Barcelona beat Bilbao amid more refereeing controversy

Barcelona beat Bilbao amid more refereeing controversy
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Barcelona's Raphinha, second right, scores his side's opening goal during the Spanish La Liga football match between Athletica Bilbao and Barcelona in Bilbao, Spain, on March 12, 2023. (AP Photo)
Barcelona beat Bilbao amid more refereeing controversy
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Athletic Bilbao's Inaki Williams celebrates scoring a goal before it is disallowed following a referral to VAR. (REUTERS)
Barcelona beat Bilbao amid more refereeing controversy
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Barcelona's Raphinha, right, celebrates with teammate Jules Kounde after their victory over Athletic Bilbao at the San Mames stadium in Bilbao on March 12, 2023. (AP Photo)
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Updated 13 March 2023

Barcelona beat Bilbao amid more refereeing controversy

Barcelona beat Bilbao amid more refereeing controversy
  • Madrid had moved to six points off the lead with a 3-1 win at Espanyol at home on Saturday
  • Archrivals Barcelona and Madrid play the final league “clasico” next week at Camp Nou stadium

MADRID: Still mired in controversy over its payments to the company of a former refereeing committee official, Barcelona restored its lead over Real Madrid to nine points in the Spanish league on Sunday after a late VAR decision went its way.
Barcelona beat Athletic Bilbao 1-0 after video review disallowed an 87th-minute goal by Bilbao forward Iñaki Williams for a handball in the buildup. VAR also was used to confirm Barcelona’s winning goal by Raphinha after it was initially disallowed for offside.
“I thought they were looking at offsides, but then I saw it on the video board, and I think it was a handball,” Barcelona coach Xavi said.
Williams laughed at the decision on Twitter after the game.
“We are upset,” Bilbao coach Ernesto Valverde said. “Nobody on the field had seen anything, not even the referee or the fourth official or the other assistants.”
The review of Williams’ goal took nearly three minutes. When the decision was announced, it drew loud jeers from the home fans at San Mamés Stadium.
Madrid had moved to six points off the lead with a 3-1 win at Espanyol at home on Saturday. Barcelona and Madrid play the final league “clasico” next week at Camp Nou stadium.
The controversy came hours after Madrid had announced it would side against Barcelona in the legal proceedings that the rival is facing over its payments of millions of euros over several years to a company that belonged to the former vice president of Spain’s soccer refereeing committee.
Prosecutors on Friday formally accused Barcelona of alleged corruption in sports, fraudulent management and falsification of mercantile documentation. An investigating judge will decide whether the accusations should lead to charges. The Catalan club has denied wrongdoing.
Xavi said the team has not been talking about what may happen because of the legal proceedings.
“We are focused on playing soccer,” he said. “People are reaching conclusions ahead of time. It’s sad.”
Raphinha scored the winner in first-half stoppage time with a shot from inside the area after a superb pass by Sergio Busquets. The lineman raised his flag but video review determined the Brazil forward was in a legal position.
There didn’t immediately appear to be anything wrong with the goal by Williams, but the referee was asked to look at Iker Muniain’s touch of the ball with his arm earlier in the buildup, and it was deemed to have been enough to disallow the goal.
Bilbao, which stayed in ninth place, hit the woodwork a couple of times and was also stopped by great saves from Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen.
Bilbao has not won any of its last seven games against Barcelona in the league, with one draw and six losses since a 1-0 victory in 2009. The Basque Country club has not scored in its last three games against the Catalan club in the competition.
Robert Lewandowski returned for Barcelona after the striker missed a couple of matches because of an injury.
Frustrating draw
Real Betis and Villarreal dropped points in their bid for Champions League places after a 1-1 draw.
Borja Iglesias opened the scoring for Betis in the 38th minute and the hosts equalized through Yéremy Pino in the 55th.
The result kept Betis in fifth place, three points behind Real Sociedad in the final qualification spot for the Champions League. Villarreal stayed sixth, four points behind Betis.
It was the second league draw in a row for Betis after three straight victories. Villarreal had won two consecutive games in the league.
Third-place Atletico Madrid, level on points with Sociedad, visits midtable Girona on Monday.
Sociedad winless again
Carlos Fernández scored three minutes into the match but fourth-place Sociedad couldn’t manage more than a 1-1 draw at Mallorca to see its winless streak reach five consecutive matches.
Sociedad has only one win — at Espanyol in the league in February — in its last nine matches in all competitions. It has four draws and four defeats during that run.
South Korea midfielder Lee Kang-in equalized early in the second half for 10th-place Mallorca, which is winless in three consecutive games.
Sevilla's momentum
Sevilla came from behind to beat Almeria 2-1 at home with goals from Lucas Ocampos in the first half and Erik Lamela in the second.
It was the second win in a row after three consecutive losses in all competitions for Sevilla, which moved to 13th place, two points clear of the relegation zone.
It was the fifth loss in six matches for Almeria, which opened the scoring with Sergio Akieme in the second minute.
Almeria dropped to second-to-last-place.

