Al-Hilal’s title chances dealt huge blow after shock home defeat to Al-Fateh

Al-Hilal’s title chances dealt huge blow after shock home defeat to Al-Fateh
Al-Hilal suffered a shock 2-1 home loss to Al-Fateh on Monday night (Twitter/@Alhilal_FC)
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Updated 07 March 2023

Al-Hilal’s title chances dealt huge blow after shock home defeat to Al-Fateh

Al-Hilal’s title chances dealt huge blow after shock home defeat to Al-Fateh
  • 2-1 loss leaves reigning champions 13 points behind Roshn Saudi League leaders Al-Nassr

Riyadh: Al-Hilal have had an amazing few weeks on the global and continental stages but were brought down to earth in Riyadh on Monday, losing 2-1 at home to Al-Fateh.

More than that, however, the surprise defeat may just have ended the champions’ chances of successfully defending their Roshn Saudi League title.

That loss means that the Blues are now 13 points behind leaders Al-Nassr. Optimistic fans and coach Ramon Diaz will point to the two games in hand as evidence that it is not all over.

They will also talk about last season.

Then, as the team returned home from the FIFA Club World Cup, they were 16 points behind Al-Ittihad and ended up winning their games in hand, defeating their rivals, and taking title No. 18, a third in succession and one of their most famous triumphs to date.

Yet this year feels different. For one, Al-Nassr do not look like slipping up in the way that Al-Ittihad did last year. From October 2021 to March 3, 2022, the Jeddah club collected 37 out of a possible 39 points and were strolling to a first title since 2009, but then managed just 11 out of the final eight games allowing Al-Hilal to slip in.

Al-Nassr have won their last four, and while they may not always be as fluid as coach Rudi Garcia would like, they look to have found a way to win. They also have a certain Cristiano Ronaldo who has scored eight goals in the last five games.

More than that, however, he brings a winning mentality to a team with a tight defence. At home to bottom team Al-Batin on Friday, they were 1-0 down as the 90 minutes were up but still managed to come back in added time to win 3-1.

More importantly, Al-Hilal are not playing especially well.

Defensively, they are looking vulnerable and nervous. Three times they took the lead, the third in injury time, at newly-promoted Al-Wehda last Thursday — their first since returning from overseas — and three times they were pegged back. And against Al-Fateh there was a lack of energy and passion, and it was the visitors who played with discipline and aggression. The game was over before a late, late consolation from Saleh Al-Shehri.

In some ways, Al-Hilal cannot be blamed as there are three major international competitions that must be considered.

The 2022 World Cup was a tournament to remember, especially Saudi Arabia’s famous 2-1 win over Argentina. The two goals were scored by Al-Shehri and Al-Hilal clubmate Salem Al-Dawsari. In all, there were 12 Al-Hilal players who went to Qatar.

It is perhaps understandable that the world’s biggest sporting event has been disruptive, and they have dropped 11 points in the nine games since, not terrible but not the return of a team that needs to keep pace with an in-form league leader.

Then in February came the FIFA Club World Cup where the Riyadh giants were simply sensational. In the opening game, they went toe-to-toe with African champions Wydad AC on their home soil of Morocco in front of a partisan crowd of 50,000. It was two hours of intense football followed by an emotional penalty shootout win. Then they collected one of the best results in their history, defeating South American champions Flamengo.

That earned a final against the mighty Real Madrid where Al-Hilal may have lost 5-3 but won even more respect and admiration around the globe. It was a physically and mentally draining week.

Almost immediately however they were heading to Qatar for the knockout stages of the Asian Champions League and three games in the space of six days.

Shabab Al-Ahli were quite comfortably disposed of in the second-round match though Foolad of Iran proved to be difficult opponents in the quarter-final. Then came a historic semi. Playing Qatar league leaders Al-Duhail in their own backyard looked to be a very difficult task indeed but Al-Hilal ran out 7-0 winners. It was a stunning result.

Given those foreign exertions, a domestic hangover is to be expected. Al-Hilal may be a winning machine but cannot keep going forever.

