Start of regional league ushers in new era for women’s football in Saudi Arabia

Start of regional league ushers in new era for women’s football in Saudi Arabia
Sixteen teams will take part in the first phase, with games played mostly in the capital Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam. (AFP)
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Updated 21 November 2021

Start of regional league ushers in new era for women’s football in Saudi Arabia

Start of regional league ushers in new era for women’s football in Saudi Arabia
  • New 16-team competition across the Western, Central and Eastern regions will be launched by Saudi Arabian Football Federation on Monday

Monday is set to be a landmark day for women’s sports in Saudi Arabia. In particular, for women’s football. This is the day that the Saudi Arabian Football Federation’s new Regional Football League kicks off across the nation.

Sixteen teams will take part in the first phase, with games played mostly in the capital Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam.

The league is split, as its name suggests, into three regions: A six-team Central region, a six-team Western region, and a four-team Eastern region.

Matches will be played in a round-robin, home-and-away format, with the winner of each group declared champion of their region.

In addition, the top three teams in the Central and Western regions, as well as the top two from the Eastern region, will progress to the national championships.

There, the eight qualified teams will play in a knockout competition at the Kingdom Final Championship, which is due to be held early next year in Jeddah, with the winning team set to pocket $133,000.

This is wonderful news for the progress of the women’s game in the Kingdom, and we must also not forget the Saudi Sports For All Women’s Football League, which was contested last year.

But it is not the prize money or the format of the new regional competition that has captured my fascination. I am more focused on the speed and efficiency with which the SAFF has implemented a plan first devised as recently as 2017. It is to be congratulated for making this milestone in Saudi women’s football a reality.

To give an idea of the rate of progress, Brazil, despite already having nine regional women’s football tournaments, only last April kicked off its first national championship — curiously with 16 teams, the same number that now start the Saudi championship.

Once the decision was put in place in accordance with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030, the SAFF acted quickly and well.

In addition to the setting up of the new leagues, the federation has hired Monika Staab to lead the fledgling Saudi Arabian national women’s team. The German coach previously spent time in Riyadh in December 2020, when she was invited to the Kingdom to lead a C-license coaching course for women.

Staab’s career as a player saw her go to France and England before returning to Germany and to the women’s Bundesliga. She then became a coach, working for the German football federation.

Her work has taken her to more than 80 countries over the past four decades, including Bahrain, Iran and Qatar.

Hiring Staab was no doubt a shrewd move by the SAFF, as she is not only a leading football coach but also has experience working in Muslim countries.

(AFP)

There have already been reports of how Staab marveled at the Saudi women’s passion and love for the game after she visited clubs in Dammam, Riyadh and Jeddah. Many players had to drive for more than two hours to train and then two hours back home again. All these women are either working or studying and none of them are being paid to play. They just have a real passion for football.

There will now be opportunities that will allow young players to start their training early and provide more career options in football, both at club and international level.

There are reasons to be optimistic for the Kingdom’s national women’s team. Staab held the first training session with the squad on Nov. 2. After 700 players signed up for the trials, the coach eventually reduced the number to 30.

In February, the national team is slated to play its first international match, against the Maldives, and the long-term vision is to qualify for the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 10 years’ time.

The SAFF has also taken a significant step by hiring 12 top Asian female referees, not only to referee the women’s football league matches, but also to train local girls who wish to go down that path.

At a time when more and more girls and women from all corners of the globe are discovering the joys of playing football, Saudi women will not be far behind.

Three years after women were first allowed into football stadiums, Saudi Arabia, through its football federation, has taken a major step forward with the creation of the Regional Football League. More importantly, it is creating the conditions for it to be a sustainable project in the future.

The achievement is nothing short of remarkable because, in order to fulfill this task at the national level, the SAFF did not have to implement extraordinary measures, such as recently done by some South American countries, to create regulations that forced their affiliated clubs to form professional women’s teams on par with those for men.

When there was a will to advance the women’s game, a way was found. Congratulations to the SAFF on a job well done.