Ageing hero Ibrahimovic to leave Milan at season’s end

Ageing hero Ibrahimovic to leave Milan at season’s end
Updated 03 June 2023

Ageing hero Ibrahimovic to leave Milan at season’s end

Ageing hero Ibrahimovic to leave Milan at season’s end
  • "Tomorrow (Sunday) evening after the final game of the season... AC Milan will say goodbye to Zlatan Ibrahimovic with a brief ceremony," Milan said in a statement
  • The veteran striker's representatives would not comment when asked by AFP if he would retire once leaving Milan

MILAN: Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s time at AC Milan is coming to an end after the Serie A club announced on Saturday that he would say his farewells following their last match of the season against Verona.
“Tomorrow (Sunday) evening after the final game of the season... AC Milan will say goodbye to Zlatan Ibrahimovic with a brief ceremony,” Milan said in a statement.
“AC Milan would like to thank Zlatan for the magnificent time that we have spent together.”
The veteran striker’s representatives would not comment when asked by AFP if he would retire once leaving Milan.
However Italian media report that Ibrahimovic could join Monza next season, which would reunite him with former Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi and his right-hand man Adriano Galliani.
Former Italian prime minister Berlusconi, who sold Milan for 740 million euros in 2017 after three decades of glory and bought Monza for a relative pittance the following year, took Ibrahimovic to Milan on loan from Barcelona in 2010.
The Swede won Serie A that campaign, which had been Milan’s most recent league title until pipping local rivals Inter Milan on the final day of last season.
Ibrahimovic was a key figure in Milan’s resurgence to the top of Italian football after his return to the club as a free agent in late 2019, helping to bring them back from the doldrums and eventually win the Scudetto last season.
He has hardly featured for Stefano Pioli’s side this term after being plagued with injuries, returning in February following surgery on his left knee in May.
In July he signed a deal which netted him around one million euros ($1.02 million) in fixed salary, with large bonuses linked to appearances and achievements.
But the 41-year-old has only started one match and netted once for Milan this season, a 3-1 win at Udinese in March in which he became the oldest goal scorer in Serie A history.
He then picked up a calf injury in a pre-match warm up in April and will end his Milan career sidelined due to the knock.
Milan sit fourth in Serie A ahead of Sunday night’s match at the San Siro and are assured of Champions League football next season.
They lost to Inter Milan in the Champions League semifinal last month.

Ilkay Gundogan double secures FA Cup for Manchester City over United at Wembley

Manchester City’s Ilkay Gundogan lifts the trophy as he celebrates with his teammates after winning the FA Cup. (Reuters)
Manchester City’s Ilkay Gundogan lifts the trophy as he celebrates with his teammates after winning the FA Cup. (Reuters)
Updated 03 June 2023

Ilkay Gundogan double secures FA Cup for Manchester City over United at Wembley

Manchester City’s Ilkay Gundogan lifts the trophy as he celebrates with his teammates after winning the FA Cup. (Reuters)
  • Pep Guardiola’s men completed a domestic double at Wembley
  • Only Inter in Istanbul in a week’s time now stand between City and historic treble

