Why South Korea’s Jang Hyun-soo could be Al-Hilal’s trump card against Pohang Steelers in AFC Champions League final

Why South Korea’s Jang Hyun-soo could be Al-Hilal’s trump card against Pohang Steelers in AFC Champions League final
South Korea’s Jang Hyun-soo rarely makes headlines but played an important role in the Riyadh club’s 2019 triumph and could do so again on Tuesday. (File/AFP)
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Updated 22 November 2021

Why South Korea’s Jang Hyun-soo could be Al-Hilal’s trump card against Pohang Steelers in AFC Champions League final

Why South Korea’s Jang Hyun-soo could be Al-Hilal’s trump card against Pohang Steelers in AFC Champions League final
  • The center-back rarely makes headlines but played an important role in the Riyadh club’s 2019 triumph and could do so again on Tuesday

Al-Hilal have so many stars in attack that it is difficult to know where to start. And should the Saudi Arabian team defeat Pohang Steelers of South Korea in the AFC Champions League final on Tuesday, then it is likely that someone like the free-scoring Bafetimbi Gomis will win the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award.

If organizers have a little more imagination, however, then they could do a lot worse than consider Jang Hyun-soo, as the South Korean is one of the most underrated players in Asian football.

The 30-year-old center-back, who can also play as a defensive midfielder, has been with Al-Hilal since July 2019 and played a big part in their third Asian title-winning campaign later that year. And he has appeared in all but eight minutes of this Champions League campaign, doing what he always does: Be consistently solid, making mistakes about as often as he makes headlines.

There have been South Korean internationals at Al-Hilal in the past, such as 2002 World Cup legends Lee Young-pyo and Seol Ki-hyeon, but Jang has established himself as one of the top players in the league. 

“Hyun-soo is a coach’s dream,” Razvan Lucescu, the Romanian who was in charge of Al-Hilal when Jang arrived, said last year. “He adapted to the league quickly and did everything that was asked. He is one of those players that you never have to worry about. Every team needs a player like Hyun-soo, he is so professional on and off the pitch.

That could be seen in the lead-up to the big game on Tuesday. Pohang coach Kim Ki-dong worked with Jang when he was on South Korea’s coaching staff at the 2014 Asian Games. Kim told reporters in Korea, where there has been a focus on the Al-Hilal defender for the first time since 2018 (more on that later), that he has been in regular contact with Jang while he has been in Saudi Arabia. As soon as Pohang and Al-Hilal reached the final, Jang stopped all conversations.

It is an attitude that has served him well ever since he made his international debut back in 2013. At the time, Jang was at FC Tokyo — he has never played domestic football in Korea — and he returned to Japan in 2017 after a stint in China. Then came the move to Al-Hilal and a stage on which he has gone from strength to strength. There are not that many players who have won Asia’s biggest club prize more than once.

Jang has had his share of downs, however. During the 2018 World Cup in Russia, he was blamed by South Korean fans for the team’s defeats against Sweden and Mexico. It is a measure of the man that he played a starring role in the very next game — a famous 2-0 win over Germany. In Kazan, against the desperate defending world champions, he was immense.

Perhaps he did not get the recognition he deserved for that but, soon after, he really did make headlines, but not in the way he would have wanted. All South Korean males have to perform military service of almost two years. Jang, however, received an exemption after being part of the team that won gold at the 2014 Asian Games — a reward that not all agree with in a country where military service is a very sensitive issue. 

Yet even those who have been granted that prize must still complete basic training (Tottenham Hotspur star Son Heung-min spent three weeks with the Marines in 2020), which can take up to 60 days, as well as 544 hours of sports-related community service. Jang submitted documents to the military authorities stating that he had completed 196 hours of community football coaching in December 2017. A later investigation discovered that there had been heavy snow on the days Jang claimed he was working and so no football activities could have taken place. In other words, Jang had doctored his records to avoid carrying out his military service.

A very dim view is taken of those who try to avoid their duty. In late 2018, the Korean Football Association fined the player and hit him with a lifetime ban from playing for the national team. 

Jang apologized, saying: “Even though I received a privilege in mandatory military service, I’m very sorry that I wasn’t able to sincerely carry out the duty as a South Korean man. I clearly understand that there’s no excuse to justify my actions. Even if I reflect on myself and feel deep regret over this incident, I know that isn’t enough. I will become a disciplined player who doesn’t make the same mistakes again in the future.”

