Saudi ‘rugby guy’ raising profile of sport in Kingdom

Saudi ‘rugby guy’ raising profile of sport in Kingdom
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Saudi National Rugby Team. (Supplied)
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Khobar Rugby. (Supplied)
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Saudi National Team for Rugby 7s in Tunisia. (Supplied)
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Photo of Ali Al Dajani, president of the Saudi Arabian Rugby Federation. (Supplied)
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Saudi club playing in the Dubai 7s tournament. (Supplied)
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Updated 21 September 2022

Saudi ‘rugby guy’ raising profile of sport in Kingdom

Saudi ‘rugby guy’ raising profile of sport in Kingdom
  • President of Saudi Arabian Rugby Federation Ali Aldajani passing on love of game to new generation of Saudis, expats
  • Rugby played in Kingdom for almost 50 years, now being developed from grass roots to professional level

DHAHRAN: Ali Aldajani never thought that one day he would become well-known in his country as “the rugby guy.”
As president of the Saudi Arabian Rugby Federation the 29-year-old has fond memories of his early years in the game and pride in how much the sport means to him today.
Growing up in the Kingdom, Aldajani was always an athlete. He played football, tennis, basketball, and took part in track and field events. When he moved to Canada at the age of 14, he decided to delve into a contact sport. Since his school did not have an American football team, he decided to try rugby.
After four months of training, he started to lose interest in the game — until he played his first match.
After that, he was hooked on the sport and the community behind it. He dropped his other sports to focus on rugby and when he returned to the Kingdom after finishing school, decided to stick with it.
He told Arab News: “When I came back in 2019, at the time, I was playing with Bahrain rugby, semi-professionally, and I heard that the Saudi rugby committee had been dissolved.
“I was approached by someone who works with the Olympic committee about taking on the role as president, and, at the time, I was 26. I really wasn’t sure what I was able to do or what I could do, but I just knew that I liked the sport so decided to give it a try,” he said.
Expats and Saudis have been playing rugby in private compounds after work since the 1970s. Aldajani said the majority of them were businessmen, lawyers, and other professionals.
“If you look at Saudi Arabia’s position in any sport within the Gulf Cooperation Council, we have probably the biggest ratio of nationals to non-nationals. When you look at other countries like the UAE and Kuwait, a lot of those teams, most of the population is based on expats,” he added.
Rugby union was introduced in the Kingdom by British expats in the mid-20th century. In 2010, the Kingdom enjoyed its first ever international win in a rugby competition. Initially, it was a mix of expat and Saudi players. In 2012, a national team — which was made up of only Saudi players — entered the West Asia 7s competition in the UAE and finished third overall. And in 2014, the country participated in the Asian Games in South Korea.
Aldajani’s SARF board is made up mostly of Saudis but with individuals who have had international experience.
Amal Al-Grafi is the chief executive officer, Dr. Hadeel Ramadan Bakhsh heads the women’s rugby committee, and Lojain Alharbi chairs the finance committee. The communications, grassroots sports, player welfare, and coaching and officiating committees and led by Sami Amin, Mansour Aldehaiman, Waleed Yousef, and Khalid Al-Mansour, respectively, while Patrick Raupach is board adviser and head of the competitions committee.
While the majority of players are men, great efforts are being made to encourage women and girls to take up the sport.
Aldajani said: “Women’s rugby is a very big focus for us, starting with kids in middle and high school — there are some clubs here that are specifically for kids under the age of eight, between the ages of two and four, and up to 12. So those are going pretty strong.
“Our strategy as a federation was to select a few schools that had a blend of Saudi and expat kids, the reason being that the expat kids, or their parents, will most likely have been exposed to the sport back home. So, convincing them to play would be a lot less difficult.
“And because they are meant to sell tickets, now the kids want to participate with their friends, and they know it gets them excited. It’s also something new,” he added.
The federation’s training and education committee concentrates on developing individuals and players to become either match officials, first aiders, or coaches for kids, adults, and even professionals.
Aldajani pointed out that the tight-knit nature of the rugby community ensured that many ex-players ended up getting involved in coaching or helping out in other ways.
“You have a population of players that are engaged beyond retirement age. We focus on playing fifteens and sevens. Sevens is a very fast-paced game involving a lot of sprinting. Most people retire about 28 or 29 but some go on until they are 34. But by the age of 35, the bones start to ache, and break,” he said.
Major positives of the game, he noted, were its inclusivity and culture built on honor, integrity, respect, discipline, and teamwork.
According to Guinness World Records, the oldest international rugby union player was UK-born Colin Stanley who played for Saudi Arabia against Jordan in 2017, aged 58.
Expats in the Kingdom will always be key members of any side, but more Saudis are becoming keen to join in.
“We have the sustainability model where we can always rely on Saudis to keep joining. And what we’re really trying to focus on is using our current infrastructure with expats and embedding it with Saudis.
“The coronavirus pandemic was tough because a lot of us got laid off. For us, as a population and as a sport that relied on our players, we suffered a lot because we lost maybe a quarter to a fifth of our player base. It takes a toll on everything,” Aldajani added.
Despite its tough image, Aldajani said rugby was one of the safest sports he had ever played. But while he was keen to see it expand in schools and beyond, he wanted players to be smart, and prioritize their education.
“Professional athletes have such a short window where they can be really good, and sometimes they’re really good but never make it through. They finish, and perhaps do not work for years, but when they come to needing a job, they find they have no skills.
“Maybe, in a way, my parents really emphasized that. School comes first. I’ve seen a lot of my friends that didn’t do that, and it hasn’t worked out as well for them as it has for me. So, I hope in a way that rugby does not take over a person’s life,” he added.
Variations of the game can be played with less physical contact.
“Touch rugby caters to all ages, all sizes — we have guys that are 350 pounds and play with us, up to guys that are maybe 110 pounds and fly around. It is a sport that can be played co-ed, male and female. It’s really fun,” Aldajani said.
Participation is not for everyone, but rugby is a popular spectator sport. The Rugby World Cup, taking place in France next year, is the third-largest sporting event in the world. Closer to home, rugby is played throughout the Kingdom.


