South Africa’s Justin Harding leads after day two of Dubai Desert Classic

Justin Harding leads Dubai Desert Classic field by two shots at the end of second round. (Getty Images Europe)
Justin Harding leads Dubai Desert Classic field by two shots at the end of second round. (Getty Images Europe)
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Updated 28 January 2022

South Africa’s Justin Harding leads after day two of Dubai Desert Classic

Justin Harding leads Dubai Desert Classic field by two shots at the end of second round. (Getty Images Europe)
  • Tyrell Hatton is two shots back as chasing pack eyes fresh charges

DUBAI: Overnight joint-leader Justin Harding claimed the outright lead on the second day of the Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic after a host of potential challengers failed to capitalize at Emirates Golf Club on Friday.

Starting the day seven under par following a grandstand opening round of 65 on Thursday, Harding carded a steady four-under-par round of 68, including a magnificent eagle on the par-four 15th hole, to reach the clubhouse with a two-shot cushion at 11 under par.

“I’ve played this golf course well over the years. I had a good final round a couple years back and was in contention last year and played badly on the Sunday. My game seems to be close. If I can control the putter and make some putts, (I’m) always going to be there or thereabouts, which is nice,” said Harding.

Leading the chase is Tyrell Hatton, who is aiming for a fifth career victory in Rolex Series events this week. The Englishman bogeyed the par-four first hole for the second day running before recovering with seven birdies en route to a six-under-par round of 66.

With Harding bidding to become only the third South African to lift the famous Dallah Trophy, compatriot Erik Van Rooyen, the world number 63, fired a 67 to finish Friday three strokes behind his fellow countryman. Van Rooyen threatened to finish even closer to Harding before a sole bogey on the iconic par-four eighth hole spoiled the 31-year-old’s otherwise blemish-free card.

“It’s what we play for — to be in contention, especially in these Rolex Series events. I can’t wait for Sunday,” said Van Rooyen, who sits at eight under par alongside Fabrizio Zanotti. The Paraguayan carded a two-under-par round of 70 following an impressive 66 on Thursday.

After his three-under-par opening round of 69, Richard Bland was on course to set the early morning pace before a late collapse saw the Englishman card a double-bogey and bogey on the final two holes. Posting a second round of 68, Bland — who become the oldest-ever first-time winner of a DP World Tour event when he clinched the British Masters at The Belfry in 2021 — is in a five-strong chasing pack at seven-under alongside two-time Dubai Desert Classic victor Rory McIlroy, world number five Viktor Hovland, Poland’s Adrian Meronk, and Denmark’s Joachim B. Hanson, who began the day as joint leader.

Following a two-under-par opening round, defending champion Paul Casey is poised to challenge at minus six after a second-round score of 68.

“I made some mistakes and I wasn’t feeling 100 percent,” Casey said. “I tweaked my neck and I’m not physically right, but I’m not unhappy. I’m actually quite happy that I did a good job of managing and getting round.”

Casey’s compatriot Lee Westwood, twice a runner-up on the Majlis Course, posted a second consecutive round of 69 to join Casey and fellow countrymen Sam Horsfield, Richard Armitage and Tommy Fleetwood on six under par.

Other high-profile players who will complete this year’s Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic after making the halfway cut include world number 2 Collin Morikawa at three under par, and a raft of former Majlis Course conquerors, notably 2017 champion Sergio Garcia at three under par; 2018 champion Li Haotong at one under par; and 2012 winner Rafa Cabrera-Bello at one over par.

In a boost to home hopes, UAE-based amateur Josh Hill, 17, will see out all four rounds of his maiden Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic appearance after a two-over-par round of 74 left the young Englishman sitting at level par through 36 holes.

“It was a bit of a struggle to be honest. I didn’t play that well, so I’m proud of the way I dug in and kept positive,” said Hill. “Even though it was disappointing, there are lots of positives. I dug deep which I’m pretty happy with.”

Elsewhere, fans of all ages are making the most of free entry to the event, experiencing a wide range of food and entertainment offerings in a buzzing Tournament Town, which is open until 11 p.m. daily though to Sunday.

The Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic will continue its commitment to breast cancer awareness on Pink Saturday, with players, caddies, officials and fans encouraged to wear something pink for the cause.

Held in partnership with Al Jalila Foundation, Pink Saturday will see Tournament Town run a ‘Best Dressed’ competition and on-the-spot prizes for spectators. In addition, visitors are encouraged to post images of a special flower display to their social media channels to further raise awareness.


