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)
Saudi ‘rugby guy’ raising profile of sport in Kingdom
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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)
Saudi ‘rugby guy’ raising profile of sport in Kingdom
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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.


World No. 3 Cameron Smith praises Saudi Arabia’s growth ahead of Asian Tour flagship event

World No. 3 Cameron Smith praises Saudi Arabia’s growth ahead of Asian Tour flagship event
Updated 01 February 2023

World No. 3 Cameron Smith praises Saudi Arabia’s growth ahead of Asian Tour flagship event

World No. 3 Cameron Smith praises Saudi Arabia’s growth ahead of Asian Tour flagship event
  • Three NFL stars join Wednesday’s PIF Saudi International for Pro-Am and special charity match

JEDDAH: Reigning Open Champion Cameron Smith has praised Saudi Arabia’s growth since his first visit in 2021 as he prepares to kick off his golf season at the $5 million PIF Saudi International powered by Softbank Investment Advisers.

After enjoying the off-season back home, the Australian is ready to launch is 2023 campaign.

“It feels really good to be getting the season started,” Smith said. “The course here is a really good test. Usually gets quite gusty and really windy around here, so you have to really control your ball. And the course looks fantastic as well.”

He added: “It’s nice to get out and see different parts of the world to help grow the game. This is my third time here, and you can see what’s been done just in those three years. It’s awesome.”

The world No.3 will hope to improve on his past two visits to Royal Greens Golf and Country Club, a course he has previously found challenging in the wind.

“It’s a really tough golf course, I think, off the tee,” he said. “That’s probably where I struggle the most in my game. When it gets a little breezy, those fairways become pretty tight, and there’s a couple of shots out there that are really uncomfortable for me.

“I spent a little bit of time today focusing a bit more on the driver, and seeing some shapes and maybe some lower shots with 3-wood just to get the ball in play,” said Smith. “It’s a really solid golf course. You obviously have to play well to win, but you have to navigate your way around and hole some putts.”

Three legends of the NFL were also enjoying their first visit to Saudi Arabia to attend the PIF Saudi International this week.

Brice Butler, Patrick Peterson and Eric Ebron played in the Pro-Am on Wednesday alongside 2011 Masters Champion Charl Schwartzel and also competed in a three-hole charity match against defending champion Harold Varner, raising money for Al-Iman Association and the Saudi Cancer Foundation.

Following the charity match Peterson said: “Golfing with Harold was awesome. I appreciate the invitation and being able to play with some friends that I’ve known for a while. It’s awesome, I’m looking forward to tomorrow. The course was awesome.”

Ebron added: “Great fun, had an awesome opportunity to come out here to Saudi to play some golf with Harold and my friends. It’s my first time over here and it’s been an awesome experience.”


Saudi riders continue to make progress in AlUla

Saudi riders continue to make progress in AlUla
Updated 01 February 2023

Saudi riders continue to make progress in AlUla

Saudi riders continue to make progress in AlUla
  • Azzam Al-Abdulmumin played his part in a five-man breakaway during the 159.5km 3rd stage from Manshiyah Station to Abu Rakah
  • The breakaway was eventually reeled in and Soren Waerenskjold of the Uno X Pro Cycling team claimed the stage victory

ALULA: Saudi riders were to the fore in a thrilling third day of the Saudi Tour, encompassing the stunning cycling terrain of AlUla.

Azzam Al-Abdulmumin played his part in a five-man breakaway, which tried to stay ahead of the chasing peloton during the 159.5km stage from Manshiyah Station to Abu Rakah.

The breakaway was eventually reeled in, with just under 50km to go, and Soren Waerenskjold of the Uno X Pro Cycling team claimed the stage victory in Abu Rakah.

This is the first time that the Saudi Cycling Federation team has competed in the Saudi Tour, taking its place in the field alongside seven UCI World Tour teams, six UCI Pro teams and two Asian UCI Continental teams.

Al-Abdulmunim, Hassan Al-Jumah, Murthada Al-Shaghab, Hani Al-Mrhoon and Abdulaziz Al-Hashim are all gaining invaluable experience in the world-class peloton.

Salem El-Salem, a key member of the Saudi Cycling Federation coaching team, is delighted that the cyclists can use the Saudi Tour and AlUla as a benchmark in their development.

