Saudi trainers face fierce competition at Saudi Cup

Saudi trainers face fierce competition at Saudi Cup
Emblem Road (right) on the way to victory at the Saudi Cup last year. (Supplied)
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Updated 23 February 2023

Saudi trainers face fierce competition at Saudi Cup

Saudi trainers face fierce competition at Saudi Cup
  • American trainer Bob Baffert races for rehabilitation against Moutaib Almulawah
  • Naif Almandeel participates with two horses — Lagertha Rhyme and Sunset Flash

The Kingdom’s trainers are expected to face tough competition when the Saudi Cup kicks off this weekend with a total prize pool of $35.35 million up for grabs.

The two-day event — the world’s richest horse race — will be hosted by the Saudi Arabian Jockey Club at the King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh, on Feb. 24-25.

Over the course of two evenings, more than 30 Saudi trainers will participate in the races, including Abdullah bin Mishriff, Bedan Alsubaie, Hussein Alshoieb, Naif Almandeel and Moutaib Almulawah.

Almulawah will compete in the $20 million race with horse Emblem Road, which won the third Saudi Cup last year, against veteran American Bob Baffert, coach of horse Country Grammer.

Emblem Road is set to face stiff competition to retain its title against Country Grammer, its runner-up in the same race, who won the International Dubai Cup just a month after losing the the Saudi Cup last year with American trainer Bob Baffert.

Saudi trainer Moutaib Almulawah traveled to French racecourses to train in the Parisian atmosphere as part of the program to prepare for the defense of his title. After his return, he let his horse rest to be ready for the most valuable race.

Almulawah also bolstered his hopes of securing a Saudi Cup victory by competing with the champion horse of the domestic racecourses, Scotland Yard — son of Quality Road.

The four-year-old Scotland Yard qualified for the Saudi Cup 2023 by winning The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Cup title last month.

Meanwhile, trainer Bob Baffert boosted his hopes in the race with his participation with horse Taiba, with whom he achieved promising results in the American fields before coming to Riyadh.

American trainer Baffert will compete with two horses, Taiba and Country Grammer, as he will race for rehabilitation against Saudi Moutaib Almulawah who claimed the last renewal title.

Young Saudi trainer Naif Almandeel will participate in the main round of The Saudi Cup 2023 race with two mares, Lagertha Rhyme and Sunset Flash.

Almandeel has etched his name on the list of top trainers over the past three years with his achievements, winning the 1st Grade race of the King Faisal Cup, the 2nd Grade race of the Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Cup, twice, the cup of The final champion of the race Courses and the Gulf Cup, out of a total of 57 races.

Saudi trainer Almandeel will make his first international appearance in the Saudi Cup following his successes in domestic races.

Japanese horse trainers have set their sights on the $20 million prize, with six of the 20 horses that arrived in the Kingdom to participate in various races over the coming Friday and Saturday.

Real estate developer ROSHN becomes platinum sponsor of Saudi champions Al-Ittihad

Real estate developer ROSHN becomes platinum sponsor of Saudi champions Al-Ittihad
Updated 12 sec ago

Real estate developer ROSHN becomes platinum sponsor of Saudi champions Al-Ittihad

Real estate developer ROSHN becomes platinum sponsor of Saudi champions Al-Ittihad
  • Citing the recent signing of Benzema, ROSHN Group CEO highlighted club’s importance to Saudi sport

RIYADH: Real estate developer ROSHN has signed a three-year deal to become the platinum sponsor of Saudi Pro League champions Al-Ittihad.

This sponsorship is part of the Public Investment Fund-owned company’s support for the development of the Kingdom’s sports sector, the Saudi Press Agency reported on Thursday.

ROSHN Group CEO David Grover described Al-Ittihad as an important part of the Saudi sports scene, citing the team’s recent signing of French superstar striker Karim Benzema.