Defender Ali Al-Bulaihi said: “We have played every two or three days. Other teams rest for five days, and we have been away for more than a month, but we do not make this an excuse. The league is not over yet.”

Not officially, but it is slipping away. A year ago, Al-Hilal had the extra benefit of a lacklustre Club World Cup and the subsequent new coach bounce as Diaz came in. They then won 12 of the remaining 13 games. A similarly spectacular run will be needed this time if there is to be a fourth successive championship, but it does not look likely, and they should not be blamed for that.

Whatever happens, it has been a good season. The Club World Cup will live long in the memory and there is also the final of the Asian Champions League coming in April.

Al-Hilal have done amazing things overseas this year but coming from so far from behind for a second successive time at home is looking to be beyond even this team.

Saudi female tennis players challenge stereotypes as sporting dreams become reality

Saudi female tennis players challenge stereotypes as sporting dreams become reality
Updated 22 February 2024

Saudi female tennis players challenge stereotypes as sporting dreams become reality

Saudi female tennis players challenge stereotypes as sporting dreams become reality
  • The response from Saudi Ambassador to the US Princess Reema bint Bandar was swift, describing their views as “outdated” and “Western-centric”
  • Talented players of different age groups are being cultivated

RIYADH: When former tennis stars Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert decided to question the Women’s Tennis Association’s ties with Saudi Arabia, they failed to take into account how far tennis, and women’s sports in general, have come in recent years, and the level of empowerment that female athletes have been afforded in that time.
The response from Saudi Ambassador to the US Princess Reema bint Bandar was swift, describing their views as “outdated” and “Western-centric.”
Tunisian star Ons Jabeur, a strong supporter of Arab and Saudi tennis, said critics should be “more informed.”
Indeed, anyone keeping an eye on the development of Saudi tennis in recent years will know how different the reality is to those negative stereotypes.
Talented players of different age groups are being cultivated.
Eighteen-year-old Lara Wjdey Bukary, an emerging star from Jeddah, discovered her passion for tennis seven years ago through her two older brothers, before her father began training with her.
Today, Bukary boasts some impressive achievements. She represented Saudi Arabia in the Kingdom’s first-ever participation in the Billie Jean King Cup in 2023, took home a silver medal during the 2022 Saudi Games, and followed that up with a bronze last year.
“I was the only Saudi on the podium, so that was pretty exciting,” Bukary told Arab News.
“I just want to be able to represent my country and, hopefully, get some titles, international tournaments, and grow as a tennis player.”
Among tennis circles in Saudi Arabia, 8-year-old Sama Al-Bakr is a name on many people’s lips, her undoubted potential symbolizing just what the future of Saudi women’s tennis could offer.
“She’s the only one in the Al-Bakr family that plays this sport,” her father, Ali Al-Bakr, told Arab News.
Hailing from Alkhobar in the Eastern Province, Sama has already rubbed shoulders with tennis greats such as Novak Djokovic when he visited during the Riyadh Season in late 2023.
She described being “happy, surprised, excited” when offered the opportunity to play with him and “beat him with the backhand.”
In September, Sama came first in a regional aged 7-10 mixed boys and girl’s tennis tournament.
After she was invited to participate, her father was told she would be playing among boys, in case he had any objections. Her father said that, on the contrary, his only thoughts were “I’m happy for the challenge and I feel sorry for these boys.”
The goal for Sama “is definitely going to be an international level,” Al-Bakr said.
He added that the “sky is the limit in the future,” and his daughter has the potential to become “the first Saudi girl who will play in Wimbledon as she promised.”
In Riyadh, 24-year-old Maha Kabbani has been playing tennis since seeing a Rafael Nadal match on television at the age of 9.
Like Bukary and young Sama, family support played a crucial role in her love for tennis.
Kabbani’s role model is her brother, who from a young age nurtured her passion for tennis and encouraged her to pursue a career in the sport.
“We used to train, me and my brother, at home and we started hitting the walls and then we got a tennis net,” she told Arab News.
“My family is the biggest supporter. They saw my passion, they saw the light inside me. Tennis has put such a light inside me that it made me shine,” Kabbani added.
From practicing with her brother in a make-do tennis court built in their small garden to training at Tennis Home Academy in Riyadh, Kabbani’s tennis journey highlights the transformative role played by Saudi Arabia’s post-2016 social reforms.
“I remember being 9 years old and trying to find a court. We could barely have one court, let alone academies. So, that’s huge progress,” she told Arab News.
“Right now, we are living our dreams and meeting the people that inspired us when we were younger.”
Kabbani said that past obstacles are now firmly behind them, and this is the “perfect time” for women and girls in the country to get involved in tennis.
“This is the perfect motivation,” she said.
The Saudi Tennis Federation is currently headed by a woman, Arij Almutabagani.
“We deserve to live our dreams, and see this progress and we deserve to enjoy our passion,” Kabbani said.

