5 things learned from Saudi teams’ start to 2022 AFC Champions League

5 things learned from Saudi teams’ start to 2022 AFC Champions League
Supporters of al-Hilal Saudi Football Club cheer for their team during the AFC Champions League Group A match between al-Hilal and Sharjah at Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium in Riyadh on April 8, 2022. (AFP)
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Updated 09 April 2022

5 things learned from Saudi teams’ start to 2022 AFC Champions League

5 things learned from Saudi teams’ start to 2022 AFC Champions League
  • Group stage wins for reigning champions Al-Hilal, Al-Taawoun and Al-Shabab while Al-Faisaly managed to get one point

RIYADH: And so it begins. The AFC Champions League kicked off this week with all the group games in the western zone taking place in Saudi Arabia. On paper that is a huge advantage but here are five things we learned from what happened on the pitch.

 

1. Al-Hilal are the team to beat

 

The champions started with a 2-1 win over Sharjah, a game that finished in the early hours of the Riyadh morning, and it was a deserved victory, a ninth in a row under coach Ramon Diaz. Saad Al-Shehri put the hosts ahead with an early penalty and while the UAE team were quickly level, a second half strike from Michael (the Brazilian forward has been slowly improving after his arrival in January) after a lovely pass from Matheus Pereira, won the game.

Injuries to Al-Shehri and also South Korean defender Jang Hyun-soo were the main downsides, though it is hoped that both will return to fitness before the end of the group stage.

The scary thing for the rest of the group is that it was done without the attacking talents of Salem Al-Dawsari and Odion Ighalo. It is obviously early in the competition but Al-Hilal will take some stopping in the group stage and in the western zone. At the moment, the defending champions are the best team in Asia.

 

2. Tawamba terrorizes Al-Duhail to give Al-Taawoun a famous win

 

Al-Taawoun are taking a break from a relegation fight at home and got off to a great start with a 2-1 win over Al-Duhail. The Qatari team, coached by Hernan Crespo, have what it takes to do well and may feel that they should have taken all three points but didn’t reckon on Leandre Tawamba. The Cameroonian striker changed the game.

The Qataris took an early lead after a bad goalkeeping error but soon after Tawamba scored what could already be the goal of the tournament.

He ran on to a through ball and then, with his first touch and at full speed, executed a perfect lob from outside the area that gave the goalkeeper no chance. It was just a world-class finish. Soon after he hit the post from outside the area and then with four minutes left and the score at 1-1, his smart backheel inside the area, led to Alvaro Medran scoring the winning goal.

The group is a tough one with Sepahan of Iran and then Uzbekistan powerhouse Pakhtakor and there is a lot of football to be played. But as starts go, Al-Taawoun have had a very good one and if Tawamba maintains this current form then who knows what could happen.

 

3. Banega gives Al-Shabab a good start

Al-Shabab fans would have expected to beat Mumbai City and will be satisfied with a solid 3-0 win. The star of the show, as is often the case when the Riyadh team play, was Ever Banega with two of the goals. It was a game made more difficult by Ramadan with the players breaking their fast on the bus on the way to the stadium.

The Indian debutants started well, before the six-time Saudi champions slowly started to take control. It was the first victory under new coach Marius Sumidica and while it was not the hardest of tests, there did seem to be a little more fighting spirit and steel in the team. What will take longer is to be more clinical in front of goal as good opportunities were wasted.

Tougher tests will come, starting on Monday against Al-Jazira of the UAE, who lost their opener 2-1 to Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya of Iraq. The Abu Dhabi club need to bounce back quickly and the clash could be a pivotal one in the group. Win that and Al-Shabab will be looking good for the next round.

 

4. Al-Faisaly’s debut positive but may regret dropping points

A 1-1 draw with Al-Wehdat of Jordan was not a bad way to start a first game in Asia’s flagship club tournament but there may be a feeling in Dammam that it should have been three points instead of one. There is still a long way to go in Group E but with Al-Sadd very much the favorites, Al-Faisaly may look back on this as two points dropped.