Abdulwahab Abed, the CEO of Al-Ittihad, said the sponsorship deal comes at the end of a successful season during which the club won the Saudi Super Cup and the Roshn Saudi League. The sponsorship will allow the team to expand and develop, he added, particularly as it prepares to play regionally and internationally next season.

ROSHN has previously sponsored the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Jeddah and the LIV Golf Invitational, also in Jeddah.

Benzema happy to be in ‘beloved and beautiful’ Saudi Arabia and ready to push his limits

Karim Benzema signs for Saudi club Al Ittihad. (Supplied/Al-Ittihad)
Karim Benzema signs for Saudi club Al Ittihad. (Supplied/Al-Ittihad)
Updated 08 June 2023

Benzema happy to be in ‘beloved and beautiful’ Saudi Arabia and ready to push his limits

Karim Benzema signs for Saudi club Al Ittihad. (Supplied/Al-Ittihad)
  • New Al-Ittihad star is looking forward to playing against former Real Madrid team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo
  • Benzema eager to encourage more youngsters and females to enjoy football

JEDDAH: New Al Ittihad signing Karim Benzema is looking forward to getting results in front of the ‘passionate’ Saudi fans and delivering trophies to his “legendary” new club in a competitive league which he believes is improving year on year.

The current holder of the Ballon d’or signed for the Jeddah based club following 14 seasons of domestic and European glory with Spanish giants Real Madrid and is hoping that his experience can bring plenty of honours for his new club, the recently crowned Saudi Pro League champions.

Speaking on an exclusive interview published on the club Twitter and Instagram and Saudi Pro League channels, he said: “I hope for my new club, what I’ll be able to bring is my football and most importantly to be able to win titles. It’s a new chapter for me and I would like to further advance the club. It’s a club with a lot of passion. I would like the fans to find themselves in me. I would like to leave a lasting legacy, because I love football. I always have this competitiveness to push my limits and go even higher. That’s why I’m going to be well prepared to give them and show them my talent.”

When asked why came to Saudi Arabia, he stated: “Well because I am Muslim and it’s a Muslim country. I’ve always wanted to live there. I’ve already been to Saudi Arabia and I feel good about it. Most importantly it’s a Muslim country, it’s beloved and it’s beautiful. When I had a conversation with my family I was signing with Saudi Arabia, they were all very happy and here i am, to me it’s where I want to be.”

Speaking about the footballing standards of the players in the Saudi Pro League, he added: “I heard a lot of things, it’s a good championship and there are many good players… each year they take go a level higher. I saw the World Cup, they (Saudi Arabia) played a good game, great matches, especially against (eventual World Cup champions) Argentina. Obviously, they have very good players.”

Benzema famously created a potent attacking threat alongside Cristiano Ronaldo during a highly successful spell at Real Madrid, and he will be lining up against his former Bernabeu team-mate next season, after the Portuguese sensation joined Al-Nassr in Riyadh last term.

Benzema admits that his former team-mate is playing an important role in elevating the standard and profile of Saudi football.

“It’s important also that Cristiano Ronaldo is in Saudi Arabia, because he’s a very big player. He brings a lot to the game in this country and that will further elevate their playing level,” he said. “So it’s important to show that Saudi football can have a global impact because it’s not about playing in Saudi Arabia or not performing. No, on the contrary I have to push and show all that I was able to do in Europe and and bring it back with me to Saudi Arabia.

The lure of playing for Al-Ittihad, the oldest sports club in Saudi Arabia, was strong for Benzema. Explaining his decision to swap life in Madrid for Jeddah, he said: “It’s one of the top clubs in Saudi Arabia. It’s a club that sees a lot of passion from its fan and has many trophies.

“I would really like to further elevate the club. The stadium is exceptional, and as I said and will repeat; there’s so much passion - a good team always needs fans. The fans are very important, and with that passion, it gives us the motivation to be best on the field.”

Benzema’s signing is part of a new phase in brand-building for the SPL, aimed at generating greater global awareness, engaging more Saudi football fans across society, and encouraging greater community participation in sports, as part of Vision2030, the ambitious transformational plan. Over the last season of the Saudi Pro League, Al-Ittihad Club welcomed over 600,000 fans, more than any other club in the league and was watched from 48 different channels and platforms across 170 countries.   

