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe since the 2009 attacks

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan cricket began confronting its worst fear Saturday, with the national side staring at another era of isolation from hosting international matches after New Zealand abandoned its tour, citing a security threat.
The All Blacks called off their first Pakistan series in 18 years with Wellington’s backing on Friday just before the first one-day international was due to start in Rawalpindi.
The decision has left cricket-crazy Pakistan reeling, with the nation still recovering from the 2009 militant attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore that wounded six players.
Already struggling to convince foreign teams to tour, Pakistan were forced to play home matches at neutral venues — primarily in the UAE — following the assault.
The decision left a generation of cricket fans growing up having never attended a live game.
Prime Minister Imran Khan, a former international cricketing hero, and the Pakistan Cricket Board will now have to work overtime to avoid another period of exile.
“With the administration they now have in place at the PCB and how closely linked to the PM it is, there’ll be a real push to ensure they have to play as little as possible in a neutral venue,” cricket writer Osman Samiuddin told AFP.
Their first task will be to convince England, who decide Sunday whether to send their men’s and women’s teams for a scheduled tour to Pakistan next month.
Those tours are to be followed by a series against the West Indies in December and Australia’s first visit since 1998 in February next year.
“England are now likely not to tour. Australia... will also probably not come. So that will be a hit,” Samiuddin said.
“And for fans too, they’ve only just started getting used to going to big games again so for the prospect of that being taken away, it’s going to hurt.”
The newly elected chairman of the PCB Ramiz Raja admitted Saturday that Pakistani cricket was facing “a lot of pressure,” though not for the first time — and that the nation was resilient.
“Your pain and my pain is the same, it’s a shared pain. Whatever happened was not good for Pakistan cricket,” he said.
The PCB bled $200 million in losses during the country’s cricket exile.
Now, alongside the upcoming tours, its bids to host six international events — including the World Cup and Champion’s Trophy between 2024-31 — could also be in jeopardy.
Former players say keeping international cricket in Pakistan is the key priority.
“All cricketers are with the PCB and we have to find ways to avoid further isolation, for the sake of our next generations,” former captain Rashid Latif told AFP.
New Zealand would have been the highest profile team to play in Pakistan in more than a decade.
Pakistan have only hosted South Africa, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe since the 2009 attacks.
Ex-player Naushad Ali said his country needs to restore the confidence of the cricketing world.
“Pakistan will have to prove that New Zealand’s decision was wrong and I think only that will earn them sympathy,” said Ali.
“We should not give up our hosting rights and should lobby with other countries.”
But former captain Shahid Afridi believes they have sacrificed a lot over the years and deserve “a better deal.”
“We have done more than enough for them,” he said.
“We toured England and New Zealand (last year) despite fears of pandemic and we want them to reciprocate.”

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Salah strike helps Liverpool to top of the table with Palace win

Salah strike helps Liverpool to top of the table with Palace win
Updated 18 September 2021

Salah strike helps Liverpool to top of the table with Palace win

Salah strike helps Liverpool to top of the table with Palace win
  • Defending champions Manchester City drop two points at home to Southampton
  • Arsenal beat Burnley and continue climb up table

