Historic win over Japan edges Saudi Arabia closer to sixth World Cup appearance

Historic win over Japan edges Saudi Arabia closer to sixth World Cup appearance
Firas Al-Buraikan scores to secure a famous win for Saudi Arabia over Japan in Jeddah. (Mohammed Al-Mana)
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Updated 08 October 2021

Historic win over Japan edges Saudi Arabia closer to sixth World Cup appearance

Historic win over Japan edges Saudi Arabia closer to sixth World Cup appearance
  • Herve Renard’s team now has nine points from three matches and a win over China on Tuesday will be a significant step toward automatic qualification for Qatar 2022 

Thursday was a historic day for Saudi Arabian football, one that made international headlines.

The national team are not at the World Cup yet, but whatever happens along the rest of the road to Qatar, the 1-0 win over Japan in Jeddah will enter the annals of famous qualification wins.

A win against a top side is always welcome, and especially so this time as the Green Falcons made Japan look nothing like Asia’s best team. 

Now, with a maximum of nine points from three matches, the 2022 World Cup edges closer.

The victory was deserved — only just, but deserved all the same. It would not have mattered in any case since results are all-important in these games. But this was a win based on hard work, team spirit, physicality and composure. It is a victory that should, for the next day or two, be enjoyed for what it was: A famous triumph.

As an exhibition, it would not have pleased the neutral too much. Both teams were sloppy on the ball, and possession was given away too easily, rare for a Japan team known for their passing ability. It was Saudi Arabia that punished their star-studded opponents for their mistakes, however, and not, as many may have expected, the other way around.

While they could have been better on the ball, off it Herve Renard’s men were immense. The hosts kept their shape, and their nerve, and the French coach’s grin at the end was as wide as the gap between the two Group B rivals.

Now, incredibly, after just three Group B games, the Green Falcons are flying high, six points clear of the Samurai Blue and, more importantly, six points clear in the automatic qualification places. Should China be defeated in Jeddah on Tuesday, it is hard to imagine Saudi Arabia failing to qualify for a sixth World Cup.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The record books will show that with 19 minutes remaining, substitute Firas Al-Buraikan latched on to a dreadful back pass from Gaku Shibasaki and, advancing on goal, coolly slotted the ball past Shuichi Gonda from just inside the area. 

“I was so happy to score the winning goal,” Al-Buraikan said after the game. “Coach Renard told me to put pressure on the opposition defense and I managed to take advantage of a mistake.”

The 21-year-old did more than that. The records will not show the delight at the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah. This was not just because there were around 45,000 fans present, the first substantial crowd to watch the national team at home since pre-pandemic times, but also because of how far this team has come since Renard took the reins in 2019.

There was the usual intensity and desire to get the ball forward at speed, but without the injured Salem Al-Dossari, Salman Al-Faraj produced a real captain’s performance, working hard to deny the Japanese team space and driving his own men forward.

The backline held firm. Al-Ahli may be struggling in the league, but that is not down to goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais. Here, playing in familiar surroundings in Jeddah, he produced a number of fine saves to deny Takumi Minamino of Liverpool and Celtic’s Kyogo Furuhashi.

And then there were the center-backs. The Al-Nassr pairing of Abdullah Madu and Abdulelah Al-Amri rarely make headlines, but they impressed. Neither used the ball especially well but displayed immense concentration to get a foot in here, a head there as well as some well-timed interceptions. There was never a moment to relax against Japan and the pair never stopped trying to shut down the visitors.

It is easy to read too much into one game, but this was a sign that the balance of power in Asian football may be shifting. That Japan could be six points off the pace so early in Group B was unthinkable just six weeks ago. South Korea may be second in Group A, but have yet to impress playing against three so-called weaker teams at home from West Asia. 

Now Saudi Arabia will feel they can beat any team in Asia. The biggest challenge for Renard in the next few days may be to keep his players’ feet on the ground.

Everyone will be looking at the China game and seeing a straightforward three points, but while Saudi Arabia will be strong favorites, it will be a tough game against an opponent determined to build on a first win of the stage, a last-minute 3-2 triumph over Vietnam on Thursday.

This is no time to slip up and waste what was a memorable night in Saudi Arabian football history. 