The striker hopes it will have an impact on football fans all over the country. He said: “The message for all the young people who play football, who love football is to build their dreams, to work hard, to respect the rules of the game, which means respecting the human being, and to always have pleasure in playing football. And never give up; we can always achieve when we put in the work.”

On whether his high-profile signing will encourage more women to participate in football, he added: “Football is important for everyone - for women, for men and we see it even in Europe, they have female teams including the Champions League. It’s important to be supportive, and therefore whether it’s men or women, we are here to support. For women, I’m happy to be part of this family.”

Aside from football, Benzema admitted he had other reasons for moving to Saudi Arabia, stating his Muslim faith as playing a big part in the decision.

“I feel people already like me. And it will allow me to have a new life,” he said. “I would like to learn Arabic and speak fluently, it’s important for me. I’ve already been to Saudi Arabia, Mecca is very close (to Jeddah) and as a believer it’s important for me, this is where I will feel at my best and in my element.

The French star touched down at Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport late Wednesday, June 7 ahead of his official unveiling in Saudi Arabia.

Disqualified Japanese player Kato becomes French Open champion

Disqualified Japanese player Kato becomes French Open champion
Updated 08 June 2023

Disqualified Japanese player Kato becomes French Open champion

Disqualified Japanese player Kato becomes French Open champion
  • Kato and her German partner Tim Puetz defeated Bianca Andreescu and Michael Venus 4-6, 6-4, 10-6 in the mixed doubles final at Roland Garros
  • "It has been challenging mentally in the last few days after my unjust disqualification from the women's doubles," Kato told the Court Philippe Chatrier crowd

PARIS: Japan’s Miyu Kato became a French Open champion on Thursday, four days after she was controversially disqualified from the women’s doubles for accidentally hitting a ball girl.
Kato and her German partner Tim Puetz defeated Bianca Andreescu and Michael Venus 4-6, 6-4, 10-6 in the mixed doubles final at Roland Garros.
“It has been challenging mentally in the last few days after my unjust disqualification from the women’s doubles,” Kato told the Court Philippe Chatrier crowd, reading from a prepared statement.
“Thanks to all the players for their heartfelt messages of support. I used that positive energy on court here today.
“I am now looking for a positive result to my appeal so I can reclaim my prize money, points and my reputation.”
Puetz said he hoped the title would help Kato after the drama of the default.
“I hope this is redemption for you after what happened. The support you received was well deserved.”
The 28-year-old Kato and her Indonesian teammate Aldila Sutjiadi were defaulted on Sunday after a gentle lob from the Japanese player left a ballgirl in tears and shaking.
Initially, the pair were handed only a warning by the chair umpire but their opponents Marie Bouzkova and Sara Sorribes Tormo protested and urged the tournament supervisor to look again at the incident.
Kato and Sutjiadi were then disqualified. Kato also had to forfeit her prize money.
“I hope the ballgirl is OK and I hope we get to play Marie and Sara again,” said Kato.

Iron Sheik leaves behind a pioneering world wrestling legacy

Iron Sheik leaves behind a pioneering world wrestling legacy
Updated 08 June 2023

Iron Sheik leaves behind a pioneering world wrestling legacy

Iron Sheik leaves behind a pioneering world wrestling legacy
  • Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri, who played a variety of villains and heroes throughout his career, passed away at 81 on Wednesday

RIYADH: The professional wrestling world this week lost a pioneering figure in Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri, better known to fans as the Iron Sheik.

The Persian trailblazer is a former WWE champion, tag team belt holder and, in 2005, was inducted into the organization’s Hall of Fame.

Vaziri, born on March 15, 1942, in Damghan, Semnan province, Iran, passed away on Wednesday at the age of 81.