Dutch flier Dumfries dazzles ahead of Argentina World Cup showdown

Dutch flier Dumfries dazzles ahead of Argentina World Cup showdown
Updated 7 sec ago

Dutch flier Dumfries dazzles ahead of Argentina World Cup showdown

Dutch flier Dumfries dazzles ahead of Argentina World Cup showdown
DOHA: Denzel Dumfries had a slow start at the World Cup but the Netherlands wing-back hit his stride in spectacular style in the last-16 match against the United States.
The Inter Milan defender — one of the breakout stars at last year’s Euro 2020 — provided two assists and scored the third goal in a 3-1 win to help set up Friday’s quarter-final clash with Argentina.
The Dutch will need to find a way of stopping Lionel Messi as the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner continues his quest for a maiden World Cup title.
But coach Louis van Gaal will be hoping that his side can expose gaps behind the Argentina defense on the counter-attack, for which Dumfries and fellow wing-back Daley Blind will be crucial.
The pair assisted each other’s goals in the victory over the Americans as Van Gaal’s 3-4-1-2 formation paid dividends.
“He is (important). He got a lot of criticism in the first games but we know what he can do and he showed it today,” midfielder Davy Klaassen said after the last-16 tie.
“In this system the wing-backs are really important and if you see them assisting each other today, this is what you want.”
Kylian Mbappe is the tournament’s leading scorer with five goals, while other wingers to impress include England pair Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka and Brazil’s Vinicius Junior.
Wide players have been more important than usual in Qatar, according to Arsene Wenger, now FIFA’s football development chief.
“The sides with the best wingers are those who have the best chances to win because the game is changing toward the wings,” said Wenger.
“Teams are blocking the center, and attacks are going toward both sides.”
The Netherlands’ width comes from Blind and Dumfries, with Memphis Depay and Cody Gakpo starting in a narrower front two ahead of Klaassen.
The positives of that system were best shown by their opening goal when a sweeping 20-pass move was finished off by Depay from Dumfries’ cut-back.
“In that goal you see all the facets of the system that we play,” said Dumfries.
“We really attack the spaces and change sides really well. It was a fantastic team goal. This is where you see the core of the system being executed.”
The Netherlands labored at times in the first round but still finished top of Group A after wins over hosts Qatar and Senegal and a draw with Ecuador.
“We knew before that we could play better. In the group stage we didn’t lose but we felt that we could play better,” said Dumfries.
The three-time runners-up are hoping to peak at the right time in their bid to win the title for the first time.
“We’re growing in the tournament, we’re improving every game and this was another step,” said captain Virgil van Dijk.
“We came here with one goal and that’s to become world champions and we have to win every game and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Dumfries, who is named after US film star Denzel Washington, impressed at the Euros with his first two international goals in the group stage.
Those performances helped him earn a move from PSV Eindhoven to Inter Milan and he has often been linked with a switch to the Premier League.
“I play for a very beautiful club in Italy and I’m very proud that I can play for Inter,” said Dumfries.
“I’m not focused on anything other than the national team.”