Saudi, GCC entrants set to dominate in Hail

Saudi, GCC entrants set to dominate in Hail
Updated 1 min 19 sec ago

Saudi, GCC entrants set to dominate in Hail

Saudi, GCC entrants set to dominate in Hail
  • Twenty-six bikes and 10 quads will tackle the four desert sections laid on by the Saudi Arabian Motor and Motorcycle Federation

HAIL: Saudi Arabian and Gulf Cooperation Council country riders dominate the motorcycle and quad entry for this week’s Hail Cross-Country Rally, the four-day finale to the world’s 2021 off-road season.

While most attention this week in the north-central region of Saudi Arabia turns to the battle for FIA World Cup glory and the duel between Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah and Argentina’s Lucio Alvarez for the drivers’ title, the two-wheel protagonists will be looking for their own success in the absence of the world’s top cross-country riders.

Austria’s Matthias Walkner clinched the 2021 FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship on a KTM and, as teams such as Honda, KTM, Sherco, Husqvarna, Yamaha and GasGas make their final preparations for the Dakar Rally, the stage is left open for regional riders to shine. 

Twenty-six bikes and 10 quads will tackle the four desert sections laid on by the Saudi Arabian Motor and Motorcycle Federation. 

The 2019 Sharqiya Baja winner Mishal Al-Ghuneim heads the two-wheel section on his Husqvarna FR 450 Rally and faces competition from the likes of fellow countrymen Fawaz Al-Toimi, Abdulhalim Al-Mogheera and Mohammed Al-Khater. 

Qatar is represented by Sheikh Mohammed Al-Thani (Honda), Mohammed Al-Kaabi (Beta), Abdulrahman Al-Sheeb (Beta) and Ali Mubarak Al-Badi (Yamaha). 

Sarah Khuraibet finished fourth in the women’s category of the FIM Bajas World Cup and represents Kuwait on her Husqvarna, while Salman Farhan is the sole representative from Bahrain, also on a Husqvarna. 

With Mohammed Al-Balooshi missing the Hail event to finalize his Dakar preparations, Othman Al-Ghefeli leads the Emirati challenge on a Honda CRF. He is joined by Hamdan Al-Ali and Abdullah Lanjawi. Lebanon’s Ehab Al-Hakeem and Italy’s Mauro Torrini round off the international two-wheel contingent. 

Abdulmajeed Al-Khulaifi won the quad category in Hail on six occasions between 2014 and 2019 and the Yamaha Raptor 700 rider heads nine Saudi rivals that include Sultan Al-Masoud, 2021 Sharqiya Baja winner Hani Al-Noumesi, and Haitham Al-Tuwaijri, the 2021 FIM Bajas World Cup quad champion. 

Scrutineering and technical checks take place at the rally headquarters in Hail on Monday and Tuesday in advance of the ceremonial start at Maghwat, scheduled from 6 p.m. on Tuesday. Competitors will then tackle four desert stages from Dec. 8 to 11.


Euro final review finds England fans endangered lives

Euro final review finds England fans endangered lives
Updated 52 min 40 sec ago

Euro final review finds England fans endangered lives

Euro final review finds England fans endangered lives
  • Some 100,000 fans gathered around the north London stadium for the match despite pandemic curbs capping the 90,000-seat Wembley’s capacity at 67,000

LONDON: Aggression by England fans at the European Championship final exposed an “embarrassing” part of the national culture that endangered lives and should lead to fans being barred from stadiums if they are chanting abuse and under the influence of drugs or alcohol, an investigation into the disorder has concluded.

The review found that around 2,000 ticketless supporters stormed into Wembley on July 11 after 17 “mass breaches” of the stadium gates, with many forcing their way through disabled access entrances by punching and kicking stewards before England lost to Italy in the country’s first men’s final since winning the 1966 World Cup.

“The behavior of a large minority of England supporters was not just disgraceful, it recklessly endangered lives,” Louise Casey, an experienced former government official, said in a 129-page report published Friday.

“The appalling behavior of supporters on Euro Sunday should be a wake-up call for us all. For too long, the actions of a minority of England fans have been tolerated as a part of our national culture (albeit an embarrassing one), rather than confronted head-on.”

The review said had England won the game, a ticketless group of 6,000 people were thought to be preparing to storm the stadium to see the trophy presented.

Casey blamed the ability for the rampage to take place on a “collective failure” and said she did not want to “scapegoat” anyone.

“A minority of England supporters turned what should have been a day of national pride into a day of shame,” Casey said.

Casey recommended that the English Football Association leads a campaign to bring about a “sea-change in attitudes” by fans.

