Saudi U-20 team’s progress to Asian finals caps a summer of success

Saudi U-20 team’s progress to Asian finals caps a summer of success
Saudi players celebrate reaching the 2023 AFC U-20 Asian Cup in Uzbekistan. (Twitter/@SaudiNT)
Short Url
Updated 19 September 2022

Saudi U-20 team’s progress to Asian finals caps a summer of success

Saudi U-20 team’s progress to Asian finals caps a summer of success
  • A 1-0 win over China sees the Young Falcons qualify for the 2023 AFC U-20 Asian Cup in Uzbekistan

The strong performances of Saudi Arabia’s youth teams continued on Sunday as the Young Falcons qualified for the 2023 Asian U-20 Championships, which will take place in Uzbekistan.

A 1-0 victory over China meant that the side topped Group A with three wins from three games to finish above the Chinese, who also booked their place at the tournament as one of the best runners-up. 

It ends a summer of success. The Saudi Arabia Under-23 team were crowned the Asian champions in June with a win against hosts Uzbekistan.

In August, the U-20s lifted the Arab Cup after defeating Egypt in front of a sell-out crowd in Abha, and coach Saleh Al-Mohammadi has built on that achievement and will take the youngsters to Central Asia — where the U-23 team achieved glory — in March, full of confidence.

“It was a tough group, but I am happy that my players came through to win first place and qualify,” Al-Mohammadi said. “The players continued their good work from winning the Arab Cup, and now we can look forward to the next challenges.”

Jordan, Oman, Syria and Qatar also booked their places and will be in Uzbekistan in March, but qualification for Saudi Arabia never really looked in doubt following an 11-0 thrashing of Maldives in the opening game, which took place in the city of Alkhobar. It was followed by a 5-0 dismissal of Myanmar, which meant that, due to superior goal difference heading into the final game, just a draw against China would have been sufficient. 

In the end, a goal deep inside first-half stoppage time from defender Mohammed Bakor secured the win to end a fine campaign. The only downside was a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Uzbekistan, but as the game against the tournament hosts, automatically guaranteed a place, did not count in terms of qualification, it was an opportunity for coach Al-Mohammadi to rest some players with games coming every other day.

There is more at stake, however, than playing in the Asian tournament itself. The four teams that reach the semifinals next March will then book their place at the U-20 World Cup, which will be held in Indonesia in May. This is the big prize, a chance for the youngsters to test themselves against the very best from all continents.

Many will be watching the team’s star striker Abdullah Radif. The Al-Hilal front man caught the eye at the Arab Cup in the summer as he finished top scorer with six goals. The 19-year-old has not done too badly in recent weeks either, netting five to continue his prolific record wearing the colors of his country. There are high hopes for the teenager, though he has struggled to get much playing time for the Asian champions with a whole host of talented strikers ahead of him in the Al-Hilal pecking order. 

This time he was supported in attack by Meshari Al-Nemer. The Al-Nassr forward contributed four goals, and if the two can continue to click going forward, then there is no reason why Saudi Arabia cannot do well in Uzbekistan and book that World Cup spot.

Equally encouraging is the defense, which has looked tight. In eight competitive games this summer, Saudi Arabia have conceded just twice, in the final of the Arab Cup against Egypt and once in the group stage. The three games in the Asian qualification all ended with clean sheets.  

Preparation is now key for the 2023 championships. The young players are going to get precious few minutes in the Saudi Professional League in the coming months, so training camps and as many warm-up games as possible will make a major difference.

Al-Mohammadi has shown that he can organize a defense and can produce a team that makes chances going forward. There will be some tougher tests ahead, but the situation for the U-20 team is looking very good indeed, and bringing the continental trophy back from Tashkent to sit alongside the U-23 prize, which was won in the same city, is possible and would provide further evidence that the future is bright for football in Saudi Arabia.


Saudi motorsport chiefs predict ‘best ever’ Red Bull Car Park Drift world final in Jeddah

Saudi motorsport chiefs predict ‘best ever’ Red Bull Car Park Drift world final in Jeddah
Updated 10 sec ago

Saudi motorsport chiefs predict ‘best ever’ Red Bull Car Park Drift world final in Jeddah

Saudi motorsport chiefs predict ‘best ever’ Red Bull Car Park Drift world final in Jeddah
  • Jeddah will host 21 drifters from 18 different countries who will battle it out to be named the Red Bull Car Park Drift King

JEDDAH: For the first time ever the Red Bull Car Park Drift World Final will be held in Saudi Arabia on December 8 in Jeddah.

Organizers Saudi Motorsport Company and Jeddah Corniche Circuit are promising fans the “best ever” season-ending event as tickets for the final have gone on sale.