It started well thanks to a fine free-kick from Hicham Faik in front of their own fans and Faisaly continued to have chances in what became an entertaining game. Early in the second half however, the defense lost a little concentration and the Jordanian powerhouse were back on level terms.

The draw ended the chances of a Saudi Arabian clean sweep of wins and with Al-Sadd also drawing, though the Qatari team had two men sent off, it is all very tight in the group. They are Al-Faisaly’s next opponents and will give a much better idea as to whether the Dammam men have what it takes to succeed in Asia.

 

5. A good start for Saudi Arabia

It has already been noted that Saudi Arabia’s four teams took 10 points from a possible 12. West Asian rivals did not fare as well. Clubs from the UAE managed just one from nine with Qatar’s four representatives managing five points.

There is, of course, much football to be played. And while it may be too much to expect all four Saudi Arabian teams, two of which are struggling near the bottom of the domestic table, to go to the next stage, the country should at least have a healthy showing in the second round early next year.


Impact of Indian-led T20 franchise cricket leads to splits among sport administrators

Impact of Indian-led T20 franchise cricket leads to splits among sport administrators
Updated 18 August 2022

Impact of Indian-led T20 franchise cricket leads to splits among sport administrators

Impact of Indian-led T20 franchise cricket leads to splits among sport administrators
  • With leading players making their own decisions about when, where and in which format they play, Test and One Day International cricket could suffer

Noise from the debate over the impact of T20 franchise cricket on the sport’s future is becoming difficult to drown out. Former Indian cricket legend Sunil Gavaskar has suggested that opposition to the format and its Indian-led dynamic is tantamount to sour grapes. In a thinly disguised dig at English and Australian administrators, he pronounced that Indian administrators are better equipped to look after the interests of Indian cricket than those who are perceived to be trying to interfere with it.

At first sight, this may appear to be an overreaction and a veiled criticism of the way that cricket used to be ordered. As discussed in previous columns, professional cricket is being disrupted before our eyes. Its future landscape is beginning to shape up, with T20 franchise cricket recognized as the disrupter-in-chief. Gavaskar advises that administrators in other countries should focus on looking after their own interests. This is becoming increasingly difficult to do now that leading players are making decisions about when, where and in which format they will ply their trade. Added to this mix is the possibility that they will be able to choose to which employer — national board, regional board, franchiser — they contract their services.

There is much speculation about who and what will be the casualties of the disruption. Some argue that it will be One Day International (50 over) cricket, while others say that it spells the decline of Test match cricket.

Domestic cricket structures may well experience shake-ups. In England, for example, counties which host neither Test matches nor T20 franchises are likely to struggle, both financially and in terms of their ability to attract top players.

Cricket’s economics have been altered substantially by T20 franchises. A dominant proportion of income for national Boards in India, Australia and England used to be generated at Test matches through ticket sales, at ground sales, sponsorships and media rights. The Indian Premier League has changed that dynamic to the point where the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) no longer relies on Test match income. Nevertheless, it remains an advocate of Test match cricket and knows that other countries depend on Tests with India to generate much-needed income. This gives the BCCI significant advantage in the corridors of power in international cricket.

Despite Australia and England having their own short format franchise tournaments, it is Test matches which continue to generate a sizable proportion of their income. In England’s case, this is as much as two-thirds. On Wednesday, England and South Africa began a three-match Test series at Lords. Ticket prices range widely according to the day of play, location of seat in the ground and age of spectator, with under-16s receiving a discounted price. At the top end of the scale a seat costs £160 ($193) for the first day and £70 at the bottom end of the range. Seats with restricted views are offered in a range of £100 down to £45. Tickets for Day Four are on offer in a range of £140 to £50 and a mere £5 for Day Five.