Qatar cancels Hayya entry card for GCC citizens, residents

Qatar cancels Hayya entry card for GCC citizens, residents
The mobile telephone application for the Hayya card is shown on a screen during a press conference in Doha. AFP
Updated 06 December 2022

Qatar cancels Hayya entry card for GCC citizens, residents

Qatar cancels Hayya entry card for GCC citizens, residents
  • Those traveling by air would be able to enter the country without registering on the Hayya platform

DOHA: Citizens and residents of Gulf Cooperation Council countries will from Tuesday be allowed to enter Qatar for World Cup games without the need to obtain a Hayya card for non-ticketed fans, the Qatari Ministry of Interior announced.

The ministry said that those traveling by air would be able to enter the country without registering on the Hayya platform, while visitors passing through land border crossings would be able to use buses and take advantage of free parking.

From Dec. 8, the green light would be given for private vehicular access on submission of an entry permit via the Ministry of Interior website at least 12 hours before the date of travel.

Pre-entry permits for vehicles are free of charge.

The ministry noted that fans wishing to attend remaining World Cup matches must register via the Hayya platform.


Japan confident of bright future despite World Cup heartbreak

Japan confident of bright future despite World Cup heartbreak
Japan's Daizen Maeda (2nd-L) celebrates with teammates after first goal during Qatar World Cup match against Croatia. AFP
Updated 06 December 2022

Japan confident of bright future despite World Cup heartbreak

Japan confident of bright future despite World Cup heartbreak
  • Japan were eliminated by Croatia in the last 16 on Monday in Qatar, going out on penalties after a nerve-jangling 1-1 draw with the 2018 finalists
  • “We have a lot of young players and this experience will be massive for the team,” said goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima

DOHA: Japan failed to reach the World Cup quarter-finals once again but stunning wins over Germany and Spain and more players moving to Europe suggest the Blue Samurai will return stronger.
Japan were eliminated by Croatia in the last 16 on Monday in Qatar, going out on penalties after a nerve-jangling 1-1 draw with the 2018 finalists.
It was the fourth time Japan had exited at the first knock-out stage and denied them a much-coveted quarter-final debut in their seventh straight World Cup appearance.
But the four-times Asian champions showed that they can compete with the world’s best in Qatar, beating both Germany and Spain — two former champions — to point toward brighter times ahead.
Coach Hajjime Moriyasu said it was not possible to “turn into Superman overnight” but he believes Japan are on the right path.
“We weren’t able to overcome this hurdle of losing in the last 16 and you might say that we didn’t achieve anything new,” he said.
“But the players have shown us something that we haven’t seen before by beating former champions like Germany and Spain.”
The number of European-based players in Japan’s World Cup squads has steadily increased since they made their tournament debut in 1998 with an entirely domestic-based selection.
Moriyasu picked 19 European-based players in his 26-man squad for Qatar, including eight who ply their trade in Germany’s Bundesliga.
Japan had six players in the group stages of this season’s Champions League and Daichi Kamada won last season’s Europa League with Eintracht Frankfurt.
Midfielder Wataru Endo, who captains Stuttgart in the Bundesliga, said he wants to see Japan have enough European-based players “to fill two teams.”
“The quality of the Japan players is improving — we have more players at European clubs and that is good experience for us,” he said.
“We need to have more players playing with European clubs — we need 20 or 30.
“We are improving but we weren’t good enough to get to the quarter-finals.”