Some 100,000 fans gathered around the north London stadium for the match despite pandemic curbs capping the 90,000-seat Wembley’s capacity at 67,000.

“The threats, aggression, violence, smoke and flare use, throwing of missiles — including faeces — excessive consumption of alcohol and cocaine all combined to fuel a febrile atmosphere,” Casey said. “A loss of experienced stewards as a result of the pandemic left Wembley’s stewarding operation vulnerable when confronted with the most aggressive and disorderly crowd Wembley had ever seen.”

Casey condemned fans who “targeted disabled supporters in a predatory fashion” to gain entry.

“In one appalling incident,” she said, “a ticketless fan tried to impersonate a steward and hijack a disabled child and separated him from his father, in order to trick his way through a pass gate.”

The insufficient enforcement of the ban on drinking alcohol on public transport in London was highlighted in the report.

“The FA and Wembley, working with others, should step up action on eradicating such behaviors from football ... refusing to allow entry to fans who arrive chanting foul abuse and/ or are clearly under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs,” she said.

Casey said tailgating should become a criminal offense.

“The existing enforcement mechanisms available to the police and other enforcement officers do not offer enough deterrent against those determined to use the cover of football matches to commit criminal offenses,” she said.

Players’ families were caught up in the unrest, with England defender Harry Maguire’s father injuring ribs.

UEFA has already punished England, with a home Nations League game in June having to be played in an empty stadium. A second empty-stadium game was deferred for a two-year probationary period.

“The review makes clear that the circumstances leading up to the match led to a perfect storm of lawlessness,” FA chief executive Mark Bullingham said in a statement. “No event is set up to deal with such disgraceful behaviour from thousands of ticketless fans. Collectively we must never allow this to happen again.”


Saudi Arabia go all out for win against Morocco to keep FIFA Arab Cup hopes alive

Saudi Arabia go all out for win against Morocco to keep FIFA Arab Cup hopes alive
Updated 06 December 2021

Saudi Arabia go all out for win against Morocco to keep FIFA Arab Cup hopes alive

Saudi Arabia go all out for win against Morocco to keep FIFA Arab Cup hopes alive
  • After Palestine draw, young Saudi team must get all 3 points and hope Jordan falter
  • Abdullah Al-Hamdan: We will play our game, and our goal is to take the three points and move forward to the next stage

Abdullah Al-Hamdan’s late equalizer on Saturday against Palestine kept Saudi Arabia’s hopes of reaching the knockout stages of the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup alive.

It means that the mission against Morocco on Tuesday in the final Group C game is a simple one: Win and hope Jordan lose.

It will be far from easy as Morocco have been the best team in the tournament so far. The Atlas Lions have won both of their games 4-0. In contrast, Saudi Arabia started the campaign with a 1-0 defeat against Jordan and then drew 1-1 with Palestine. It leaves Morocco top of the group with six points, Jordan second with three, and Saudi Arabia and Palestine with one each.

The spine of the Moroccan team has looked very solid indeed. Badr Benoun has taken the captain’s armband and has been leading from the center of defense in impressive fashion. The midfield of Yahya Jabrane, Abdelilah Hafidi and Wallid El Karti has worked well and worked hard together with Ismail El Haddad and Achraf Bencharki (the Zamalek forward has been a standout). They have looked good in attack, and goals have flowed.

If Morocco won so convincingly against a Jordan team that should have defeated Saudi Arabia by more than one goal, then what chance does this young Saudi team, essentially an under-23 side, have?

There is always hope and, in this case, there is some positive news. One is that goal difference may help. Should the Green Falcons win, then a draw will not be enough for Jordan against Palestine. They will have to win.

Also, the fact that Morocco have been so good means at least that they have already secured a place in the last eight and almost certainly taken first place. It is a talented lineup, but with the quarter-final coming on Saturday, it is likely that players will be rested.

Even so, Moroccan goalkeeper Abdelali Mhamdi has warned the Asian powerhouse that the North Africans are not about to take it easy, especially as the team will also be roared on by a healthy contingent of fans at the Al-Thumama Stadium in Qatar.

“We want to end the group stage with another victory that will enhance our confidence,” the 30 year old, who plays his club football for Saudi Arabian club Abha, said. “We will not take things easy, but we will play with the same energy and intensity that we did in the first two games.”