Jeddah will host 21 drifters from 18 different countries who will battle it out to be named the Red Bull Car Park Drift King of Drift for 2022. 

Expert power control, pure pace, and the most delicate of touches will be the difference between victory and defeat for the competitors, set to deliver packed grandstands and a festive atmosphere.

For Saudi motorsport fans, the event will welcome three competitors from the Kingdom. Those drivers will be confirmed at a qualifying event on 3 December.

With tickets available for all fans of high octane, Saudi Motorsport Company (SMC) CEO, Martin Whitaker, said he is counting down the days to one of Jeddah’s biggest automotive moments. 

“I believe the Jeddah Corniche Circuit is one of the best ever venues in the long and impressive history of the Red Bull Car Park Drift and we expect an event which is more than equal to this stunning location,” he said.

“This is such a special event for the region, and we are so proud to be able to bring it to Jeddah and give drifting fans the chance to experience world-class competition.

“Of course, with three Saudi Arabian drivers competing in the final we expect the crowd to be more enthusiastic than ever and how special it would be to see a local driver crowned the King of Drift,” he added.

The Saudi drivers will go head-to-head with drifters who qualified in competitions from Jamaica to Mauritius, Sri Lanka to Pakistan, Kenya to South Africa, while the series also travelled through Poland, Estonia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, as well as Qatar, Oman, UAE, Bahrain, Jordan and Lebanon.


‘Little Pep’ Gvardiol coming up big for Croatia at World Cup

‘Little Pep’ Gvardiol coming up big for Croatia at World Cup
Updated 02 December 2022

‘Little Pep’ Gvardiol coming up big for Croatia at World Cup

‘Little Pep’ Gvardiol coming up big for Croatia at World Cup
  • The fact that Croatia conceded only one goal in their three group games at the World Cup is largely down to the performance of Gvardiol
  • He’s nicknamed “Little Pep” because of the similarities of his last name with that of Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola

DOHA: For 90 minutes, the hulking, masked mass that is Joško Gvardiol kept Belgium’s big-name strikers at bay with timely tackles — none bigger than his stop on Romelu Lukaku two minutes into stoppage time.
Then the 20-year-old Croat who is fast becoming the most sought-after center back in Europe went over to the side of the field and reached up to embrace his mother and cry.
The fact that Croatia conceded only one goal in their three group games at the World Cup is largely down to the performance of Gvardiol, who, despite his hefty stature, is nicknamed “Little Pep” because of the similarities of his last name with that of Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.
“He’s the best defender in the world,” Croatia coach Zlatko Dalić said through a translator after Thursday’s game. “Even if he’s not currently No. 1, he will become No. 1.”
While he only recently extended his contract with Leipzig through 2027, Gvardiol is reportedly a big transfer target for Chelsea, which should have no problem paying a 50 million euro ($50 million) release clause inserted into his deal with the German club.
In the meantime, veteran Croatia defenders Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida, who are both 33, have taken Gvardiol under their wing. His addition to a team that in 2018 reached the World Cup final has added another dimension in terms of physicality and youth.
“He enjoys great support from Lovren both on and off the field, and Vida also helps with extra advice,” Dalić said. “I am happy to watch how good they work together.”
Gvardiol is wearing a face mask during the tournament because he broke his nose when he collided with Willi Orbán during a Bundesliga match on Nov. 10 — the day after he was named to Croatia’s World Cup squad.
Up next for Gvardiol and Croatia is a match in the round of 16 on Monday against a Japan squad that are coming off an inspiring victory over Spain and managed to advance ahead of four-time champion Germany, which was eliminated in one of the most competitive groups.
“Before the end of the group stage, if we could choose the opponent in the next round, maybe some would say Japan,” Dalić said Friday. “But after seeing that they beat both Germany and Spain, they are anything but an easy opponent.”
The core of Croatia’s team remains their experienced midfield trio of Luka Modrić, Mateo Kovačić and Marcelo Brozović — plus winger Ivan Perišić.
At the age of 37 with 158 international appearances, Modrić is still able to dominate soccer’s biggest games with both Real Madrid and Croatia.
Perišić, who is also 33, never seems to tire on the left wing. He ran 72.5 kilometers during Croatia’s seven matches in the 2018 World Cup and could break that mark in Qatar.
While coach Roberto Martinez announced he was leaving Belgium’s squad after their “Golden Generation” was eliminated following a 0-0 draw with Croatia, Dalić said he isn’t through with his national team — no matter how Croatia finishes this tournament.
“This team are a mix of youth and experience,” he said. “I have more plans for Euro 2024 and only then might I reflect on taking some other steps and moves in my career.”