The ban means that Jang is stuck on 58 appearances for the national team. Had the episode never happened, then he would surely be moving toward a century of caps for South Korea. The fact that he is not may be a personal pain but is likely to be welcomed by Al-Hilal boss Leonardo Jardim.

If Jang was not banned, he would be regularly jetting off all around Asia on national team duty and would have been on international duty just last week. Instead, he stayed in Riyadh to focus on preparing for the final, in which he has the chance to prevent Pohang from winning a fourth Asian title of their own. Jang may be about to make more headlines in Korea.


Simona Halep battles service demons to stay alive at Australian Open

Simona Halep battles service demons to stay alive at Australian Open
Updated 20 sec ago

Simona Halep battles service demons to stay alive at Australian Open

Simona Halep battles service demons to stay alive at Australian Open
  • Error-strewn clash with Poland’s Magdalena Frech which saw 11 service breaks
  • Both players struggled to hold serve in the opening set
MELBOURNE: Former world number one Simona Halep labored into the Australian Open second round Tuesday after an error-strewn clash with Poland’s Magdalena Frech which saw 11 service breaks.
The fit-again Romanian 14th seed came into the Grand Slam full of confidence after her first title in 16 months at the Melbourne Summer Set tournament this month.
But she struggled to find her groove against the 102nd-ranked Pole before banking the win 6-4, 6-3 on Margaret Court Arena to keep her dreams of a third major title alive.
“I found it so difficult today, I was unsure if I could play good tennis,” she said.
“But in the end I won and that makes me very happy. Hopefully this week I can play better and better.”
Halep, the runner-up in 2018 to Caroline Wozniacki and semifinalist two years later, is on her way back after a truncated 2021 season when she struggled with calf and knee injuries.
And it was a far from convincing performance, with both players struggling to hold serve in the opening set, with Frech broken three times and Halep twice.
Ultimately, the Romanian was stronger in the rallies and she finally sealed the set on serve with a trademark backhand down the line.
Neither player’s serve improved in the second set with Halep immediately breaking before Frech went on a three-game win streak as the error-count mounted.
Halep then reeled off five games in a row to ensure victory and a second round clash with either American qualifier Katie Volynets or Brazil’s Beatriz Haddad Maia.

Nadal, Barty impress but Djokovic looms over Australian Open

Nadal, Barty impress but Djokovic looms over Australian Open
Updated 17 January 2022

Nadal, Barty impress but Djokovic looms over Australian Open

Nadal, Barty impress but Djokovic looms over Australian Open
  • Osaka successfully opens title defense but Gauff an early big-name casualty

MELBOURNE: Rafael Nadal and Ashleigh Barty made devastating starts to their Australian Open title campaigns on Monday as the Grand Slam attempted to move on from the Novak Djokovic visa saga.

Naomi Osaka launched the defense of her women’s crown with victory but Coco Gauff was an early big-name casualty. The American 17-year-old dumped out in straight sets by Wang Qiang, who is ranked outside the top 100.

The only Australian Open champion in the men’s draw after nine-time winner Djokovic’s deportation, Nadal started his quest to become the first male to win 21 Grand Slams by sweeping aside 66th-ranked Marcos Giron, 6-1, 6-4, 6-2.

The draw has opened up for the Spanish great with defending champion Djokovic out of the picture and the other member of the “Big Three,”  Roger Federer, not at Melbourne Park because of injury.

But the 35-year-old Nadal said he was just relieved to be playing tennis after Djokovic’s refusal to get vaccinated against COVID overshadowed the first Grand Slam of the year right up until the last moment.

Although Djokovic’s absence is good news for Nadal’s tilt at men’s tennis history, he said he would rather the world No. 1 from Serbia was playing.

“The ideal situation in the world of sport is that the best players are on court,” said Nadal, who plays Germany’s Yannick Hanfmann in the second round.

He may not be there, but Djokovic still looms over the tournament.

Nadal was all guns blazing at Rod Laver Arena, showing no apparent ill effects from a foot injury he suffered last year and then being “very sick” with COVID in December.

“Today is one victory in the first Grand Slam. Happy for that. One month ago situation had been different — looks very ugly in some way,” he said.

