Abha sign former Real Madrid defender Dani Suarez to complete foreign quota

Abha sign former Real Madrid defender Dani Suarez to complete foreign quota
Former Real Madrid defender Dani Suarez signed on a free transfer deal following the end of his contract with Asteras Tripolis of the Greek Super League. (Twitter: @AbhaFc_EN)
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Updated 15 August 2021

Abha sign former Real Madrid defender Dani Suarez to complete foreign quota

Abha sign former Real Madrid defender Dani Suarez to complete foreign quota
  • Spanish 31-year-old joins on free transfer after contract ends with Greek Super League side Asteras Tripolis

Top-tier Saudi football club Abha have announced the signing of former Real Madrid defender Dani Suarez on a free transfer deal following the end of his contract with Asteras Tripolis of the Greek Super League.

The Spanish player has signed for one season, renewable for another year at the end of the 2021-22 Saudi Professional League (SPL) campaign.

Suarez joins Abha just days after the club kicked off the new SPL season in fine style with a 2-1 win over last season’s runners-up Al-Shabab.

Previously,  the 31-year-old has represented Real Madrid Castilla, Spanish second-tier club Ponferradina and Gornik Zabrze of Poland.

Suarez’s addition has completed the foreign players’ quota at the southern Saudi club, where he joins the Moroccan duo of goalkeeper Abdelali Mhamdi and defender Amine Atouchi, Tunisian midfielder Saad Bguir, Serbian midfielder Uros Matic, Congolese international Prestige Mboungou and Dutchman Mitchell te Vrede.


How Saudi Arabia got back to top of Asian football

How Saudi Arabia got back to top of Asian football
Updated 16 sec ago

How Saudi Arabia got back to top of Asian football

How Saudi Arabia got back to top of Asian football
  • With national team edging closer to Qatar 2022 and Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr facing off in AFC Champions League semi-final, football in Kingdom is thriving on, off pitch

RIYADH: Unless you have been living under a rock, you would be well aware by now of the takeover of English Premier League side Newcastle United by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. It has dominated front- and back-page headlines, and continues to do so, the world over.

And if you only consumed media from western Europe, you would be forgiven for thinking football in Saudi Arabia started and ended with the takeover or assisting FIFA in its push for a biennial FIFA World Cup.

But for those who prefer to glance east rather than west, these are very interesting times in Saudi football, but for entirely different reasons than a foreign takeover.

The Kingdom, and its horde of passionate and vocal fans, have always thought of themselves as a giant of Asian football and in the 1980s and 1990s that was most definitely the case, making the final of the AFC Asian Cup five tournaments in a row from 1984 to 2000 (winning three), while also qualifying for the FIFA World Cup for four successive tournaments from 1994 to 2006.

They also became only the second Asian nation after North Korea (1966) to make it to the knockout rounds when they advanced to the Round of 16 in 1994, before losing to Sweden.

The Kingdom were Kings of Asia, and it was a position that sat comfortably with them. But for the best part of the last two decades, Kings of Asia they have not been. Group stage exits in three of the last five Asian Cups and missing qualification for the 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cups. In fact, in qualifying for Brazil 2014 they did not even make the final round.

It was a sudden and harsh fall from grace for the Green Falcons.

But the tide has since turned.

Under the stewardship of Frenchman Herve Renard, Saudi Arabia are the last remaining team with a 100 percent winning record in the final round of Asian qualifiers for Qatar 2022, taking all three points against Vietnam, Oman, Japan, and China.

Not even halfway through qualifying, and with just over 12 months until the global showpiece in neighboring Qatar, the Saudis already have one foot on the plane.

And what will please Renard is the manner in which they are doing it. The swagger is back. The verve with which they are playing, especially in the first half against China when they arguably should have put the game to bed, has been a sight to behold.

The most pleasing aspect, especially for Renard, will be the names that are finding the back of the net.

It is not the usual suspects such as Salem Al-Dossari, Fahad Al-Muwallad, or Salman Al-Faraj, the experienced trio who combined for more than half of Saudi Arabia’s 22 goals in the second round of qualifying.