Saudi Hockey Federation president welcomes international federation chief

Saudi Hockey Federation president welcomes international federation chief
Updated 21 February 2024

Saudi Hockey Federation president welcomes international federation chief

Saudi Hockey Federation president welcomes international federation chief
  • Mohammed Al-Mandil, Saudi Hockey Federation president, and Tayyab Ikram, International Hockey Federation president, discussed ways to develop the game

RIYADH: Ways to enhance, promote and develop hockey in the Kingdom were discussed by Saudi Hockey Federation President Mohammed Al-Mandil and International Hockey Federation President Tayyab Ikram on Wednesday.
Al-Mandil welcomed Ikram at the SHF’s headquarters in Riyadh during a meeting that was also attended by Abdulellah Almymoon, SHF’s executive director.
The president of the Saudi Hockey Federation presented a token of appreciation to the IHF’s chief and thanked him for his efforts in the growth and support of field hockey internationally, and in appreciation of his visit to Saudi Arabia.
Al-Mandil also confirmed the federation’s commitment to developing this Olympic sport at the local level through its sports activities, and through cooperative agreements with schools and universities to create a generation passionate about the sport.
He said that SHF’s strategy was to include hockey as a sport in collaboration with Saudi sports clubs to enhance competition and integration within society.

Frankly Speaking: Is tennis the next ‘Grand Slam’ for Saudi sports?

Frankly Speaking: Is tennis the next ‘Grand Slam’ for Saudi sports?
Updated 18 February 2024

Frankly Speaking: Is tennis the next ‘Grand Slam’ for Saudi sports?

Frankly Speaking: Is tennis the next ‘Grand Slam’ for Saudi sports?
  • Hundreds of thousands of women and girls are now taking part in sports, says Saudi Tennis Federation president
  • Arij Mutabagani invites critics to visit the Kingdom now in ‘a phase of change’ and see the progress for themselves

DUBAI: Tennis is fast becoming a popular sport in Saudi Arabia with thousands of young people, including women and girls, signing up to clubs and taking part in tournaments across the Kingdom, Arij Mutabagani, president of the Saudi Tennis Federation, has said.

Appearing on Arab News’ current affairs show “Frankly Speaking,” Mutabagani said one only had to look at the numbers to see the sport’s huge potential, raising the possibility of the Kingdom taking part in — or even hosting — major tournaments.

“Saudi Arabia has gone through a great transformation, especially when it comes to the world of sports and female participation,” said Mutabagani.

“The numbers speak for themselves. We have increased female participation in sports. Now, we have 330,000 females registered in sports and around 14,000 female participants in tennis.”

Much of this success is down to government initiatives introduced under the Vision 2030 reform agenda, which has made investment in sport and the promotion of public health and well-being top priorities.

“We have a huge program with the Ministry of Education in partnership with the Sports For All Federation, where we would like to introduce tennis as a new sport to children,” said Mutabagani.

“We started in 2023 with 30 schools across Saudi Arabia. We’ve increased it to 90 schools, later in 2023 and 2024. We are expanding to 400 schools.” The initiative is gender neutral and split between boys’ and girls’ schools, she said.

“Back in 2019, we had no female participation in clubs. Now, we have seven clubs that have female participation,” she added, noting that the newly created women’s national team has already played in 20 events.

“We’ve had an increase in participation. We had 90 females playing in 2019. Now, we have 700 females registered playing tennis.”