LONDON: Manchester City are one game away from a historic treble after Ilkay Gundogan scored twice to beat Manchester United 2-1 in the FA Cup final on Saturday.
Pep Guardiola’s men completed a domestic double at Wembley and can become just the second side, after United in 1998/99, to win the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League in the same season should they beat Inter Milan to become European champions for the first time on June 10.
Gundogan scored the fastest goal in FA Cup final history after just 12 seconds.
United levelled on 33 minutes through Bruno Fernandes’ penalty after Jack Grealish was harshly penalized for handball.
But the City captain, in what could be his final game for the club on English soil with his contract expiring at the end of the season, volleyed home the winner six minutes into the second-half.
“Everyone knows the FA Cup is the most beautiful domestic club competition in the world, so to win this trophy again and complete the double is amazing for us,” said Gundogan.
“We have a chance to do something special and win the treble and we do not want to let this opportunity pass us by.”
The first ever major final between the Manchester giants had the most explosive of starts.
Most of the 83,000 crowd were still taking their seats from the pre-match festivities when Victor Lindelof’s headed clearance sat up perfectly for Gundogan to volley home a stunning strike after just 12 seconds.
That appeared to set the tone for the Premier League champions.
Rodri headed into the side-netting moments later before Erling Haaland failed to get a clean connection on Gundogan’s enticing cross.
United were barely able to get across the halfway line in the first half hour, but got the break they needed to get back into the game.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s header back across the City box brushed the arm of Grealish and referee Paul Tierney was instructed to review the incident by VAR.
Despite City’s protestations, Tierney pointed to the spot and Fernandes coolly sent Stefan Ortega the wrong way.
The Portuguese’s celebrations in front of the City fans were met with a flurry of objects thrown from the stands, one of which struck Lindelof.
City boss Pep Guardiola was also showing his fury at the officiating as VAR did not intervene seven minutes before half-time when Kevin De Bruyne was wiped out by Fred inside the area and no penalty was awarded.
At the other end, United passed up a great chance to turn the game around before half-time when Raphael Varane fired high and wide at the back post from a corner.
Having fought so hard to gain a foothold, United were made to pay for another slow start in the second-half.
Gundogan was the goalscorer again as he fired home from De Bruyne’s free-kick.
But more questions will be asked of whether David De Gea remains the right man to be United’s number one goalkeeper after the 32-year-old Spaniard’s sluggish attempt to keep it out.
De Gea did at least make a big saves to keep United in the game from De Bruyne and Haaland, while Gundogan was denied a rare FA Cup final hat-trick by the offside flag.
United rallied in a tense finale as Marcus Rashford and Alejandro Garnacho flashed efforts inches off target.
The ball came back off the City bar in a goalmouth scramble deep into stoppage time.
However, the Red Devils could not find the goal to deny Guardiola an 11th major trophy as City boss and protect the unique legacy of Alex Ferguson’s great side 24 years ago.
Only Inter in Istanbul in a week’s time now stand between City and matching the greatest achievement English club football has ever seen.

Al-Ahly and Wydad set for battle in all-Arab CAF Champions League final

Al-Ahly and Wydad set for battle in all-Arab CAF Champions League final
Updated 03 June 2023

Al-Ahly and Wydad set for battle in all-Arab CAF Champions League final

Al-Ahly and Wydad set for battle in all-Arab CAF Champions League final
  • Egyptian and Moroccan giants will face off in first leg of Africa’s showpiece final in Cairo on Sunday

DUBAI: The only thing that can be said with certainty as Africa looks forward to its Champions League final is that the trophy will be won by an Arab team.

But, then, it usually is, as Al-Ahly of Egypt and Wydad AC of Morocco, who meet in Sunday’s first leg in Cairo, know better than most.

This will mark the third time in seven editions that these two giants of African and Arab football have met with the trophy sitting on the sidelines. They also locked horns in the semifinal of the 2020 edition when the Egyptians ran out comfortable winners.

There have been 16 Arab champions in the last 25 years, and in that time there was only 2009 when none from the region reached the final. Instead, TP Mazembe, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, defeated Nigeria’s Heartland.

We are in familiar territory for the two finalists, but the situation has changed since last year when Wydad ran out 2-0 winners in a single game on home soil. To start with, this is a home-and-away affair, with Egypt hosting on Sunday and the action moving to Morocco a week later.

