SAFF launches groundbreaking funding program to empower women’s football

SAFF launches groundbreaking funding program to empower women’s football
The new SAFF program will support women's football in the Kingdom to the tune of $13.3m. (SAFF)
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Updated 26 June 2023
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SAFF launches groundbreaking funding program to empower women’s football

SAFF launches groundbreaking funding program to empower women’s football
  • The program commits $13.3m to support and develop Premier League and Women’s First Division clubs
  • Women’s football is already experiencing impressive growth in the Kingdom, with the number of clubs and players increasing by 30 percent in the past year

RIYADH: The Saudi Arabian Football Federation has today announced a groundbreaking funding initiative and support system for women’s football clubs worth $13.3 million.

This groundbreaking initiative is designed to further enhance the rapidly growing women’s football leagues and the wider sport in Saudi Arabia, ensuring its sustainability and development for years to come.

With a vision to inspire and nurture future generations of female footballers, SAFF’s funding program will provide vital financial assistance to the Saudi Premier League and Women’s First Division clubs.

To be eligible for this funding, clubs must have a SAFF membership and Nafes license to actively participate in all women’s tournaments organized by the federation. They must also meet the organizational and technical requirements issued by SAFF. Furthermore, clubs must demonstrate their financial adequacy and commitment to the financial efficiency system according to national standards. 

SAFF will allocate the $13.3 million to women’s football programs across the country, supporting clubs and players to continue the rapid growth of the women’s game in recent years.

Lamia Bahaian, the newly elected vice president of SAFF, said: “Today’s announcement is another monumental step for SAFF in our unwavering dedication to developing and sustaining a thriving women’s football presence in the Kingdom. We aim to inspire young girls (to believe) that a career in football is not only feasible for them but promising. Women and girls are central to everything we do in sport, ensuring that we provide equal access to facilities, opportunities, and careers both on and off the pitch. This is made possible thanks to the tremendous support received from SAFF’s management.

“A key motivation behind this program has stemmed from witnessing an incredible 30 percent growth in women’s football clubs and players across Saudi Arabia — not just the major cities — over the past year. The interest potential of women’s football is vast, and we want to ensure we’re doing everything we can to support and sustain this growth.”

The program sets four key goals for participating clubs:

1. Enhance club governance and sustainability through improved structure and strategy, in addition to financial and operational monitoring.

2. Expand competitions and diversify teams to include an U-17 team and women’s futsal senior team.

3. Create job opportunities and develop the workforce by appointing Saudi female coaches within the technical staff, and recruiting women in the administrative, technical, and medical positions.

4. Cultivate athletes to represent national teams by signing professional contracts with Saudi female players and nurturing their development from the grassroots level to the senior team.

In alignment with Saudi Vision 2023, women’s sports in the Kingdom have made significant progress, with over 190,000 females now actively participating in sports each week. Women’s football, in particular, has witnessed substantial advancements, including the establishment of a dedicated women’s football department in 2019, the creation of a national women’s team, and the launch of the SAFF Women’s Premier League.

Today, the Premier and First Division leagues feature over 30 clubs and 600 players from over 20 nations. On an amateur level, almost 50,000 schoolgirls took part in the inaugural schools’ league across 4,700 teams from all corners of Saudi Arabia.

In addition, over 49 female referees are officially registered and officiating league matches, with the first Saudi female referee – Anoud Al-Asmari – breaking into FIFA’s licensed list. There are 1,080 additionally licensed coaches playing a significant role in nurturing young female talent across clubs, academies, schools, and training centers in different cities around the country.


Renan Ferreira dominates Ryan Bader in Riyadh to set up Ngannou showdown

Renan Ferreira dominates Ryan Bader in Riyadh to set up Ngannou showdown
Updated 25 February 2024
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Renan Ferreira dominates Ryan Bader in Riyadh to set up Ngannou showdown

Renan Ferreira dominates Ryan Bader in Riyadh to set up Ngannou showdown
  • Johnny Eblen, Jason Jackson, AJ McKee also victorious in inaugural PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions event
  • Abdullah Al-Qahtani, the first fighter to represent Saudi Arabia in the PFL, defeated India’s Edukondal Rao in featherweight contest

RIYADH: Renan Ferreira defeated Ryan Bader in the main fight of the evening as the Professional Fighters League staged the first-ever MMA event in Saudi Arabia,  PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions at Kingdom Arena in Riyadh.