The Saudi Sports for All Federation is responsible for the development of community sports and the promotion of a healthy lifestyle across the Kingdom, in line with the country’s long-term development plan for social and economic progress, Vision 2030.

“We’ve seen tennis introduced in clubs,” Mutabagani told Katie Jensen, the host of “Frankly Speaking.” “In 2019, we had zero clubs participating in tournaments. Now, we have seven clubs that have female participants. We have increased the number of tennis tournaments for females. We had three. Now, we have 20. You can see there is big progress.”

Saudi youngsters such as Yara Alhogbani are leading the way in building a thriving tennis community in the Kingdom. (Supplied)

Despite these successes, tennis legends Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova recently said a lack of gender equality in Saudi Arabia ought to prohibit the Kingdom from hosting big events like the Women’s Tennis Association Finals.

In a statement, Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud, the Saudi ambassador to the US, rejected Evert and Navratilova’s “beyond disappointing” arguments.

“Like many women around the world, we looked to the legends of tennis as trailblazers and role models… glimmers of hope that women truly could achieve it all,” she said.

“But these champions have turned their back on the very same women they have inspired and it is beyond disappointing.”

Undeterred by Evert and Navratilova’s comments, Mutabagani invited the tennis stars to visit the Kingdom to witness firsthand the transformation in Saudi sports and the huge strides in women’s participation.

“Be part of this journey in changing and transforming tennis and especially female participation. We will learn a lot from them, and they’d just have to come and see for themselves,” she said.

“They’ve done so much for tennis and for female participation, and gender equality and getting equal prize money. I respect that everyone is free to say and comment.

“But I would really like to invite them to come to Saudi Arabia and really see the progress. We are in a phase of change. We are trying to change.”

Mutabagani hopes the Kingdom will soon host a tennis major event or Grand Slam, as it will further encourage Saudis to take up the sport.

“Everything and anything is possible,” she said. “Bringing this kind of international event to the country will only shed more light on the sport of tennis. It will make it more popular.

“The players will have role models to look up to. It will inspire a new generation to really work harder and train harder to become champions in the future, and be able to compete in these tournaments in their country.”

Appearing on “Frankly Speaking,” Arij Mutabagan told host Katie Jensen one only had to look at the numbers to see the sport’s huge potential in Saudi Arabia, raising the possibility of the Kingdom taking part in, or even hosting, major tournaments. (AN Photo)

She added: “We’re working hard on it. We’re working closely with the WTA and the ATP to try to make this possible and happen, hopefully in the near future.”

While nothing is set in stone, Mutabagani is hopeful that the WTA or ATP will choose the Kingdom to host a Grand Slam.

“We are trying to have and build a long-lasting relationship with the official governing bodies of tennis, whether it’s ATP, WTA or ITF,” she said.

“We successfully delivered the Next Gen finals last year in Jeddah, so we started this relationship with the ATP. Now, we’re also trying to build up the relationship with the WTA.”

Grand Slam championships, the most prestigious tournaments in professional tennis, are organized by the WTA and ATP, and overseen by the International Tennis Federation.

Mutabagani predicts these pro events will help to increase participation in amateur sports across Saudi Arabia, particularly among the youth.

“We’re still in discussions,” she said. “But our goal is to build all of these relationships for the long term that will help develop tennis in Saudi Arabia, whether it is big events or lower events, from challenges to futures, because that will improve the level of our local tennis players.”

Saudi Arabia has sought to increase its sporting presence by establishing the LIV Golf series, signing top soccer players like Christiano Ronaldo and hosting the 2023 Next Generation ATP Finals.

“Tennis has taken a very important part in the transformation of sports in Saudi Arabia,” said Mutabagani. “We have seen that by the increased number of events specifically in tennis. In 2022, we started hosting the first international junior tournament that took place in Riyadh.”

The Kingdom hosted its first professional tournament in 2019 with the Diriyah Tennis Cup. It parlayed its success from 2019 to 2022 into the Next Gen ATP Finals, which are being hosted in Riyadh from 2023 to 2027.