Throughout the majority of his career, the Iron Sheik played the role of fanatical foreign menace, attracting hate from fans, particularly in the US.

Often mistaken for an Arab, Vaziri was the first major presence from the Iranian wrestling scene at international level.

He competed for Iran’s Greco-Roman wrestling team at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, and later moved to the US where he became the assistant coach of two Olympic wrestling squads in the 1970s.

In 1971, Vaziri became the Amateur Athletic Union Greco-Roman wrestling champion and gold medalist, and later assistant coach to the US team at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.

That same year Vaziri was invited to become a professional wrestler for promoter Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association.

After competing for various promotions, the Iron Sheik’s evil, foreign-menace persona, as well as his wrestling skills, caught the attention of the WWE, then still the World Wrestling Federation, in 1979.

He made his debut in grand fashion by winning the first-ever Battle Royal at Madison Square Garden in New York City. This earned the Iron Sheik an unsuccessful title shot later that night against then-WWF champion Bob Backlund in a memorable 30-minute showdown.

After several touring stints with other promotions, Vaziri returned to the WWF in 1983 and challenged Backlund for the World Heavyweight Championship again, this time successfully, making him the first Persian to achieve that feat in wrestling.

A year later, the Sheik was scheduled to have a rematch with Backlund, who was replaced by Hulk Hogan. Hogan won his first WWF championship after delivering his signature leg-drop move, in a moment chronicled by many as the beginning of “Hulkamania.”

Vaziri then had a memorable feud with Sgt. Slaughter, who played the role of a member of the US military. This rivalry played off the timely tensions between the US and the Sheik’s homeland of Iran. The two had a macabre “boot camp” match in June 1984 at Madison Square Garden that is highly acclaimed by wrestling fans to this day.

Ramping up his bad-guy image, the Iron Sheik partnered with another hate figure to US audiences in Nikolai Volkoff of the Soviet Union.

The pair competed under the management of “Classy” Freddie Blassie, and together won the WWF World Tag Team Championship from The US Express — Barry Windham and Mike Rotundo — at the inaugural WrestleMania in 1985.

After further forays into other wrestling promotions, Vaziri returned to the WWF in 1991 as Colonel Mustafa, and was now aligned with former enemy Sgt. Slaughter, alongside Adnan Al-Kaissie, a former Iraqi professional wrestler and manager, who was known as General Adnan.

Sgt. Slaughter and Colonel Mustafa were portrayed as Iraqi sympathizers through the duration of the Gulf War, and the trio became known as the Triangle of Terror, sparking inevitable hatred from WWE fans by feuding with Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior.

At WrestleMania 17 in 2001, Vaziri won a Gimmick Battle Royal match between other popular or outlandish wrestlers from the 1980s and 1990s.

The villainous Iron Sheik, who by then had gained a cult following among wrestling fans, was now cheered by those who once jeered him. He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame Class of 2005.

Adjusting to Test cricket proving a tough process for new teams

Adjusting to Test cricket proving a tough process for new teams
Updated 08 June 2023

Adjusting to Test cricket proving a tough process for new teams

Adjusting to Test cricket proving a tough process for new teams
  • Rigorous ICC criteria in place to determine both full- and associate-member status

There are countries that harbor aspirations to become full members of the International Cricket Council and, with it, the opportunity to play Test cricket.

The case of Ireland should provide a salutary example of a rocky path. Awarded full-member status in 2017, Ireland is finding adaptation to Test cricket a tough and gradual process, full of unexpected challenges.

A detailed set of criteria has been put in place by the ICC to determine both full- and associate-member status. In summary, they cover aspects of governance, administration and finance, performance, participation and domestic structures, infrastructure and development policies.

The performance aspect includes a requirement that the men’s team had registered a specified number of victories over full-member teams in specified tournaments over an eight-year horizon. During the same horizon, participation in at least three ICC World Cups and/or T20 events is required, whilst the women’s team is required to have participated in at least one ICC World Cup or T20 in the previous four years.

