Uncertain times for Al-Ahli as reality of relegation sinks in

Al-Ahli are dealing with something that has never happened before in their illustrious history: Relegation. (Twitter/Al-Ahli)
Al-Ahli are dealing with something that has never happened before in their illustrious history: Relegation. (Twitter/Al-Ahli)
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Updated 03 July 2022

Uncertain times for Al-Ahli as reality of relegation sinks in

Uncertain times for Al-Ahli as reality of relegation sinks in
  • Shocked fans will worry that star players will leave and who will be the coach next season as they take part in Saudi second-tier football for the first time

LONDON: Monday, June 27, 2022 will live long in the memory of Jeddah football fans. It was a bad day for clubs in the city but it could actually have been worse for fans of Al-Ittihad and Al-Ahli.

Followers of the former may be devastated as their team threw away a double-digit lead at the top of the Saudi Professional League and a perfect chance to win a first title since 2009, but as bad as that was, at least they can see their bitter local rivals have it worse. That is because Al-Ahli are dealing with something that has never happened before in their illustrious history: Relegation.

Experiencing that unprecedented event would have been even more painful if their fans could have heard their Ittihad neighbors celebrating becoming champions of Saudi Arabia.

That there have been no such celebrations won’t be a comfort for too long however. Al-Ittihad have become used to not winning the title but this is new territory for Al-Ahli as they enter the second tier for the first time.

There is still shock as to how it came to this. From 2013 to 2020, the Jeddah giants didn’t finish outside the top four and won the title in 2016 and finished second in the following two seasons. The warning signs were there though, with an eighth-place finish last time around. There were reports of dressing room unrest; too many foreign players came in who did not make the difference and the quality of the local talent was not what it was. After goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais moved to Al-Hilal in January, there are no Al-Ahli players who are regular starters for the national team.

Coaches have come and gone too, without making much of an impact. There were high hopes for Besnik Hasi. The Kosovan-Albanian had done a great job with Al-Raed and came in last summer. Despite a slow start to the season, the management persevered with the former Legia Warsaw, Anderlecht and Olympiakos boss in the belief that he would turn things around. It was a rare show of patience by a big Saudi Arabian club but it didn’t work. Despite a fairly gentle start in terms of opponents, Al-Ahli did not win any of their first seven. There were just two clean sheets in their first 16 games but the 2012 Asian Champions League runners-up were still clear of the drop zone in early March when Hasi was finally fired. 

The replacement came out of left-field but Robert Siboldi was unable to offer anything different. In fact it was worse. The Uruguayan won the first game against Al-Tai but four points from the final six matches, at a time when relegation rivals were starting to collect points, meant that it all ended in disaster. Even so, had they scored just once against Al-Shabab in the final game then top-flight status would have been preserved.

What now? As well as the humiliation, the worst thing is the uncertainty. Nobody can say for sure when Al-Ahli will be back. If all goes well, the time spent out of the big time will be short but for every Newcastle United who bounce back stronger, there are teams such as Nottingham Forest, Leeds United and Sheffield Wednesday who spend years and years down before returning, if they return at all.

Former club president Abdullah Al-Batraji wondered if there was a chance that the planned expansion of the league from 16 to 18 teams might somehow take place this summer instead of next, thereby keeping Al-Ahli in the top flight. Such hopes are understandable but the route back to the top may be a little more traditional. Like any team that gets relegated, there are questions as to who will go and who will stay — especially as funding may be reduced.

One who fans will want to stay is star striker Omar Al-Somah. The Syrian striker still managed 10 goals in a struggling team and despite being 33, is very much in demand. There are links with clubs in Egypt, Qatar and elsewhere. The forward could also stay where he is, his current club would love that to happen, but a move does seem the likeliest and Al-Ahli are reluctant to see him move to another club in Saudi Arabia. It is also going to be hard to keep hold of Ezgjan Alioski, the other big success of the season after arriving from Leeds United last year. The Macedonian has been one of the standouts in the entire league, scoring six goals and assisting in nine. Many of the other foreign players did not impress.

There may be a shake-up in the management of the club but the big question is the coach. Siboldi was put in a difficult position in his first job in the region. The Uruguayan was not the right man to save Al-Ahli and is certainly not the right one to take them back to the big time. The question of who that may be has to be resolved, and the quicker the better.

The same can be said of Al-Ahli’s top-tier status. The quicker they return the better for football in Saudi Arabia, and even Al-Ittihad fans may agree with that.

