Rise of Saudi Pro League in Asia echoes Premier League dominance in Europe

Rise of Saudi Pro League in Asia echoes Premier League dominance in Europe
Asian Champions League final. (Reuters)
Short Url
Updated 30 April 2022

Rise of Saudi Pro League in Asia echoes Premier League dominance in Europe

Rise of Saudi Pro League in Asia echoes Premier League dominance in Europe
  • Not long ago teams from Asia’s eastern zone were expected to overcome rivals from the west in the AFC Champions League, but in recent years there has been a power shift

In the past week in the UEFA Champions League two Spanish teams tried desperately to stay with English Premier League opposition in the first legs of their semi-finals. Nobody would say that Liverpool, who defeated Villarreal 2-0, and Manchester City, disappointed to beat Real Madrid only 4-3, are in the final just yet but whatever happens in the return leg, most would agree that they are currently setting the standards at the top of the European game.

It was not always like this. From 2009 to 2019, Spain reigned. In that decade, Barcelona and Real Madrid won seven titles between them and Atletico Madrid were twice defeated in the final. At the start of the period, Manchester United were the best team in England but lost the 2009 and 2011 finals to Pep Guardiola’s magnificent Barcelona team. Then came Real Madrid, who won four between 2014 to 2018. They were prevented from making it five from five when their Catalan rivals defeated Juventus in 2015.

Spain’s last win came in 2018 as Real Madrid defeated Liverpool but that final now looks like the changing of the guard. It marked the end of the Spanish dominance and hastened in an English era that could rival the country’s success in the old European Cup in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Two of the last three finals have been all-English affairs and there is a strong chance that it will be three out of four in Paris on May 28.

English teams are helped by broadcasting riches that other leagues can only dream of. This means the best players and coaches —Klopp at Liverpool and Guardiola at Manchester City, to name just two examples of the latter — are heading to the country. For the immediate future at least, success on the continental stage looks likely to continue.

Just as the end of the previous decade brought a shift in Europe, it signalled the end of an era in the Asian Champions League. When the tournament started in 2003, Al-Ain of the UAE were the inaugural winners and Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ittihad won the next two, first in dramatic, and then in dominant, fashion. At that time, the west seemed to be comfortably the best and most people expected the Jeddah club to make it a comfortable hat-trick in 2006. That never happened as Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors of South Korea took the title to start an eastern dawn. Apart from Al-Sadd’s somewhat fortuitous win on penalties over the South Korean team in 2011, that streak continued until 2019 with newly rich Chinese teams joining Korea, Japan and Australia in lifting the trophy.

For most of that time, the feeling was that whenever a team from the west faced an eastern rival in the final they would lose – sometimes narrowly, sometimes easily, but always lose. That has changed and it is thanks to Saudi Arabia and specifically Al-Hilal. The Riyadh giants came close in 2014 and again in 2017, losing tight finals to Western Sydney Wanderers and then Urawa Reds. Victory finally came in 2019 with a deserved win over the Reds. Ulsan Horang-i of South Korea took the 2020 title but Al-Hilal won it back last November by beating Pohang Steelers, winning a record fourth Asian crown in the process. It remains to be seen what happens in the 2022 tournament but at the moment, Al-Hilal are the team to beat, a little like Liverpool.

The Saudi Pro League is looking like an Asian version of the English Premier League. There is plenty of money in the league which means that clubs can attract top-class playing and coaching talent. The league is competitive and the best local players tend to stay at home rather than head overseas, which also helps. In terms of continental results, there are similarities too. An all-Saudi final is an impossibility given the format of the Asian Champions League but Al-Hilal and Al-Shabab, along with Qatar’s Al-Duhail, were the standouts of the group stage and if the format were different, it would not be a surprise to see the two Riyadh clubs fighting it out for the trophy.

In the group stage, three of the four Saudi teams strolled through, with only Al-Taawoun, fighting relegation at home, failing to get to the last 16. The others all did so with a game or two to spare. It can’t even be said that these four are the best four Saudi teams as Al-Ittihad and Al-Nassr are nowhere to be seen. Playing all games at home surely helped but, just as most Premier League teams have not been too stretched by group stages in recent years, that is increasingly the case in Saudi Arabia.