The owner of Lords, the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), was the subject of much criticism earlier in the season over an England Test match against New Zealand. This coincided with celebrations to commemorate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and public holidays to encourage people to celebrate, accordingly. It is rumored that several days before the match started that at least 16,000 tickets remained unsold, mainly priced at more than £100. The ground has an official capacity of 31,000. The MCC blamed the public holidays for the lower-than-expected demand. Observers of cricket were sure that a combination of high ticket prices and a cost-of-living crisis in the UK had caused the drop in demand. The MCC has long appeared to take the view that it has captive market for one of the great sporting events of the English summer and can price accordingly. Perhaps this view is going to be limited in future to matches against Australia and India, although it appeared to be a full house on Wednesday against South Africa, before the rain came to disperse spectators.

A day at a Test match when the weather is good and six hours cricket are played means that a ticket priced at £120 averages out at £20 per hour. Arguably, this is fair value. The price of a member’s ticket to watch Arsenal vs. Manchester City, for example, lies in a range of £69 to £99, equivalent to £46 or £66 per hour. A price of a ticket to watch a Hundred match at Lords starts at £40 for an adult, is £5 for under-16s and free for those aged under-six. One match lasts for two and a half hours. The English Cricket Board, in its reliance on its income from Test matches, is caught up in a dilemma. Fear of a decline in Test match cricket has led it to seek to spread its risk by introducing an additional income stream, the Hundred, now being played simultaneously with the Tests against South Africa.

Set against this dilemma is a clear-cut situation. On Aug. 27, in T20 format, the Asia Cup will begin in the Dubai International Cricket Stadium, with a capacity of up to 30,000 spectators, equivalent to Lords. Ticket prices start at AED 30-75 ($8-$20), rising to AED 250 depending on the match and seat type. The first batch of tickets went on sale online on Aug. 15. Those for the India vs. Pakistan match sold out within one hour.

Gavaskar’s advice is founded on some obvious trends in the game. The BCCI now generates about 70 percent of cricket’s global income. It has monetized and mobilized its massive support base. Indian franchise interests are set to add to this dominance. Although the International Cricket Council sets schedules of ever-increasing intensity for its members, India and its collaborators control the future direction of world cricket. Money, media casters and advertisers are the face of the game, with the boards in thrall.


Whole world is watching, says Prince Khaled ahead of Rage on the Red Sea

Whole world is watching, says Prince Khaled ahead of Rage on the Red Sea
Updated 18 August 2022

Whole world is watching, says Prince Khaled ahead of Rage on the Red Sea

Whole world is watching, says Prince Khaled ahead of Rage on the Red Sea
  • Organizers and fighters speak to international media ahead of heavyweight title clash in Jeddah on Saturday

JEDDAH: “The whole world will be watching” Ukrainian world champion Oleksandr Usyk defend his title against Britain’s Anthony Joshua in a fight billed as the “Rage on the Red Sea,” Prince Khalid bin Abdulaziz, chairman of Skill Challenge Entertainment, said.

Prince Khalid was speaking during the press conference at Shangri-La Hotel in Jeddah ahead of the Aug. 20 showdown, with the two main headliners and other boxers from the card also giving their views on the event.

“The whole world will be watching,” he said, referring to the heavyweight bout. “It is a huge milestone for Saudi Arabia and sports in the Kingdom.”

Prince Khalid added: “I want Saudi Arabia to be on the boxing map and to empower the people of our country. We want to get involved more in female boxing and, hopefully, we will have Saudi women fighting and representing the nation in the future.”

During the press conference Usyk and Joshua declared themselves ready for the fight, and acknowledged the enthusiastic atmosphere and the hospitality they have experienced in Saudi Arabia.

Joshua will be hoping it is the second time he regains the heavyweight championship in the Kingdom, having beaten Andy Ruiz Jr. in Riyadh in December 2019.

“I am grateful to everyone in Saudi Arabia for their support and hospitality. I am grateful to my team for training me in an excellent way. We raised the level of training and improved the mental focus by being disciplined enough to achieve the goals that I have for myself. What drives me is my passion for competition and always improving above all. Attaining success is my first goal and not the belts.”

Usyk, meanwhile is fighting as much for the Ukrainian people as he is for himself.