Instead, it has been names such as the inexperienced trio of Saleh Al-Shehri, Firas Al-Buraikan, and Sami Al-Najei – all with less than 15 caps – that are standing up when it counts, scoring six of eight goals in this final phase.

While tougher tests await, especially as they are required to travel east to Japan, Australia, and Vietnam, for the moment things could not have gone any better.

At domestic level the fortunes of the national team are being matched on the continent by their club sides, with two Saudi clubs making it to the semi-finals of the AFC Champions League for the first time since 2012.

Such is the pedigree of Saudi clubs in this competition that at least one has made the semi-final in seven of the past 10 editions, although only Al-Hilal in 2019 went on to win the tournament.

It is not just on the park where Saudi teams are delivering, the scenes off it have been some of the most magical in Asian football.

The sight of thousands of streamers raining down onto the ground ahead of Al-Nassr’s quarter-final against the UAE’s Al-Wahda, which forced kick off to be delayed by 10 minutes, was one to behold and was a perfect illustration of the deep football culture that exists within the country.

As we now look ahead to Tuesday night’s semi-final and the highly anticipated Riyadh derby between Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal, we do so with huge anticipation of what is to come.

Mrsool Park in Riyadh may be small and intimate, but every corner and crevice of it will be shaking to its core as Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal fans make an atmosphere that would not be out of place anywhere in the world.

While the rest of the world may be looking to St. James’ Park for their understanding of Saudi football, they really should put their focus on Mrsool Park this week. If they did, they would see the true state of Saudi football – and it is in fabulous health.


‘Minister of Happiness’ Ons Jabeur becomes first Arab tennis player to break into world’s top-10

‘Minister of Happiness’ Ons Jabeur becomes first Arab tennis player to break into world’s top-10
Updated 50 min 9 sec ago

‘Minister of Happiness’ Ons Jabeur becomes first Arab tennis player to break into world’s top-10

‘Minister of Happiness’ Ons Jabeur becomes first Arab tennis player to break into world’s top-10
  • Tunisian star Monday landed No. 8 in WTA rankings to delight of growing global fanbase

RIYADH: In her home country of Tunisia, they call her “Wazeerat Al Sa’ada” or “Minister of Happiness,” and with good reason.

As Ons Jabeur on Monday celebrated becoming the first Arab tennis player to enter the world’s top 10 after moving to No. 8 in the Women’s Tennis Association rankings, her hordes of fans were feeling like they too had a reason to dream big.

Supporters of the 27-year-old throughout the Arab world have been setting their alarms for all hours to follow her recent matches in the Indian Wells tournament, where she reached the biggest semi-final of her career and secured her top 10 debut.

Amid a turbulent political climate in Tunisia, Jabeur has given her compatriots “a reason to smile” – as one Twitter user put it – and she has proved to herself, and everyone, that an Arab player can indeed join the sport’s elite at the very top.

Breaking new ground for Arab tennis, she does not just have the backing of fans from the Middle East and North Africa region; she has been embraced, both figuratively and literally, by the sport she has dedicated more than two decades of her life to.

Speaking on the Tennis Channel Live podcast on Friday, her idol, former world No. 1 Andy Roddick, said: “Ons Jabeur is quickly becoming one of my favorites in the world to watch, she’s just amazing, and maybe the most hugged player on tour; every single time she shakes a hand, people hug her, she must be an amazing person too.”

American Roddick is not wrong. Jabeur has won over fans with her exciting brand of tennis that features incredible variety, and she has also won over the locker room by being one of the friendliest and funniest players on tour.

The moment she won her Indian Wells quarter-final and guaranteed her place among the world’s top 10, social media timelines were flooded with heartfelt messages of congratulations from her peers as well as from legends of the sport.

From Billie Jean King to Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert to Tracy Austin, Jabeur’s historic achievement did not go unnoticed by a host of tennis greats.

Former world No. 1 Andy Murray shared the news on Twitter with the caption, “that’s very cool.”