Al-Ahly, who already hold the record for continental titles, with 10 trophies in the bank, are in a better place than they were in May last year. Then, in the dying days of the Pitso Mosimane regime, the Red Giants reached the final, but were struggling to cope with the demands of competing in the league, Africa and also the Club World Cup. Ahead of the last final, the league was slipping away and criticism was increasing.

This time, however, Al-Ahly also have lots of games in hand — they have played five games fewer than Pyramids in second — but are still a point clear.  Their league record has been amazing, with 19 wins, five draws and no defeats in the 24 games so far.

Under Swiss boss Marcel Koller, who replaced Mosimane’s short-lived successor Ricardo Soares in September, the Egyptians have been a winning machine. The league is almost in the bag. Adding the Champions League really will make it a perfect season.

The early stages of the African journey were rough and they only made it through in second, four points behind Mamelodi Sundowns, and ahead of Al-Hilal of Sudan only due to a better head-to-head record. 

The knockout stages have been more comfortable, however. Raja CA, Wydad’s Casablanca neighbors, were defeated 2-0 over two legs in the quarterfinals, while Esperance de Tunis were beaten 4-0. Take away the seven goals conceded in the group stage in two games against Mamelodi, then Al-Ahly have conceded just eight times in 32 league and Champions League games this season. The size of Wydad’s task is there for all to see.

Even after the 1-0 league win over Ceramica Cleopatra on Monday, Koller was still demanding more.

“After scoring, we lost our concentration and neglected defense, and we could have been punished since they got several chances to even the score,” the Swiss boss said. “I am saying it clearly: We need more determination and concentration in the Wydad game. If we repeat the same performance against Ceramica, we will not achieve our target.”

There is a boost for the club, which had been sweating on the fitness of all four goalkeepers, but first choice Mohamed El-Shenawy has recovered from a calf injury.

Al-Ahly may be glad that Wydad squeezed past Mamelodi on away goals in the semifinals, as the South Africans were impressive in the group stages. It also gives a chance for revenge for last year.

Wydad are going for a second successive championship and a fourth in total. That win in May started a great few months for Moroccan football. Not long after Walid Regragui led Wydad to the title, he left to take over the national team. It barely needs to be said again, but at the World Cup he took the Atlas Lions to the last four. Left-back Yahia Attiyah Allah and Yahya Jabrane both played their part in that magical run to the semifinals and will be in action against Al-Ahly.

After winning their group, they eliminated Tanzania’s Simba on penalties and then needed away goals to get past Mamelodi. With four games of the league season remaining, they are fighting for the title with FAR Rabat and are currently just a point behind.

There have been plenty of changes on the sidelines, with three successors to Regragui before Sven Vandenbroeck took over in May. The Belgian, who has extensive experience in Africa, was last seen in charge of Abha in Saudi Arabia, but now has the opportunity to be the first from his country to win the biggest club prize in African club football.

“I don’t feel a huge pressure. It is logical to play for all titles when you take the charge of a team that has a long history of winning trophies,” Vandenbroeck said. “Ahly will be seeking revenge for the last time. So, the most important thing for me is to remain calm and unified as a group.”

After Regragui, Vandenbroeck has big shoes to fill, but there are also unrelenting demands on Al-Ahly to keep winning. It is all set for a fascinating encounter.

The highs and lows of Roshn Saudi League 2022-23

The highs and lows of Roshn Saudi League 2022-23
Updated 03 June 2023

The highs and lows of Roshn Saudi League 2022-23

The highs and lows of Roshn Saudi League 2022-23
  • A campaign like no other saw Cristiano Ronaldo move to Al-Nassr, Al-Hilal stall and Al-Ittihad end a 14-year drought

A Roshn Saudi League campaign like no other is in the books.

Jeddah giants Al-Ittihad ended their long wait for top-flight glory, while Al-Batin and Al-Adalah dropped into Yelo League.

A series of other substantial events occurred throughout a remarkable campaign which transformed preconceived notions about the Middle East’s premier club competition.

From Cristiano Ronaldo’s paradigm-shifting, mid-season Al-Nassr switch to Al-Hilal’s historic run at the FIFA Club World Cup and beyond, here are Arab News’ highlights from a memorable 2022-23.

Best player

A new benchmark was set for goalkeeping excellence by Ittihad’s Marcelo Grohe.

