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.


Juventus finally gets 1st win of Serie A season

Juventus finally gets 1st win of Serie A season
Updated 22 September 2021

Juventus finally gets 1st win of Serie A season

Juventus finally gets 1st win of Serie A season
  • De Ligt scored the winner in the 72nd minute to complete a comeback after Juventus fell behind four minutes after the break
  • Juventus moved up to 12th place, eight points behind leader Inter Milan

ROME: Critics had been demanding that Juventus use its younger players more during a horrendous start to Serie A.
They had to be appeased after Moise Kean, Federico Chiesa and Matthijs De Ligt each scored in a 3-2 win at Spezia for the Bianconeri’s first Italian league win of the season on Wednesday.
De Ligt scored the winner in the 72nd minute to complete a comeback after Juventus fell behind four minutes after the break.
Playing in place of Juventus captain Giorgio Chiellini, the 22-year-old De Ligt coolly redirected in a loose ball that was being knocked around following a corner.
The 23-year-old Chiesa had equalized six minutes earlier with a typical goal for the Italy winger: he darted straight to the goal by dribbling through the legs of a defender then just barely got his shot off as he was sliding toward the ball.
The 21-year-old Kean — like coach Massimiliano Allegri in his second stint at Juventus — had given the visitors an early lead with a long shot after Adrien Rabiot knocked down a ball over the top from Leonardo Bonucci.
Spezia had struck back with goals both sides of halftime, the first coming with a solo effort from Emmanuel Gyasi, who dribbled by Danilo on the left flank and looped a long shot into the far corner.
Gyasi celebrated like Cristiano Ronaldo, his idol and the recently departed Juventus player, by leaping into the air and pumping his arms down toward his body.
Janis Antiste, a 19-year-old French forward, put Spezia ahead by beating De Ligt on a counterattack with the help of his shot being deflected by Bonucci.
Spezia nearly made it 3-1 but another effort minutes later was cleared off the line by Manuel Locatelli.
Juventus moved up to 12th place, eight points behind leader Inter Milan.
Hellas Verona has four points from two matches since hiring Igor Tudor to replace Eusebio Di Francesco as coach after three straight losses to open the season.
Nikola Kalinic scored twice in a 2-2 draw at promoted Salernitana three days after Verona handed Jose Mourinho his first defeat as Roma coach.
Mamadou Coulibaly equalized midway through the second half for Salernitana.


Europeans aim to ‘make it count’ in Ryder Cup defense

Europeans aim to ‘make it count’ in Ryder Cup defense
Updated 22 September 2021

Europeans aim to ‘make it count’ in Ryder Cup defense

Europeans aim to ‘make it count’ in Ryder Cup defense
  • Garcia will be playing in a 10th Ryder Cup when Europe launches its defense on Friday on the Wisconsin course hugging the shore of Lake Michigan

KOHLER: Europeans aim to 'make it count' in Ryder Cup defense AFP Kohler Padraig Harrington is hammering home the idea of European exceptionalism as his players prepare to defend golf's Ryder Cup in hostile territory against a star-laden US team.

Upon arriving at Whistling Straits, Europe's players learned where they line up in the history of just 164 players who have represented the continent.

Despite their wealth of experience and depth of enthusiasm for the biennial match play showdown, Europe's players were clearly moved to learn what rare company they're in.

"It was very powerful," Spain's Sergio Garcia said of the video that featured such past Ryder Cup greats as Jose Maria Olazabal and Tony Jacklin.

Every player to represent Europe — Great Britain and Ireland before the format changed in 1979 — was assigned a number, right through the members of this year's team of 12, who were urged to "make it count."

Garcia will be playing in a 10th Ryder Cup when Europe launches its defense on Friday on the Wisconsin course hugging the shore of Lake Michigan.

England's Lee Westwood will be playing in his 11th — but he too was struck by the video that contrasted the 164 to the 5,780 people who have climbed Mount Everest, 570 people who have been in outer space and 225 men who have won a major golf championship.

"You have a far greater chance of going into space or climbing Mount Everest than you have representing Europe in the Ryder Cup," Westwood said.

"It's something to be proud of, being able to pull on the clothing with the European team crest on it."

European teams have won nine of the past 12 Ryder Cups, thrashing the United States 17.5-10.5 in France in 2018. That includes three of the past six held on US soil.

In harkening to history, Harrington boosted the spirit of camaraderie that Europe must have to maintain its dominance against a US team that features eight of the world's top 10 players - the highest number for either team since the inception of the world rankings in 1986.

US captain Steve Stricker, aiming to make the most of all that talent, capitalized on the United States' home advantage by convening his team for an early weekend of practice at Whistling Straits, before the hoopla of Ryder Cup week was in full swing.

Jordan Spieth, heading into his fourth Ryder Cup, wasn't sure how helpful the days of light practice would be, but said Tuesday they had been beneficial.