Nor is the challenge from the east as strong as it was. Five years ago, the Chinese Super League was one of the biggest spenders in the world but its clubs are now struggling financially. Two have withdrawn from this year’s competition and two sent youth teams and were thrashed. Teams from Japan and South Korea don’t look to be as strong as before and are being challenged by rivals from Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.

Just as English teams are enjoying the European Champions League these days, Saudi Arabian clubs are loving life in Asia. This period may not last — they never do — but they are to be enjoyed.


Swiatek ‘overwhelmed’ by seeing legend Serena back at Wimbledon

Swiatek ‘overwhelmed’ by seeing legend Serena back at Wimbledon
Updated 59 min 21 sec ago

Swiatek ‘overwhelmed’ by seeing legend Serena back at Wimbledon

Swiatek ‘overwhelmed’ by seeing legend Serena back at Wimbledon
  • "I saw her [Serena] yesterday, I was pretty overwhelmed," said Swiatek
  • Swiatek wasn't even born when Williams made her Wimbledon debut in 1998

LONDON: World number one Iga Swiatek said Saturday she is “overwhelmed” to see Serena Williams back at Wimbledon, one year after the US legend limped away from the All England Club.
Williams, a seven-time champion at the tournament, and still chasing an elusive 24th Grand Slam title, will be playing her first singles match since her tearful, injury-enforced withdrawal in the first round in 2021.
“I saw her yesterday, I was pretty overwhelmed,” said Swiatek, the recently-crowned French Open champion.
“I didn’t know how to react. I wanted to meet her. I saw that she had so many people around her. I don’t know her team. It was pretty weird.
“But just seeing her around is great because she’s such a legend, there’s nobody that has done so much in tennis.”
Swiatek wasn’t even born when Williams made her Wimbledon debut in 1998.
But the Pole appreciates the ground-breaking achievements of the American and sees the 40-year-old still as a genuine threat despite her ring-rustiness.
“I’m pretty sure that she’s going to be in good shape because she has so much experience coming back from breaks or just playing in Grand Slams. I think she can use it,” said the 21-year-old.
Swiatek is on a Serena-esque run of dominance herself this season.
Having taken over from the now retired Ashleigh Barty as world number one, she has put together a 35-match win streak.
That run surpassed Serena’s best of 34 successive wins and equalled Venus Williams’ record of 35 straight victories in 2000 for the longest winning stretch by a woman in the 21st century.
A second French Open triumph earlier this month also gave Swiatek a sixth title in 2022.
With defending Wimbledon champion Barty retired, Swiatek has been given the honor of opening Tuesday proceedings on Center Court.
“I feel really privileged that I’ve been chosen,” she said.
Swiatek, a former Wimbledon junior champion, has yet to get past the fourth round of the women’s singles.
She has also not appeared on a grass court at all this summer, opting to rest after her final win over Coco Gauff in Paris.
“Honestly I still feel like I need to figure out grass,” she added.
“Last year for sure, it was that kind of tournament where I didn’t know what to expect. Then match by match I realized maybe I can do more and more.
“I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare. But I’m just trying to stay open-minded and kind of take positives from the situation and realize that I can play without any expectations.”
Swiatek begins her Wimbledon bid against Croatian qualifier Jana Fett.


Ledecky grabs another gold, Australian quartet sets world record

Ledecky grabs another gold, Australian  quartet sets world record
Updated 25 June 2022

Ledecky grabs another gold, Australian quartet sets world record

Ledecky grabs another gold, Australian  quartet sets world record
  • It’s Ledecky’s 19th gold at a worlds and her fourth this week including the 4x200 freestyle relay
  • Australia’s team clocked 3:19.38 in the 4x100 to shave two-hundredths of a second off the record set by the US at the last worlds in Gwangju, South Korea, in July 2019

BUDAPEST: Katie Ledecky extended her record haul of medals and Australia set a world record in the mixed 4x100 meters freestyle final at the world swimming championships on Friday.

American star Ledecky won the 800 freestyle final for the fifth time at the worlds to seal her fourth consecutive 400/800/1,500 triple at the event.

She clocked 8 minutes, 8.04 seconds to finish more than 10 seconds ahead of her rivals. Australia’s Kiah Melverton was 10.73 behind in second and Italy’s Simona Quadarella 10.96 behind for third.