Satisfying the criteria takes time, resources and effort. Cricket Ireland was justifiably proud of its success and its 2021 three-year strategic plan was launched under the title of “Creating a Cricket Island.”

This recognized the urgent requirement “to develop facilities across the Island to support Grassroots, Pathway and Senior International players.” Having recently visited one of the four grounds which are ICC approved, it is clear a number of years of sustained investment will be required to bring facilities and venues up to appropriate levels.

Cricket in Ireland is probably the fifth-most popular team sport after soccer, Gaelic football, hurling and rugby. This provides it with a difficulty in attracting sufficient support. Although full-member status meant that Cricket Ireland was slated to receive some $40 million from the ICC in the funding cycle ending in 2023, the cost of hosting its first-ever Test match against Pakistan in 2018 was estimated to be $1.14 million. Almost half of these costs were incurred by a lack of permanent infrastructure which necessitated the installation of temporary seating and other portable structures. The crowd witnessed a memorable match in which Ireland came close to securing a famous victory.

Ireland’s next two Tests were played in 2019, against Afghanistan in India and England at Lords, where they came very close to causing a shock. Plans to host a Test against Bangladesh in summer 2020 were cancelled, even before the advent of COVID-19 restrictions. Financial difficulties were being encountered by Cricket Ireland, as a result of a shortfall in expected ICC funding allocation. The risk involved in hosting a second Test, in which revenue streams were unlikely to cover costs, was considered too high. Ireland is not included in the nine-team World Test Championship, so any Test match it plays is a “friendly” and lacks context.

Instead, Cricket Ireland chose to prioritize white-ball cricket in preparation for upcoming T20 World Cups and the start of the qualification process for the 2023 World Cup. The team did not qualify for the 2021 T20 tournament, but did so in 2022, where a rain-affected victory was achieved against the eventual winners, England.

Starting next week, Ireland will contest in the final qualifying phase for the 2023 World Cup. At the time that the decision to focus on white-ball cricket was made, the pandemic had not struck.

Its ubiquitous effects did not spare Cricket Ireland, which, despite showing a surplus of $1.65 million in 2020, generated a loss of $1.32 million in 2022. The 2020 surplus reflected the timing of grants received from Sport Ireland for COVID-19 resilience and reduced expenditure resulting from the postponement of events and activities. When events returned in 2021, they took place in bio-secure environments, which led to increased costs and low income because of limits on spectator numbers.

All of this has meant that Ireland played only three Tests in the four years since becoming a full member. This year the team has played three Tests in South Asia, one in Bangladesh and two in Sri Lanka, losing all three, quite heavily. Last week another Test was played against England at Lords, meaning that, of the seven Test matches played by Ireland, only one has been at home. There has been some criticism of this on the grounds that Cricket Ireland receives more funding, as a full member, from the ICC than associate members, primarily for the purpose of hosting Test cricket.

Apart from the impact of COVID-19 and financial difficulties, other mitigating circumstances have been advanced for Ireland’s lack of Test cricket and victories.

One is that a previous generation of players came to the end of their careers soon after gaining full-member status and that the new generation needed time to adjust to the longer game.

Another is that several Irish players, who played county cricket in England, were classed as overseas players once Ireland became a full member. Tim Murtagh is one example. In Ireland’s match against England in 2019, he took five for 13 in England’s first innings of 85 all out. Murtagh played most of his county cricket for Middlesex and has had to choose between continuing to do so or making himself available for Ireland. He chose the former but would have been a welcome addition to the Irish team last week when its bowling attack was savaged by England’s top order.

Ireland’s batting in its first innings was also a disappointment, being dismissed for 172. More application was in evidence in the second innings, with two players coming close to centuries. Only by playing Test cricket can they hope to improve in that format. Questions were raised about the wisdom of accepting the invitation to play the match so close to the World Cup qualifying tournament in Zimbabwe. Ireland and its players have to learn to cope with the demands of switching between all three formats if the standards required to maintain full-member status are to be fulfilled.