Berhalter ‘hopeful’ on Pulisic fitness for World Cup last 16

Berhalter ‘hopeful’ on Pulisic fitness for World Cup last 16
Updated 02 December 2022

Berhalter ‘hopeful’ on Pulisic fitness for World Cup last 16

Berhalter ‘hopeful’ on Pulisic fitness for World Cup last 16
  • Chelsea star Pulisic suffered a pelvic contusion following a heavy collision while scoring the winning goal in Tuesday's 1-0 victory over Iran
  • Berhalter said Pulisic was on the mend and would be tested later Friday during training

DOHA: United States coach Gregg Berhalter is “hopeful” Christian Pulisic will be fit to face the Netherlands in Saturday’s World Cup last-16 clash but striker Josh Sargent remains a fitness doubt.
Chelsea star Pulisic suffered a pelvic contusion following a heavy collision while scoring the winning goal in Tuesday’s 1-0 victory over Iran.
The 24-year-old was subsequently substituted and went to hospital following the game for tests.
Berhalter said Pulisic was on the mend and would be tested later Friday during training.
“Regarding Christian, we’re going to see him on the training field today,” Berhalter told a news conference on Friday.
“It looks pretty good, but we’ll have to see him on the pitch to get confirmation of that.”
However, there remain concerns over Norwich striker Sargent, who also picked up a knock in the win over Iran.
“With Christian we’re hopeful, with (Josh) a little less so,” Berhalter said.
“But we’ll see. At this stage of the tournament it’s go time. If you can push through it, you do. I’m sure he’ll have that mindset.”
The United States advanced to Saturday’s second round meeting at the Al Khalifa Stadium after finishing second behind England in Group B.
Captain Tyler Adams said the American squad had been energised by the support at home, where record numbers of viewers have tuned into the USA’s games in Qatar.
“The support from the US has been surreal — it’s really cool to see how much a tournament can change the perspective of people watching soccer,” Adams said.
“That was one of our goals coming into the tournament. The further we go, the more support we gather. We want the next generations to come to have that support.
“When we can play an attractive style, and fight and represent the country in the right way, you’re going to gather that support.”
Berhalter said the US squad had “felt a responsibility to use this World Cup to create momentum in the United States for soccer.”
“That’s why we want to keep going and do well and make the country proud,” he added.


In Maradona’s shadow, Messi strives for Argentina’s forever love

In Maradona’s shadow, Messi strives for Argentina’s forever love
Updated 02 December 2022

In Maradona’s shadow, Messi strives for Argentina’s forever love

In Maradona’s shadow, Messi strives for Argentina’s forever love
  • Adoring Argentines give Messi fantastic backing in Qatar
  • Argentines traditionally more ambivalent to Messi than Maradona

BUENOS AIRES/DOHA: Lionel Messi’s passionate performances at the Qatar World Cup are earning him oodles of love from Argentines, but their old favoritism for Diego Maradona may resurface unless he brings home the trophy on his final attempt.
The two diminutive and brilliant No. 10s have dazzled the world with their prolific goalscoring and strikingly similar styles, relying on low center of gravity to swerve and slalom their way past defenses, ball glued to flashing feet.
Yet only Maradona, who died two years ago, has won the biggest trophy. He dragged a mediocre team behind him in 1986 when his “Hand of God” goal against England became a symbol of national defiance after the shame of the Falkands War defeat.
For years, Argentine fans said that no matter how many Ballons d’Or and trophies Messi won with Barcelona, he could never match Maradona until he too lifted a World Cup.
And why, they asked, was he so shy and introverted whereas their lovable rascal Maradona had entertained them so richly with jokes, songs and expletive-laden tirades against authority?
Was Messi even a true Argentine anyway, some grumbled, especially older fans. After all, he left for Spain at 13 while Maradona was more one of their own, born in a slum and working his way up through local clubs including Boca Juniors.
Messi has, of course, enjoyed more success in sheer numbers of goals and honors than Maradona, even surpassing his national appearances this week as he drove Argentina into the last 16 of the World Cup. And he has kept himself in great shape whereas Maradona succumbed to drugs and wild living in ways that frustrated and saddened even his most loyal fans.
Those close to Messi say that though his shyness may have disguised it in the past, there was always nothing he longed for more than to bring glory to Argentina. That passion was laid bare when he broke down in tears after leading Argentina to the Copa America in 2021, their first major trophy in 28 years.
“Argentines always had a love-hate relationship with Messi,” said 44-year-old fan Gustavo Franchini in Buenos Aires.
“We always compare him with Maradona, who won the World Cup 36 years ago, since when we haven’t won again ... Everyone says he has to win the World Cup to achieve Maradona’s stature and many, like me, think that even then he doesn’t match him,” he added, noting how Maradona carried the 1986 team almost solo.
In Qatar, on Messi’s fifth and final quest, he has been the beating heart of the squad and Argentina appear to have as good a chance as any to lift the trophy on Dec. 18.
Packing out stadiums in Qatar and bars and parks back home, fans have backed Messi throughout, cheering his two goals, encouraging him after a penalty miss, and parading his image proudly on myriad flags and banners.
Many of the banners show Messi and Maradona together, some depicting the late No. 10 smiling down from heaven at his heir. And Messi himself has opened up emotionally to rally the team and nation after their shock defeat to Saudi Arabia. He has celebrated goals wildly with fans and lead celebratory songs on the pitch and in the changing room after they beat Mexico and Poland.
“After the Copa America he seems to have eased up, he’s more relaxed, enjoying it,” said another fan Facundo Moreno, 39, also in the Argentine capital.
“For me, Messi has always felt and done his all for the national team, from his first game until now. He’s my idol,” he added. “Maradona and he have totally different personalities but on the pitch they both do the same.”
Marcelo Sottile, a sports journalist and author of a book about Messi, said that while his clean-cut image and polite persona mirrored the sort of person Argentines aspired to be, the rebellious Maradona reflected more of who they really were.
However, there is a generation gap among those who remember and revere Maradona most and younger fans less prejudiced against Messi, he told Reuters.
“I have an 18-year-old son who never questioned Messi, who never said ‘you play well for Barcelona but not for Argentina’,” he said. “Messi has suffered from being a venerated star in Barcelona but often under attack here in Argentina.”