Other winners in the men’s draw on day one of the so-called “Happy Slam,” where crowds have been capped at 50 percent because of the pandemic, included seventh seed Matteo Berrettini.

The Italian defeated American Brandon Nakashima in four sets despite tummy trouble.

Also through was third seed Alexander Zverev in the night match, but 12th-seeded Briton Cameron Norrie lost in three sets to Sebastian Korda, the son of 1998 Australian Open champion Petr Korda.

There was to be no fairytale run for “lucky loser” Salvatore Caruso.

The Italian had earned a place in the main draw when Djokovic was deported but he fell at the first hurdle.

In the women’s draw, top seed and world No.1 Barty made a real statement of intent, crushing qualifier Lesia Tsurenko in 54 minutes, 6-0, 6-1.

The 25-year-old faces Lucia Bronzetti of Italy next as the pre-tournament favorite and home hope chases a maiden Australian Open title.

“There’s always something special about playing on a Monday night in the Australian Open,” said Barty, who will need to deal with high expectations from the home fans.

Japan’s former world No. 1 Osaka, the reigning champion, was also largely untroubled with a 6-3, 6-3 win against Colombia’s Camila Osorio.

Seeded 13 after a disrupted 2021 in which she said she had suffered “long bouts of depression,”  Osaka cruised through in 68 minutes.

“I would say I feel more comfortable in my skin, if that makes sense,” said the 24-year-old, who won the title at Melbourne Park in 2019 and 2021. She will play American Madison Brengle next.

Also through are French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova, Greek fifth seed Maria Sakkari and reigning Olympic champion Belinda Bencic.

But there was heartbreak for Tunisian ninth seed Ons Jabeur, who did not even make it onto court and withdrew because of injury before her match.

Also out was the 18th-seeded prodigy Gauff, surprisingly losing 6-4, 6-2 to China’s Wang.

“I think just everything disappointed me about today,” said Gauff.

“I feel like in the pre-season, I worked really hard, and I felt like I was ready to have a good run here.

“Today I just didn’t perform well.”


Two Saudi skiers make history by qualifying for Winter Olympics

Saudi skiers, Salman Al-Howaish and Fayik Abdi have qualified to compete in Alpine skiing races at the Beijing Games. (Twitter/@saudiolympic)
Saudi skiers, Salman Al-Howaish and Fayik Abdi have qualified to compete in Alpine skiing races at the Beijing Games. (Twitter/@saudiolympic)
Updated 17 January 2022

Two Saudi skiers make history by qualifying for Winter Olympics

Saudi skiers, Salman Al-Howaish and Fayik Abdi have qualified to compete in Alpine skiing races at the Beijing Games. (Twitter/@saudiolympic)
  • Salman Al-Howaish qualified for the slalom and Fayik Abdi for the giant slalom, according to the international skiing federation (FIS) website

RIYADH: You might be forgiven for thinking the Beijing Winter Olympics next month might not be the kind of event at which to expect athletes from Saudi Arabia. But think again.

Saudi skiers, Salman Al-Howaish and Fayik Abdi have qualified to compete in Alpine skiing races at the Beijing Games, according to Saudi Press Agency.

The giant slalom has attracted competitors from countries with no medal-winning record in the sport — such as violinist Vanessa Mae who competed for Thailand at the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Al-Howaish qualified for the slalom and Abdi for the giant slalom, according to the international skiing federation (FIS) website.

Final places are yet to be assigned by the Saudi Olympic and Paralympic Committee, but Saudi Arabia, where temperatures can hit 52 degrees Celsius, has overcome the first hurdle in its quest to participated in its first Winter Olympics.

Other nations currently on the list to compete against Alpine skiers from countries such as Austria and Norway in Beijing include India, Brazil, Ghana, Haiti and the Philippines.

The Games run from Feb. 4-20.


Super Cup deal with Spain ‘will boost Saudi football’: Spanish soccer chief Luis Rubiales

Luis Rubiales, president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation. (AN Photo/Huda Bashatah)
Luis Rubiales, president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation. (AN Photo/Huda Bashatah)
Updated 17 January 2022

Super Cup deal with Spain ‘will boost Saudi football’: Spanish soccer chief Luis Rubiales

Luis Rubiales, president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation. (AN Photo/Huda Bashatah)
  • Spanish Super Cup deal underlines Kingdom’s footballing ambitions with plans to lift national team ‘to next level’

RIYADH: The deal between the Saudi Arabian Football Federation and its Spanish counterpart to host the Spanish Super Cup competition until 2029 will mean more to the country than just hosting games.

