Tirana gets ready for Europa Conference League final

Tirana gets ready for Europa Conference League final
A giant poster of Roma's coach Jose Mourinho reading "Welcome to Little Roma" hangs on the facade of Tirana's University building on May 24, 2022, on the eve of the UEFA Europa Conference League final between AS Roma and Feyenoord. (AFP)
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Updated 25 May 2022

Tirana gets ready for Europa Conference League final

Tirana gets ready for Europa Conference League final
  • Capacity at the National Arena is about 21,000
  • There are expected to be 650 stewards inside the stadium and thousands of police officers outside for the match

TIRANA, Albania: Tens of thousands of soccer fans are expected to visit the Albanian capital of Tirana for the Europa Conference League final between Dutch club Feyenoord and Italian team Roma on Wednesday.

Tirana Airport is preparing to welcome more than 300 flights in two days, the biggest number it has ever tried to manage. Other fans plan to land in neighboring Kosovo and Montenegro and drive to Tirana.

“Come in, come in,” Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, a former professional basketball player, said while addressing the tourists.

Many Italian, Dutch and other foreigners have been walking the streets of Tirana in recent days. Up to 100,000 soccer fans are expected in the city despite each club being allocated only 4,000 tickets for the inaugural final of the third-tier European tournament, which was designed to give smaller clubs a shot at a continental competition.

Capacity at the National Arena is about 21,000. There are expected to be 650 stewards inside the stadium and thousands of police officers outside for the match.

Albanian authorities have taken several precautionary steps for what they want to be a “festive day.” Wednesday was declared a public holiday, but police, health and other service employees will be working.

Both Feyenoord and Roma are storied clubs with big fan bases. Their supporters will be gathered in separate “fan zones” about one kilometer apart.

The partying has already begun, much to dismay of some locals. On Monday, residents of an apartment building in downtown Tirana threw water to hush Dutch fans drinking beer below late at night.

On Tuesday, Albanian police at the main Skanderbeg Square pushed away a small group of Italian fans who had been hurling water bottles to keep them away from Dutch fans.

“We won’t tolerate acts of violence and vandalism,” Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj said.

Downtown Tirana will be a pedestrian-only zone on Wednesday as part of measures “to organize in the most exemplary way one of the most major events that have occurred in Albania,” Interior Minister Bledi Cuci has said.

Some main roads linking Tirana to the western city of Durres or the airport will be closed and only fans with tickets or those going to fan zones will be allowed in.

The Europa Conference League trophy was put on display at Skanderbeg Square, which will also host a “fan festival” with concerts, drinks and games.

UEFA, the governing body of European soccer, picked Tirana as host in December 2020, one year after the new stadium officially opened and before any team qualified to enter the debut competition.

The inaugural final is a higher-profile match than what was envisioned by many in 2018 when UEFA decided to create the Europa Conference League. Its aim was to give more opportunities to clubs in lower-ranked countries.

An even smaller stadium — the Eden Arena in Prague — is set to host the 2023 final.


Vlahovic inspires Juventus to 3-0 win at Salernitana

Vlahovic inspires Juventus to 3-0 win at Salernitana
Updated 08 February 2023

Vlahovic inspires Juventus to 3-0 win at Salernitana

Vlahovic inspires Juventus to 3-0 win at Salernitana
  • The result also meant the match was a surprise relegation battle with Salernitana just two points further back

SALERNO, Italy: Dusan Vlahovic proved he is back on form with two goals and an assist to help Juventus win 3-0 at Salernitana in Serie A on Tuesday.

That snapped a run of three league matches without a win for Juventus. The streak had left the Bianconeri just nine points above the relegation zone coming into the match at Salerno following a 15-point penalty for false accounting.

It also meant the match was a surprise relegation battle with Salernitana just two points further back.

But Vlahovic helped Juventus push away from the bottom three.

He scored his first goal for the club since October in the 26th minute with a penalty after Fabio Miretti had been fouled by Salernitana midfielder Nicolussi Caviglia, who is on loan from Juventus.

Juventus doubled their tally on the stroke of halftime when the Salernitana defense failed to clear a cross and Vlahovic’s wayward shot came through to Filip Kostic to bundle in.

Vlahovic did double his tally two minutes after the break with a precise shot into the bottom right corner following a Nicolo Fagioli through ball.

Angel Di Maria hit the crossbar for Juventus five minutes later, while Moise Kean saw an effort come off the post late on.