“Physically, we are ready for this game and have spent a lot of time on training. There is a great atmosphere and spirit here in the Kingdom which keeps motivating us. I am really thankful to the Saudi people for their hospitality and warm welcome and hope to come to the Kingdom more frequently,” he said.

Prince Fahd bin Abdulaziz, spokesperson for Skill Challenge Entertainment, said: “We are very proud that boxing in Saudi Arabia continues to grow its profile, (allowing us) to host this global event which would have not have been achieved without the support of our wise leadership and the efforts of the Ministry of Sports as well as the tireless work of the Saudi Boxing Federation.”

Speaking to Arab News, he added: ” I hope this event turns out to be successful and Saudi Arabia becomes a destination for other international sports events, alongside boxing.”

Abdullah Ahmed Al-Harbi, president of the Saudi Arabian Boxing Federation, said: “It’s great to see the ecosystem of boxing coming to life in the Kingdom and I hope this (event) turns out to be one of the best we will ever witness in the coming years. It doesn’t get bigger than this world heavyweight championship, as it features five different belts and we wish all the luck to the boxers.”

He also looked forward to the undercard, in particular the first female pro fighters to appear on an international professional card in Saudi Arabia.

“This surely is a historic boxing event not only for the Kingdom but also for the world, and I am very glad to be a part of it,” Al-Harbi said.

“The beauty of this event is that it is the second one in the Kingdom, after the first was held in Diriyah Season in Riyadh, and from then we have seen a big transformation and the growth in amateur boxing,” he said.

“We now have almost 24 clubs and more than 700 boxers. Besides, we have an Olympic event that is featuring 300 boxers in Jeddah. We are (seeing) mass participation within the sport, and we look forward to inspiring more people to participate after this event.”

Commenting on Ziyad Al-Maayouf, the first professional fighter to represent Saudi Arabia, Al-Harbi said: “We are all behind him and support him as he becomes the first Saudi pro boxer to fight in his home country. He will surely inspire a new generation of amateurs to turn pro and help them aim to compete on a higher level.”

Al-Maayouf, who will face Mexico’s Jose Alatorre on Saturday, said he has been overwhelmed by the support he has received and feels a little under the pressure with all eyes on him.

“I definitely feel the pressure,” he said. “It is something that you are going to feel in anything you do that’s important. But there are always two roads to take once you have the pressure. It’s either you enjoy every minute and make the best of it and let it not worry you, or not have fun and let it become an obstacle. I chose the first, to turn the pressure into something good. I am very excited to fight in front of my people and I know, no matter what, they are behind me and I really appreciate that.”

During the Rage on the Red Sea undercard press conference, the other boxers — Zhang Zhilei, Filip Hrgovic, Callum Smith, Mathieu Bauderlique, Badou Jack, Andrew Tabiti, Rashed Belhasa, Bader Samreen, Ramla Ali and Crystal Garcia Nova — all revealed their delight at taking part in the event.

“I and my opponent will be making history together and along the way, we are going to inspire loads of girls to not only take up boxing, but also participate in any kinds of sports. It’s a great feeling to know the fact that I will be inspiring many other women,” Ali said.

Her opponent, Garcia Nova, sent out a message that boxing is for everybody and that there should be no gender discrimination.

“If women want to learn boxing or they want to do something else on their own, then they should go ahead as this will give them a better attitude and (chance) to defend themselves against anybody.”

Former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield said he could not split the two fighters in the main event.

“Everyone has their favorites to go on and win the title, but I am neutral, ” he said. “I believe both Usyk and Joshua have to be at their best and give the fans a good fight.”


Top grapplers expected as jiu-jitsu tour returns to Abu Dhabi

Top grapplers expected as jiu-jitsu tour returns to Abu Dhabi
Updated 18 August 2022

Top grapplers expected as jiu-jitsu tour returns to Abu Dhabi

Top grapplers expected as jiu-jitsu tour returns to Abu Dhabi
  • The two-day competition will take place Sept. 3-4 at the arena in Zayed Sports City

ABU DHABI: Some of the world’s top grapplers return to Abu Dhabi next month for the AJP Tour UAE National Pro championship.