LONDON: Martin Odegaard scored his first goal since his permanent switch to Arsenal on Saturday to further ease the pressure on Mikel Arteta as Sadio Mane helped fire Liverpool to the top of the Premier League.
Defending champions Manchester City dropped two points at home to Southampton after a 0-0 stalemate while struggling Wolves lost their fourth match in five against 10-man Brentford.
Arsenal were rock bottom of the table before last week’s fixtures but wins against Norwich and now Burnley lifted them to the relative comfort of 12th spot before the late kick-off between Aston Villa and Everton.
Odegaard, who signed from Real Madrid last month after spending part of last season at the Emirates on loan, broke the deadlock in the 30th minute, curling home a free-kick to give the visitors a 1-0 lead at Turf Moor.
Arsenal breathed a sigh of relief when VAR overturned a penalty awarded to Burnley in the second half after Matej Vydra tumbled to the turf following a challenge by goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale.
Liverpool forward Mane continued his eye-catching run against Crystal Palace, netting in his ninth league match in a row against the London side to send Jurgen Klopp’s men top of the table with a 3-0 win.
Mohamed Salah’s glancing header from Konstantinos Tsimikas’ corner was kept out by goalkeeper Vicente Guaita but Mane pounced to lash home his 100th goal for Liverpool in all competitions.
Salah doubled the Reds’ lead in the 78th minute before Naby Keita sealed the win with a sweetly struck volley.
Liverpool, champions in 2020, have made an impressive start to the season, scoring 12 goals in their opening five games and conceding just once.
Manchester City will rue their inability to beat Southampton at the Etihad after consecutive 5-0 home wins.
It could have been worse for them after referee Jon Moss pointed to the spot when Kyle Walker bundled into the back of Adam Armstrong in the area, showing the England international a red card.
But the incident was reviewed by VAR and Moss eventually decided to overturn both decisions.
The build-up to City’s match was dominated by a row over attendance levels at the Etihad, with manager Pep Guardiola urging fans to fill empty seats in comments that irritated some supporters.
But fans were frustrated by battling Southampton, who kept City’s attackers at bay despite relentless pressure.
The home side thought they had snatched victory in the dying minutes after goalkeeper Alex McCarthy saved a Phil Foden header and Raheem Sterling tucked in the rebound but the flag was raised.
Watford beat Norwich 3-1 to condemn the newly promoted Canaries to their fifth consecutive defeat.
Watford took the lead in the 17th minute through Emmanuel Dennis but Teemu Pukki equalized before half time. Ismaila Sarr put the visitors back in front in the 63rd minute and scored again with 10 minutes to go.
In the early kick-off, Ivan Toney scored a goal and created another as 10-man Brentford beat Wolves 2-0 to maintain their impressive start to their first Premier League campaign.
The 25-year-old striker won and converted a penalty before setting up Bryan Mbeumo as the Bees prevailed at Molineux despite Shandon Baptiste’s red card in the second half.
Tottenham host Chelsea on Sunday while Cristiano Ronaldo’s Manchester United travel to West Ham.


Saudi jockey saddles up for Endurance World Championship in Italy

Saudi jockey saddles up for Endurance World Championship in Italy
Updated 18 September 2021

Saudi jockey saddles up for Endurance World Championship in Italy

Saudi jockey saddles up for Endurance World Championship in Italy
  • Hamoud bin Saleh Al-Badi will ride Despe Du Fonpeyrol in competition on island of Sardinia

RIYADH: Saudi jockey Hamoud bin Saleh Al-Badi is set to take part in the Endurance World Championship for junior horses currently underway on the Italian island of Sardinia.

Al-Badi, who will be riding Despe Du Fonpeyrol, booked his place at the championships after winning a qualifier in France in July and has recently been on an extensive training camp to ready himself for the competition.

He said: “We have completed all preparations to participate in this global forum, and I feel proud to represent and raise the flag of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in this tournament. God willing, I can put in a performance worthy of the name of the Kingdom.

“I would also like to extend my thanks to Prince Abdullah bin Fahd, president of the Saudi Equestrian Federation, for his continuous support, and God willing, these efforts will bear fruit through high-level performances,” Al-Badi added.


Meet Mitt Queen Ann Najjar, the boxing coach athletes and celebrities want to work with

Meet Mitt Queen Ann Najjar, the boxing coach athletes and celebrities want to work with
Updated 18 September 2021

Meet Mitt Queen Ann Najjar, the boxing coach athletes and celebrities want to work with

Meet Mitt Queen Ann Najjar, the boxing coach athletes and celebrities want to work with
  • The first generation American of Iraqi parents shot to worldwide fame thanks to viral Instagram videos during the pandemic

Ann Najjar has fast hands.

So fast she can keep up with boxers twice her size. Boxers who, over the last few years, have lined up to work with her.

Najjar is the Mitt Queen, a coach at Bomber Squad Boxing Academy in her native San Diego. Thanks to an Instagram account (@mittqueen) that has almost 610,000 followers, she has become an online sensation.

She is in Dubai as the coach of Josh Bridges, who on Saturday night will fight on the undercard at the MTK Global boxing CoreSports Fight Night 3 at Sport Society, where the main event sees Hafthor Bjornsson, The Mountain from “Games of Thrones,” take on Devon Larratt in an all-Strongman battle.

Bridges is a CrossFit athlete and the 32-year-old Najjar has overseen every step of his boxing journey.

But becoming a boxing coach happened to her by accident after she joined her brother, an MMA fighter, for training sessions when she was 20.

It turned out she had a gift few others could match.

“When I did take my first MMA class because of my brother, all our classes in San Diego had mitts included, a lot of gyms don’t have that,” Najjar told Arab News. “And everyone always wanted to be my partner because I was good at holding the mitts, and in reality it’s not that easy to hold mitts. Eventually I became the one everybody wanted to partner up with, and then year and years went by and I just got better at it.”