- Grass-roots support -

Japan’s player exodus to Europe has come at the expense of the domestic J-League.
Only seven home-based players were named in Moriyasu’s squad and fans of local clubs now find opportunities to watch national team stars few and far between.
Japan defender Yuto Nagatomo, who plays for FC Tokyo, urged Japanese fans to support their local J-League club for the benefit of the national team.
“Most of the players in the squad came up through the J-League and now they play overseas,” said Nagatomo, who returned to FC Tokyo last year after an 11-year stint in Europe.
“There will be a J-League team in most people’s local area. We need to support them.
“If we get excited about the J-League it will help the players grow and give them motivation, then they’ll go overseas and help the national team.”
Japan’s next immediate challenge is to win the Asian Cup, which will be held in Qatar, likely in early 2024.
It remains to be seen if Moriyasu will still be in charge, with the Japan Football Association set to decide his fate when the team return home.
Veterans like Nagatomo and captain Maya Yoshida are likely to make way for a younger generation, with emerging stars such as Ritsu Doan and Kaoru Mitoma set to take center stage.
Goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima, who was named in the squad as a back-up after playing at the previous three World Cups, said Japan’s 2022 team was their “best ever” at the tournament.
He backed the young players to take on a leading role and use their heartbreak to make Japan stronger.
“We have a lot of young players and this experience will be massive for the team,” said the 39-year-old.
“The game is just finished but I want the players, particularly the young players, to lead us forward.”


Croatia coach Dalic says Brazil World Cup squad ‘scary’

Croatia coach Dalic says Brazil World Cup squad ‘scary’
Croatia's coach Zlatko Dalic watches his players from the touchline during the Qatar 2022 World Cup match against Japan. AFP
Updated 06 December 2022

Croatia coach Dalic says Brazil World Cup squad ‘scary’

Croatia coach Dalic says Brazil World Cup squad ‘scary’
  • The coach said on Tuesday he was proud of his team for showing the character and mentality to get this far in Qatar, but knows that Brazil will be a whole different proposition

DOHA: Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic called Brazil’s squad “scary” but says his team are not big underdogs in Friday’s quarter-final against the World Cup favorites.
Dalic’s side, runners-up at the 2018 World Cup, beat Japan on penalties on Monday to guarantee at least their third best finish at the tournament.
The coach said on Tuesday he was proud of his team for showing the character and mentality to get this far in Qatar, but knows that Brazil will be a whole different proposition.
“Brazil has (over) 200 million people, we only have four million, so we’re a bit like the suburb of a city in Brazil,” Dalic said.
“It will be a different game than against anyone we have played so far because Brazil likes to play football.
“If we are looking at it realistically, Brazil is the best team at the tournament, they have a great choice of players, a great squad, it’s scary, so it’s a great test for us.”
Dalic said “it doesn’t get better” than playing Brazil at a World Cup.
“Maybe we’d rather it was in the final than the quarter-final though,” he added.
“We want to give maximum effort — we won’t surrender before the game. We want to counter Brazil’s quality with our own and we want to play football against them.”
Croatia have refreshed their squad in the four years since the last World Cup, with only a handful of veterans remaining, including captain Luka Modric and winger Ivan Perisic.
Dalic said this generation should not be compared to the team beaten by France in the final in Russia because they largely included players sprinkled across elite club sides.
“We have already earned a historic result after getting silver in 2018 and bronze in 1998, this is our third best Croatian result at a World Cup,” said Dalic.
“I wouldn’t draw comparisons to the team from 2018, when you look at our players then, they played for clubs like Barcelona, Inter (Milan), Juventus, Liverpool, Real Madrid of course.
“When you compare it to today, we have six players from the Croatian first division, it’s a different team.
“But I take my hat off to this generation, because they are playing great.”
Brazil thrashed South Korea 4-1 on Monday with one of the best performances of the tournament so far, but Dalic thinks that his team can fight their corner against the five-time World Cup winners.
“Brazil are favorites, you can tell they have a great atmosphere in the team, they have top world-class players, Neymar is back from injury,” added Dalic.
“We have to be very smart in our approach. We can’t open up too much against Brazil, but we also can’t sit back.
“It’s not 50-50, but we are not some big underdogs.”