The Six Kings Slam men’s tennis exhibition will feature international tennis stars Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic plus three other Grand Slam winners in October.


Princess Reema bint Bandar, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US, rejected calls by tennis legends Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova for a ban on holding the Women’s Tennis Association Finals in Saudi Arabia. Click here to read more.

Given the sport’s relative novelty in Saudi Arabia, there were some initial doubts about how popular tennis events would be. However, Mutabagani says the players have been thrilled by the number of spectators turning out to matches.

“They have been extremely happy with the audiences,” she said. “We had the full stadium for the exhibition match in Riyadh. Tickets were sold out and the audience was really, really engaged.

“We’ve noticed that the audience understood the game of tennis, which is very important.”

Top international players typically begin playing in sports academies or clubs as young children. The Kingdom will need experienced coaches, trainers and specialized facilities to retain its own top talent.

“Our main aim is to start with the grassroots and introduce tennis to all the population, and then grow it from there and concentrate on the high performance,” said Mutabagani.

One young Saudi tennis star to emerge is 19-year-old Yara Al-Hogbani.

“She is a great ambassador for the sport, and inspiring the new generation of little kids, whether boys or girls,” said Mutabagani.

Al-Hogbani played in the Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open this year with top international players like Ons Jabeur, a Tunisian who is WTA number six, and Naomi Osaka from Japan — the first Asian player ranked number one in the world.

“(Al-Hogbani) worked very hard from a very young age,” said Mutabagani. “She has two other siblings who are also national players.”

She played with her oldest brother, Ammar, at the Asian Games in Hangzhou in 2023, making history as the Kingdom’s first professional mixed doubles team. Their middle brother, Saud, plays at Wake Forest University in the US.

Al-Hogbani also met tennis legends like Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, the newly minted ambassador for the Saudi Tennis Federation, during the Next Gen ATP Finals in Jeddah in December. Nadal has committed to helping Saudi Arabia develop its young talent.

“It has given her the chance to feel what it is to be at those high levels and it has inspired her to work harder, try harder and to reach higher levels in the future,” said Mutabagani. “Having these chances can turn somebody’s future around and they can … be stars for the next generations.”

Asked what her message would be to young Saudis who are considering taking up tennis, Mutabagani, herself a lifelong tennis player, said: “I would tell them to really grab a tennis racket, try the sport, play tennis, be the Next Gen champion, be a role model on the court and off the court.

“Because tennis is a life learning experience, it teaches us to be great human beings before being sportsmen. So, be an ambassador for tennis in Saudi Arabia on and off the court.”



Saudi Sports for All Federation, ASICS Arabia sign partnership

Saudi Sports for All Federation, ASICS Arabia sign partnership
Updated 18 February 2024

Saudi Sports for All Federation, ASICS Arabia sign partnership

Saudi Sports for All Federation, ASICS Arabia sign partnership
  • ASICS Arabia will serve as a strategic partner for two SFA events and will play a prominent role as a key sponsor of the Riyadh Marathon

LONDON: The Saudi Sports for All Federation announced on Sunday that it had signed a partnership with the Middle East arm of Japanese sportswear brand ASICS.
Saleh Al-Husseini, the SFA’s managing director, and Seiji Hori, ASICS Arabia general manager, signed the agreement at a ceremony in Riyadh.
Under the terms of the agreement, ASICS Arabia will serve as a strategic partner for two SFA events and will play a prominent role as a key sponsor of the Riyadh Marathon.
The partnership follows a visit by SFA members to Japan, where they engaged with sports organizations, met representatives of ASICS at its international headquarters, and learned about innovative technologies at the ASICS Institute of Sports Science, the federation said in a statement.
During that trip, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the two parties, laying the groundwork for future collaborations.