Running silver and bronze for Saudi as football, handball teams advance

Running silver and bronze for Saudi as football, handball teams advance
Updated 11 August 2022

Running silver and bronze for Saudi as football, handball teams advance

Running silver and bronze for Saudi as football, handball teams advance
  • Yousef Masrahi finishes second in the 400m competition, while teammate Mazen Al-Yassin finishes third

Saudi Arabia’s Yousef Masrahi on Wednesday took silver in the 400m as the Kingdom’s football and handball teams advanced in their respective competitions at the Islamic Solidarity Games in Turkey.

With Vice President of the Saudi Olympic and Paralympic Committee Prince Fahd bin Jalawi in attendance, Masrahi finished second in the final with a time of 45.80 seconds, while teammate Mazen Al-Yassin took third place and the bronze medal with a time of 45.95 seconds.

Meanwhile, the Saudi national U-23 team reached the semifinals of the football competition at Konya 2022 after beating Morocco 2-0 on Wednesday night.

The young Green Falcons’ goals came from Ziad Al-Juhani in first-half stoppage time and Turki Al-Mutairi in the 90th minute.

With this result, Saudi secured the top spot in Group B to advance to the last four, having earlier defeated Azerbaijan 1-0 in their first match and recorded a default 3-0 win after the withdrawal of the Iranian team before the start of the tournament.

Saudi’s handball team also qualified to the semifinals after defeating Morocco 29-25, having trailed 13-11 at halftime.

The result saw the team from the Kingdom top their group on goal difference from Qatar before the two teams clash on Friday.

Gabaski contract dispute places Al-Nassr in spot of bother

Gabaski contract dispute places Al-Nassr in spot of bother
Updated 11 August 2022

Gabaski contract dispute places Al-Nassr in spot of bother

Gabaski contract dispute places Al-Nassr in spot of bother
  • Al-Nassr risk transfer ban if Egyptian goalkeeper takes legal action
  • Rivals Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad currently cannot sign players

The Saudi Professional League may currently be between seasons but the big clubs in the competition are never far away from the headlines.

Defending champions Al-Hilal are unable to sign new players in the current transfer window. Al-Ittihad are not only preparing for the new season and trying to improve on their second place in the league, but must do so with the knowledge that they will be unable to add players in January’s transfer market.

The common denominator in those two situations is Al-Nassr, the team that finished third last season. Al-Hilal midfielder Mohamed Kanno was found to have signed a contract with both Riyadh clubs, hence the punishment. Al-Ittihad’s ban came in early August after a dispute over Abderrazak Hamdallah. He was found guilty of, among other things, of conspiring to leave Al-Nassr who cancelled his contract in November. In January he joined Al-Ittihad and is now banned for four months.

It all meant that Al-Nassr were having an excellent time. Not only are their rivals dealing with issues, the nine-time champions have been busy this summer, starting with the appointment of former Lyon, Roma and Marseille boss Rudi Garcia, and signing stars such as Ivorian international Ghislane Konan, Luiz Gustavo of Brazil and David Ospina, the Colombian goalkeeper, from Napoli.

That last signing could be the reason behind the potentially tricky situation that Al-Nassr now find themselves in. It is the kind of situation that could end up in a similar transfer punishment coming their way.

It started at the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon last January, all because of an injury to Egypt’s first choice goalkeeper Mohamed El-Shenawy. The replacement for the Al-Ahly star was Mohamed Abou Gabal. The Zamalek glovesman, also known as Gabaski, went on to become one of the stars of the tournament and played a major role as the Pharaohs reached the final. His performance in the penalty shootout victory over Cameroon in the semifinal — including sticking information about the hosts’ kickers on his water bottle — made headlines around the world.

The 33-year-old also excelled in the final, though this time Senegal triumphed on penalties. As soon as he returned back to Cairo, there were reports of interest with Al-Nassr making the strongest enquiries, so much so that Gabaski believes that a deal was done and a contract was signed.

“The player was keen on joining Al-Nassr’s pre-season preparations as he repeatedly asked through his lawyer to obtain an entry visa to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and issue travel tickets to join the team,” Echo Content Sports, which represents the goalkeeper, said in a statement released last weekend.

“However, he was surprised by the official response that the club does not recognize the contract concluded between the two parties and that it is invalid for reasons we deem as illogical.”

The agency called Al-Nassr’s proposed settlement deal as being “insufficient.”

Now it seems that unless the situation changes, the player is ready to take his grievance to the world governing body.