FA Cup dream over for Wrexham and their Hollywood owners

FA Cup dream over for Wrexham and their Hollywood owners
Updated 08 February 2023

FA Cup dream over for Wrexham and their Hollywood owners

FA Cup dream over for Wrexham and their Hollywood owners
  • The Welsh soccer club lost their FA Cup replay with Sheffield United 3-1 on Tuesday, conceding two goals deep into stoppage time

SHEFFIELD: For Wrexham’s Hollywood owners, the sequel proved to be a heartbreaker.

The Welsh soccer club owned by celebrities Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney lost their FA Cup replay with Sheffield United 3-1 on Tuesday, conceding two goals deep into stoppage time.

A win for Wrexham, the lowest-ranked team remaining in the famous old competition, would have set up a match in the fifth round — or the last 16 — with Tottenham and star striker Harry Kane.

Instead, it was despair for the team from the fifth tier of English soccer which has hit the headlines over the last two years after it was bought by Reynolds and McElhenney for $2.5 million in November 2020 on the recommendation of one of their writers.

Sheffield United forced a replay by scoring an equalizer in the fifth minute of stoppage time in the first game between the teams, which ended 3-3 at Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground. Reynolds attended that game but wasn’t at the replay at Bramall Lane.

“So proud of these boys,” Reynolds posted to his 21.1 million followers on Twitter. “And the 4000 plus away supporters who gave it all.”


South American 2030 World Cup bid seeks final in Montevideo

South American 2030 World Cup bid seeks final in Montevideo
Updated 08 February 2023

South American 2030 World Cup bid seeks final in Montevideo

South American 2030 World Cup bid seeks final in Montevideo
  • Argentine President Alberto Fernández also said he wants to add Bolivia to the group
  • Alejandro Domínguez, the president of South American soccer body CONMEBOL, highlighted the historical links

BUENOS AIRES: Members of the South American candidacy for the centennial 2030 World Cup want to host the opening match in Buenos Aires and the final in Montevideo, where Uruguay won the first edition of the tournament.
Government and soccer officials representing the joint bid of Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay held their first organizing committee meeting Tuesday. Argentine President Alberto Fernández also said he wants to add Bolivia to the group.
One other bid has already been formalized: Spain-Portugal-Ukraine. Morocco and another joint bid of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Greece are moving ahead.
Alejandro Domínguez, the president of South American soccer body CONMEBOL, highlighted the historical links. Uruguay hosted the first tournament in 1930 and won the first title by beating Argentina 4-2 in the final.
“FIFA has the obligation of honoring the memory of those who came before us and made the first World Cup,” he said. “At the end, the ones who want it more win it. And in that Argentina and all of our countries have a tradition.”
FIFA will make the decision in 2024, two years before the next edition of the tournament takes place in the United States, Mexico and Canada with 48 teams for the first time.
Chile sports minister Alexandra Benado Vergara said Argentina’s World Cup title in Qatar gives an extra push to the South American bid, which she sees as stronger since other nations joined Uruguay’s initially single-nation candidacy.
“Argentina’s victory is also the victory of our region,” Vergara said. “We can totally say we will have a bid that is sustainable, clear, austere during these times of our region and the world.”
Vergara’s Uruguayan counterpart Sebastián Bauzá said South America “feels we have the right to organize that World Cup.”
Argentina’s Fernández said on his social media channels he wanted to add Bolivia to the bid because “this is the candidacy of the entire continent. That is why I will propose that Bolivia become a part of this dream.”


Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal stun Flamengo of Brazil to reach Club World Cup final

Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal stun Flamengo of Brazil to reach Club World Cup final
Updated 08 February 2023

Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal stun Flamengo of Brazil to reach Club World Cup final

Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal stun Flamengo of Brazil to reach Club World Cup final
  • Two first-half goals by World Cup hero Salem Al-Dawsari and a third by Luciano Vietto after the break stunned the Brazilians
  • The Riyadh side will face Real Madrid or Egyptian side Al-Ahly, who play on Wednesday, in the final on Saturday

TANGIER: Al-Hilal are just 90 minutes from being crowned world champions, after a stunning 3-2 victory on Tuesday over Brazilian giants, and Copa Libertadores title holders, Flamengo in the semi-finals of the FIFA Club World Cup in the Moroccan city of Tangier.

Al-Hilal, the most successful club in Saudi Arabia and Asia, already have dozens of trophies in their cabinet back home but have never come so close to a prize such as this.

Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr might have secured the services of high-profile signing Cristiano Ronaldo but Al-Hilal are now just one win away from a level of international glory unprecedented in the Kingdom. Coming just a few months after the national team’s victory over Argentina at the Qatar World Cup, these are heady times for Saudi football indeed.

Success in the final on Saturday would be the crowning achievement for Al-Hilal, though they are likely to find Real Madrid, arguably the biggest club on the planet, determined to block their path to glory.