Ronaldo eyes World Cup quarters as Morocco dare to dream

Ronaldo eyes World Cup quarters as Morocco dare to dream
Portugal's forward Cristiano Ronaldo warms up ahead of the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group H match against South Korea. AFP
Updated 06 December 2022

Ronaldo eyes World Cup quarters as Morocco dare to dream

Ronaldo eyes World Cup quarters as Morocco dare to dream
  • Ronaldo was hogging the headlines at the tournament even before he kicked a ball after launching a tirade against Manchester United and their manager Erik ten Hag

DOHA: Cristiano Ronaldo will aim to fire Portugal past Switzerland and into the World Cup quarter-finals on Tuesday as Morocco bid to derail Spain’s bid for a second global crown.
Just two last-eight slots remain to be filled in Qatar after five-time winners Brazil swatted aside South Korea 4-1 and 2018 finalists Croatia squeezed past Japan via a penalty shoot-out.
Ronaldo was hogging the headlines at the tournament even before he kicked a ball after launching a tirade against Manchester United and their manager Erik ten Hag.
Following an exit by “mutual agreement” he is now seeking a new team, with sources saying he is in talks over a blockbuster deal with Saudi club Al-Nassr.
The 37-year-old superstar forward, who is appearing in what is almost certainly his last World Cup, has been a shadow of his former self in Qatar despite all the hype.
After scoring a penalty in his team’s opening clash against Ghana to become the first player to score at five World Cups, he has huffed and puffed but has failed to find the net again.
Ronaldo’s starting role in the team remains a hot topic among Portugal fans, but coach Fernando Santos said he was not paying attention to the raging debate.
“I do not read this type of material,” he said. “It is not a lack of respect, it is simply that we have three days to train for a game and I am not looking at other kinds of news. We focus on the upcoming match.”
Santos said he expected a close contest against Switzerland. Portugal beat the Swiss 4-0 in the UEFA Nations League in June before losing 1-0 in the reverse fixture.

- African hopes -

Morocco are the sole remaining team from Africa, and the only Arab team left in Qatar.
Coach Walid Regragui has urged his men to believe they can defeat powerhouse Spain as they attempt to reach the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time in their history.
Morocco would become just the fourth African team to reach the last eight — after Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010 — if they beat the 2010 champions.
“We’ll come out swinging,” said Regragui. “We want to hoist the Moroccan flag way up high. We’re playing first and foremost for us and our country. 
“All Arabs and Africans, we want to make them happy. We want their prayers and we want their support so it can give us that extra ingredient to win. Before it was just the Moroccans that supported us.”
Spain started the tournament with a swagger, smashing seven goals past Costa Rica before a draw with Germany and a defeat against South Korea.
Coach Luis Enrique said he set each of his players the “homework” of practicing 1,000 penalties ahead of the World Cup, saying he is convinced they are not a lottery.
Brazil, with Neymar back in the team after injury, put on a first-half masterclass on Monday against South Korea, rocketing into a 4-0 lead in the 36th minute, including a goal for their talisman from the penalty spot.
Paik Seung-ho pulled one back with a thunderbolt late on but his side were outclassed on a disappointing night for Asian football.
Earlier, Luka Modric’s Croatia did it the hard way against Japan, coming back from a goal down to equalize before winning 3-1 on penalties.
Goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic was the hero for Croatia, saving three penalties in the shootout.
Seven of Croatia’s past eight knockout games at major tournaments have gone to extra time, the only exception being their defeat in the final by France in Russia four years ago.
Brazil will face Croatia in the quarter-finals on Friday, with the Netherlands taking on Argentina on the same day. England play France on Saturday.