Cricket adapts to changing post-pandemic landscape

Cricket adapts to changing post-pandemic landscape
Updated 39 sec ago

Cricket adapts to changing post-pandemic landscape

Cricket adapts to changing post-pandemic landscape
  • An easing of COVID-19 constraints has led to an abundance of play in recent months, as tournaments, particularly ICC World Cup qualifiers, catch up on a backlog of fixtures

Throughout cricket, when the person batting has scored 50 runs, it is normally the cue for applause, the strength of which will be according to the manner and style of the innings. In former days of league cricket in northern England, when the professional reached 50, it was customary for a club official to go around the spectators with a box asking for small change to be proffered in recognition of the feat.

This is my 50th column for the Arab News. In recognition of this, I organized my own collection — that of recurring topics which have emerged during the compilation of these columns. Too many emerged to be discussed in one column. Hence, I will focus on those which have material implications for the future of the game.

Acting as a backdrop to the whole year has been the impact of COVID-19. It is easy to forget that, at this stage of 2021, preparations were being made in England for international matches to be staged at biosecure venues in front of a restricted number of spectators. This method of “keeping the show on the road” worked for a time, but players began to feel the pressure, leading to concerns for their mental well-being. These are now being taken more seriously.

Another lasting impact of the pandemic on cricket has been the way it has been forced to adapt its products and revenue streams. The Indian Premier League could not be played in India in March/April 2020. It was later switched to the UAE, taking place between mid-September and mid-November, thus preserving its media and sponsorship income streams. In 2021, the IPL began in India but was suspended halfway through, resuming in the UAE in September.

Apart from ensuring that the tournaments were completed, the switches also provided the UAE with enhanced exposure within the cricketing world.

This was further highlighted to a broader audience when the delayed men’s 2020 T20 World Cup, due to be hosted by India, was played in the UAE, plus Oman, in October/November 2021. Additional stimulus has been provided by positive performances from both men’s and women’s teams in the UAE and Oman, plus Bahrain, in World Cup qualifying 20 and 50-over competitions. All of this points to a real advance in competitiveness within these countries, on and off the field.

Emergence from the constraints imposed by the pandemic has led to an abundance of cricket in recent months, as tournaments, particularly ICC World Cup qualifiers, catch up on a backlog of fixtures.

Into this mix, new tournaments have been added or existing ones expanded. In 2021, The Hundred was introduced in England and Wales, a format played nowhere else in the world, designed to appeal to a younger spectator.

In the same year, a T20 minor League Cricket Championship was introduced in the US, consisting of 27 teams from four regions. This is a developmental league for the US major Cricket League, planned for six cities in 2023.

In 2022, the IPL was expanded from eight to 10 franchises, necessitating an extension in its duration. Within the last year, the direction of travel for cricket, in terms of a focus on the T20 format, has been reaffirmed, especially in emerging countries.

What has also been reaffirmed is the dominance of Australian cricket in both men’s and women’s cricket. This is based on its men’s team winning the T20 World Cup in November in the UAE, its crushing of England in the 2020/21 Ashes. The women’s team won the 50-over ODI World Cup in April, and beat England in a combined Test and short format series in January/February. For the time being, India’s bid to dominate has been halted in recent months, partly because of a hiatus caused by changes of coach and captain.

One of the most significant developments in the last 12 months has been the increased support for women’s cricket. This has taken the form of increased funding, increased audiences, both in person and on media channels and increased remuneration, although gender parity has not yet been reached. Most women’s cricket is played to the shorter formats and cricket’s authorities seem reluctant to increase the opportunities for women’s Test cricket.

It is in India where women’s cricket has the greatest latent potential, but the Board of Control for Cricket in India has been slow to provide the platforms for its realization. Even recently, it expressed the view that, at this stage, there is not enough depth in the women’s game in India to justify further investment. This has been accompanied by vague talk about a women’s IPL.

Despite the current president of the MCC being a woman, as well as holding the post of managing director of women’s cricket for the England and Wales Cricket Board, cricket remains a game dominated by male administrators.

By way of example, only one of the 18 professional county cricket clubs in England and Wales currently has a woman in the post of either chair or CEO. Somewhat bucking the fashion, one county had a woman in both positions in 2019. Neither are still in post. The chair, herself a woman of color, stepped down in November 2021, apparently saddened by the high-profile allegations of racism within the domestic game.