Should the 14-time European champions lose their semi-final on Wednesday, Al-Hilal’s opposition will be Egyptian side Al-Ahly in what would be the ultimate dream match-up for fans in the Arab region.

The most successful club in Saudi Arabia and Asia have dozens of trophies in their cabinet back home but have never come close to a prize such as the FIFA Club World Cup. (Twitter/@AlHilal_FC)

Either way, it will be a huge occasion for Al-Hilal who, at the very least, have already improved upon two fourth-place finishes in their previous appearances in the tournament.

After coming through a grueling last-eight test against local favorites Wydad AC just three days previously, Ramon Diaz’s men delivered more than simply a battling performance on Tuesday, it was an intelligent and controlled one as well.

Just as Salem Al-Dawsari stunned Argentina with the winning goal for Saudi Arabia at the World Cup in November, so he stunned the Brazilian side with two first-half goals at the Ibn Batouta Stadium.

Both came from the spot, with a Pedro equalizer in between, and the second came after Gerson was sent off. Luciano Vietto sealed the victory after the break, despite a late consolation goal from Pedro.

The drama began in the fourth minute when the referee pointed to the spot after Matheuzinho brought down Vietto. Al-Dawsari had a penalty at the World Cup saved by Polish goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny — a moment that, had it gone differently, might have made the difference in the Green Falcons progressing to the second round — but this time he made no mistake, shooting low into the bottom corner past the diving Santos.

The Brazilians were rattled on a cold and windy night on Morocco’s northwestern coast and gave coach Vitor Pereira, who took the job just over a month ago, much to ponder.

His frown turned upside down after 20 minutes when the Rio club equalized in smart fashion. Matheuzinho slipped the ball to Pedro just inside the right-hand corner of the area and his first-time shot flew low into the opposite corner past Abdullah Al-Mayouf. Seconds later, the Brazilians almost scored a second when the goalkeeper came out and missed a left-sided cross.

But it was Al-Hilal who finished the first half asking questions of the opposition defense and they were rewarded with a second penalty, their third of the tournament, on the stroke of half-time. Vietto went down in the area and after a video review, Gerson, already booked, was shown a second yellow. Once again, Al-Dawsari stepped up and, once again, scored.

The win was a mature, hard-working and composed performance from the Asian champions. (Twitter/@Alhilal_EN)

With a one-goal and one-man advantage, the Saudis were just 45 minutes from dreamland. They started the second half with composure, holding onto the ball and moving it around sharply and with growing confidence. The game began to open up as Flamengo were forced to attack and, as a result, leave bigger and bigger gaps at the back.

The South Americans were finally punished with 20 minutes remaining. The ball was fed to Vietto inside the area and he fired home into the roof of the net to spark wild celebrations among the visiting Saudi fans and on the Al-Hilal bench.

To their credit, Flamengo continued to push forward and there were nerves on display as Pedro bundled the ball home from close range in the first minute of stoppage time. But overall, this was a mature, hard-working and composed performance from the Asian champions.

Now, a team that came close to crashing out of the competition against Wydad on Saturday, eventually winning 5-3 on penalties after the game ended 1-1, have a chance to make magnificent history. Just getting to the final is a fine achievement but a return to Riyadh as world champions would never be forgotten.

After the national team’s World Cup victory over Argentina in November, and now Al-Hilal’s triumph over the South American champions, even Real Madrid will not be feared. Anything is possible for Saudi football at the moment, it seems.


From troublemaker to contender: Al Ain boxer turns life around and eyes Olympics

From troublemaker to contender: Al Ain boxer turns life around and eyes Olympics
Updated 07 February 2023

From troublemaker to contender: Al Ain boxer turns life around and eyes Olympics

From troublemaker to contender: Al Ain boxer turns life around and eyes Olympics
  • Emirati Amer Hussain Al-Suwaider has dedicated his life to serving his country, as a member of the UAE army and an amateur boxer
  • Residing in Abu Dhabi and working full-time for the army, Al-Suwaider also trains with the UAE Boxing Federation six days a week

The International Olympic Committee’s recent clash with the International Boxing Association has raised the possibility of the sport being dropped as early as the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.

The dreams of thousands of boxers around the world are now very much under threat.

One of those boxers, UAE welterweight Amer Hussain Al-Suwaider, has his heart set on going to the Los Angeles Olympics in five years’ time, despite the IOC’s suspension of the sport from the 2028 program as things stand.

Like so many others, Al-Suwaider has sacrificed his youth to be able to represent his country at the Olympics only for the IOC to shun the sport for a variety of reasons, political and sporting.

But boxing has brought so much more to Al-Suwaider’s life than Olympic dreams.