Fellow players such as ex-US Open champion Sloane Stephens, Australian Open runner-up Jennifer Brady, Indian trail blazer Sania Mirza, four-time Grand Slam winner Kim Clijsters, and many more celebrated Jabeur online, while former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka gushed over her during a press conference on Friday.

The two-time major champion said: “She’s my dream player to play. I’m such a huge fan of her. I think she’s amazing. The history that she’s making in the part of the world where sports are not necessarily that accessible; I just can’t wait to see how much further she can go.

“Obviously she’s an incredible player. The improvement she has done throughout, I wouldn’t necessarily only talk this year, but the last couple years, to really step up her game, improve her fitness level. I’m a huge fan. I’m just fan-girling here completely,” Azarenka added.

The huge reaction to her latest feat has taken Jabeur by surprise, and it provided a welcome boost in her quest for further glory.

“It means a lot. I honestly did not expect Andy Murray or Navratilova or Billie Jean King to tweet about me. It’s unbelievable,” said Jabeur, who picked up her maiden WTA title earlier this year in Birmingham, before becoming the first Arab woman to make the Wimbledon quarter-finals in July.

“It just shows how important it is to me to achieve this. Being recognized by legends, honestly, it just gives me even more the power to work harder and be like them one day maybe, a Grand Slam champion.”

With the release of the new rankings on Monday, Jabeur eclipsed Morocco’s Younes El-Aynaoui, whose career-high mark of No. 14 was the highest ever reached by an Arab tennis player before the crafty Tunisian came along.

The now-retired El-Aynaoui has been following Jabeur’s career ever since she won the Roland-Garros (French Open) junior title as a 16-year-old in 2011.

El-Aynaoui told Arab News: “That was already an amazing achievement. We have to give her a lot of credit because to be very strong very young and then to wait that long to win again, to perform well … when you win the French Open juniors, everybody is expecting you to break into the top pretty fast, but it took her a while; she finally found her stability, maybe with the family, the husband, the coach.

“It’s just great to see her playing well tournament after tournament, it’s almost two years now she’s really on the top, and I think also there’s a big opportunity in women’s tennis today,” he said.

El-Aynaoui pointed out that Jabeur’s “patience” and “perseverance” stood out most to him when he looked at her journey and he hoped her success would inspire a new generation of young players from the Arab world and give a big boost to women’s sport in the region.

“We saw the last US Open, the two women’s finalists were newcomers. I think it’s a good time for Ons. Being top 10 is already amazing, but I would love to see her, why not, winning a slam or runner-up in a slam, that would be even greater I think,” he added.

With 48 victories under her belt in 2021, Jabeur has won more matches than any other player on the WTA tour so far this season and is in the running for a highly coveted qualification spot in next month’s WTA finals in Guadalajara, where the world’s top eight are set to compete.

Should she qualify, she would become the first Arab player to make it to a season-ending championships and Jabeur is determined to write one more chapter in the history books before she wraps up her year.

“Top 10 I know is just the beginning. I know I deserve this place, but I want to prove that I deserve to be here, I deserve to be one of the top 10 players,” she said.

The north African will be competing in Moscow this week and hopes to punch her ticket to the season finale.

She noted that it had been a stressful few weeks knowing she had a real chance of qualifying for the finals, while also acknowledging there was a lengthy list of players fighting for the same goal.

“I’ve never been in this situation; I never played this long; never been in the top 10 before. It’s a lot of things happening at the same time. This is what I’ve worked for, this is what I want to believe, to achieve.

“I finally, with maturity and enough experience, am accepting that this kind of pressure is a privilege, it’s a pleasure to have it,” she added.

Jabeur is not just managing the pressure of competition, she is also carrying the hopes of an entire region on her back, and she highlighted how tough it had been trying to carve a path for herself coming from a country such as Tunisia that had not produced top champions in the past.

“It is much different to come from my country than being American or French or Australian. They have not just the example of seeing players playing in front of you, they have more tennis clubs, even more tournaments.

“I’ve been rejected by sponsors because of where I come from, which is so not fair. I didn’t understand why before. I accepted it. I dealt with it. I am really proud of the person I have become today, just not relying on others.