Whatever the opposition, there is a lot to do for Saudi Arabia. It remains to be seen what the lineup is, given that eight changes were made for the 1-1 draw with Palestine. Abdullah Al-Hamdan did not start, but came off the bench to score the vital goal that means that this game is not a dead rubber. It has turned the Arab Cup campaign around, potentially, and many in Saudi Arabia will be hoping that it ends up doing the same with the striker’s career.

At the very least, it will be a confidence boost for the former Al-Shabab striker. His big move to Al-Hilal in February looked significant for the then 21 year old. He has, however, struggled for playing time at the Asian champions with the likes of Bafetimbi Gomis and Moussa Marega ahead of him in the domestic pecking order.

His instincts were on display on Saturday as he steered the ball home.

“I do not care whether I score or my teammates score as we just want to win. The team comes first,” he said.

Al-Hamdan knows what needs to be done against Morocco.

“We made the task difficult for ourselves, but there is nothing impossible in football,” he said. “We know very well that the Moroccan national team is strong, but we will play our game, and our goal is to take the three points and move forward to the next stage.”

It will also be a test for Laurent Bonadei. The assistant coach of the senior team is in the dugout while Herve Renard watches from the stands. Bonadei has already invoked the spirit of the 2019 Gulf Cup when Saudi Arabia recovered from an opening game loss to reach the final of the tournament.

If the number two can steer what is a young and inexperienced team into a similar position, then it will be a fine achievement for all and another sign that Saudi Arabian football is heading in the right direction. It will all be decided against Morocco on Tuesday.


Famous Argentine polo team in Saudi deal to turn AlUla into regional equestrian hub

Famous Argentine polo team in Saudi deal to turn AlUla into regional equestrian hub
Updated 06 December 2021

Famous Argentine polo team in Saudi deal to turn AlUla into regional equestrian hub

Famous Argentine polo team in Saudi deal to turn AlUla into regional equestrian hub
  • Royal Commission for AlUla, La Dolfina partnership agreement will see sporting legend become advocate for heritage site

RIYADH: The Royal Commission for AlUla and the famous La Dolfina Polo Team have announced a long-term partnership deal aimed at turning the Saudi heritage site into a regional hub for equestrian activities and a destination for horse enthusiasts from around the world.

As part of the agreement, Adolfo Cambiaso, founder of La Dolfina and widely regarded as the world’s greatest ever polo player, will also become a destination advocate for AlUla.

The team also said it would be returning to AlUla to compete in the 2022 Desert Polo event after a successful debut at the inaugural competition in January last year, the country’s first official polo tournament.

AlUla Desert Polo (slated for Feb. 11 to 12 next year) will take place in the unique, purpose-built desert arena in the shadows of the ancient site of Hegra.

Cambiaso said: “When we travelled to AlUla for the first Desert Polo, we were blown away by the breathtaking landscape of Hegra, Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the stunning desert of AlUla.

“We learnt that the relationship of the Arabian Peninsula and horses extends for thousands of years as found in the archaeological inscriptions on the rocks in and around AlUla.

“Through the stunning intricately carved tombs at Hegra and the open-air library of Jabal Ikmah, we can understand how humans began to tame these magnificent creatures, and the role of the horse in the development of civilized human beings,” he added.

The linkup, supported by the Saudi Polo Federation, plans to bring together expertise from both sides through a new model of sport partnership built around the three main cornerstones of cultural and equestrian synergies, a shared commitment to excellence, and the development of the sport of polo in the Kingdom.

The Argentine-based team, described as “a perfect team” due to its 40-goal handicap, made history by winning three consecutive Triple Crowns (the Tortugas Open, Hurlingham Open, and Argentine Open in 2013, 2014, and 2015). La Dolfina is the only team in polo history to hold the record.

“We were very lucky to be amongst the first to experience these sites before it was an open destination throughout the full year, and now we look forward to returning.

“Desert Polo was an incredible event that not only introduced polo to Saudi Arabia but also helped the polo world discover Saudi with new eyes through AlUla. Seeing the commitment and passion to develop in polo, and sports in general, is a mission we share and want to help with,” Cambiaso said.