“Accordingly, we will refer the matter to FIFA’s relevant court, demand the full payment stipulated in the contract and demand compensation because of the damages caused by Al-Nassr club.”

Sources close to the player believe that the arrival of Garcia changed Al-Nassr’s plan. With former Arsenal goalkeeper Ospina now between the sticks, the Egyptian, whose form since the Africa Cup of Nations has been erratic enough that he has lost his club spot to Mohamed Awad, was no longer seen as necessary.

Al-Nassr, however, dispute that a valid deal was ever made.

“Both parties agreed on a contract starting from August 1, based on the information provided by the player and his agent that his contract with Zamalek ended on July 1, 2022,” the club said in a statement, in reply to Gabaski’s claims.

“The information received by the club meant that the player cannot join us on a free transfer on the aforementioned date and that he will remain bound to a contract with Zamalek club until August 30, 2022.

“The player and his agent were contacted and they were asked to provide evidence that the player is available on a free transfer and is not bound to any other contract on that date but no proof was sent, and insisted that the information they provided was correct.

“After giving the player and his agent sufficient time to amend his legal status, Al-Nassr notified the player that what had been agreed upon is void and has no legal effect. Al-Nassr Football Club cannot be tied to a contract with any player that results in a serious legal violation.”

At present, the two camps have differing versions of events. It is expected that, unless Al-Nassr make an improved offer, then Gabaski will turn to FIFA.

Nobody knows what the outcome would be but if it results in Al-Nassr being unable to register new players for a while, they would at least be in good company. Officials at Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad will surely be taking a close interest.

Gamers8 launches $3m PUBG MOBILE World Invitational

Gamers8 launches $3m PUBG MOBILE World Invitational
Updated 11 August 2022

Gamers8 launches $3m PUBG MOBILE World Invitational

Gamers8 launches $3m PUBG MOBILE World Invitational
  • Hopes high for hometown heroes Team Falcons to reach final

RIYADH: Gamers8 enters the fifth and final phase of its calendar as the second annual PUBG MOBILE World Invitational gets underway on Thursday live from Boulevard Riyadh City.

First introduced in 2018 by world-famous video game developer Lightspeed & Quantum, PUBG MOBILE has since gone on to become a global gaming phenomenon. It is published in over 200 countries and downloaded over a billion times, with 50 million daily active users and an envious status as the most watched mobile esports game on the planet.

Over the next nine days, elite PUBG MOBILE teams will enter the state-of-the-art arena and battle it out for their share of the $3 million prize pool. Split into two parts, the main tournament — running for three days beginning today — welcomes 17 regional champions and one homegrown representative, with $2 million in waiting for the victors. The objective is to parachute onto the remote island and remain as the last player or team standing — competing alone or in teams of two or four to secure victory and glory.

Ahmed Albishri, chief operating officer of the Saudi Esports Federation, said: “Gamers8 thus far has been nothing short of remarkable, captivating attendees, inspiring audiences, crowning new champions, and making dreams come true for the latest generation of world-class Esports competitors. This journey has, however, by no means reached its conclusion because, as promised, PUBG Mobile has made its way to Riyadh for the biggest esports and gaming event on the planet.

“Expectations are understandably high among players, teams, and fans alike, not least due to the unprecedented success of the competitions held recently. And crucially, all the foundations are in place for the second PMWI to emulate the success of late while etching its place in esports history.”

Heading into week one of the main tournament, hopes will be high for hometown heroes Team Falcons, who have regularly competed throughout Gamers8 — reaching the final of Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege — and now go up against 17 of the world’s best. Meanwhile, the Afterparty Showdown — the week two tournament taking place from Aug. 18 to 20 — will see teams competing for the remaining $1 million on offer. The Afterparty Showdown lineup will comprise the top five teams from week one, alongside six teams chosen from different regions, and one given a special invitation to compete.

James Yang, director of PUBG MOBILE, Global Esports, commented: “This year’s PUBG MOBILE World Invitational is set to be the biggest and best yet. This is our second annual world invitational, and we are excited to bring a new format of the event to the region which showcases the unique community spirit that PUBG MOBILE Esports and its talented teams have created.”

With the world’s best teams set to compete in front of a live crowd at the PMWI, fans around the world are excited for the event kickoff. Fans in Saudi will be able to enjoy the thrilling gameplay and electric atmosphere live and in-person from Boulevard Riyadh City. Alternatively, the event is being live streamed on official Gamers8 channels.