"I thought the commitment of guys to get up here was cool," Spieth said.

"We were messing around. We were hitting shots. We weren't really like chipping and putting to all the pins.

It was more let's have some fun and play a match with each other and just kind of see — get our feet on the ground, see the grandstands, see the setting ahead of time so that when we arrive today, you're not kind of taken aback."

That could be especially useful for a US side featuring six Ryder Cup rookies, and it plays into Stricker's goal of "out-preparing" Europe.

"Certainly I think things can adjust, but as far as how prepared you can be on Tuesday for a Friday start, I would say it's probably the most that I've seen in the four Cups," Spieth said.


UEFA says FIFA snubs request for talks on World Cup concerns

UEFA says FIFA snubs request for talks on World Cup concerns
Updated 22 September 2021

UEFA says FIFA snubs request for talks on World Cup concerns

UEFA says FIFA snubs request for talks on World Cup concerns
  • Gianni Infantino has been deploying retired players and Arsenal’s ex-manager Arsene Wenger in a campaign to win support for the overhaul of world football
  • “UEFA is disappointed with the methodology adopted, which has so far led to radical reform projects being communicated," European football's governing body said

LONDON: Intensifying its opposition to FIFA’s push for biennial World Cups, UEFA complained Wednesday that Gianni Infantino’s world body has yet to respond to its request for talks to discuss the concerns of European nations.
Infantino has been deploying retired players and former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger in a campaign to win support for the overhaul of world football, which UEFA said is a sign of “promotional campaigns of unilaterally pre-determined concepts” rather than an open consultation process.
Doubling the frequency of World Cups would create significant disruption for club competitions, continental tournaments, including the European Championship, and existing global events like the Olympics.
“UEFA is disappointed with the methodology adopted, which has so far led to radical reform projects being communicated and openly promoted before having been given, together with other stakeholders, the chance to participate in any consultation meeting,” European football’s governing body said in a statement.
UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin has already said that Europe could boycott the World Cup if Infantino succeeds in securing approval for his plan from the FIFA Congress of 211 member associations. Most of those countries never get to play at the World Cup, which will feature 32 men’s teams for the last time in 2022 before expanding to 48 nations in 2026.
“There are real dangers associated with this plan,” UEFA said in a statement after an executive committee meeting, “the dilution of the value of the No. 1 world football event, whose quadrennial occurrence gives it a mystique that generations of fans have grown up with; the erosion of sporting opportunities for the weaker national teams by replacing regular matches with final tournaments; the risk to sustainability for players, forced to engage in summer high intensity competitions every year instead of longer recuperation breaks in alternate years.”
More than a week after asking FIFA “to organize a special meeting with them to be able to voice their concerns on the impact of such plans,” UEFA said it “to date not yet received a reply.”
Major women’s tournaments, such as the World Cup and continental events like the European Championship, are currently held in odd-numbered years. The men’s World Cup and Euros are held in even-numbered years. FIFA’s new vision would mean every year would feature a men’s tournament, including continental events.
“We are grateful for the attention reserved to the UEFA European Championship, with the proposed double frequency of its final event,” UEFA said, “but we prefer to address such a sensitive matter with a comprehensive rather than speculative approach.”
UEFA flagged up “the risk for the future of women’s tournaments, deprived of exclusive slots and overshadowed by the proximity of top men’s events.”
A World Cup would also clash with the Olympics, unlike now, if the new plans are approved.
UEFA highlighted “the impact on the global sports system and respect that football, as the most followed sport worldwide, must show to consolidated spaces of exposure and exploitation used by other sports.”
FIFA has been stepping up the publication of in-house interviews featuring former players stating the case for a review of the international match calendar and for holding the World Cup every two years. Infantino has not been made available for comment since May.
“The serious concerns that the FIFA proposal provokes ... cannot be dispelled simply with unsubstantiated promotional slogans on the supposed benefits of a thicker calendar for final tournaments,” UEFA said.
“The respect for a consultation process with the stakeholders — which should be unbiased — would suggest abstaining from promotional campaigns of unilaterally pre-determined concepts that nobody has been given the possibility to see in detail and which have wide-ranging, often unexpected, effects.”