The exchange of knowledge, supporting initiatives and collaborations will open new horizons for the Kingdom’s national team and Saudi football as a whole.

“We have seen the Saudi football team and they have a good chance of qualifying for the World Cup. I think they are doing a good job, and it is not all due to the help they receive from federations such as the Spanish one, but also because they have people who are working very well in this country,” said Luis Rubiales, president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation.

Rubiales supports efforts by Saudi footballing authorities to call on other federations around the world in order to maximize the benefits on all fronts, and acknowledges the commitment shown by the Saudi federation and its president, Yasser Al-Misehal.

Managers and coaches of both countries have been exchanging visits, developing powerful programs to create stronger homegrown players and agendas that will help lift the Saudi national team to the next level.

“We are collaborating in referee training and coach training,” said Rubiales.

The Saudi federation has also been sending players to Spain on one-year camps as part of a grassroots approach to the development of young players in the Kingdom.

A similar initiative in the 2017/2018 season followed an agreement between La Liga and SAFF, with nine Saudi players sent on loan having the opportunity to meet and train with players from La Liga.

Among those who took part were Salem Al-Dossary and Fahad Al-Muwallad, two of the key players in the Saudi national team.

Rubiales said that the two federations also have collaborated on the exchange of knowledge and development of Saudi female players in the national team.

Female players made an official visit to Spain where they met Spanish football players and federation members.

The agreement between the Saudi and Spanish federations highlights working with the latest infrastructure, including stadiums.

“It is very important to work with the best tools and best stadiums, and in that aspect there has been tremendous evolution,” Rubiales said.

King Fahd International Stadium has received an extensive upgrade, and the Saudi Ministry of Sports is committed to encouraging key investments in sports infrastructure and athletes’ development.

Rubiales said that a working formula implemented under the agreement will benefit both federations and players in the long term.

“There will be Saudi players who will go to the European league, I have no doubt,” he added.


2022 Diriyah E-Prix gives fans a shot at free tickets as all-electric racing series returns to Saudi Arabia 

2022 Diriyah E-Prix gives fans a shot at free tickets as all-electric racing series returns to Saudi Arabia 
Updated 17 January 2022

2022 Diriyah E-Prix gives fans a shot at free tickets as all-electric racing series returns to Saudi Arabia 

2022 Diriyah E-Prix gives fans a shot at free tickets as all-electric racing series returns to Saudi Arabia 
  • Formula E season eight will light up with night race doubleheader on Jan. 28-29

RIYADH: Formula E makes its return to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 28-29 with the streets of Diriyah coming alive under lights for the all-electric grid’s opening weekend of the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship’s eighth season.

Racing fans have the chance to win free tickets for the doubleheader of races following the launch of experiential activation booths across Riyadh.

Booths at four popular locations in the Saudi capital — UWalk, Panorama Mall, Riyadh Park and Al-Nakheel Mall — will be open for visitors from 4 p.m. till 11 p.m. daily until Jan. 27, the eve of the first race.

Fans will be able to learn more about how Formula E is redefining motorsports through the a fusion of entertainment, sustainability, technology and innovation.

In an effort to raise awareness about environmental protection and the importance of recycling, visitors will be able to enjoy branded basketball shooting challenges in buckets of specific recycled items for an opportunity to win tickets for the race weekend. They will also be able to pose for pictures next to a condensed structure of Formula E’s Gen-2 car.

The doubleheader race has cemented its place on the Formula E calendar as it returns to the Kingdom for the fourth year running. It comes as part of a 10-year partnership between Formula E and Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Sport and the Saudi Automobile and Motorsports Federation.

The internationally renowned street racing track around the Diriyah UNESCO World Heritage site will come alive under the floodlights again as 11 teams and 22 drivers representing 11 nations from the US to New Zealand and Brazil to France battle it out for the first points of the new season.

Visitors will also be able to buy tickets directly from the booths, with prices starting at SR150 ($40) for grandstand access. Tickets are also available online via diriyah-eprix.com.