It’s Ledecky’s 19th gold at a worlds and her fourth this week including the 4x200 freestyle relay.

“Really good end to a great week,” Ledecky said.

Her 22 medals are the most for a female swimmer in world championships history. Only Michael Phelps, who won 26, has more.

Australia’s mixed relay team of Jack Cartwright, Kyle Chalmers, Madison Wilson and Mollie O’Callaghan clocked 3:19.38 in the 4x100 to shave two-hundredths of a second off the record set by the US at the last worlds in Gwangju, South Korea, in July 2019.

Gold medalists and new world record holders Australian quartet of Jack Cartwright, Kyle Chalmers, Madison Wilson and  Mollie O'Callaghan with their medals following the mixed 4x100m freestyle relay finals at the 19th FINA World Championships on June 24, 2022. (AFP)

“I don’t think there was any mention or any expectation or even a thought about being able to break that,” Wilson said. “So to do that and see that at the end was just unbelievable and a real surprise for us.”

Canada’s team of Joshua Liendo, Javier Acevedo, Kayla Sanchez and Penny Oleksiak finished 1.23 behind the Australians for silver, and the United States team of Ryan Held, Brooks Curry, Torri Huske and Claire Curzan was third, 1.71 behind.

Canada’s silver was the country’s ninth medal this week, eclipsing the eight it won in Gwangju.

Ben Proud won Britain’s first gold of the championships, clinching the men’s 50 freestyle in 21.32 – 0.09 ahead of American Michael Andrew and 0.25 ahead of France’s Maxime Grousset.

“We’re missing quite a few key players in the pool today,” Proud said, referring to the absences of Caeleb Dressel, Florent Manaudou and Bruno Fratus. “The whole podium from the Olympics last year wasn’t in the final.”

Dressel was due to race but withdrew from the worlds for unspecified reasons on Wednesday.

“It’s not the same without him,” Proud said. “As soon as he was out, that quite changed the dynamics of the competition. A lot of people had a different type of pressure leading in..”

Dressel, the world record holder, was also missing from the 200 butterfly.

Kristóf Milák followed up his win in the 100 butterfly – where he lowered his own world record – by adding the 200. The Hungarian swimmer delighted the home fans as he clinched the title in 50.14 ahead of Japan’s Naoki Mizunuma and Canada’s Josh Liendo.

Milák joined Phelps and South African Chad Le Clos as the only male swimmers to achieve the 100/200 butterfly double at a single worlds.

Sarah Sjöström won her fourth consecutive 50 butterfly title, clocking 24.95 to head off Melanie Henique of France and Yufei Zhang of China for a record-equaling eighth gold medal in butterfly events at a worlds. Phelps has to share his record.

American Torri Huske was sixth, 0.50 behind Sjöström, who claimed her 18th individual medal at the worlds. Only Phelps, with 20, has more.

After five silver medals, Australia’s Kaylee McKeown finally claimed a gold when she edged American Phoebe Bacon by just four-hundredths of a second in the women’s 200 backstroke.

Bacon’s teammate, Rhyan White, was third for her first medal at a worlds.

It was the closest result in this race at a worlds since 1986 when East Germany’s Cornelia Sirch was two-hundredths of a second ahead of American Besty Mitchell. Sirch later suffered health problems that she attributed to her country’s state doping program.


Chun tightens grip at Women’s PGA Championship

Chun tightens grip at Women’s PGA Championship
Updated 25 June 2022

Chun tightens grip at Women’s PGA Championship

Chun tightens grip at Women’s PGA Championship
  • Chun admitted she had felt under pressure after her scintillating opening round

Bethesda, Maryland:  In Gee Chun extended her lead at the Women’s PGA Championship on Friday, firing a 3-under-par 69 to open up a six-stroke advantage at the halfway stage as she hunts down a third major title.

The 27-year-old South Korean had demolished Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, in Thursday’s first round, shooting a course record 8-under-64 that left awed rivals in disbelief — and five shots adrift.

Chun found the going slightly harder on Friday, opening with three early birdies before back-to-back bogeys checked her progress just before the turn.

However, she regained those two strokes with birdies on the 10th and 18th to maintain a vice-like grip on the lead heading into the weekend on 11 under with a 36-hole aggregate 133.

Chun admitted she had felt under pressure after her scintillating opening round.