He said: “It is a very tough level for the team, but this is Saudi and we are Team Saudi so we have this incredible opportunity for the riders and federation to work and improve.

“We have prepared very well but it is a different level. In general, we are doing very well and I hope this will continue.

“This is just the start and the Saudi Tour in AlUla is the perfect place for us to look at everything and check exactly what we need — we have put together a four-year schedule and we are now on year one, and we are taking things step by step.”


Japan’s ‘King Kazu’ joins Portuguese side at 55

Japan’s ‘King Kazu’ joins Portuguese side at 55
Updated 01 February 2023

Japan’s ‘King Kazu’ joins Portuguese side at 55

Japan’s ‘King Kazu’ joins Portuguese side at 55
  • Miura, known as ‘King Kazu’ in his homeland, made his debut in 1986 with Brazilian side Santos
  • Miura turns 56 on February 26 and has said he wants to keep playing until he is 60

TOKYO: Japanese football star Kazuyoshi Miura extended his decades-long playing career on Wednesday less than a month before his 56th birthday, joining Portuguese second-division outfit Oliveirense on loan.
Miura, known as “King Kazu” in his homeland, made his debut in 1986 with Brazilian side Santos and has played 37 seasons as a professional.
His move to Portugal will see him play in a sixth country after stints in Brazil, Japan, Italy, Croatia and Australia.
Last season he played for Japanese fourth-tier side Suzuka Point Getters — managed by his older brother Yasutoshi — on loan from J-League team Yokohama FC.
Yokohama’s parent company acquired a majority stake in Oliveirense in November.
“Even though this is a new place for me, I’ll work hard to show everyone the kind of play I’m known for,” he said in a statement released by Yokohama.
Miura scored two goals — one from the penalty spot and one header — in 18 appearances last season for Suzuka, who finished ninth in the table.
He will line up at Oliveirense alongside Christian Kendji Wagatsuma Ferreira — a Brazilian of Japanese descent who was given the nickname “Kazu” as a youth player.
Miura turns 56 on February 26 and has said he wants to keep playing until he is 60.
One of Asia’s best-known footballers in the 1990s, he helped put the game in Japan on the map when the professional J-League was launched in 1993.
He left Japan for Brazil in 1982 and signed a contract with Santos in 1986.
Miura made his Japan debut in 1990 and was famously left out of his country’s squad for their first World Cup finals appearance in 1998, despite scoring 55 goals in 89 games for the national side.


FIFA aims at sexual offenses in updated ethics code

FIFA aims at sexual offenses in updated ethics code
Updated 01 February 2023

FIFA aims at sexual offenses in updated ethics code

FIFA aims at sexual offenses in updated ethics code
  • The code, said the governing body of world football, is intended "to enhance protection of football integrity"
  • It also targets match fixing and clubs that fail to pay transfer fees

LAUSANNE: FIFA has toughened its disciplinary proceedings for cases of sexual assault or harassment in a revised Code of Ethics that was announced and came into force on Wednesday.
The code, said the governing body of world football in a press release, is intended “to enhance protection of football integrity.”
It also targets match fixing and clubs that fail to pay transfer fees.
“The changes are aimed at improving the protection of certain parties to proceedings before FIFA’s judicial bodies, while providing FIFA with further instruments against illegal, immoral or unethical methods and practices,” said the release.
The revised code removes the 10-year limitation period on prosecuting sexual offenses.
The changes make the possible victims “parties to the relevant proceedings, who enjoy all procedural rights, such as that of being notified of the relevant decision and being entitled to appeal it.”
The code also obliges “member associations and confederations to notify FIFA of any decisions rendered on sexual abuse and match-fixing.”
A series of sexual assault scandals in recent years, notably in Gabon, Haiti, the United States and Afghanistan, forced FIFA into disciplinary proceedings, particularly in cases where the local authorities refused to act.
FIFA said it would appoint an independent integrity expert to investigate match fixing and coordinate with the public authorities in assessing potential offenses, and propose “appropriate disciplinary measures.”
FIFA said it was extending transfer bans on debtor clubs that do not comply with decisions by its Football Tribunal and could charge 18 percent interest on unpaid debts.


