Olympic fallout: Are young Saudi footballers being hampered by SPL’s 7-foreigner rule?

Olympic fallout: Are young Saudi footballers being hampered by SPL’s 7-foreigner rule?
Few Saudi strikers can hope to have the impact that likes of Bafetimbi Gomis, center, and other overseas players have had in the Saudi Professional League. (AFP file photo)
Short Url
Updated 03 August 2021

Olympic fallout: Are young Saudi footballers being hampered by SPL’s 7-foreigner rule?

Olympic fallout: Are young Saudi footballers being hampered by SPL’s 7-foreigner rule?
  • Clubs in Kingdom continue to count on overseas players for goals, with negative consequences on Saudi U-23 team at Tokyo 2020

RIYADH: Now the Olympics football tournament is over, attention has quickly turned to the start of the new Saudi Professional League (SPL) season next week.

Take a quick look at the headlines and social media and there is not much being said about what happened in Japan as the young Falcons lost all three games at Tokyo 2020. But there are the usual significant number of reports and rumors as to which foreign stars are heading to the league. The two are connected, however.

There is no doubt that there are some top-class foreign players in Saudi Arabia who bring a lot to their clubs and the league. Stars such as French striker Bafetimbi Gomis and Syrian sharpshooter Omar Al-Somah light up the league on and off the pitch.

Looking ahead to the new season there will be speculation about whether Al-Hilal will make it three in a row or if Al-Ahli will return to the running, but there is one certainty: The top scorer next season will not be Saudi Arabian.

Saudi Arabia’s league is unusual in Asia in that it does not limit the number of foreign players to four in the way many do, with each club allowed to sign and field seven overseas footballers.

And it is no surprise that attackers from around the world are in demand. After all, scoring goals is the hardest thing in football to do, so why would clubs and coaches not look to import solutions?

Gomis, a powerful, skillful striker, fiery yet with ice-cool composure in the area, is one of the best center-forwards in Asia. He was the top scorer in the 2019 AFC Champions League as Al-Hilal picked up a third continental championship. Others played their part but the former French international made the difference at crucial times. The likes of Abderrazzak Hamdallah of Morocco and Cristian Guanca of Argentina were other stars last season.

It is not just the title-chasing clubs that have goal scorers from abroad. Swede Carlos Strandberg scored 16 goals, more than a third of Abha’s total in the SPL, and those strikes played a major part in the club staying up by a point.

In short, in Saudi Arabia, all the teams look to foreigners for goals. This can help the local defenders gain some vital experience in facing a variety of strikers from all over the world. For young center-backs there can be few better learning curves available than one which features clashes against the physical Gomis, the artful Guanca, and the single-minded Strandberg.

This attacking talent can flourish anywhere in the world and if any defender can learn to hold their own against them then they have nothing to fear and plenty to look forward to.

But what about the local strikers? There are consequences for this love of international attackers. Increasingly the home-grown forwards are getting fewer chances to develop. Just look at the goalscoring charts for last season; none of the top 10 were from Saudi Arabia. The highest-ranked was Hassan Al-Amri at No. 12 and seven of his 12 goals for Al-Qadisiyah came from the spot. In contrast, six of the most prolific 10 players in Japan were locals.

This is obviously a worry. If teams look overseas for striking talent, then there are fewer opportunities for locals.

At the Olympics, many hopes were placed on the shoulders of Abdullah Al-Hamdan who made headlines when signing for Al-Hilal from Al-Shabab in January. It was hoped that the 21-year-old was the answer to the search for the next Sami Al-Jaber. Yet the forward struggled to get into games in Japan, looked off the pace, and was easy for defenders to handle. That should not be a surprise given that he has been a bit-part player for Al-Hilal, playing a full league game just once since joining the club.

If he cannot get a run of games then he is unlikely to be able to make the difference against defenders from the Ivory Coast, Germany, and Brazil.

And if it was not tough enough for the player last season, Al-Hilal have added Moussa Marega from Porto. The 30-year-old Malian marksman scored plenty in Portugal and is likely to slot straight into the starting line-up when the new season kicks off.

So, what is a promising young striker such as Al-Hamdan to do? If he does not get much playing time, then he has to move but the same issues exist in other clubs in Saudi Arabia. Moving overseas may be the answer but is not an easy one, especially when Saudi strikers have little reputation internationally, partly due to the fact that they are squeezed out of their starting elevens at home.

Nobody could blame a coach for pushing a talented young player in Riyadh or Jeddah toward midfield or the wings. It is a vicious circle. While foreigners dominate the scoring charts, the demand for them will continue to rise. This reduces the chances for the locals; if they are not playing, they are not scoring, and so clubs continue to look overseas.

There is no easy answer or quick fix but reducing the number of imports from seven to four would be a step in the right direction.


Juventus finally gets 1st win of Serie A season

Juventus finally gets 1st win of Serie A season
Updated 17 min 2 sec ago

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 24 sec ago

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.