Saudi Pro League clubs must snap up best Asian talent

Saudi Pro League clubs must snap up best Asian talent
French forward Karim Benzema, who signed up for champions Al-Ittihad, leads the list of latest big-name arrivals into Saudi Arabia’s professional football league. (AFP)
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Updated 17 June 2023
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Saudi Pro League clubs must snap up best Asian talent

Saudi Pro League clubs must snap up best Asian talent
  • As some of the world’s most famous players look to move from Europe, the Kingdom’s clubs should not ignore talent to the East

Saudi Arabian football has changed, and is changing the face of Asian football with it.

Few could have predicted the pace of change within the country as recently as six months ago, but the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo accelerated plans to reshape football in the country; plans that have been turbocharged in recent weeks.

While missing out on the prized signature of Lionel Messi was a blow, a host of other big names are on the verge of joining Karim Benzema as headline arrivals this off-season.

With Saudi Arabia hosting the AFC Asian Cup for the first time in 2027, bidding for the 2026 Women’s Asian Cup, and having had Saudi Arabian Football Federation President Yasser Al-Misehal elected to both the AFC and FIFA executive committees, the desire for the Kingdom to play a leading role in Asian football is clear for all to see.

With the stated ambition of making the Saudi Pro League one of the top 10 leagues in the world within the next decade, achieving that would mean it being regarded as the best in Asia.

If that is the ambition, and if it wants to take its role as a leader of the continent seriously and develop Asian football as a collective, then there is one thing it can do to ensure that is the case – become a hothouse of the best regional talent.

As leagues around the continent, including, regrettably, the AFC Champions League itself, are removing the previous “plus one” quota for AFC players, Saudi Arabia could lead by example if it ensured that some of the money it is spending on foreign talent extended to offering opportunities to the best players of Asia.

It need not come at the expense of headline names like N’Golo Kante, Sergio Ramos or Neymar. With eight foreign spots per club, there is plenty of room across the league.

And with so many headline names coming in, players all over the continent would naturally be attracted to the Kingdom to play with stars they could only dream of coming up against in Europe.

The SPL is no stranger to some of the best names in Asian football.

Syrian pair Omar Al-Somah and Omar Khrbin took the league by storm with Al-Ahli and Al-Hilal respectively, the latter even being named Asian Player of the Year in 2017, while Al-Somah won three consecutive Golden Boots on his way to becoming one of the continent’s most feared competitors.

This off-season already, we have seen some of Asia’s biggest names linked to Saudi Arabia.

South Korea’s Son Heung-min and Iran’s Mehdi Taremi are reportedly two names high on the list of those the Kingdom would like to attract, and with good reason given their pedigree.

But if clubs showed a little imagination and adventure, they could also unlock enormous markets to grow the reach of the league.

At just 18 years of age, Indonesia’s Marselino Ferdinan is regarded as one of his nation’s most promising young talents. A precocious player, he is now a regular with the senior national team, having made his debut aged just 17, and will be the headline act for Indonesia at next year’s AFC Asian Cup in Qatar.

In football-mad Indonesia, his every move is followed and chronicled by fans desperate to develop a major international star. He already has an Instagram following of 1.7 million – more than Al-Shabab and Al-Ahli combined.

Providing a platform for Marselino to flourish, and opening the SPL up to the football-crazy market of Indonesia, would be a win-win.

At the other end of the age spectrum, a player like Maya Yoshida would add plenty of experience and leadership.

Still only 34, the former Japan national team captain is on the lookout for a new club after departing German outfit Schalke last month.

As one of Japan’s most capped players, having played well over 100 times for his country, including at three World Cups including last year in Qatar, he comes with a wealth of European experience having played in the Eredivisie, Premier League, Serie A and the Bundesliga.

With Al-Nassr in need of experienced defenders, and with a tour of Japan just a few weeks away, they could do far worse than the former Southampton captain.

Given the large Indian population within Saudi Arabia, estimated to be close to three million, it would make sense to look to the South Asian nation to tap into that huge market.