Though she had been a trainer for almost a decade, it was only during the last two years that Najjar’s profile skyrocketed, thanks to a video on Instagram.

“When the pandemic first hit in the US, I decided to post my first video of me holding mitts and just messing around, because I knew everybody was on their phones at the time looking at Instagram,” she said. “And then my first video went viral, about 100,000 views, and I kept posting and posting and posting until one of my videos hit over 18 million views.”

Najjar is a first-generation American, born and raised in San Diego to parents from Baghdad. Her Instagram account proudly bears the Iraqi flag.

“The thing is, it’s not only me, but my fighters also are very quick, or very big, so seeing a female holding the mitts behind it is really what intrigued everyone to want to follow me and watch what I was doing because there’s not that many females who can hold for someone so quick or someone so huge, double my size,” she added.

Najjar, aka the Mitt Queen, has become a boxing coach for athletes and celebrities in her native San Diego. (RBO)

“In reality, I have to thank Instagram, because it’s what really got me out there and everyone saw what I was doing.”

Soon celebrities started seeking her out, as did leading athletes in other sports. Her profile grew organically, she said.

“Honestly, it was one word after the other and they or their managers would contact me through Instagram,” said Najjar. “And because boxing cardio is great for all athletes, a lot of them on their off season like to box. It helps them with their footwork in their sport.”

Is Najjar ever tempted to swap the mitts for gloves and get in the ring?

“Honestly for me, at the age I’m at, the answer is no,” she said. “In the past I did think about it, I did spar all the time, but the older I’m getting I’m realizing coaching is the way for me, I love to teach, to watch people grow from the beginning."

The pride she gets is from seeing her fighters succeed, and from their appreciation of the role she plays in their preparation.

“There are moments for me that I can’t believe are true, like when Ryan Garcia calls me to hold mitts for him. Anderson Silva called me to tell me he won his fight,” Najjar said. “These guys, I sat behind the TV set and watched them fight, and that now they are calling me is unreal to me.”

Najjar was holding a training session at Real Boxing Only gym in Dubai’s Al-Quoz, but she has also had time to enjoy the sights, which were more familiar than she expected.

“It’s like Las Vegas for me, I feel like I’m at home, to be honest,” she said. “I went to the sand dunes and that was wild, I was scared out of my mind. I was in that car holding on for dear life. But culture and everything is very Americanized. Seeing everything in English and Arabic, I’m like ok, I know what I’m doing here. I feel very comfortable here.”

On Saturday night, Najjar will be ringside at Sport Society cheering on Bridges when he takes on fellow American Jacob Heppner in a bout between two CrossFit athletes.

“What people don’t know is that Josh started with me from day one, when he threw his first punch and didn’t even know what a jab was,” she said. “To see all the pieces of the puzzle come together, that’s what I’m really excited about. And I want to prove to the world that, yes, I can start someone from day one, not knowing how to punch, and turn them into that fighter.”


Saudi Arabia to host world’s top handball teams at IHF 2021 Super Globe

Saudi Arabia to host world’s top handball teams at IHF 2021 Super Globe
Updated 18 September 2021

Saudi Arabia to host world’s top handball teams at IHF 2021 Super Globe

Saudi Arabia to host world’s top handball teams at IHF 2021 Super Globe
  • Tournament organized by Saudi Handball Federation will take place in Jeddah on Oct. 5-9

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Sports has announced that Jeddah will host the 2021 International Handball Federation Super Globe from Oct. 5 to 9.

It will be the second time in a row that the tournament, held in coordination with the Saudi Handball Federation and part of the Quality of Life Program, has been staged in the Kingdom.

Ten clubs from different countries will participate in the competition taking place at King Abdullah Sports City, with the Al-Noor and Al-Wehda teams representing the Kingdom.

They will be joined by Asian champions Al-Duhail of Qatar; European champions Aalborg of Denmark; Oceania champions the University of Sydney; San Francisco CalHeat, champions of North America and the Caribbean; Brazil’s Pineros, champions of South and Central America; African champions Zamalek of Egypt; reigning champions of the competition Barcelona; and German team Magdeburg, participating at the invitation of the IHF.

Saudi Minister of Sport and chairman of the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, said: “We are happy once again to host the largest handball club championships, and with the participation of the continental champions for the second time in a row, which is an extension of the championships and events hosted by our country.”

Dammam hosted the previous edition of the tournament in 2019, after the Kingdom won the hosting rights for four consecutive editions from that year.