Rugby in Mideast thriving on and off the pitch

Rugby in Mideast thriving on and off the pitch
Nolli Waterman (right) takes part in podcasting workshop at Dubai Rugby 7s. (Supplied)
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Updated 05 December 2022

Rugby in Mideast thriving on and off the pitch

Rugby in Mideast thriving on and off the pitch
  • Dubai 7s tourney continues to raise the sport’s profile in the region

DUBAI: The best 16 men’s and 12 women’s teams in the world took to the pitch at this year’s Emirates Dubai 7s as part of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series calendar, and there is compelling evidence that the annual event is helping to grow the game both on and off the pitch in the region.

While the global stars of this format of the game were wowing huge crowds at the Sevens Stadium, a busy schedule of age-group and invitational tournaments alongside the international fixtures painted a healthy picture of participation on the local level.

Off the pitch, four global superstars of rugby this year turned the spotlight away from the action to highlight the possibilities on offer on the sidelines.

South African World cup winner Bryan Habana, Ireland and Lions hero Brian O’Driscoll, England women’s World Cup winner Nolli Waterman and US sensation Abby Gustaitis all participated in this year’s HSBC World of Opportunity Programme, the latest step in HSBC’s long-term commitment to creating opportunity for the next generation.

This year the initiative is helping local teams in Dubai to further integrate women into sports beyond grassroot levels. Throughout the National Day weekend, there were a series of workshops aimed at showcasing the various roles available within the world of sport, partnered by World Rugby.

Waterman, who has carved out an impressive post-playing career as a commentator, hosted one session giving tips on podcasting, and she co-hosted another with Springbok superstar turned broadcaster Habana which offered essential tools on commentating. A third session created a mock press conference with Ireland legend O’Driscoll.

Waterman, a multiple Six Nations champion who also represented Team GB at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, said: “Obviously it is the dream of a lot of youngsters to play on the pitch in their country’s colors, or to line up alongside their friends.

“But there are so many opportunities to experience what it is all about to be part of a world-class event as a player, coach, referee, in media or administration or other roles,” added the former England fullback who scored a try on her way to glory in the 2014 World Cup final.

“The HSBC World of Opportunity initiative aims to give young people the opportunity to experience firsthand all the roles and responsibilities behind the running of such a brilliant tournament, and the young people on the program are absolutely thriving on the opportunity.”

Waterman knows from experience the popularity of the tournament, having turned out previously to represent England in Dubai. And returning in her ambassadorial role, she highlighted the rising levels of interest across the demographic in the UAE. “Dubai definitely has a place in my heart, I used to come here as a player and it is great to see the talent on the field.

“There is real evidence of the global spread of the game and also seeing the diversity in the crowd, the outfits and everything, it is obvious that men, women, boys and girls are all embracing rugby sevens and enjoying what it is about.

“It is fantastic to see the rise in interest across the region, not just in terms of the players playing the game but also that spread of fans. A lot of locals are coming here and enjoying themselves and embracing that wonderful atmosphere that sevens has to offer.

“The program this year also helps to further engage and inspire so many people about the opportunities around the game. With those players and people around rugby being passionate about the sport, it will only continue to grow.”


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.