A player like defender Sandesh Jhingan would fit the bill perfectly. A quality defender, who had a stint in Europe cut short by injury, the 29-year-old is ambitious and would embrace the chance to play at a higher level and test himself against some of the world’s best attacking talent.

As reported last month, Emirati sensation Yahya Al-Ghassani has attracted the interest of a number of clubs in the Kingdom, including champions Al-Ittihad.

Whoever it may be, and wherever they come from, if Saudi Arabia is serious about being a leader within Asian football, that should extend to developing and providing opportunities to some of this continent’s best players.


Heavyweight boxers Tyson Fury, Oleksandr Usyk face off in Riyadh on Saturday

Heavyweight boxers Tyson Fury, Oleksandr Usyk face off in Riyadh on Saturday
Updated 15 May 2024
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Heavyweight boxers Tyson Fury, Oleksandr Usyk face off in Riyadh on Saturday

Heavyweight boxers Tyson Fury, Oleksandr Usyk face off in Riyadh on Saturday
  • The winner will carry the four championship belts in a unification bout for most important global organizations in boxing
  • Fury and Usyk both seek to write their name in the history books alongside global icons

RIYADH: British heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury and Ukrainian contender Oleksandr Usyk are scheduled to face off for the undisputed heavyweight world title on Saturday at Riyadh’s Kingdom Arena.
The winner will carry the four championship belts in a unification bout for the most important global organizations in boxing — the World Boxing Association (WBA), the World Boxing Council (WBC), the International Boxing Federation (IBF), and the World Boxing Organization (WBO), according to a media statement released on Wednesday.
The four belts feature images of boxing legends such as Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
Fury and Usyk will both be seeking to write their name in the history books alongside these global icons, the statement added.
Saturday’s long-awaited-match will be the pinnacle of modern boxing as it is the first time that the four belts will be unified in a single fight. It evokes the prestigious legacy of the greats who have previously shaped the sport’s championship titles.
WBC was established in 1963, and Muhammad Ali was one of its most famous champions, holding the title three times during his career.
IBF was founded in 1983; Larry Holmes dominated the heavyweight division for seven years across different periods of his career.
WBO was established in 1988, and although it is the newest of the belts, it has been held by several prominent champions, including Chris Byrd and Herbie Hide, among others.
However, the oldest of the four belts that Fury and Usyk will compete for is the WBA title, which was established more than 100 years ago.
The title was held for 12 years by Joe Louis, the world heavyweight champion from 1937 to 1949, and who is considered one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time.
Saudi Arabia has become a hub for premier world boxing contests over the past few years, with authorities investing heavily to bring the biggest bouts to local and international audiences.
Previous bouts in the country have garnered the attention of fans globally and marked the Kingdom as a new home of international boxing.


Saudia unites football, motorsport with displays in Newcastle, Berlin

Saudia unites football, motorsport with displays in Newcastle, Berlin
Updated 15 May 2024
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Saudia unites football, motorsport with displays in Newcastle, Berlin

Saudia unites football, motorsport with displays in Newcastle, Berlin
  • Kingdom’s flag carrier introduces fans to new Gen3 Formula E car at St. James’ Park
  • Immersive fan zone offers variety of interactive experiences during Berlin E-Prix

BERLIN/JEDDAH: Saudia, the flag carrier of Saudi Arabia, has flown the new Gen3 Formula E car to St. James’ Park in the UK to coincide with Newcastle United’s final home game of the season.

The carrier has a strategic partnership with the Premier League club and is also the official airline partner of the all-electric Formula E series.

The event coincided with the release of a short film bringing together the worlds of motorsport and football, with football fans being introduced to Formula E and the car.

“This event provides a fantastic platform for us to engage with our guests and the global audience, whether in person or through our innovative digital portals,” Khaled Tash, Saudia Group’s chief marketing officer, said in the statement.