The Riyadh Marathon takes place annually every February, and will now include ASICS as an official sportswear brand. (Supplied/SFA)

The Riyadh Marathon takes place annually every February, and will now include ASICS as an official sportswear brand.
All participants will receive an ASICS performance running top designed with recycled materials, highlighting the brand’s ongoing sustainability drive.
Other SFA events and campaigns, at national and community levels, will be scheduled throughout the year.
“The SFA is honored to collaborate with ASICS Arabia as a strategic partner. This collaboration marks the beginning of a dynamic relationship aimed at building key events and supporting different sports initiatives,” Al-Husseini said.
“We believe this partnership will not only take our events to the next level but continue to position Saudi Arabia as a global sporting destination.”
Hori said: “ASICS Arabia is proud to collaborate with the SFA as a strategic partner. We see this as the beginning of a dynamic partnership, helping to build key events and support different sports initiatives.
“This collaboration will not only develop physical and mental well-being in the Kingdom but encourage everyone to become a Lifetime Athlete, in line with our company’s Sound Mind Sound Body philosophy.”

Saudi Arabia ‘new fight capital of world’: PFL CEO Peter Murray

Saudi Arabia ‘new fight capital of world’: PFL CEO Peter Murray
Updated 15 February 2024

Saudi Arabia ‘new fight capital of world’: PFL CEO Peter Murray

Saudi Arabia ‘new fight capital of world’: PFL CEO Peter Murray
  • PFL Champions versus Bellator Champions takes place at Kingdom Arena on Feb. 24

Riyadh: Saudi Arabia was the “new fight capital of the world” the CEO of the world’s second-largest mixed martial arts organization said ahead of the sport’s first major event in the Kingdom.

The fight meeting in Riyadh on Feb. 24 will also make history as it will be the first to bring together stars from the Professional Fighters League and Bellator, after the former organization acquired the latter in November.

PFL Champions versus Bellator Champions will take place at Kingdom Arena in Boulevard City.

Peter Murray, CEO of the Saudi Public Investment Fund-backed PFL, said: “I’m really excited about it. When you look at the cards from top to bottom, it is star-studded and stacked, and we’ll see who will be the champion of champions.

“(Saudi Arabia is) the new fight capital of the world, and we’re proud to be part of Riyadh Season and to present the very best of MMA,” he added.

The main event will feature a bout between PFL heavyweight champion Renan Ferreira and his Bellator counterpart Ryan Bader.

Also fighting on the night will be Saudi pro fighter Abdullah Al-Qahtani, taking on India’s Edukondala Rao in the featherweight division.

In the MMA world, the PFL has recently been gaining traction in terms of viewing figures and star power.

While it is still some way off the top spot currently inhabited by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which pioneered the sport and is home to household names such as Conor McGregor, the PFL has been making aggressive moves of its own.

Just a few years after its inaugural event in 2018, its Nielsen viewing figures and worldwide distribution put it second only to the UFC.

Then, in a huge win in May 2023, the upstart organization signed then-UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou.

Part of Ngannou’s deal with the PFL was to allow him to take on boxing matches outside of the organization, and he will be doing just that when he faces Anthony Joshua in Riyadh on March 8.

The PFL edged out the UFC to become the first international MMA organization to hold an event in the Kingdom after the latter’s inaugural Riyadh event on March 2 was cancelled due to some fighters reportedly not being ready.

On how the PFL was able to secure an event in the Kingdom before its larger competitor, Murray said: “I think it speaks volumes about the PFL’s overall capabilities, our global platform, our roster — it’s second to none — and our commitment to advance and grow the sport around the world, including building a world-class ecosystem in MMA within the Middle East and specifically within Saudi Arabia.”

The PFL’s unique league format means that there is a clear path for fighters to rise through the ranks and compete for the title.

“We’re committed to the sport and advancing and growing the sport, developing future champions and not just staging one-off events,” Murray added.

In August, officials at Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund saw the potential of the organization and bought a minority stake, reportedly worth $100 million, through PIF company SRJ Sports Investment.

Murray said: “We’re proud of our partnership and the investment by SRJ. That investment will fuel the global growth of the PFL, help launch our superfight division, as well as develop the sport throughout the Middle East and within Saudi Arabia specifically.”

On the Kingdom’s push in recent years to develop its sporting sector, he added: “It’s an exciting time in Saudi Arabia, culturally, as well as it relates to sport, and specifically within combat sports. Staging an event in Saudi Arabia just illustrates when you execute an event there, it’s just amplified on a global level.”