The Brazil custodian surged past the previous record of 14 clean sheets in a single Pro League campaign, ending with an official Opta tally of 18 (which would be 19 if he had not been afforded deserved adulation by a late substitution in the season finale vs. Al-Tai).

His 58 saves occurred in a title campaign which saw him beaten only 13 times. Remarkably, it took until match week six for him to concede.

Ittihad’s success was built from the back and Grohe laid firm foundations.

Best coach

Ittihad’s missing ingredient to end a 14-year title wait proved to be Nuno Santo.

Last season’s agonizing near miss under Cosmin Contra left a sense of desolation and desire for change. The club’s turn to their bearded ex-Valencia, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur supremo proved astute.

Defensive rigidity was instilled as Egypt center-back Ahmed Hegazi became his conduit on the pitch, with Ittihad letting in five fewer goals than anyone else. But this did not come at a cost up top, with a second-best tally of 60 goals scored helped by 21-goal top marksman Abderrazak Hamdallah.

March’s astute 2-0 victory vs. Nassr and April’s roller coaster 2-1 win against Al-Shabab — more on that later — proved critical junctures.

Breakthrough moment

Saudi Arabian football changed forever on December 30, 2022.

This was when Ronaldo’s heralded arrival was announced and a proud footballing nation’s limitless sporting ambitions became real.

The ex-Manchester United, Juventus and Real Madrid forward could not deliver silverware for Nassr, despite notching an impressive 14 times in 16 top-flight outings. That must wait for next season.

But he did deliver vast global attention, booming interest in television rights — 48 channels/platforms now broadcast to 170 countries — and packed stands wherever he performed.

Ronaldo has helped set a course for Roshn Saudi League to enter the “top-five leagues in the world.” Enormous intrigue surrounds which stellar names will join him on this quest.

Breakthrough performer

Saudi Arabia’s lineage of elite strikers, from Majed Abdullah to Nasser Al-Shamrani, appears in safe hands with Firas Al-Buraikan.
The Al-Fateh star — who started World Cup 2022’s group-stage victory vs. eventual-champions Argentina — produced a career-best 17 top-flight goals, two more than he had netted in every other campaign combined since his bow in April 2018. This eye-catching tally was enough to make him the league’s fourth-highest scorer.

Best signing

Al-Khaleej required a source of inspiration — and they found one in Fabio Martins.

Pedro Emanuel’s promoted side were 15th on four points prior to the ex-Shabab loanee’s mid-season procurement on a free transfer after an unfulfilled spell at the UAE’s Al-Wahda.

A trio of rejuvenating victories followed in the Portuguese winger’s opening three matches. Martins ended the campaign on seven goals and three assists from 17 run-outs, with Khaleej finishing safe in 14th.

Signing who failed to spark

It seemed the perfect winter replacement for the irreplaceable David Ospina.

Nassr swiftly reacted to the Colombia goalkeeper’s serious elbow injury by loaning Agustin Rossi. The 27-year-old had amassed more than 100 league run-outs for Boca Juniors, been previously called up by Argentina and performed to such a high standard that a pre-contract had been agreed with 2022 Copa Libertadores winners Flamengo.

Reality, however, would prove distinctly underwhelming. February’s shaky debut in a 2-2 draw at Al-Fateh saw him swiftly displaced by Nawaf Al-Aqidi and he only started again two months later when the Saudi Arabia prospect suffered fitness issues of his own.

Best match

“Epic” barely does justice to April 27’s unforgettable 2-1 victory for Ittihad over Shabab.

This was a contest from which three penalties were scored, one critical spot-kick was missed and an 106th-minute winner cemented long-held title aspirations for the victor, while crushing those of the vanquished.

Hamdallah and Cristian Guanca exchanged efforts from 12 yards in an ultra-competitive top-three clash. Referee Srdjan Jovanovic would again point to the spot in the 89th minute, this time for Al-Shabab.

Conjecture followed when Gabon forward Aaron Boupendza took on penalty duties. His “Panenka” chip floated harmlessly into the arms of a grateful Grohe.

Fast forward a quarter of an hour at an electrified King Abdullah Sports City and Hamdallah lobbed home his own penalty. Cue pandemonium in this game for the ages.