“It gave me the courage to continue and achieve my goals, and I’m in the top 10 today,” she said.

El-Aynaoui said being the only person from a country or region on tour could have its advantages, as hitting a new milestone or pulling off a historic feat gained more attention.

“I wouldn’t call it pressure, I would call it motivation, when you know you’re playing and behind you there is a whole country and so many people supporting you, it gives you wings,” he added.

Jabeur is embracing the pressure and believes it will prepare her for even greater things down the road.

“I’m trying so hard to calm myself down and handle all this stress because I want to be a Grand Slam champion. If I want to do that, then I need to go through this. Hopefully I’ll go through this without having a heart attack,” she said jokingly.

Judging by how her career has unfolded so far, it is fair to assume the Minister of Happiness will be just fine.


Patience a virtue for Newcastle United’s new owners as new era underway

Patience a virtue for Newcastle United’s new owners as new era underway
Updated 18 October 2021

Patience a virtue for Newcastle United’s new owners as new era underway

Patience a virtue for Newcastle United’s new owners as new era underway
  • After the 3-2 loss to Tottenham, the view from the chairman’s suite is that the rebuilding project, on and off the pitch, will take plenty of time and planning

NEWCASTLE: “Rome wasn’t built in a day” was the almost universal sentiment among the executives, deal-doers and football folk assembled in the chairman’s suite after the first game of the Saudi era at Newcastle United.

They would have been overjoyed at a victory, but Tottenham Hotspur deflated the Geordie balloon with three first-half goals, sending the raucous fans and business glitterati into a mood of reflective soul-searching after the final whistle.

Yasir Al-Rumayyan, governor of the Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund — which owns 80 percent of Newcastle — was there, as was Amanda Staveley, the financial entrepreneur who brokered the deal, and James Reuben, of the billionaire dynasty, who each have a 10 percent stake.

Staveley, radiant in black and white couture, has been trying to push a bid for Newcastle through for the past four years, while the PIF and the Reubens have spent nearly two years on their now-successful attempt, so they all know the value of patience. They will have to show plenty of that in the Newcastle rebuild now underway.

One of the messages hammered home by Staveley since the bid went through has been that while Newcastle is now the richest club in the world on paper, it does not want to start throwing money around on players, celebrity managers, and all the other big-ticket items that football fans crave.

There is a priority list: A director of football, an overhaul of the neglected commercial side of the club, investment in training facilities, and a facelift for the St. James’ Park ground.

If the corporate hospitality and executive areas of the ground are anything to go by, not too much money will have to be spent on the ground apart from replacing the ubiquitous advertising for Sports Direct, the former owner’s company. A new sponsor will probably emerge pretty soon from within the Saudi corporate structure. But new training facilities are a must, the suits agreed.

It all has to be done, they insisted, within the confines of the financial fair-play rules put in place by the European football authorities.

The fans might chant “We are Saudi, we do what we want,” but the hard-nosed businesspeople know this is not the case.

One adviser to the takeover consortium pressed the point that these regulations are now being applied much more stringently than in the past, when oligarch owners would run rings around the regulators by hiring an expensive army of hot-shot lawyers.

Saudi Arabia will have to assess its investment — with as much as $340 million pledged for the club and the Newcastle environs — very carefully indeed to stay within the laws of the football business.

The other burning question is whether the club needs more capacity at the ground. Seating capacity of 52,000 is pretty good by Premier League standards, but there is a big waiting list for season tickets, and extra seats could add significantly to the club’s revenues.

But St. James’ Park is a city-center ground and is hemmed in on at least one side by listed real estate, limiting the scope for expansion. That is a business decision that will have to be taken at some stage.

After the game, the businesspeople were trying to recapture the optimism of the second minute when Newcastle had taken the lead, rather than weighing the minutiae of investment decisions.

There was a general consensus that the defeat to Spurs was a blessing in disguise because it demonstrated the scale of the investment needed to get Newcastle back among the Premier League leaders.