My column of Nov. 24, 2021 covered those revelations. They rocked cricket, especially in Britain, where inquiries, sackings and recriminations ensued.

These have died down, but the problem cannot have dissipated overnight. Out of the key recurring topics of the last year — coping with the impact of the pandemic, recognition of mental health issues, continuing growth of T20 competitions, surge in support for women’s cricket, limelight for the UAE and Oman, and Australia’s resurgence — racism is the most concerning one.

Work is underway within the game to counter its impact and bring about behavioral change. However, progress is not always obvious and needs monitoring. Time is required to educate and develop the willingness to change among those who remain in doubt.


Favorites Al-Hilal wary of upset against Al-Feiha in King’s Cup final

Favorites Al-Hilal wary of upset against Al-Feiha in King’s Cup final
Updated 51 min 4 sec ago

Favorites Al-Hilal wary of upset against Al-Feiha in King’s Cup final

Favorites Al-Hilal wary of upset against Al-Feiha in King’s Cup final
  • Saudi, Asian champions expected to add to 9 cup wins but recent exertions in 3 competitions may open door for underdogs

RIYADH: It is no surprise that Al-Hilal are favorites to defeat Al-Feiha in Thursday night’s King’s Cup final.

It is a team with more than 60 titles and trophies to its name, taking on an opponent that has none. Yet the nine-time winners — only Al-Ahli with 13 have won more — will not have it all their own way at the King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah.

This is the biggest game in the history of underdogs Al-Feiha, and it is going to be a right royal battle, one fitting of this tournament. Al-Hilal have had plenty of big games this season and have a few more to come but there is something special about Saudi Arabia’s premier cup competition.

If years and decades of history are against Al-Feiha then past weeks and months are not. After all, they have taken four points from Al-Hilal already this season, more than most. There was a hard-fought 0-0 draw in December in Riyadh and then, on May 3, a famous 1-0 victory for the Orange at home to delight their fans.

Such results have helped to take Vuk Rasovic’s men into a comfortable sixth place in the table which means that they can fully focus on the final. It has already been a great season for the club, but it could get a great deal better.

The Serbian boss, who led Al-Faisaly to the 2018 final where they lost to Al-Ittihad, is ready.

Rasovic said: “We know our opponents well and we know that they are the best team in Asia. We also know that we deserve to be here, and we will be ready both physically and technically. I can say however that while we know that we have to be at our best defensively against Al-Hilal, we will be playing to win.”

The odds may be against Al-Feiha, but they have in their line-up Aleksandar Trajkovski, the attacker who caused a sensation in March when he scored the goal for North Macedonia that ended the hopes of Italy, European champions, of appearing at the 2022 World Cup. Few know better that anything can happen on the pitch. His exploits were well-noted in Europe as is the fact that the team have a Serbian coach and a Serbian goalkeeper in Vladimir Stojkovic. The former Red Star Belgrade and Nottingham Forest No. 1 has had an excellent season between the posts and the club’s decision to sign the veteran star in 2021 has been vindicated.

“You can imagine I am sure that, a year ago, it was not easy to convince the administration to sign a 38-year-old goalkeeper, but I did it as I know him well, know his quality, and how he is very professional and works very hard in training,” added Rasovic, who took Partizan Belgrade to the 2013 Serbian league championship.

Just a few days before came another example of how Al-Feiha can mix it with the best as they defeated league leaders Al-Ittihad 1-0 in the semi-final. Both games showed that they can take their chances and can keep the best attackers in Saudi Arabia, probably the best attackers in Asia, at bay.

“Of course, it is not easy to play against those two teams but if you analyze what we have done this season, you can see that we are a stubborn opponent when we play against the big teams,” Rasovic said.

That is borne out by the fact that Al-Feiha have conceded just 22 goals in the league this season, fewer than any other team.

Such defensive strength means that it could be a frustrating night for the league champions. When the two teams met earlier this month, Al-Hilal were kept at bay while Sami Al-Khaibari volleyed home a corner after 33 minutes to score the only goal of the game. Al-Feiha believe that their opponents are vulnerable to crosses into the box.

With that in mind, at least opposite number Ramon Diaz will be delighted that central defender Ali Al-Bulaihi has had an extra few days to recover from injury following the postponement of the last round of league games at the weekend. That meant the huge top of the table Classico against Al-Ittihad will have to wait until Monday but did buy a tired team some time.

