Uruguayan star Hector Lazo out to provide further international flavor

Uruguayan star Hector Lazo out to provide further international flavor
Loreley works at King Abdulaziz Racecourse. (Supplied)
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Updated 23 February 2023

Uruguayan star Hector Lazo out to provide further international flavor

Uruguayan star Hector Lazo out to provide further international flavor
  • Lazo to partner Ricardo Colombo’s Loreley in Saudi Derby presented by Boutique Group

Frankie Dettori, Joao Moreira, Christophe Lemaire and Ryan Moore are among the world-renowned jockeys in action at King Abdulaziz Racecourse on Saturday evening, but the achievements of Uruguayan jockey Hector Lazo are certainly worthy of the global stage. 

Lazo is making the 25,000 km round trip from Montevideo to Riyadh with his ability coming under the radar slightly. The 35-year-old partnered his first winner as a professional jockey at the age of 24, but has since managed to ride over 1,500 winners.

The biggest one of all may be just over the horizon if Ricardo Colombo’s Loreley (BRZ) could win the Saudi Derby presented by Boutique Group.

There is strong hint of South American flavour this weekend, with the Moreira-ridden Es-Unico (BRZ) also taking his place in the race for trainer Antonio Cintra.

Lazo does not have the same global experience as some of his colleagues, but returns to Riyadh with knowledge from last year, when he finished sixth in the Saudi Derby aboard Colombo’s Nordic Star.

“Loreley won the first leg of the Triple Crown in Uruguay, so I am very much looking forward to riding him on Saturday,” Lazo said while watching track work on Thursday morning.

“Loreley is starting the race from barrier number one, but this is not so important to him because he is a fast horse and can run from the front or close to the front.

“It is important to me as a jockey to be here in Saudi Arabia and to ride in races like this and in Dubai during their Carnival. I know that Loreley is running against good horses, but I know that he too is a good horse and we are ready for a very good race.”

Cutting a relaxed figure at trackwork, Lazo is an unassuming character who keeps a low profile, but his determination to become the best jockey in his native land is unquestionable.

From a young age, he was drawn to racing by his father, Raul, who himself was a horse trainer. School was something of a distraction as his focus was on working with horses and riding in pony races. This was a route that led him to major success.

Growing up in the small, quiet town of Villa Del Carmen, Lazo could be forgiven for thinking that the opportunity on such a major stage to win such lucrative prize money would only ever be a dream.

His work ethic saw him reach a milestone of 1,000 winners in his native country in half the time of his friend Carlos Sebastian Mendez and is notable in any racing jurisdiction, especially when racing in Uruguay is only on two to three times a week.  

Other achievements at home include a record number of winners in a season, five championship wins at Maronas Racecourse and a further three championships at Las Piedras.

This weekend, Lazo will test his undoubted ability against the very best and his talents may well be about to gain much more exposure as he considers teaming up with Colombo at Gulfstream Park in the coming months.

“I enjoy it a lot to ride against jockeys of this calibre,” Lazo said. “This weekend I ride against Frankie Dettori and at the Dubai World Cup Carnival last year against Irad Ortiz, Christophe Lemaire and these world-class jockeys, and that is emotional for me to compete and stay with them.

“I have a plan to go with Loreley to Dubai for the UAE Derby after this weekend and then Ricardo is going to bring horses to Gulfstream Park and has invited me to go with him. I am going to go there for a couple of months and maybe, who knows, I might stay there for a season or the rest of my career.”

Al-Ittihad’s dream becomes reality with Benzema signing

French superstar striker Karim Benzema. @SPL_EN
French superstar striker Karim Benzema. @SPL_EN
Updated 07 June 2023

Al-Ittihad’s dream becomes reality with Benzema signing

French superstar striker Karim Benzema. @SPL_EN
  • Jeddah club strengthens with French international days after celebrating first SPL title in 14 years

What an amazing week for Al-Ittihad fans. Days after winning their first Roshn Saudi League title since 2009, French superstar striker Karim Benzema was confirmed to be joining the Jeddah club from Real Madrid.

It is another dream come true for Al-Ittihad followers and a scary prospect for rivals. The team were relentless in their title-winning campaign. Not only did they have the tightest defense with just 13 goals conceded in 30 games, they also had a devastating strike force. 

Abderrazak Hamdallah topped the scoring charts with 21 and Brazilians Romarinho and Igor Coronado also stood out. Coach Nuno Santo already has a wealth of talent at his disposal.

Now there is Benzema, one of the most feared strikers in the world, even at the age of 35. He may not be at the peak of his career, but he still has plenty to offer, especially with his status as the most recent recipient of the Ballon d’Or. 