The executives understand that it will take time. But they have a job on their hands to persuade the long-suffering fans, who have endured 14 years in the financial wilderness, that they might have to wait a little longer for the glory days to return.


McIlroy captures 20th US PGA title with victory at Vegas

McIlroy captures 20th US PGA title with victory at Vegas
Updated 18 October 2021

McIlroy captures 20th US PGA title with victory at Vegas

McIlroy captures 20th US PGA title with victory at Vegas
  • The 32-year-old from Northern Ireland shows the form that made him a four-time major champion

LOS ANGELES: Rory McIlroy captured his 20th career US PGA Tour title on Sunday, firing a six-under par 66 to win the CJ Cup by one stroke over Collin Morikawa.

Disappointed by a poor performance at last month’s Ryder Cup and his struggles after trying to match the long-distance driving of Bryson DeChambeau, the 32-year-old from Northern Ireland showed the form that made him a four-time major champion.

“For the last few months, I was trying to be someone else,” McIlroy said. “I realize that being me is enough and that’s enough to do things like this.”

McIlroy rolled in an eagle putt from just inside 35 feet at the par-5 14th and parred the last four holes to finish on 25-under par 263 at the Summit Club in Las Vegas.

McIlroy said the sting of his Ryder Cup flop in Europe’s record 19-9 loss inspired his improved play.

“It was huge. It really was,” McIlroy said. “I was disappointed with how I played. I get more emotional thinking about that than about this (win).”

After his best round in two years with a 62 on Saturday, McIlroy followed with a near-perfect run to claim his 29th worldwide victory and become only the 39th player with 20 US PGA wins.

“It’s quite an achievement,” McIlroy said. “I still need a couple more years on tour to get that lifetime exemption but at least I’ve got the 20 wins. It’s a great achievement.”

Since World War II, only Vijay Singh and Gary Player have more US PGA victories than McIlroy among players from outside the United States.

Two-time major winner Morikawa, who finished with an eagle, was second on 264 after a closing 62 with fellow Americans Rickie Fowler and Keith Mitchell third on 266.

The event was moved from South Korea for a second consecutive year due to coronavirus pandemic travel issues.

McIlroy, ranked 14th, won his second title of the year, having snapped an 18-month win drought in May with his third career triumph at Quail Hollow, and first of the 2021-22 season.

“I’ve been close before to opening my season with a win,” he said. “It’s great. It feels really good, some validation of what I’ve done the last few weeks. Just keep moving forward.”

Morikawa was pleased with his week despite settling for second.

“It has been an awesome start to the season,” he said.

Fowler led by three early Sunday but could not match McIlroy’s pace, shooting 71. World number 128 Fowler has not won since taking his fifth PGA title at the 2019 Phoenix Open.

“Obviously disappointed,” Fowler said. “But this is a big step in the right direction from where I’ve been in the past couple years.”

Fowler rolled in a 16-foot birdie putt at the par-4 ninth to share the lead at 22-under with McIlroy and Morikawa, but stumbled back with a three-putt bogey at the 10th.

McIlroy drove the green at the par-4 12th and rolled in a four-foot birdie putt to seize the lead alone.

McIlroy found the rough at the par-5 14th and came up just short of the green but rolled the ball into the cup from just inside 35 feet for eagle to reach 25-under and lead by three.

Morikawa sank an eagle putt at the par-5 18th from just inside seven feet to pull within one, but McIlroy closed with four pars to seal the victory.

Fowler teed off with a two-stroke lead over McIlroy and dropped his approach inches from the cup to set up a birdie on the opening hole to lead by three.

But McIlroy sank an 11-foot birdie putt at the par-3 second and had a tap-in birdie at the par-5 third.

Fowler birdied the fourth but took a double bogey at the par-5 sixth while McIlroy birdied from just outside four feet to share the lead.

McIlroy birdied the eighth to reach 22-under to match Morikawa’s birdie at the par-3 11th and share the lead.