Best goal

Ronaldo’s free-kick abilities remained sharp with a sensational 38-yard strike which sparked March’s rousing comeback victory against Abha.

Valuable points appeared to be draining away after Nassr loanee Abdulfattah Adam’s early opener for the visitors went without reply.

This was until the 78th minute when Ronaldo unleashed a ferocious low effort from distance which swerved past the despairing grasp of Cameroon’s emergent 2022 World Cup No. 1, Devis Epassy.

Outstanding achievement

Stratospherically high standards at Hilal mean the 2022-23 season will always be tinged by disappointment.

But this does not provide full context. The Riyadh heavyweights competed with distinction on all fronts, despite a transfer ban and punishing schedule which would have derailed other clubs.

They became the first Asian outfit to reach a FIFA Club World Cup showpiece final, made the final of their AFC Champions League defense and secured a top-three Roshn Saudi League finish.

The dramatic penalty shootout victory — after Ali Al-Bulaihi’s 99th-minute leveler vs.  Al-Wehda — in the King’s Cup decider will never be forgotten.

Cristiano Ronaldo and LeBron James defy age to redefine the sporting landscape

Cristiano Ronaldo and LeBron James defy age to redefine the sporting landscape
Updated 03 June 2023

Cristiano Ronaldo and LeBron James defy age to redefine the sporting landscape

Cristiano Ronaldo and LeBron James defy age to redefine the sporting landscape
  • At 38, both sports stars continue to be two of the most relevant athletes on the planet and architects of their own narrative

Cristiano Ronaldo and LeBron James are two sports icons who defy age and dominate their fields. These legendary athletes not only share the remarkable age of 38 but also possess an unwavering commitment to maintaining their peak physical condition.

However, their impact extends far beyond their athletic prowess.

Ronaldo and James have spearheaded revolutions in football and basketball, respectively, transforming the way the games are played and empowering players in unprecedented ways.

Ronaldo — redefining football’s orbit

In 2022, Ronaldo left Old Trafford after an abrasive interview with Piers Morgan in which he criticized his coach and colleagues, resulting in an agreement between Manchester United and the Portuguese superstar to part ways.

Ronaldo then took his talents to Saudi Arabia’s Al-Nassr FC, a move that is revolutionizing the world of football. In 2023, players are now eager to join the Saudi Pro League, inspired by his example.

Less than a year after Ronaldo’s arrival in Riyadh, Karim Benzema is now rumored to be joining a Saudi club, potentially Al-Hilal or Al-Ittihad. Reports from ESPN speak of a two-year contract worth a staggering €400 million ($429 million), beckoning Benzema to play against his former Real Madrid teammate Ronaldo.

With Paris Saint-Germain confirming Lionel Messi’s departure at the end of the season, persistent reports suggest that the Argentine may be next in line to join the Saudi Pro League.

The thought, once met with disbelief, is now contemplated by fans and experts alike. Ronaldo’s move has made possible a world where the greatest football talents dare to chase new adventures in Saudi Arabia, making the Saudi football league a must-watch.

James — architect of player empowerment in basketball

In 2010, the world of free agency basketball and sports as a whole underwent a monumental change, all because of a few simple words spoken by NBA icon James, who was a free agent at the time.

During “The Decision,” a special broadcast for a national television audience, James uttered a single sentence that would reshape professional basketball: “This fall, I’m taking my talents to South Beach and joining the Miami Heat.”

The move set James on the path to forming a super team, joining forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, which resulted in winning two NBA championships.

James’ move birthed a new era of player empowerment, in which athletes dictate their narratives, shape team dynamics, and unleash their full potential. The ripple effects of his groundbreaking choice continue to reverberate across the basketball world. In 2016, we witnessed superstar Kevin Durant join the already championship-winning team, the 73-9 mighty Golden State Warriors, alongside Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Now, in 2023, players are taking matters into their own hands, forming alliances, and reclaiming power from team owners.

Ronaldo and James rewrote the rulebook of sports.

Their audacity, unparalleled skill, and fearless pursuit of destiny have reshaped the sports landscape as we know it. We will continue to see basketball superstars forming super teams in pursuit of winning championships and footballers joining the Saudi football league, met with strong financial deals and formidable competition.