Precociously talented Foden grateful to be part of Manchester City’s domination

Precociously talented Foden grateful to be part of Manchester City’s domination
Foden says he has enjoyed every moment of his career so far and just wants to keep on enjoying it as much as possible. (AFP)
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Updated 21 March 2023

Precociously talented Foden grateful to be part of Manchester City’s domination

Precociously talented Foden grateful to be part of Manchester City’s domination
  • The 22-year-old England international already has four Premier League titles, an FA Cup medal, four League Cup medals and back-to-back Young Player of the Year awards to his name

“Sky is the limit” reads the tattoo that stretches from Phil Foden’s left ear down to the bottom of his neck. He had it done just over a year ago, after scoring a crucial late winner for Manchester City against Everton in the Premier League.

The words reflect the mindset of the precociously talented player, whose lofty ambitions are far from sated. Since making his first-team debut at the age of 17 in 2017, as a substitute in a 1-0 Champions League victory over Feyenoord, Foden has reveled in the spotlight.

Now 22, he already has a packed trophy cabinet that includes four Premier League titles, one FA Cup and four League Cup winners’ medals and back-to-back Professional Footballers’ Association Young Player of the Year awards.

“All the time I think about what has happened, what I’ve achieved, I’m just grateful to be where I am now,” Stockport-born Foden told Arab News during an exclusive interview. “I always look at that and it’s crazy because it’s gone so quick.”

Foden says he has enjoyed every moment of his career so far and just wants to keep on enjoying it as much as possible.

“I came from a rough area and not many people make it from my area,” he said. “So to come out of that and see what I’ve done, I’m obviously proud of that.”

But he wants more. And in his pursuit of that, he demands more of himself.

“It’s so special to be part of this City team,” said Foden, who has been with the club since he was nine years old. He was even a ball boy.

“Hopefully, in years to come, I can talk about my experience to my young kids and tell them how it was. Hopefully I can be remembered as a legend here when I finish, hopefully get a statue … I want that, definitely,” he adds with a beaming smile.

“For now, I’m just enjoying every moment.”

There are three statues at the Etihad Stadium already, honoring former captain Vincent Kompany, club-record goalscorer Sergio Aguero, and Foden’s idol, David Silva, the Spanish attacking midfielder they called “Merlin.”

It is now Foden who provides the magic, a role he accepts with relish while displaying a growing maturity and willingness to take on greater responsibility in a team packed with world-class players.

He is the boy who dared to dream and achieved his goal of playing for his beloved club, where the supporters now laud him as “one of our own.”

Feted for performances for club and country that are reminiscent of former Newcastle, Tottenham Hotspur and England hero Paul Gascoigne, with the ability to excite and excel in attack, there is a lot of pressure resting on Foden’s young shoulders.

“I think there are expectations, definitely, because I’ve set my standards so high in the last few seasons,” he said.

“People expect me to be the game-changer now and I don’t mind that … you know,” Foden said. “I want to be that person who scores and decides a game. I thrive on it; it makes me better and I like the pressure. It’s definitely hard to keep level-headed but I felt I’ve dealt with that pretty well over the time.

“I’ve always tried to put the hard work in training as much as I possibly can to get the rewards. That’s the mentality I have and will just keep trying to do that.”

Foden has returned to fitness and form following the World Cup in Qatar, during which England were beaten in the quarter-finals by France. Manager Gareth Southgate’s squad this week begin another quest for a first major trophy since the 1966 World Cup, with Euro 2024 qualifiers against Italy and Ukraine on Thursday and Sunday.

Passionate about the game, Foden hopes to display his top qualities for both club and country in the remaining three months of the season.

“It’s stressful not playing, of course — the manager knows that, with all the players that we have got who just love playing football,” he said. “We are all, just in the changing room at City, two-touch or whatever we are doing, (we) just love to play football.

“Like Bernardo Silva, for example, in the game against Newcastle (on March 4). He didn’t start but when he came on, he made the difference with the second goal. I feel that’s the group we are building now. We all have each other’s back and work for each other.”

With their lives under ever-greater scrutiny, trying to remain level-headed can be hard for young footballers in the modern era.

Foden, however, is already the father of two young children and said: “I think it’s helped me, yes, being a dad, (it has) kept me focused on football.

“It’s always nice, if things don’t go right on the football pitch, you can go home, see your kids and everything gets back to normal. So it’s definitely kept me grounded.”

At the same time, his family also provide a great inspiration for him to continue to strive to reach ever-greater heights, he said.

City are sitting second in the Premier League, eight points behind Arsenal, and thrashed Burnley 6-0 on Saturday to book their spot in the FA Cup semi-finals, in which they will face Championship side Sheffield United at Wembley on April 22.

The Champions League is the one trophy that has eluded Foden, and City, so far, with a 1-0 defeat by Chelsea in the 2021 final the closest they have come. That loss was painful, as was a foot injury later that summer that ruled Foden out of the delayed Euro 2020 final in which England lost to Italy on penalties. There were some tears, he admitted.