Badosa outlasts Azarenka to win Indian Wells in her debut

Badosa outlasts Azarenka to win Indian Wells in her debut
Updated 18 October 2021

Badosa outlasts Azarenka to win Indian Wells in her debut

Badosa outlasts Azarenka to win Indian Wells in her debut
  • Badosa joins Bianca Andreescu in 2019 and Serena Williams in 1999 in winning the title in her first appearance
  • Azarenka, the two-time major champion and former top-ranked player, was seeking just her second title since 2016

INDIAN WELLS, California: Paula Badosa edged Victoria Azarenka 7-6 (5), 2-6, 7-6 (2) on Sunday to win the BNP Paribas Open in her debut in the Southern California desert, where the tournament returned after a 2 1/2-year absence because of the coronavirus.
She joined Bianca Andreescu in 2019 and Serena Williams in 1999 in winning the title in her first appearance. It was Badosa’s second title of her career, having won in Belgrade earlier this year.
Cameron Norrie played Nikoloz Basilashvili in the men’s final later.
Badosa and Azarenka struggled for over three hours, trading back-to-back service breaks five times. The last time Azarenka broke for a 5-4 lead in the third, and Badosa broke right back for a 5-all tie.
“We were both going for our shots, really pushing each other to the max,” Azarenka said.
Badosa missed a backhand that allowed Azarenka to hold at 6-all.
Badosa dominated the tiebreaker, racing to a 6-2 lead. Azarenka dumped a forehand into the net to give Badosa match point.

Paula Badosa poses with the trophy and a flag after defeating Victoria Azarenka at the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament on Oct. 17, 2021, in Indian Wells, California. (AP Photo/John McCoy)

Badosa cracked a forehand winner, then collapsed at the baseline. She lie face down, crying and shaking, before getting up. Azarenka came around the net and hugged the 23-year-old Spaniard.
“I remember when I was 14, 15 years old seeing you,” Badosa told Azarenka after raising the crystal trophy. “I told my coach, ‘One day I hope I can play like her.’“
Azarenka, the two-time major champion and former top-ranked player, was seeking just her second title since 2016. She last won in 2020 at Cincinnati. The 32-year-old from Belarus came up short in her bid to become the first woman to win Indian Wells three times, having taken the title in 2012 and 2016.
Azarenka’s season was interrupted by injuries and she made early exits in the Grand Slam events. Her best result was making the fourth round at the French Open.
“This year has been challenging a bit,” she said, “but finishing on a strong note, not necessarily with the result I wanted but with the progress I wanted to seek, that’s really positive.”
Azarenka noted her 4-year-old son, Leo, was watching on TV.

Paula Badosa kisses her trophy after defeating Victoria Azarenka at the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament on Oct. 17, 2021, in Indian Wells, California. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill) 

“I’m not bringing home the biggest trophy,” she said, “but it’s still a trophy and I’m sure he’ll enjoy playing with it.”
In the first-set tiebreaker, Badosa had leads of 4-0 and 5-3. Azarenka tied it 5-all on Badosa’s netted forehand. Azarenka missed a backhand to give Badosa a set point and the Spaniard cashed in with a backhand winner to take the set.
“It was like a roller coaster mentally, emotionally,” Badosa said.
She beat fifth-seeded Barbora Krejcikova in the fourth round, No. 15 Angelique Kerber in the quarterfinals and No. 14 Ons Jabeur in the semifinals — all in straight sets — to reach the final.
“The first thing I learned this week is that nothing is impossible,” Badosa said.
Badosa earned $1.2 million, more than her previous prize money for the year of just over $1 million.
She came into the tournament ranked 27th in the world; a year ago, she was 87th. Badosa is projected to rise to a career-best 13th in Monday’s WTA Tour rankings.
“I never thought that would happen that fast,” she said.
Badosa may not be done this year, either. By winning the title, she overtook Ons Jabeur for the eighth and last qualifying spot in the race to the WTA Finals, to be held next month in Guadalajara, Mexico.
The combined ATP and WTA tour event was one of the first major sporting events canceled in March 2020 when the coronavirus took hold in the US It will return to its usual March slot next year.