“I got a little pressure for sure because after I had a great first round, everyone (talked) about how you are, like, five-shot lead,” she said.

“Now I’m in a good position. Everyone’s expectations are really high.

“So it was a little tough to make focus, but I believe it’s another process in my life ... So I just want to enjoy my next two days.”

Chun’s nearest rivals are New Zealand’s Lydia Ko, who moved up the leaderboard with a 5-under-par 67, and in-form Jennifer Kupcho, who shot seven birdies and three bogeys in a 4-under 68.

Kupcho and Ko are five under for the tournament.

Former world No. 1 Ko is chasing her first major victory in six years.

The last of her two majors came at the ANA Inspiration in Rancho Mirage in 2016 — the same year she finished second at the Women’s PGA Championship.

“It is hard to win, but I’m just trying to put myself more in that kind of position, and I think when you keep knocking on the door, you hope that one day that door will open,” Ko said.

Kupcho, chasing her second major win of the season after victory at the Chevron Championship in Rancho Mirage in April, said she will not change her strategy to try and catch Chun.

“If she’s going to continue to play well, that’s her game, and there’s really nothing anyone can do about it,” Kupcho said.

Five players are tied for fourth on four under, including Canada’s Brooke Henderson, Australia’s Hannah Green and South Korea’s 2020 Women’s PGA champion Kim Sei-young.

Lexi Thompson and Australia’s Minjee Lee are eight off the lead on three under, tied for ninth with three other players including Thailand’s Pornanong Phatlum and South Korea’s Choi Hye-jin.

Thompson caught the eye with a 5-under 67 which included a spectacular eagle two at the par-four 17th, when she chipped onto the green from 102 yards, prodigious backspin sending her ball into the cup.

“I just came into today with a positive attitude and same going into the weekend if I go out and play like I did today, just solid and committing to my shots in the process of my routine,” Thompson said.

“We’ll just see where that takes me. You never know.”


Iraq beat KSA in final of WAFF Women’s Futsal Championship

Iraq beat KSA in final of WAFF Women’s Futsal Championship
Updated 25 June 2022

Iraq beat KSA in final of WAFF Women’s Futsal Championship

Iraq beat KSA in final of WAFF Women’s Futsal Championship
  • Host nation fell short of claiming title in first-ever participation in competition

Saudi Arabia fell short of glory in the final of the 2022 WAFF Women’s Futsal Championship after losing 4-2 to Iraq at King Abdullah Sports City Hall in Jeddah on Friday night.
The Saudi team had reached the final in their first-ever participation in the competition — organized by the West Asian Football Federation — after beating Bahrain 1-0 in Wednesday’s semi-final.
The Saudi team’s goals came from Leen Mohammed and Sara Al-Hamad, while Iraq’s were scored by Shokhan Salihi (2), Direen Mullabakar and Tbarek Al-Ghazawi.
The last day of action in the six-team tournament also saw Bahrain beat Kuwait 2-0 to claim third place.
On Wednesday, Palestine beat Oman 6-1 in the fifth-place playoff.


KSA exit Arab Futsal Cup after quarter-final loss to Iraq

KSA exit Arab Futsal Cup after quarter-final loss to Iraq
Updated 25 June 2022

KSA exit Arab Futsal Cup after quarter-final loss to Iraq

KSA exit Arab Futsal Cup after quarter-final loss to Iraq
  • Iraq now face Kuwait in last 4, while Morocco take on Egypt in other semi-final

Saudi Arabia have been eliminated from the 2022 Arab Futsal Cup after a 3-2 quarter-final loss to Iraq in extra time at the Green Hall in Dammam on Friday night.
The result means Iraq now have a semi-final date with Kuwait — who beat Palestine 4-1 on penalties after a 4-4 draw — on Sunday.
The other semi-final in the 10-team tournament will be contested between Morocco, who beat Libya 3-0, and Egypt, who overcame Mauritania 3-2.
Saudi Arabia had progressed to the last eight after finishing top of Group 3, which included Palestine in second place and Libya, who also progressed as one of the competition’s best third-place teams.
The four-team Group 1 also saw three teams — Morocco, Kuwait and Mauritania — through to the quarter-finals, while Somalia exited early.
Group 2 saw top-of-the-table Egypt and second-place Iraq qualify to the last eight, while Algeria were eliminated.