Cheers: Morocco last Arab team left standing in World Cup

Cheers: Morocco last Arab team left standing in World Cup
Updated 02 December 2022

Cheers: Morocco last Arab team left standing in World Cup

Cheers: Morocco last Arab team left standing in World Cup
  • Morocco beat Canada 2-1 to finish top of their group in a stadium thronged with their supporters

DOHA/RABAT: Moroccan fans celebrated on Thursday as their country became the only Arab nation to reach the knockout rounds of the first World Cup held in an Arab country, dancing and cheering in the stadium in Qatar and on the streets back home.

Morocco beat Canada 2-1 to finish top of their group in a stadium thronged with their supporters. In earlier matches they had tied with Croatia and scored a surprise win over Belgium, the second-ranked team in the world.

“This team can go all the way in this World Cup!” shouted a young woman draped in a Moroccan flag, leaning from the window of a packed car in Rabat as people rushed toward a central district to join street celebrations.

In Qatar, where the home team along with Saudi Arabia and Tunisia have already been knocked out, Morocco now carries the mantle for an Arab world that has cheered victories by Arab teams against some of the tournament favorites.

Hundreds of fans crowded outside the stadium, some pushing and shoving and others trying to climb a fence to get in even after the game had begun, a Reuters journalist there said. Many lacked tickets but hoped to see the game.

“Fans crowded here because they can’t enter the stadium. Almost all these fans have no ticket and they love Morocco and want to get in,” said one, Abdulmajid Mohammed, from Saudi Arabia.

The crowding also left some fans who said they had tickets unable to enter. “We have tickets but they closed all the doors and are not letting people in,” said Mohammad Abdelhadi from Libya, who said his group’s tickets each cost more than $200.

FIFA and Qatar’s World Cup organizers, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment on the crowding outside the stadium.

The deafening support has been a 12th man for the side.

“They proved on the pitch that they are lions... honestly as a Saudi we lost yesterday but we made up for that loss with Morocco’s win,” said Talal Ahmed Obeid, watching at a fan zone in Casablanca.

While Morocco is a proud member of the Arab League, the country has also in recent decades embraced its African identity and Berber lineage, enshrining Amazigh as an official language.

“We hope to fly the flag of African football high,” said Morocco coach Walid Regragui on Wednesday.

Mohamed Tahiri, a lawyer out celebrating in Rabat among crowds waving flags and honking car horns despite the rainy weather, said Morocco was the only team left for Arabs to identify with.

“This is a day of celebration not only for us Moroccans but for all Arabs and for all the Amazigh North Africans too,” he said.

People had already been out looking for cafes with televisions to watch the game hours before kickoff.

“My generation is experiencing this for the first time,” said Oufae Abidar, 38, a company employee. She was a toddler when Morocco last reached the knockout phase in 1986. Morocco’s last World Cup appearance, four years ago, ended in the group stage.

Back in Doha, Omani national Saeed Al Maskari, 30, said he would be supporting Morocco now. “We are in the Asian part (of the Arab region) and they are in the African part. But we speak one language,” he said.