Saudi sports minister meets with OIC's Secretary General in Turkey

Saudi sports minister meets with OIC's Secretary General in Turkey
Updated 11 August 2022

Saudi sports minister meets with OIC's Secretary General in Turkey

Saudi sports minister meets with OIC's Secretary General in Turkey

TURKEY, Konya: Saudi Sports Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal has met with the secretary general of the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on the sidelines of the 5th Islamic Solidarity Games where Saudi athletes are representing the Kingdom in Turkey, state news agency (SPA) reported.

The prince discussed preparations for the next session of the Conference of Ministers of Youth, which will be hosted in Jeddah in September with Hissein Brahim Taha.

They reviewed ways to enhance bilateral cooperation between the OIC, the Saudi Ministry of Sports and the Islamic Solidarity Sports Federation (ISSF).

Taha praised efforts of the ISSF, under the leadership of Al-Faisal, in enhancing the capabilities of youth and sports in the Islamic world.

Serena says goodbye to Canada after defeat by Bencic

Serena says goodbye to Canada after defeat by Bencic
Updated 11 August 2022

Serena says goodbye to Canada after defeat by Bencic

Serena says goodbye to Canada after defeat by Bencic
  • Williams didn’t specify an actual retirement date but is expected to compete next week in Cincinnati before traveling to the US Open, which starts on Aug. 29

TORONTO: Serena Williams, who said this week she will soon call time on her storied tennis career, departed the WTA Toronto Masters for the last time Wednesday with a 6-2, 6-4 loss to Belinda Bencic.

The second-round defeat by Switzerland’s reigning Olympic gold medallist was hardly unexpected, with the 40-year-old Williams competing in only her third match of 2022.

Bencic fired eight aces and broke Williams twice in the first set and once in the second, advancing on her first match point after 78 minutes.

But as Bencic herself said in the post-match interview on court: “Tonight is about her.”

Williams’s farewell on-court interview was threaded with emotion.

“I love playing here, I’ve always loved playing here,” she said, choking up as fans who cheered her throughout the match called out their appreciation.

“I wish I could have played better tonight, but Belinda was playing so well.”

Williams, who turns 41 next month, had beaten Spain’s Nuria Parrizas Diaz on Monday for her first singles victory since the 2021 French Open, 14 months ago.

But it sent shockwaves through the sport when she revealed in an essay in Vogue magazine and an Instagram post on Tuesday that “the countdown has begun” to her retirement from the sport.

Williams didn’t specify an actual retirement date but is expected to compete next week in Cincinnati before traveling to the US Open, which starts on Aug. 29.

She has lifted the US Open title six times, including her first Grand Slam triumph at the age of 17 in 1999.

“It’s been a pretty interesting 24 hours,” said Williams, who remains one shy of the all-time record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles won by Margaret Court.

“Like I said in my article, I’m terrible at goodbyes,” she said, her voice breaking.

“But, goodbye,” she said, then adding with a laugh “Toronto.”

“I’ve always had an amazing time here on and off the court,” Williams said. “I’ve had some really good matches and some really cool wins.

“It’s been a joy playing here all of those years.”

Williams’s match was preceded by a video tribute played for fans. Before she left the court she was presented with jerseys from the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs — and with a child’s version of the same for daughter Olympia.

In explaining that she was “evolving away” from tennis in the Vogue article, Williams said she wanted to focus on family life and new business ventures.

Her appearance highlighted a day that saw US teenager Coco Gauff — who says Williams was “the reason why I play tennis” — overcome 13 double-faults to battle past Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina and into the third round.

Gauff beat Rybakina 6-4, 6-7 (8/10), 7-6 (7/3) while world No. 1 Iga Swiatek — who beat Gauff in the French Open final this year — sailed past Australian Ajla Tomljanovic 6-1, 6-2 in 55 minutes.

Gauff lost out on four chances to close out a straight-sets victory as a quartet of match points came and went.

Kazakhstan’s Rybakina, aided by Gauff’s service struggles, had looked as if she might pull off another marathon victory after squeezing past Marie Bouzkova in the first round only for Gauff to finally prevail.

Swiatek, in contrast, needed just 55 minutes to advance. The top-seeded Pole, with six titles this season, saved six of the nine break points she faced.

“From the first practice I played here I felt really good,” Swiatek said.

Defending champion Camila Giorgi made it to the third round with a 6-3, 7-5 defeat of Belgian Elize Mertens. Spanish fourth seed Paula Badosa lasted for just 13 games before retiring as she trailed 7-5, 1-0 against Kazakh Yulia Putintseva.