“Integrating our partnerships with both Newcastle United and Formula E in such an engaging manner exemplifies our commitment to bringing fans closer to the sports they love. Each year, we strive to elevate the experience for racegoers and fans worldwide, as part of our commitment to creating unforgettable memories wherever our brand is present.”

Saudia also hosted an immersive fan zone experience during the Berlin E-Prix on May 11-12 in Berlin.

Fans were given access to an E-Village, with a dedicated Discover-E Zone featuring a variety of interactive experiences, as well as games, competitions, and giveaways featuring both Saudia and Formula E merchandise.


Saudi team ready for World Para Athletics Championships in Japan

Saudi team ready for World Para Athletics Championships in Japan
Updated 13 May 2024
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Saudi team ready for World Para Athletics Championships in Japan

Saudi team ready for World Para Athletics Championships in Japan

DUBAI: The Saudi Paralympic team has set off for Kobe, in Japan, where they are competing in the 2024 World Para Athletics Championships.

The team’s preparations included extensive training sessions in both local and international camps.

The first phase took place in Riyadh, Jeddah and Damman from March to April, while phase two was in Dubai and included the team’s participation in the Gulf Games.

The 11th edition of the World Para Athletics Championships begins today and runs until May 27. It is being held at the Kobe Universiade Memorial Stadium, where more than 1,000 athletes from 100 nations will compete in 168 events.

The 2024 championships are the first to be held in East Asia and the third one in Asia, following Doha in 2015 and Dubai in 2019. 


Jorge Jesus hails ‘spectacular season’ as Al-Hilal secure 19th league title

Jorge Jesus hails ‘spectacular season’ as Al-Hilal secure 19th league title
Updated 12 May 2024
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Jorge Jesus hails ‘spectacular season’ as Al-Hilal secure 19th league title

Jorge Jesus hails ‘spectacular season’ as Al-Hilal secure 19th league title
  • Roshn Saudi League set to ‘grow better and better,’ Portuguese coach says
  • Side will contest King’s Cup final against Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr at end of season

RIYADH: Al-Hilal manager Jorge Jesus declared 2023/24 “a spectacular season” after the club claimed their 19th Saudi Pro League championship with a 4-1 victory over Al-Hazem on Saturday night.

Twelve points ahead of Riyadh rivals and nearest Roshn Saudi League challengers Al-Nassr, the title was won with three games to spare. Unbeaten domestically this season, with 29 wins from 31 league matches, Al-Hilal also created world football history earlier in the campaign by winning 34 matches in succession across all competitions.

“The Al-Hilal team this season has made a spectacular season. What we have achieved is an example for all the others because if we see all the details then we are the best in goalscoring, best in fewest goals conceded, no losses in the league and obviously the most points,” Jesus said in a statement released by the club.

“We are the Super Cup winners, in the semifinal (sic) of the King’s Cup and have won the league. We only failed in the Asian Champions League, in the semifinal, but if we speak about the Saudi level then winning the King’s Cup will mean we have won everything available this season in Saudi.

“That’s my habit wherever I’ve been — with Flamengo in Brazil I did this, with Benfica in Portugal I did this and now at Al-Hilal this can be achieved. We prepared to do this from the beginning of the season — but we have had to do this missing key players — Neymar for most of the time, Mitrovic for some of the time. But I have the notion that the Saudi league will grow better and better every time.”

All of the goals in Al-Hilal win over Al-Hazem at the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium came in the first half.

Mitrovic gave his side the lead from the penalty spot in the 15th minute, striking low into the bottom corner. Faiz Selemani equalized through a well-taken curling shot only for Aljuwayd to then loft into his own net from the edge of the box trying to pass back to the goalkeeper after being put under pressure by Milinkovic-Savic.

Al-Hilal’s Serbian duo completed the scoring in injury time. Firstly, Mitrovic tucked home his compatriot’s cut back and then Milinkovic-Savic curled into the bottom corner for 4-1.