‘Valued’ Joelinton reaping the benefits of Eddie Howe’s faith

‘Valued’ Joelinton reaping the benefits of Eddie Howe’s faith
Updated 28 sec ago

‘Valued’ Joelinton reaping the benefits of Eddie Howe’s faith

‘Valued’ Joelinton reaping the benefits of Eddie Howe’s faith
  • The Brazilian forward has been one of the success stories since the arrival of the new manager
  • Matt Ritchie and Jamaal Lascelles return to the fold for the game against Burnley at St James’ Park on Saturday

NEWCASTLE: Eddie Howe has revealed how making £40million Newcastle United flop Joelinton feel “valued” is getting the best out of the Brazilian.

The forward has been outstanding since the arrival of Howe, putting in a man-of-the-match, all-action display on the right-hand side in the 1-1 home draw with Norwich City on Tuesday, in a game that saw United down to 10 men in the ninth minute.

Joelinton is a figure who has starkly divided opinion on Tyneside since his 2019 arrival from Hoffenheim for a club record fee.

And while his first couple of years with the Magpies may have seen Joelinton labelled a frontline failure, Howe believes showing the player a bit of love is making a huge difference to this “outstanding” talent.

“Joe has been fantastic for me. We really like him,” said head coach Howe, speaking ahead of Newcastle’s game against Burnley at St James’ Park on Saturday. “He has a good mix of physicality and technical ability. His work rate has been a real feature of his play, he has covered every blade of grass for the team — a real selfless mindset.

“We are really pleased with him, but we think there is more to come,” Howe added. “We have made him feel valued. There’s just eagerness to prove himself. We think he is going to be a huge player for us.”

The South American striker, who netted his first goal of the season in Howe’s debut match in charge against Brentford, is expected to retain his place in the side against Sean Dyche’s men. Howe argues Joelinton could play any number of positions, such has been the versatility shown since his arrival.

Howe said: “Against Norwich he started as a No.10, then moved to a No.8, into midfield. In terms of his best position, he can play in a number of areas. He has already played three or four positions for me, and played them well.

“He has work ethic, a high technical level, physicality, the ability to score, and you have an outstanding individual.”

United have gone 15 games in all competitions without a win this season, 14 of those have come in the Premier League.

And it’s not lost on Howe that no team has ever stayed in the top flight having not won in their opening 14 games.

“We are so desperate for those three points,” he said. “There were so many positives to take from Tuesday, although it wasn’t the result we wanted. The manner of the performance in the circumstances was really, really encouraging.

“So, if we can go into (Saturday’s) game with the same fundamentals, the same fight and spirit, I back the players to get the win sooner rather than later. A win would transform everything,” said Howe. “It would transform the feeling of the squad, the fans, the confidence.”

Howe also revealed that, despite a bruising encounter against Norwich, he has no new injury concerns ahead of the Clarets clash. And while Ciaran Clark sits it out following his straight red card in midweek, Matt Ritchie and Jamaal Lascelles return to the fold.

“We have a few bumps and bruises, but hopefully nothing too serious,” said Howe. “The squad has come through unscathed and of course we have the two boys returning from suspension.”

One player who remains on the sidelines, however, is defensive stalwart Paul Dummett.

The 30-year-old is yet to kick a competitive ball this campaign, and Howe said Dummett is still a long way from doing so.

“He is back running on the grass with the physios but still has quite a bit to go through to declare himself fit to play,” he said.


Lewis Hamilton gunning for glory at first ever Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton gunning for glory at first ever Saudi Arabian Grand Prix
Updated 03 December 2021

Lewis Hamilton gunning for glory at first ever Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton gunning for glory at first ever Saudi Arabian Grand Prix
  • Reigning champion heads into F1 race 8 points behind Max Verstappen, tells Arab News of balancing pressures of racing with interests off track

JEDDAH: The first ever Saudi Arabian Grand Prix is almost here, and the greatest Formula 1 driver of all time could not be more relaxed, considering what is at stake.

A potential record-breaking eighth championship is back within tantalizing reach. And as the eyes of the world turn to the newly completed Jeddah Corniche Circuit, F1 has never been more popular.

And some of its newest fans have come from a most unexpected source. “I think it’s changed the game,” said Lewis Hamilton.

High praise indeed. Not for a new car, or some revolutionary technical innovation, though. Hamilton was referencing the Netflix show “Formula 1: Drive to Survive,” and how it had brought the sport to a whole new global audience.

“I don’t think anybody knew what it was going to do for the sport exactly. Definitely thought it would be positive, but it’s changed the sport for good I think,” the reigning world champion added.