This has been confirmed by the UAE Jiu-Jitsu Federation and the Abu Dhabi Jiu-Jitsu Pro. Open to all nationalities, the two-day competition will take place Sept. 3 to 4 at the Jiu-Jitsu Arena.

The opening day will start with the teens, youth, and masters’ categories, while day two will feature amateur and professional contests. With the tournament included in the annual classification of AJP Tour rankings points, the championship takes on added importance. First place in each category will receive 1,000 rating points, making it key for international players, their global classification, and advancement on the annual rankings ladder.

Fahad Al-Shamsi, the UAEJJF secretary general, said: “The AJP Tour UAE National Pro is one of the most important tournaments on the calendar, attracting great local and international participation. It also tends to highlight emerging young talents as they start their professional career journeys and is an important tributary to the national team as it heightens the level of local athletes.

“This year’s tournament comes at an ideal time, enabling players to prepare for key international tournaments, including the Jiu-Jitsu World Championship in October and the Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship in November. The tournament will gather a group of the strongest competitors representing countries that have a strong history in the sport, such as Brazil, Colombia, UAE, Kazakhstan, Italy, France, Angola, Sweden, and others.”

Tariq Al-Bahri, general manager of AJP, said his organization’s cooperation with the UAEJJF was proving mutually beneficial, resulting in an increased number of events, higher standards, and enormous success in terms of participation numbers, both regionally and worldwide.

“The UAE National Pro is a local event with international standards and is attracting a great turnout from the brightest talents around the world,” he said. “The players are eagerly awaiting the tournament as it is considered one of the most important organized by the league as part of the 2022 calendar. Abu Dhabi continues to work to consolidate its leadership as the global capital of jiu-jitsu by organizing and hosting the largest and most important tournaments in the world.

“The AJP organizes around 100 annual championships in various capitals and cities around the world, attracting the participation of elite champions and professionals, reflecting the UAE capital’s role in developing the sport across the globe.”


Influx of foreign goalkeepers adds spice to Saudi Pro League

Influx of foreign goalkeepers adds spice to Saudi Pro League
Updated 18 August 2022

Influx of foreign goalkeepers adds spice to Saudi Pro League

Influx of foreign goalkeepers adds spice to Saudi Pro League
  • No less than 15 out of 16 teams could start the new season with an import between the sticks

Saudi Arabia has some of the most exciting foreign imports of any league in Asia, with prolific goalscorers, silky playmakers and solid defenders spread across the competition.

That has not always been the case when it comes to goalkeepers, partly because of a 25-year-ban on outside custodians that was only revoked ahead of the 2017-18 season. Many teams have been making up for lost time however and it could well be the case that no less than 15 out of 16 teams will start the new season with an outsider between the sticks. This summer alone, 11 have signed new foreign keepers.

That has repercussions for the national team as we will see later but it also means that Saudi Arabia is a little unusual in Asia. Some leagues in the continent don’t allow them at all, such as South Korea. Japan does but clubs there tend to limit their imports to a handful of Koreans and an occasional Australian. Saudi Arabia is, however, one of the few places where there are showstoppers from more far-flung locations.

Al-Nassr recently signed one of the best-known goalkeepers likely to play in Asia and certainly one who has the highest international profile at the moment. David Ospina was Napoli’s number one last season before his contract ended and the Colombian, who has made over 100 appearances for the South American country, has also spent time in the English Premier League with Arsenal. His arrival this summer was a real coup for the Riyadh giants.

There is another goalkeeper with significant international experience in the capital. Kim Seung-gyu has played at world and Asian cups with South Korea and is the country’s number one heading into the tournament in Qatar. The 31-year-old has extensive experience playing for big clubs in his homeland — having won the AFC Champions League with Ulsan Horangi back in 2021 — as well as Japan. A good shotstopper who comes out of his area well, there is already plenty of interest back in East Asia as to how Kim performs in Saudi Arabia. If there are no communication issues with his teammates then there is no reason why Kim can’t become a major success at Al-Shabab and help the club challenge once again.