Al-Hazem coach Saleh Al-Mohammadi, whose side remain bottom of the 18-team league, said: “Al-Hilal are a very strong team. Because of individual mistakes we lost the game. If you don’t play well against the champions of the league then that will happen.”

Ahead of Al-Hilal’s next game, Portuguese coach Jesus warned compatriot Cristiano Ronaldo’s team Al-Nassr not to expect a weakened side at Al-Awwal Park on Friday in the second Riyadh derby of the season. Al-Hilal won the first clash 3-0 in December.

The two teams will also contest the King’s Cup final at the end of the season and Jesus said his side were preparing hard for the clash.

“Preparing is not by giving rest,” he said. “We still have more titles and work for the players. Every match is important for us.”


Riyadh’s recyclable football fan zone a ‘world-first for sustainability’ 

Since the fan zone opened, the response from spectators has been positive. AN photo by Huda Bashatah
Since the fan zone opened, the response from spectators has been positive. AN photo by Huda Bashatah
Updated 10 May 2024
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Riyadh’s recyclable football fan zone a ‘world-first for sustainability’ 

Since the fan zone opened, the response from spectators has been positive. AN photo by Huda Bashatah
  • Each recycled plastic pallet used in the fan zone’s construction has been repurposed to create a seating layout that promotes interaction among football fans

Riyadh: A football fan zone in Riyadh constructed entirely from recycled plastic pallets is a “world-first for sustainability,” its backers have said.

Spearheaded by Saudi Arabian Logistics, the eco-friendly project in the capital’s Laysen Valley will provide football fans with a dynamic environment to watch Roshn Saudi League matches.

With a seating capacity of more than 250, the fan zone will deliver action-packed viewing of the final five matches of the league amid anticipation for the crowning of the champion.

Each recycled plastic pallet used in the fan zone’s construction has been repurposed to create a seating layout that promotes interaction among football fans.

SAL designed the project with an eye on Saudi Arabia’s ambitious sustainability goals, including combating plastic pollution and promoting a circular economy.

SAL Managing Director and CEO Faisal Albedah, told Arab News about the inspiration behind the fan zone.

“Our dedication at SAL to sustainability and creativity served as the impetus for constructing the first-ever fan zone made entirely of plastic pallets, which are used on a daily basis in our 18 stations around the Kingdom in partnership with the Oil Sustainability Program,” he said.

The company wanted to play a role in tackling environmental concerns and curbing deforestation by demonstrating the utility of repurposed materials, he added. As the logistical sponsor of the Saudi Pro League, SAL has also pledged to unite communities through a shared enjoyment of football.

Mohammed Al-Tayyar, program director at the OSP, highlighted the significance of plastic pallets in environmental sustainability and economic efficiency. “From an environmental perspective, the material is recyclable, and time and resource efficient, as they are both durable and eliminate the need to cut trees to manufacture wooden pallets,” he told Arab News.

Plastic pallets outlast their alternatives and can be reused more than 250 times, leading to a reduction in CO2 emissions, he added.

The launch of the fan zone marks a major milestone in Riyadh’s sporting landscape and signals a shift toward sustainable approaches in fan engagement. As spectators gather in Laysen Valley to witness the climax of the Roshn Saudi League, they will not only partake in the thrill of competitive football, but also champion the cause of environmental sustainability.

Since the fan zone opened, the response from spectators has been “overwhelmingly positive,” added Al-Bedah.

“The attendees for our first event exceeded 200 fans cheering for both teams, Al-Hilal and Al-Ahli. This encouraging response validates the efficacy of our strategy and motivates us to expand and follow the path of bringing more cutting-edge initiatives to the ground.”

Al-Tayyar said that the Oil Sustainability Program has plans to replicate the success of the fan zone in other industries. “We aim to find, replicate and alter sustainable solutions for transportation, materials and utilities to meet global needs,” he added.

As the final matches of the Roshn Saudi League kick off, spectators at the fan zone are hoping that history can be made not only on the pitch, but also in the realm of sustainable sports infrastructure.