Full-back Yasser Al-Shahrani should also be fit. There are still some absences but with attacking players such as Odion Ighalo, Moussa Marega, and Matheus Pereira fit and raring to go, Al-Hilal should have the firepower to test the miserly opposition defense to win another major trophy.

“I am very happy for the rest we got before playing this final,” Diaz said, adding that there were no such things as weak teams when it comes to a final. “The game will be decided by what happens on the pitch and not with expectations.”

The Argentine boss was understandably keen to dismiss the league results between the two teams this season.

“We lacked focus in that meeting but now we want to win the cup for our fans. In the final you either win or you get nothing, and we have to be at our best and focus more and reduce mistakes made.”

In what is likely to be a tight game, the team that makes the fewest mistakes may just end up with their hands on the trophy. Al-Hilal have dozens of those but Al-Feiha are looking for a first King’s Cup.


AFC president praises Asian football family for spearheading road to recovery

AFC president praises Asian football family for spearheading road to recovery
Updated 19 May 2022

AFC president praises Asian football family for spearheading road to recovery

AFC president praises Asian football family for spearheading road to recovery
  • Speaking at 32nd AFC Congress held on Wednesday, Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa also praised member states for safely returning to action after the pandemic

Asian Football Confederation President Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa reiterated his praise for the Member Associations and Regional Associations for their commitment in charting the organization’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic at the 32nd AFC Congress held virtually on Wednesday.

The AFC president from Bahrain said: “As we take a moment to reflect, it is clear that the AFC, our Members and our Regional Associations are well on the road to recovery.

“Despite the omicron variant, we ushered 2022 with confidence and we owe a great deal of gratitude to all our host Member Associations, our participating teams and clubs for showcasing great unity during our most challenging hour,” he added.

“Credit must also go to all our Members and Regional Associations for safely managing the return of football events and their competitions.”

Since the last congress, the AFC has safely and successfully delivered the expanded AFC Women’s Asian Cup India 2022, the AFC Asian Qualifiers — Road to Qatar, the AFC Champions League 2021 Final and 2022 Group Stage, while the AFC Cup 2022 and the AFC Futsal Asian Cup Kuwait 2022 Qualifiers are currently ongoing.

Off the pitch, Sheikh Salman also emphasized the remarkable progress of the Technical, Referees and Development programs, most notably the initiatives under the AFC Academic Centre of Excellence, as well as the imminent introduction of the Extra-Time and Advantage Programs, announced at the recently concluded 10th AFC Executive Committee meeting.

At the same time, significant inroads have been made to elevate the commercial and sporting propositions of the existing competitions through the establishment of the AFC Elite Club Competition Task Force, while the launch of the landmark AFC Child Safeguarding Policy continues to enable Member Associations and Regional Associations to uphold the highest standards of good governance.

The AFC president conveyed the gratitude of the Asian football family to FIFA President Gianni Infantino, particularly for the manner in which the world football governing body has responded by supporting Member Associations in Asia and beyond in the face of the toughest health and economic crisis brought on by the pandemic. He also expressed the wholehearted support of the AFC and the Asian football family for Infantino’s candidacy in the FIFA presidential election next year.

Sheikh Salman also thanked Infantino for agreeing to consider funding the building of the AFC’s own state-of-the-art football stadium in Putrajaya, near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which will mark a significant step forward for the AFC and its members. 

In his closing address, the AFC president outlined his intention to stand for re-election at the 33rd AFC Congress to be held in Bahrain on Feb. 1-2, 2023.

“As you are aware, my second term as the AFC president started in 2019 and ends next year in 2023 and I would like to inform you today that I will be standing for re-election in 2023,” Sheikh Salman said.

“I hope to receive your trust and support once again for the next term as the AFC president.”

Among other items on the agenda, the congress was also informed about the withdrawal of China PR as hosts of the AFC Asian Cup 2023 and, due to the emergency nature of the situation, decided to provide the mandate to select an alternative host to the AFC Executive Committee (following the operation of a bidding process by the AFC administration).

The congress also approved the audited financial accounts for 2021 as well as certain amendments to the AFC Statutes, reinforcing the confederation’s commitment to good governance.

Further details on the host selection process for the AFC Asian Cup 2023 will be announced later.