“I don’t like to show it but, definitely, behind the scenes there are emotional times,” he said.

Having been drawn against Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals of this season’s Champions League, and with the prospect of facing holders Real Madrid or Chelsea in the last four, City have another tough task ahead of them this season if they are to claim the biggest prize in European club football.

Foden, whose game has evolved under Pep Guardiola, with roles across the forward line, said: “I hope it’s this year. Definitely, the Champions League is the one we are all looking at now.

“We want to take a step further. We have been in a final and obviously it was heartbreaking to lose. Hopefully, if we can get there again we can use the defeat in the final, and the experience of winning the Premier League and other cups, to help us through it.”

Whatever happens, Foden said it “feels special” to be part of City’s trophy hunt.

“I’m still such a young player and the more big games you play the better you learn to deal with them,” he said.

“I think I’m becoming more mature as a player, and in the game I feel I can play a lot more different positions. I think I could before but now I understand them a bit more.”

As he learns to combine greater knowledge with his evolving natural ability, the sky truly is the limit for what Foden might yet achieve.


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 1 min 49 sec ago

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.


Kvaratskhelia named Serie A player of the year after helping Napoli to title

Kvaratskhelia named Serie A player of the year after helping Napoli to title
Updated 03 June 2023

Kvaratskhelia named Serie A player of the year after helping Napoli to title

Kvaratskhelia named Serie A player of the year after helping Napoli to title
  • Kvaratskhelia was a relative unknown when he joined Napoli in the offseason from Georgian team Dinamo Batumi for a reported fee of €10 million ($10.7 million)
  • The 22-year-old forward earned the nickname “Kvaradona” in homage to Napoli hero Diego Maradona, who led the team to their only two previous league titles

NAPLES, Italy: Napoli winger Khvicha Kvaratskhelia was named Serie A player of the year on Friday and will be presented with his trophy on a bumper day of celebration for the southern team.

Kvaratskhelia will receive the award before Napoli kick off their final match of the season on Sunday, at home to Sampdoria. Luciano Spalletti will also be presented with the coach of the year prize.

That will just be the start of the trophy presentations, as Napoli will finally get their hands on the Serie A trophy after the match. The team clinched it with five rounds to spare.

Kvaratskhelia was a relative unknown when he joined Napoli in the offseason from Georgian team Dinamo Batumi for a reported fee of €10 million ($10.7 million).

But the 22-year-old forward was fundamental in Napoli earning their first Serie A title in 33 years. So much so that he earned the nickname “Kvaradona” in homage to Napoli hero Diego Maradona, who led the team to their only two previous league titles.

“Khvicha Kvaratskhelia`s impact on the league has been impressive,” Serie A CEO Luigi De Siervo said. “Congratulations to Napoli for having brought to Italy this talent, who from the very first matches showed off his repertoire of technique, dribbling, personality and creativity.

“With 12 goals and 10 assists, Kvaratskhelia was one of the leading players for the Azzurri, who won the Scudetto and made many fans and lovers of beautiful football dream.”

 


No alternative to Bayern sackings, says ex-president Hoeness

No alternative to Bayern sackings, says ex-president Hoeness
Updated 02 June 2023

No alternative to Bayern sackings, says ex-president Hoeness

No alternative to Bayern sackings, says ex-president Hoeness
  • "The overall development was simply too unsatisfactory" Hoeness told newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung
  • Hoeness revealed "nobody" at the club was consulted about the decision to fire coach Julian Nagelsmann in March

BERLIN: Former Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness said in an interview published on Friday the club had no alternative but firing chief executive Oliver Kahn and sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic.
Hoeness explained the club needed to take action, with news of the sacking becoming known just moments after Bayern won their 11th straight Bundesliga title.
“The overall development was simply too unsatisfactory” Hoeness told newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, referring to the club’s poor second half of the season.
Nine points ahead of Borussia Dortmund at Christmas, Bayern entered the final round of the season two points behind.
Their 2-1 win over Cologne in the last match of the campaign, along with Dortmund’s 2-2 draw against Mainz, meant they won the title on goal difference.
Bayern sacked Kahn and Salihamidzic on Thursday, but did not tell the players or make the news public until moments after the full-time whistle.
Captain Thomas Mueller found out in a post-match interview, after putting on a t-shirt commemorating the win.
Hoeness, who played for Bayern before running the club in various capacities for decades, revealed “nobody” at the club was consulted about the decision to fire coach Julian Nagelsmann in March.
“Even Herbert Hainer (Bayern president) was informed far too late... and something like that simply doesn’t work.”
While saying that Salihamidzic “remained a good sporting director,” Hoeness said former goalkeeper Kahn had not done enough work in the sporting department.
“Oliver had defined his role for himself in such a way that he largely stayed out of sports. Yet sport is the main task.
“Our product is football” the 71-year-old added.