“I think it’s been the best thing because our sport is often quite difficult for people to understand. If you turn the TV on, you have no clue what’s going on. It’s very intricate, very complex, and there’s so many moving parts.”

The world’s most exclusive sport suddenly seems that little bit more welcoming to outsiders these days.

The 36-year-old Mercedes driver said: “Most people play football at school, play tennis, or try out these other sports. Most people don’t get the chance to race cars, so it’s been great for that show to be able to showcase that there are actual personalities within sport and the excitement in depth rather than just what you see on TV.

“And now there’s this whirlwind of new fan following, and yes the close championship makes it even more exciting.”

Not that Hamilton’s profile needed boosting.

Lewis Hamilton has helped design IWC’s Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar Edition ‘Lewis Hamilton’. (IWC)

Seven-time world champion, possessor of most pole positions (102) and race wins (102), and now gunning for a record eighth driver championship with Mercedes, Hamilton is coming off a sensational win at the first ever Qatar Grand Prix which has cut Max Verstappen’s lead at the top of the standings to eight points.

“The track was awesome. When we started driving it, just with the wind direction and the grip level, the speed of all the corners, they were all medium- and high-speed corners, I was sure the racing was not going to be great there. But it actually was, surprisingly.

“Qualifying lap, single lap, felt incredible and we had good preparation,” Hamilton added.

Having won the previous weekend in Brazil, Hamilton and Mercedes initially struggled in Doha.

“The Friday was a difficult day for me, I was nowhere, and I just kept my head down and studied hard and was fortunate, I felt, to turn it around and have a great Saturday and Sunday.

“I definitely didn’t know that at this point I’d be this close (to Verstappen in the standings) and have the performance that we finally were able to unlock with the car. I’m super grateful for it,” he said.

Next up for the rivals is this weekend’s inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, and yet another new track in Jeddah Corniche Circuit.

“I think all the drivers have driven the simulator; it is incredibly quick. It is a bit reminiscent of Montreal in terms of the long straight track that they have there, but they’re all curved at this track, and also there’s not a lot of run-off area so it really is quite a street circuit, and right in the city.

“It looks pretty epic to be honest, but we won’t fully know until we feel the rollercoaster ride of the real G-Force and speed, once we get there,” Hamilton added.

The reigning Formula 1 world champion says his interest off the track have helped him keep perspective in his racing career. (IWC)

The British driver will be hoping to take the championship to the last race in Abu Dhabi, where the Yas Marina Circuit has been reconfigured for the first time since its completion in 2009.

He said: “It’s obviously an incredible circuit with the whole build-out of the place, I think they spent the most on that circuit than any other circuit, so it’s a great spectacle, beautiful last race of the season. But the layout has always been very, very difficult to follow and overtaking is quite difficult.

“It’s quite interesting that they’ve made these changes and I really think it’s going to unlock the potential of that circuit, to be more of a racing circuit. Because it’s so hard for us to follow each other, when they make these types of small changes, it’s hard to follow those through.

“So, from the simulator driving that I’ve done it looks like it’s going to make it very, very difficult to hold, to even keep position. It looks like it could be something where you’re constantly switching and changing. They might move to one of the best racing circuits, we’ll see when we get there,” he added.

Of Hamilton’s seven titles, six have been won with Mercedes in the last seven years, and such was his dominance at times, often it seemed that he was racing against himself, and history.

The closeness of this season’s battle with Verstappen and Red Bull is something Hamilton is cherishing.

“I really am because each year you’re faced with different scenarios. I wouldn’t say that it’s ever been a choice for me. I’ve never had it easy, in my younger days starting with an old go-kart, having to always race from the back.

“And particularly in karting, there was always wheel-to-wheel racing, super close. It was always down to that last lap, you had to be very, very tactical to make sure you came out first. I miss that in racing, and as you get through your cars you get less and less of that, and it’s more about positioning and holding the position.”

Red Bull have certainly raised the stakes this season, but Hamilton and Mercedes have risen to the challenge in recent weeks; the gap to Verstappen is down to only eight points in the drivers’ championship, while the team now leads Red Bull by five points.

Hamilton said: “Then of course we have all these disparities between cars each year, one team does well, and the other team doesn’t. We’ve done well for quite a few years, it’s amazing to now have this close battle again because it’s reminiscent of my karting days in terms of how close it is.