Phillip Jones, the RCU’s chief destination management and marketing officer, said: “Our role is to preserve and develop AlUla as a global destination for cultural heritage and eco-tourism with a long-term plan that preserves the area’s natural and historic heritage, while establishing AlUla as an attractive location to live, work, and visit.

“Aligning with the No. 1 polo player in the world allows us to fuse our history of horsemanship and Adolfo’s expertise in polo to preserve our heritage and promote equestrian sports in the nation.

“The horse heritage story is real and rich and deep in AlUla, and we look forward to our role in raising the profile of the sport in the country,” he added.

Amr Zedan, chairman of the Saudi Polo Federation, said it was an “honor” to be partnering with La Dolfina.

“We have had great support from Adolfo and all the La Dolfina players and look forward to continuing our collaboration to build the world’s most successful polo team,” he added.


Lewis Hamilton keeps title dream alive with victory in thrilling, stop-start Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Winner Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton (R) reacts with his trophy flanked by second-placed Red Bull's Dutch driver Max Verstappen (L) on the Jeddah podium. (AFP)
Winner Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton (R) reacts with his trophy flanked by second-placed Red Bull's Dutch driver Max Verstappen (L) on the Jeddah podium. (AFP)
Updated 06 December 2021

Lewis Hamilton keeps title dream alive with victory in thrilling, stop-start Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Winner Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton (R) reacts with his trophy flanked by second-placed Red Bull's Dutch driver Max Verstappen (L) on the Jeddah podium. (AFP)

JEDDAH: Lewis Hamilton won a thrilling, topsy-turvy Saudi Arabian Grand Prix on Sunday after an epic battle with title rival Max Verstappen to ensure his title challenge remained alive going into the final race in Abu Dhabi next weekend.

The victory for the British driver in an incident-heavy race means the Mercedes and Red Bull drivers are now level on points in the world championship standings ahead of the finale in the UAE.

Hamilton got off to a perfect start off the line, while Verstappen appeared to be struggling to get power down in the early stages. But the momentum shifted toward the Dutchman when Haas driver Mick Schumacher hit a barrier, which eventually red-flagged the session after an initial safety car.

Hamilton and his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas were called into the pits under the safety car but Verstappen stayed out and took the lead of the race once the red flags waved, allowing him to pit and change tires still out in front.

On the restart, Hamilton retook the lead amid a close encounter with Verstappen, who the seven-time champion claimed forced him off the track.

Just a few laps later, there was another red flag after Sergio Perez, George Russell and Nikita Mazepin all collided at the rear of the field.

The battle between the two title hopefuls had heated up even more when Verstappen received a five-second penalty due to a controversial move on Hamilton, who accused the Dutchman of “brake-testing’” him.

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Race officials decided that Verstappen’s move was illegal, which after some negotiation between FIA race director and the teams put Alpine’s Esteban Ocon into the lead for third start of the race, with Hamilton in second and Verstappen in third.

Verstappen then took the lead again with Hamilton following through, and tempers in the garages were fraying when they collided late in the race.

Bottas kept the pressure on a slowing Ocon and snatched the third and final podium spot on the final lap in what was his penultimate race for Mercedes.

Hamilton was full of praise for the efforts of his team after the race, while saying he “did not understand” why Verstappen had braked and that the incident was “confusing..”

“I’ve been racing a long time and that was incredibly tough, he said. “I tried to be as sensible and tough as I could be and with all my experience just keeping the car on the track and staying clean.

“It was difficult. We had all sorts of things thrown at us so I’m just really proud of everyone and great with the crowd.

“Red Bull have some raw pace, it was hard to overtake them, we’ve done an amazing job and Valtteri did a great job for the team and this is for all the guys and girls back in the factory.

“It has been an amazing event I felt very welcome here and people have been lovely here. The track is phenomenal, very difficult physically and mentally but you would not want it any other way.”

Verstappen was in a more philosophical mood, calling into question some of the decisions made by officials

“It was quite eventful, a lot of things happened, which I don’t fully agree with, but it is what it is,” he said.

“I tried to give it my all, I don’t think the tires were lasting, I was lacking a bit of rubber at the end, nevertheless, still second.

“I slowed down, I wanted to let him by, I was on the right but he didn’t want to overtake and we touched. I don’t really understand what happened there.

“It will be decided (at Abu Dhabi), hopefully we have a good weekend.”