Saudi Arabia’s hosting of 2027 AFC Asian Cup is an idea whose time has finally come

Saudi Arabia’s hosting of 2027 AFC Asian Cup is an idea whose time has finally come
Saudi Arabia has been named as host of the 2027 AFC Asian Cup.
Updated 01 February 2023

Saudi Arabia’s hosting of 2027 AFC Asian Cup is an idea whose time has finally come

Saudi Arabia’s hosting of 2027 AFC Asian Cup is an idea whose time has finally come
  • With thriving domestic league, successful national teams and clubs, Kingdom will finally host continent’s biggest international competition

Saudi Arabia has been named as host of the 2027 AFC Asian Cup, and incredibly, will hold the continent’s biggest international for the first time.

Less than a month after Cristiano Ronaldo arrived to play for Al-Nassr, and two since the Saudi national team’s fine performances at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the news cements the country’s status as a major hub of the world’s most popular game on the largest continent.

It was always likely that Saudi would get the official nod as the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) conducted its congress in Bahrain’s capital of Manama.

Five countries initially threw hats into the ring. Iran and Uzbekistan withdrew and then, after China — still in lockdown and pursuing a zero-COVID-19 policy — relinquished hosting rights from the 2023 tournament, Qatar stepped in as a substitute.

That meant India was the only remaining rival and when New Delhi bowed out in December, it cleared the way for Saudi Arabia to host the tournament for the first time in its history.

It is an idea whose time has finally come.

The pandemic played a wider part, too. With the disruption caused to competitions, both of the club and country variety, during the outbreak, Saudi Arabia proved to be a competent, flexible and reliable host whether the games were World Cup qualifiers or AFC Champions Leagues matches.

The work done, often at short notice, was appreciated by the AFC. After the confederation got its fingers burnt by the situation in China, it is not a surprise that cities such as Jeddah, Riyadh and Dammam are seen as safe choices as well as places that deserved a first chance to host Asia’s biggest sporting event.

There is more to it than that, however. The reputation of Saudi Arabian football is higher now than it has maybe ever been. The national team is still basking in the warmth of the global sensation produced with November’s World Cup win over eventual champions Argentina. It was a stunning victory. With a little more luck then Herve Renard’s men could easily have found themselves in the last 16 especially if Salem Al-Dawsari’s penalty had been converted against Poland.

The performances showed that there is talent in the country with the likes of Saud Abdulhamid linked to big moves in Italy and elsewhere.

The Saudi Professional League has long been one of the strongest in Asia but in recent years has grown in strength, depth and stature. There is regularly more than one representative in the latter stages of the Asian Champions League. Al-Hilal are the defending champions — and have won two of the last three — and now have a record number of four continental titles as well as international stars such as Odion Ighalo and Moussa Marega. On Saturday, the Blues kick off a third FIFA Club World Cup campaign in the space of three years.

While there is a growing core of talent in the country, as the World Cup exploits and last June’s U23 Asian Championships triumph have shown, the league is home to some of the best foreign players and coaches in Asian football.

Al-Ittihad have former Tottenham Hotspur boss Nuno Santo in charge and a whole host of talented foreign players including Moroccan marksman Abderrazzak Hamdallah, Egyptian rock Ahmed Hegazi and talented Brazilians such as Igor Coronado and Romarinho.

Al-Shabab tore up the group stage of the Champions League and even second tier Al-Ahli have Pitso Mosimane in charge, the man who has won three African Champions League crowns with Mamelodi Sundowns in his native South Africa and twice with Egyptian giants Al-Ahly. At the moment, the SPL is the most exciting and high-profile domestic competition on the continent.

And that was the case before Ronaldo signed with Al-Nassr. The Portuguese star is one of the best players in the history of the game with five Ballon d’Or awards and the same number of UEFA Champions League titles. It is not just about the talent of the former Real Madrid, Manchester United and Juventus legend, but the fact that he among the most recognizable people on the planet. His presence has just increased the spotlight shining on Saudi Arabian football.

It all means that the Asian Cup announcement is not only a natural decision, as Saudi Arabian football is in a great place at the moment on the pitch, but also confirms what is happening off the field. The tournament will be the biggest football event ever to take place in the country but there is a sense that there is more to come. The waiting is over and now, preparations can begin.