“But it also meant that we all have to elevate and perfect our craft even more. That’s what sport is about, right? That’s why it’s been super exciting. It’s been challenging for my engineers, for the mechanics, how do they dig deep and squeeze more out of their potential. It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions, but something I’ve really enjoyed.”

Should Hamilton win the title in Abu Dhabi, it will be a very popular victory among the natives. The organizers of the race at Yas Marina Circuit still speak with pride at how Hamilton — who races in No. 44 — took part in the UAE’s 44th National Day celebrations in 2015.

Having spent a significant part of his life racing around the world, Hamilton has seen first-hand how F1 has grown in the Middle East.

“Each time we go out to Bahrain, the crowds seem to get bigger and bigger. Abu Dhabi gets bigger and bigger each time we go and of course we have more and more presence now particularly with Qatar and Saudi,” he added.

Crucially, more young people are taking up motorsports in this part of the world, especially karting.

“I just spoke to someone from Saudi, I don’t know a lot of people in Saudi, but they are talking to me about how there are a lot of girls, and boys, where their first choice is not football, it’s racing,” Hamilton said.

“It’s quite cool to see there is a new generation out in the Middle East that are car crazy and want to be racing. So, who knows, maybe in the future we’re going to see a Formula 1 driver from somewhere in the Middle East, I think that could be quite cool. Would be even better if that was female.”

Hamilton, famously, has developed many interests, and supported many causes, outside racing.

“Being an athlete, being a sportsman, most often that’s all you do and for me it’s been important to find other outlets, other areas, because if you focus on one thing it doesn’t always lead to happiness.

“You’ve got to be able to fill and explore your other potential, other avenues that you might be good at. It’s always great to be able to turn your mind off from racing, and focus on something else, something that you can be creative with,” he added.

Unlike most other drivers, or athletes, Hamilton has had ventures into music and fashion. He has also built a close relationship with Swiss watch manufacturer IWC Schaffhausen — for whom he is an ambassador — over the last few years, helping design his very own timepiece, Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar Edition Lewis Hamilton.

“So, I really enjoyed the whole process, from sitting in the car at Hockenheim with Christopher (Grainger-Herr, chief executive officer of IWC Schaffhausen), driving to the airport and talking about a potential collaboration, and talking about the intricacies of a watch, and saying I want my own watch one day, to now having my own timepiece.

“It was really challenging for me, sitting there working with them because I have a lot of appreciation for the brand’s work and expertise, but I also wanted to add my own touch. I had questions like, what can we change on the dial? The tourbillon, I want to get the tourbillon in one of my pieces because it’s one of my favorite movements, if not my favorite movement,” he said.

In recent years, activism has played a big part in Hamilton’s life away from F1, and he has become an outspoken advocate for social equality, diversity in sport, and environmental sustainability, his own X44 team taking part in the first ever electric SUV rally series, Extreme E, this year.

Hamilton noted that it was vital for him to work with people who shared his values.

“So, I’ve been on calls with my partners at IWC Schaffhausen talking about things like, what are you doing during this time about diversity? How diverse is your company, what are your goals, how are you going to be more inclusive moving forward? And they’re fully on board with that.

“That for me is amazing to see, that people are conscious of sustainability, brands are conscious of the impact that we’re having on the planet. I only really like to engage with people that are like-minded in that sense, rather than just business-minded,” he added.

Far from being distractions, his interests away from racing have helped him keep an almost zen-like sense of perspective in his career, as his continued brilliance on the track has shown.

He said: “Tapping into different things helps take the pressure off this crazy, intense world that I have over here. Because if I stop and think about that and only think about the racing, I have 2,000 people working flat out, depending on me at the end to pull it through.

“Partners, and my own expectations can be super overwhelming, so these other things help me dilute that pressure and feed that energy into something positive.”

Still, when he lands in Jeddah for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix this weekend, expect one thing, and one thing only, to be on Lewis Hamilton’s mind.