Mixed results for Saudi Arabia’s futsal teams at GCC Games

Mixed results for Saudi Arabia’s futsal teams at GCC Games
Updated 19 May 2022

Mixed results for Saudi Arabia’s futsal teams at GCC Games

Mixed results for Saudi Arabia’s futsal teams at GCC Games
  • Women’s team defeated hosts Kuwait 2-1, while men lost 3-2 to same opponents

RIYADH: There were mixed results for the Saudi Arabian women’s and men’s national futsal teams as they both took on hosts Kuwait on day three of the GCC Games.

The Saudi women recorded their first win of the tournament by beating the Kuwaitis 2-1 thanks to goals from star player Al-Bandari Mubarak, and Reem Abdullah.

The players were visibly delighted with the performance as they put their opening day 4-1 defeat to Bahrain firmly behind them.

The men’s team did not fare as well despite a positive start to their match.

Goals by Osama Abdullah and Nasser Al-Harthi gave the Saudis a 2-1 half-time lead, but Kuwait came back strongly in the second half to claim a 3-2 win.

The Saudi men’s team now has a win and a loss from two matches having kicked off their campaign on Monday with a 3-1 victory over Bahrain thanks to goals from Mohsen Fakihi, Fahad Al-Rudaini, and Moaz Asiri.


Saudi Arabian Football Federation appoints Nasser Larguet as new technical director to oversee ambitious grassroots project

Saudi Arabian Football Federation appoints Nasser Larguet as new technical director to oversee ambitious grassroots project
Updated 19 May 2022

Saudi Arabian Football Federation appoints Nasser Larguet as new technical director to oversee ambitious grassroots project

Saudi Arabian Football Federation appoints Nasser Larguet as new technical director to oversee ambitious grassroots project
  • Ex-Marseille and Morocco national team technical director set to lead strategic transformation program addressing youth development, training national coaches and activating international partnerships to develop Saudi football

RIYADH: The Saudi Arabian Football Federation announced the appointment of Nasser Larguet as technical director, who will be taking on the responsibilities previously held by Ioan Lupesco.

The Moroccan joins SAFF after spending the past three years at French club Olympique de Marseille, where he contributed as a director to the development of one of the world’s most successful youth academies.

Prior to that, Larguet led the Moroccan national team as a technical director from 2014 to 2019, achieving the first World Cup qualification in 20 years for the North African nation. During his career, he held multiple positions within renowned French youth academies, including Cannes, Rouen, Caen, Strasbourg and Le Havre.

In September 2021, SAFF announced a seven-pillar strategy that aims to position Saudi Arabia among the elite football nations by the time World Cup 2034 arrives. Larguet will be playing a central role in the execution of this strategy as he will oversee a high-performance pathway with a comprehensive plan for every Saudi footballer, starting from the age of 6 through to turning professional. This is to be obtained through optimizing the existing regional centers and developing new grade-A centers across different regions in the Kingdom.

Commenting on the appointment, Yasser Al-Misehal, SAFF president, said: “The Saudi football landscape is currently witnessing a massive transformation, as our set ambition is to become genuine contenders on the global stage.

“The hiring of Larguet builds on our success so far and represents an important milestone in the path we are forging. His vast experience in youth development will provide us with the necessary guidance to develop our infrastructure and upgrade our processes to untap the great potential of Saudi youth.”

The Saudi national team is set to take part in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, in what will be the Green Falcons’ sixth World Cup participation. This follows consistent improvement shown by the Saudi national men’s team over the past few years, moving up the FIFA ranking from 70 in 2019 to 49 this month.

“The transformation is already showing results, as we have opened a total of 22 regional centers across the country, which will support us in scouting and developing Saudi talent. Our national teams are also enjoying unprecedented success at every level, as the U23 Olympic team were present at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics for the first time after 24 years, and our men’s team just delivered the best Saudi World Cup qualification campaign ever,” said Al-Misehal.

“We have also established our women’s team, and they are already starting to show a lot of promise. We are moving forward with a strong foundation, but we expect Nasser’s experience and know-how to help us further accelerate our progress,” he added.

The new technical director will lead the efforts to construct a new uniform coaching curriculum tailored to Saudi strengths, which will be adopted in developing and training Saudi national coaches. These coaches will in turn play a key part in driving the success of the Saudi youth structure program. In his new role, Larguet will also be leveraging his network to establish and activate international partnerships that can support Saudi football development.