He received that coveted individual award — given to the best player in the world — in October of last year after his exploits dug Real Madrid out of a hole more than once as they went on to become the champions of Europe with the Frenchman finishing the Champions League top scorer with 15 goals.

It was the fifth time he has won the biggest prize in club football. 

“If you can’t appreciate Benzema’s greatness then you don’t understand football,” said Zinedine Zidane (also linked to a coaching move to Saudi Arabia) and few would disagree.

Benzama’s Champions League medal haul even matches that of Cristiano Ronaldo. The presence of his former Madrid team-mate in Saudi Arabia has made a difference on a personal level. He contacted Ronaldo to ask about life in the country on and off the pitch. The reply must have been positive.

Ronaldo’s move to Riyadh has had a knock-on effect across the globe, with the huge rise in interest in the Saudi Pro League. He signed with Al-Nassr in December, suddenly putting a move to Saudi Arabia on the radar of many big names in world football. He was the first but there were always going to be others following. 

The only question was whether they would be players at the highest echelons of the world game. It can safely be said that Benzema is firmly in that category. With the Ballon d’Or holder the first major signing of the summer, it is perhaps a sign of things to come.

Title rivals have to accept Al-Ittihad’s challenge. If the champions are strengthening to such an extent, so early, then others are going to have to make similar moves. Al-Nassr have Ronaldo but fell short at the end and are currently without a head coach. That is going to change soon and given the captain’s stature, the new man is going to need a serious reputation.

Al-Hilal finished third and are also on the hunt for a coach to replace Ramon Diaz. After being banned from the last two transfer windows, there is going to be a lot of activity. Lionel Messi has been heavily linked but there are others such as Sergio Busquets. 

Then Al-Shabab are going to invest to try and build on fourth and that is even before Al-Ahli, the other Jeddah powerhouse, who bounced back straight away from their shock relegation, flex their muscles.

Now all know what they are dealing with. Karim Benzema has just made the best team in Saudi Arabia better and has set the scene for a sizzling summer.

How Saudi’s elite clubs can avoid mistakes of Chinese Super League

How Saudi’s elite clubs can avoid mistakes of Chinese Super League
Updated 07 June 2023

How Saudi’s elite clubs can avoid mistakes of Chinese Super League

How Saudi’s elite clubs can avoid mistakes of Chinese Super League
  • Fleeting success of Guangzhou Evergrande, Tianjin Quanjian, Jiangsu Suning and others because spending was unsustainable
  • Source of investment in Kingdom’s league more secure than China’s individual-based backing

As rumors swirl linking a host of footballing superstars with a move to the Saudi professional league, including arguably the greatest player of all time, Lionel Messi, fans of Asian football would be forgiven for feeling a sense of deja vu.

While the names are different, the sudden splurge from a nation looking to develop both its football, and standing within it, is eerily similar to what we saw from China less than a decade ago as it tried to upend the sport’s established order.

And for a period it did; the likes of Oscar, Jackson Martinez, Hulk, Paulinho, Renato Augusto, not to mention coaches including Marcello Lippi, Fabio Capelli and Manuel Pellegrini, were all tempted east as the Chinese Super League threatened to take over Asian football and become a big player on the global stage.

Guangzhou Evergrande led the charge, twice winning the AFC Champions League, while upstarts such as Shanghai SIPG, now Shanghai Port, Hebei CFFC, Tianjin Quanjian and Jiangsu Suning took the league by storm.

With China’s President Xi Jinping making it a national priority for the country to become a force in world football, countless businesses, mostly real estate developers, took the opportunity to invest in football, not just at home but around the world, in an attempt to curry favor with the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

By this time in their revolution, China was expected to be a powerhouse within Asia, but their reality serves as a warning for Saudi Arabian football as it embarks on its own journey for international prominence.

Less than a decade after China really started its extravagance, local football is arguably in a worse position than before it all started. The CSL has mostly been shed of all its star names, while the national team will likely struggle to qualify for the World Cup despite Asia’s allocation doubling from four to eight.

That is to say nothing of the country’s top football officials being detained on suspicion of fraud and bribery.

This is not how it was meant to be.

The once-mighty Guangzhou Evergrande, more recently renamed Guangzhou FC, has been relegated to China League One and are winless after eight games, placing them at risk of a second consecutive relegation. This is a long way from when they dominated the ACL with titles in 2013 and 2015.

Meanwhile, once-burgeoning outfits like Jiangsu, Hebei and Tianjin have all gone bust and no longer exist – standing as monuments of failure and a permanent reminder of just how quickly things can change.

“You need a vision, and then you need a strategy, and then you need to be able to put that strategy into action,” Prof. Simon Chadwick, an expert in sport and geopolitics, told Arab News.