Canelo Álvarez, Caleb Plant trade blows at news conference

Canelo Álvarez, Caleb Plant trade blows at news conference
Updated 22 September 2021

Canelo Álvarez, Caleb Plant trade blows at news conference

Canelo Álvarez, Caleb Plant trade blows at news conference

BEVERLY HILLS, California: Canelo Álvarez and Caleb Plant couldn’t wait until Nov. 6 to start throwing hands.
The super middleweight champions traded blows at their news conference Tuesday to promote their upcoming title unification bout, and the exchange left Plant with a cut under his right eye.
The fighters scuffled after exchanging verbal barbs during the ceremonial faceoff before the news conference began in the garden of the Beverly Hilton. Apparently in response to a comment from Plant about Álvarez’s mother, the Mexican superstar knocked Plant backward with a two-handed shove.
“You can say whatever you want to me, but not about my mother,” Álvarez said afterward.
Plant stepped forward and threw a left hook at Álvarez, who mostly dodged it and countered with a left hand to Plant’s face. Plant said the blow struck his sunglasses, which jammed into his cheek and caused the cut.
“We were just saying things, just the normal back-and-forth banter, and then he did what he did,” Plant said.
Álvarez put it succinctly on Twitter while posting video of the brouhaha: “Don’t talk about my mom.”
The fighters’ camps eventually separated them, but Plant was left dabbing at the blood on his cheek. He eventually put on his sunglasses for a frosty, combative news conference in which Plant repeatedly called out Álvarez for his doping violations in 2018.
Álvarez (56-1-2, 38 KOs) will risk his WBC, WBA and WBO super middleweight titles against Plant (21-0, 12 KOs), the unbeaten IBF champion from Tennessee, when they meet at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
Plant repeatedly said Álvarez and trainer Eddy Reynoso are “cheaters.” Álvarez was suspended for six months for clenbuterol detected in a drug test, although the Mexican champ claimed the banned substance came from tainted meat.
“This sport is too dangerous for people to be popping positive,” Plant said. “He’s a cheater. It’s not up for discussion. Did he get suspended? Did he test positive? It’s not about what I say. It’s about what the (athletic) commission said. You have to take that up with them, not me.”
Reynoso responded angrily when pressed on Álvarez’s past positive test and the more recent failed doping test for Oscar Valdez, Canelo’s training partner. Speaking in Spanish, Reynoso didn’t directly address Plant’s comments, but instead profanely suggested Plant wasn’t training hard enough to win in seven weeks.
“Taking illegal substances doesn’t happen because you’re confident,” Plant said. “It happens because you’re afraid. That just gives me more confidence. I’ve dedicated a lot to this sport, and it will be my life’s work coming together in that one moment when I beat him. It would etch my name in the history books, and that’s what I’m here to do.”
Álvarez is unbeaten in 15 fights since his only career loss to Floyd Mayweather in 2013. He traded insults with Plant after their physical exchange, but kept his public comments more brief.
“For me, it’s for history, for Mexico, for my team,” he said. “I’m going to knock out this guy in less than eight rounds.”


Golden Shoe winner Lewandowski hopes to become ‘even better’

Golden Shoe winner Lewandowski hopes to become ‘even better’
Updated 22 September 2021

Golden Shoe winner Lewandowski hopes to become ‘even better’

Golden Shoe winner Lewandowski hopes to become ‘even better’
  • Lewandowski netted 41 times in 29 games for Bayern in the 2020-21 season

MUNICH: Europe’s “Golden Shoe” winner Robert Lewandowski sent out a warning to defenses around Europe on Tuesday when he likened himself to a ‘good wine’ that was still improving.
The Bayern Munich striker also offered warm praise and thanks to his wife Anna when he received the award as top scorer in European football last season.
Lewandowski netted 41 times in 29 games for Bayern in the 2020-21 season, breaking the great Gerd Mueller’s record of 40 goals in a Bundesliga season, set in 1971-72.
His tally represents the highest in Europe since Cristiano Ronaldo bagged 48 goals for Real Madrid in 2014-15.
The 33-year-old forward insisted, though, that there were still plenty more goals and titles yet to come.
“I’m still here, and I will be here for a long time!” said Lewandowski.
“Age is just a number, I feel very good, my form indicators have never been so good.
“I know that with my body I can still play for years at the highest level. I am like good wine and I hope to become even better.”
This season, Lewandowski has already scored seven goals in five days as champions Bayern top the early Bundesliga table.
“It’s not over yet, we are still hungry for titles,” said Lewandowski who hopes to help Bayern to a second Champions League title to add to the one he won with them in 2020.
“I don’t need to go and prove myself in another league,” said the striker who was linked with Real Madrid a few years ago.
“With the Champions League, I can measure myself against the best. I am 100 percent focused on Bayern and I don’t think about anything else.”
At the ceremony held at Bayern’s Allianz Arena, the Poland striker was effusive in his praise for his wife who is also his personal “motivation coach.”
“I have to thank my wife, she is a great support for me and a motivation when things are not going so well,” he said.
A former Polish international karateka, Anna Lewandowska is also a nutritionist and oversees her husband’s diet.
“I am very proud of him,” she said. “He is extraordinary as a person, as an athlete, as a partner, as a friend and as a husband.”
Lewandowski is only the second Bundesliga player to win the award after Mueller, who won in 1970 and 1972.
Lionel Messi has won the award a record six times while Ronaldo has taken it four times but they only scored 30 and 29 goals respectively in 2020-21.