Jailed former paralympic athlete Pistorius moved closer to victim’s family

Jailed former paralympic athlete Pistorius moved closer to victim’s family
Updated 02 December 2021

Jailed former paralympic athlete Pistorius moved closer to victim’s family

Jailed former paralympic athlete Pistorius moved closer to victim’s family
  • Pistorius went from public hero to convicted murderer in a trial that drew worldwide interest
  • He is set to speak to Steenkamp's parents in a process known as victim-offender dialogue

CAPE TOWN: Former South Africa paralympic superstar, Oscar Pistorius, jailed in 2016 for killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, has been moved closer to her family ahead of reconciliation talks that could help pave the way for his early release from prison.
Pistorius, known as “Blade Runner” for his carbon-fiber prosthetic legs, went from public hero to convicted murderer in a trial that drew worldwide interest. He becomes eligible for parole after serving half of his 13-year sentence.
Pistorius is set to speak to Steenkamp’s parents, June and Barry Steenkamp, in a process known as victim-offender dialogue — an integral part of South Africa’s restorative justice program in its prison system that brings parties affected by a particular crime together in a bid to achieve closure.
“They are participating in the process because they have committed themselves to being part of the victim-offender dialogue. They feel they have to do this for Reeva,” Tania Koen, lawyer for the Steenkamps, said of the family.
Pistorius’ lawyer did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Gold medalist Pistorius, once the darling of the Paralympic movement for pushing for greater recognition and acceptance of disabled athletes, shot dead Steenkamp, a model and law student, in his bathroom in 2013.
Pistorius said he had believed she was an intruder but was jailed in 2016, initially for a six-year term. After an appeal by prosecutors who said this was too lenient the term was increased to 13 years.
He has now been moved from a prison near Johannesburg to one on South Africa’s east coast, near where Steenkamp’s parents live.
Neither their lawyer Koen nor Singabakho Nxumalo, a spokesman for the department of correctional services, could provide Reuters with a timeline for the discussions.
“It is very sensitive process, highly emotional... and we do not force people to participate in it,” Nxumalo said.
“But we are saying at least it does lay a foundation where people can, if possible, forgive each other, find one another and then try to move forward in harmony,” he said.


COVID-19 hits Williams F1 team ahead of Saudi Grand Prix

COVID-19 hits Williams F1 team ahead of Saudi Grand Prix
Updated 03 December 2021

COVID-19 hits Williams F1 team ahead of Saudi Grand Prix

COVID-19 hits Williams F1 team ahead of Saudi Grand Prix
  • Team Principal Jost Capito tests positive for Covid before traveling to Jeddah, Williams ‘team will continue to operate trackside as planned’
  • Still mourning the loss of founder Frank Williams, the team goes to the Jeddah Corniche Circuit having garnered 23 points so far this season

PARIS: Williams’ Team Principal Jost Capito has tested positive for COVID-19 before traveling to Jeddah for this weekend’s Saudi Arabia Grand Prix, the British Formula One outfit announced Thursday.
“Jost is now following UK national health authority guidelines,” the team said in a statement. “There has been no wider impact on Williams Racing personnel and the team will continue to operate trackside as planned.”
Still mourning the loss of founder Frank Williams, the team goes to the Jeddah Corniche Circuit having garnered just 23 points so far this season.
The penultimate round of the 2021 World Championship season sees Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton of Britain clinging to the tail of Dutch championship leader Max Verstappen of Red Bull with just eight points separating the pair.


Eriksen uses Danish training field as part of rehabilitation

Eriksen uses Danish training field as part of rehabilitation
Updated 02 December 2021

Eriksen uses Danish training field as part of rehabilitation

Eriksen uses Danish training field as part of rehabilitation
  • The 29-year-old midfielder is using a field at Odense Boldklub
  • Eriksen has not played since falling face-first onto the field during Denmark’s opening match

COPENHAGEN, Denmark: Christian Eriksen has resumed training in Denmark as part of his rehabilitation after suffering a cardiac arrest at the European Championship.
The 29-year-old midfielder is using a field at Odense Boldklub, the club where he started his career before playing for Ajax, Tottenham and most recently Inter Milan before collapsing while playing for Denmark in June.
“Christian Eriksen is using our pitch to rehabilitate,” Odense Boldklub told The Associated Press on Thursday. “He asked us if he could use our pitch to train, which we approved.”
Eriksen is not practicing with the squad of the top-division Superliga club, located 170 kilometers (105 miles) west of Copenhagen, it said.
Eriksen has not played since falling face-first onto the field during Denmark’s opening match at the European Championship against Finland on June 12. His teammates formed a protective wall around him as medical workers resuscitated him with a defibrillator.
Eriksen spent a week in the hospital, where he had a type of pacemaker fitted. Depending on the cause of the cardiac arrest and the nature of his treatment, he could be prohibited from playing in Italy with an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator but could continue his career in countries where the rules are different.
There is no indication when Eriksen could resume playing. He remains under contract at Inter Milan. He’s made 109 appearances for Denmark.