“You need to have checks and balances within the system, that if the strategy is not working in the most appropriate way, then those checks and balances can be enacted, to keep you on the right path towards your vision.

“These are things that I sense a little more in Saudi Arabia that didn’t necessarily exist in China.”

With further details emerging this week of Saudi Arabia’s roadmap toward success, including the privatization of the country’s four biggest clubs – Al-Hilal, Al-Ittihad, Al-Nassr and Al-Ahli – and a forecasted quadrupling of annual revenues, the Saudi experiment is already looking vastly different to that of China’s.

Whereas the largesse in China had the support of the ruling CCP party, it was more often than not financed by private individuals, albeit ones with links to the ruling communist party, using their own wealth accumulated through years of unsustainable growth in the real estate sector. By the time the heat came out of the real estate market, and the CCP tinkered to try and save clubs from themselves, it was too late.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, the investment is coming directly from the state via its sovereign wealth fund, known as the Public Investment Fund, the same source of funding for LIV Golf and Newcastle United. That alone makes this feel more secure and less at risk of an embarrassing collapse as was witnessed in China.

Chadwick also explained that the Kingdom needs to find its own uniqueness and not simply try to copy what is successful in Europe.

“One of the interesting things about both Saudi Arabia and China, I think, is a lot of people from outside the country advise and give guidance,” he said.

“(But) they don’t necessarily give the best advice or the best guidance, because what might work in Europe, for example, doesn’t necessarily work in Asia.

“So I think it’s really important, and I don’t think China did this, that Saudi Arabia needs to develop its own identity and its own system of governance, its own culture and its own way of working and not be overly preoccupied by replicating the experiences of what has happened in Europe.”

Al-Ittihad sign former Real Madrid star Karim Benzema

Al-Ittihad sign former Real Madrid star Karim Benzema
Updated 06 June 2023

Al-Ittihad sign former Real Madrid star Karim Benzema

Al-Ittihad sign former Real Madrid star Karim Benzema
  • The current Ballon d’Or holder will join on an initial three-year contract

JEDDAH: Saudi Pro League champions Al-Ittihad have agreed terms to sign Karim Benzema, it was announced on Tuesday. 

The Ballon d’Or holder, regarded as one of the finest strikers of the modern era, will join on an initial three-year contract, the club said.

The French superstar underwent a medical in Madrid and is set to be unveiled by the Jeddah giants later this week.

Benzema won 24 trophies with Real Madrid, including four La Liga titles, three Copa del Reys and five UEFA Champions League titles, and is the club’s second-highest goal scorer behind Cristiano Ronaldo.

The 97-cap French international is also the current UEFA Player of the Year. He last played in Saudi Arabia at the start of the year, for Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup final.

“I am excited to experience a new football league in a different country. Al-Ittihad has an amazing history, incredibly passionate fans and big ambitions in football to be a force in Asia after winning the league. I have been fortunate to achieve amazing things in my career and achieve everything I can in Spain and Europe,” he said. 

“It now feels the time is right for a new challenge and project. Every time I’ve visited Saudi Arabia I’ve always felt such warmth and love from the fans and people.

“I am looking forward to joining my new teammates and, together with them, help take this amazing club and the game in Saudi Arabia to new levels,” he added.

In his first interview as an Al-Ittihad player, which will be published on the club’s social channels, he said: “It’s a new challenge for me, a new life and I can't wait to start training. I will do everything to win trophies, to score, to show my talent, to satisfy the fans, the club, the president – everyone. 

”It’s a good league and there are many good players. Cristiano Ronaldo is already there, a friend, which shows Saudi Arabia is starting to further progress its level. I am here to win, like I did in Europe.  I am excited to see you in Jeddah.”

This season saw Al-Ittihad, managed by Nuno Espirito Santo, secure a ninth overall title in the SPL – their first championship since 2009. The title qualifies them for December’s FIFA Club World Cup.

Al-Ittihad Club President Anmar Bin Abdullah Alhailae, said: “To sign the current Ballon d’Or holder from Real Madrid is another historic milestone for this special club. 

“Karim is a global football icon, he’s box office and very much at the top of his powers. He joins a club and hugely competitive league – in a country with big ambitions both on and off the pitch. 

“We know all eyes will be on him and can’t wait to see him in the number 9 shirt of Al-Ittihad Club next season as we face an incredibly exciting challenge to defend our title, compete in Asia and play on the global stage of the FIFA Club World Cup.

“When you start winning championships, you attract fans and admirers, especially from the younger generations. Having a player like Karim Benzema will have a sporting effect and presence on the streets.

He said the fans would “start wearing Karim’s shirt, they will try to move like he does on the pitch. I assure you, these will be very beautiful and historic moments. Welcome Karim!”