Then there is Marcelo Grohe at Al-Ittihad. The Brazilian is preparing for his fourth season in Jeddah and has earned plenty of plaudits in that time. Last season, the 35-year-old was excellent at times as the Tigers went on a winning spree that looked set to deliver a first league title since 2009. There were a couple of mistakes when the pressure was on in the run-in but it looks as if new coach Nuno Espirito Santo is going to stick with the South American.

Ittihad won’t forget Martin Campana in a hurry as they drew 0-0 with Al-Batin in the final match of last season partly because the Uruguayan was in such good form. The result meant that the Tigers lost all chance of the championship and also kept Al-Batin in the top flight. There is more Latin influence as Al-Taawoun have signed highly rated Brazilian keeper Mailson from Sport Recife, and Al-Tai have Victor Braga.

Newly promoted teams have also taken the foreign route. Al-Adalah have Montenegro’s Milan Mijatovic while Al-Khaleej have signed another Brazilian in Douglas Friedrich. There is also Arab representation. Gabaski’s move from Egyptian giants Zamalek to Al-Nassr may not have happened and Algerian international Rais M’Bolhi may have left Al-Ettifaq (and been replaced by Brazil’s Paulo Victor) but there is still Moustapha Zeghba who had a great season with Damac last time around.

Another new African presence is Devis Epassy, the Cameroon international joining Abha over the summer. Then there is Vladimir Stojkovic, the Serbian who kept out Al-Hilal last season to help Al-Feiha win the King’s Cup and fellow Europeans in Silviu Lung of Romania at Al-Raed and Sweden’s Jacob Rinne at Al-Fateh.

National team coach Herve Renard will be happy that Al-Hilal are not only the best team in Asia but also have no foreign goalkeepers. Abdullah Al-Mayouf has been the most consistent Saudi Arabian goalkeeper in recent years and played all but one game last season for the Saudi and Asian champions.

For Al-Hilal, the 35-year-old has kept Mohammed Al-Owais on the bench but Al-Owais was the go-to guy for World Cup qualification. With Kim’s arrival at Al-Shabab pushing Fawaz Al-Qarni onto the bench, there are not many options for Renard to choose from when it comes to selecting his squad for the World Cup.

If one or two of the new influx of goalkeepers struggle to adapt to life in the Saudi Professional League, it could be to the benefit of the national team.

With so few local goalkeepers playing week in, week out, anyone who can get some minutes on the pitch and get some clean sheets under his belt is sure to catch the eye of Renard. As it stands, while it will be fascinating to see how some of the foreign contingent perform, the locals have to try and do whatever they can to compete.


Saudis take two bronze medals in karate at Islamic Solidarity Games

Saudis take two bronze medals in karate at Islamic Solidarity Games
Updated 18 August 2022

Saudis take two bronze medals in karate at Islamic Solidarity Games

Saudis take two bronze medals in karate at Islamic Solidarity Games
  • The third-place finishes by Saud Al-Bashir and Sultan Al-Zahrani took the Kingdom’s overall medal tally to 23

KONYA: Saud Al-Bashir and Sultan Al-Zahrani on Wednesday claimed two bronze medals for Saudi Arabia in the karate competition at the fifth Islamic Solidarity Games in Turkey.

The podium finishes took the Kingdom’s overall tally to 23 medals (one gold, 12 silver and 10 bronze).

Al-Bashir took third place in the 60 kg division after defeating the Moroccan Osama Al-Dari 9-4, while Al-Zahrani won the bronze in the 75 kg after beating Nurkhanat Azhikanov of Kazakhstan 2-1.

Saudi’s Olympic silver medalist Tarek Hamdi will launch his participation in the +84 kg division on Thursday, as will his colleague Faraj Al-Nashiri in the -83 kg category.