He began boxing when he was 15 years old, and now at the age of 21, he has represented UAE throughout Asia.

He does not plan on stopping there. As UAE National Champion with 18 amateur fights, Al-Suwaider knows that he has a lot to prove, but just as importantly a lot of young men to inspire.

Born and raised in Al Ain, Al-Suwaider comes from a family of six other siblings. Although his parents fully support his boxing endeavors now, this was not always the case.

“My parents were worried about me when I started. They didn’t think it was safe. But nothing was going to stand in my way. I wanted to show them I was committed to this sport and the positive impact it had on me,” said Al-Suwaider. “They are my biggest supporters now; they can see how boxing has changed the course of my life.”

Three years ago, he joined the UAE Armed Forces and devoted his life to serving his country not only as a career military man but also, he hopes, as an amateur boxer on the international stage.

Residing in Abu Dhabi and working full-time for the army, Al-Suwaider also trains with the UAE Boxing Federation six days a week under the watchful eyes of coaches Mohammed Al-Shebli and Hasan Mukhamedov.

However, Al-Suwaider was not always this disciplined. He had garnered a reputation around Al Ain as a bit of a troublemaker until the Al-Salamat boxing club came calling.

“I was called and asked to come to the gym when I was 15 because I was getting into street fights a lot,” he said. “But the moment I started boxing, my life changed. I was lost before and here I found peace within myself, and I didn’t need to be getting into trouble anymore.

“There were no fancy machines or anything, just an empty room with two boxing bags, and that is how I started.”

Al-Suwaider progressed fast, looking to gain as much experience as possible fighting the same year he started training. His first fight was against a tough opponent, having wanted to test his skills inside the ring regardless of how inexperienced he might have been at that point.

“I was really nervous and apprehensive, but the feeling after was like no other feeling in the world. I wanted to get right back in the ring again as soon as possible,” he said.

The young southpaw started fighting for the UAE Boxing Federation at the age of 16, competing in the 2017 ASBC Asian Confederation Junior Boxing Championships in the Philippines, the 2018 Pan-Arabian Youth Boxing Championships in Cairo and the 2018 ASBC Asian Confederation Youth Championships in Thailand.

“I have fought many times, my amateur card is filling up,” Al-Suwaider. “But I must say there are a few bouts that have stuck in my mind as I could really see my own progression.”

In December, Al-Suwaider fought world bronze medalist Reese Lynch at the IBA Night of Champions in Abu Dhabi.

“It was such a big night for me. I fought a boxer with a lot more experience than me. It was hosted by my country and the event was put on by the IBA with some of the biggest names in the boxing world in attendance. Nights like that you don’t forget,” Al-Suwaider said.

“Another big competition for me was in 2020 when I was in military college in Dubai,” he added. “I hadn’t trained for four months, but I was asked to compete. The opportunity was too big for me to pass. I knew that I hadn’t been training, but I put my head down and did the job. That victory was extremely sweet because it showed me who I am and what I have inside of me.”

Al-Suwaider has the backing of boxing authorities in the UAE.

“Our goal at the Boxing Federation is to help Amer Al-Suwaider achieve every success as an amateur boxer representing the UAE. We have watched him progress at a rapid rate and he accepts any challenge placed in front of him,” said Anas Al-Otaiba, president of the UAE Boxing Federation. “We believe that he has the heart and talent to go far. The Olympics is something he has his sights set on, and we want to make sure that he has all the support from the federation and his country.”

Al-Otaiba also highlighted Al-Suwaider’s role as a role model for other fighters across the Emirates.

“He is an inspiration to the many young Emirati boxers putting in the work, day in and day out, at our facilities. We have young talents that see how dedicated he is to the sport,” the federation chief said. “It is not easy to blaze trails outside of cultural norms, live as an athlete daily when your friends are not, and in Amer’s case, work full time for the UAE army while maintaining a grueling training schedule.

“Amateur boxers must be prepared to fight unknown opponents in their championships, maintain weight levels all year round and compete at a very high level,” Al-Otaiba said.

“We understand that the UAE is still considered a new addition to the international boxing scene and that Amer must be prepared to fight boxers who have extensive boxing pedigree, and more international experience. He is honored to lead the way for the many young boxers behind him and pave that road for them. We look forward to seeing his bright boxing future.”

Al-Suwaider’s life changed the day he picked up his first pair of gloves, from starting scuffles in the streets of Al Ain to joining the army and becoming UAE National Champion.

“Now my life has purpose and structure. I wake up, my day is scheduled, I have goals and dreams for my future, and if I work hard, I know I will achieve them. Boxing saved my life,” said Al-Suwaider.

“To represent my country at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics would be the pinnacle of sporting achievement for me.”