DGDA chief Jerry Inzerillo welcomes privatization of Diriyah Sports Club

Diriyah Sports Club's ownership has been transferred to DGDA. (Supplied/DGDA)
Diriyah Sports Club's ownership has been transferred to DGDA. (Supplied/DGDA)
Updated 06 June 2023

DGDA chief Jerry Inzerillo welcomes privatization of Diriyah Sports Club

Diriyah Sports Club's ownership has been transferred to DGDA. (Supplied/DGDA)
  • Club’s ownership transferred to Diriyah Gate Development Authority as part of initiative to help develop talent and facilities

RIYADH: Jerry Inzerillo, group CEO of the Diriyah Gate Development Authority, has commended the launch of the Sports Club Investment and Privatization Project by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the landmark project that has led to the transfer of ownership of the Diriyah Sports Club from the Ministry of Sport to the DGDA.

The initiative highlights the importance of developing Saudi sports as part of Vision 2030 and the drive to improve the well-being of all people in Saudi Arabia, Inzerillo said.

It is also indicative of the focus placed on aiding professional sports in the Kingdom to increase their competitiveness at the local, regional and global levels, he added, confirming that the club, which was established in Diriyah in 1976, will seamlessly integrate with the DGDA’s agenda of community, commercial and sports projects.

The move will help position Diriyah Sports Club as a destination for locals and tourists to enjoy a wide range of sports and social activities that the club will host.

The decision by the Ministry of Sport to transfer ownership of the Diriyah Sports Club to the DGDA will enable the organization to invest in the development of talents and facilities, said Inzerillo.

“We will be looking at developing a ground-up approach, from enhanced infrastructure to world-class athletic and athlete services, bolstering and growing the player base to enable them to compete at levels that were previously unachievable,” he added.

“This in turn will help grow our audience and fan base and encourage the youth and casual players to strive for higher levels of competition. This all feeds into Vision 2030’s underlying objectives of wellness and well-being and sports for all ages and skill levels.”

The Ministry of Sport said that the Sports Clubs Investment and Privatization Project seeks to involve investment and development bodies directly to improve the performance of sports clubs, enhance their governance and help them achieve financial sustainability.

As part of Vision 2030 goals, the DGDA will activate promising, ambitious plans to improve the Diriyah Sports Club and fulfill its commitment to support sports and improve the quality of life in the community.

The DGDA has been heavily involved in the sports sector, hosting and organizing a variety of high-profile international, regional, and local activities and tournaments held in cooperation with local governing bodies.

Benzema bids farewell to Real Madrid as he heads to Saudi Arabia

Benzema bids farewell to Real Madrid as he heads to Saudi Arabia
Updated 06 June 2023

Benzema bids farewell to Real Madrid as he heads to Saudi Arabia

Benzema bids farewell to Real Madrid as he heads to Saudi Arabia
  • The French striker, 35, will leave as a free agent in the close season
  • He is set to move to Saudi Arabian side Al Ittihad, signing a two-year deal estimated by media reports to be worth more than 100 million euros

MADRID: Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema said farewell to Real Madrid in a small, private ceremony closed to fans and media on Tuesday following a trophy-laden 14-year stay with the LaLiga club.
The French striker, 35, will leave as a free agent in the close season and is set to move to Saudi Arabian side Al-Ittihad, signing a two-year deal estimated by media reports to be worth more than 100 million euros ($106.93 million).
There were no tears in a ceremony that lasted less than 20 minutes and in which only players, family and close friends were allowed to attend.
“I will never forget Real Madrid. It’s impossible, it’s the best club in history. But I think today is the time to leave and to get to know another story,” Benzema told the small audience at Real’s training facilities.
“It’s difficult to talk with so many feelings, but I wanted to thank Real Madrid and my team mates. It was a good path in my life. I have been lucky enough to fulfil my childhood dream.”
Having joined Real in 2009 from Olympique Lyonnais, Benzema became the spearhead of the club’s attack and their main goal-scoring threat after Cristiano Ronaldo left for Juventus in 2018.
Benzema scored 354 goals for Real to sit second on the club’s all-time scoring list behind Ronaldo.
He had his best season in the 2021-22 campaign when he scored 44 times in all competitions to lead the side to a record-extending 14th European title as well as the LaLiga crown.
His pivotal role earned him the Ballon d’Or award, making him the first French player to win the trophy since Zinedine Zidane in 1998 and the fifth Frenchman overall.
Real Madrid president Florentino Perez praised Benzema for all he had done at the club.
“Karim, you have been an example of behavior and professionalism in our club,” Perez said.
“You have earned the right to decide your destiny. A future that only belongs to you and we must respect it.”