The 11-fight card featured four bouts for the newly minted Super Belt, with additional action from the biggest names in combat sports taking place inside the PFL SmartCage.

In the highly anticipated main event, 2023 PFL heavyweight Ferreira seized the throne, scoring a TKO of Bellator heavyweight Champion Bader 21 seconds into round one. Ferreira hoisted his Super Belt flanked by boxing icon Mike Tyson, and is now set to face combat sports superstar Francis “The Predator” Ngannou, who will make his PFL debut when they meet.

In the co-main event of the evening, 2023 PFL Light Heavyweight Champion Impa Kasanganay challenged undefeated Bellator middleweight champion Johnny Eblen. The back-and-forth affair went the three-round distance, with Eblen taking the victory via narrow split decision and a Super Belt.

“Tonight the Professional Fighters League and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia were at the center of the MMA world,” said PFL CEO Peter Murray.

“PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions was the first-ever PFL PPV Super Fight global event and delivered electrifying action from the best fighters in MMA. The PFL remains committed to delivering premium MMA experiences to our fans around the globe.”

In the fourth fight of the PPV main card, two-time PFL welterweight champion Ray Cooper III defeated current Bellator welterweight champion Jason Jackson via a second-round TKO to claim the Super Belt while improving his career record to 18-4.

The 2021 PFL heavyweight champion Bruno Cappelozza and former Bellator light heavyweight champion Vadim Nemkov went toe-to-toe in a heavyweight bout, with the former coming out on top to take his first Super Belt in the process.

Also on the main card, Yoel Romero defeated Thiago Santos in a light heavyweight matchup via a unanimous decision victory.

The main PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions action began with a lightweight affair which saw former Bellator featherweight champion AJ McKee defeat PFL lightweight runner-up Clay Collard after one minute of action.

Henry Corrales and Aaron Pico went toe-to-toe in a lightweight rematch which closed out the early card. Corrales was no match for the offensive onslaught of Pico, who came out with a flurry of elbow strikes. Pico won his third consecutive bout with an opening round TKO.

In lightweight action, Biaggio Ali Walsh, the grandson of boxing legend Muhammad Ali, stepped into the PFL SmartCage for the first time as a professional against Argentina’s Emmanuel Palacio and proceeded to dominate his opponent with his grappling to claim a unanimous decision win.

Further action on the early card featured the return of two-time Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields, who weathered the early submission attempts from the powerful Kelsey De Santis to win a closely contested split decision.

Abdullah Al-Qahtani, the first fighter to represent Saudi Arabia in the PFL, stepped back into the PFL SmartCage to face Edukondal Rao in a featherweight contest. Al-Qahtani stopped Rao by TKO in the third round of a fight that featured exciting stand-up exchanges.

Kicking off the action in the early card, Saudi Arabia’s Malik Basahel defeated Brazil’s Vinicius Pereira via unanimous decision in an amateur flyweight showcase bout. Basahel’s victory improves his amateur record to 18-2-1.

Main card results:

Renan Ferreira (13-3) def. Ryan Bader (31-8) via 1st round TKO (:21)

Johnny Eblen (15-0) def. Impa Kasanganay (15-4) via split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28)

Jason Jackson (18-4) def. Ray Cooper III (25-10-1) via 2nd round TKO (:23)

Vadim Nemkov (18-2) def. Bruno Cappelozza (15-7) via 2nd round submission (2:13)

Yoel Romero (16-7) def. Thiago Santos (22-11) via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28)

AJ McKee (22-1) def. Clay Collard (24-12) via 1st round submission (1:10)

Early Card Results:

Aaron Pico (13-4) def. Henry Corrales (21-8) via 1st round TKO (4:53)

Biaggio Ali Walsh (1-0) def. Emmanuel Palacio (1-1) via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27)

Claressa Shields (2-1) def. Kelsey De Santis (1-3) via split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28)

Abdullah Al-Qahtani (8-1) def. Edukondal Rao (4-2) via 3rd round TKO (0:23)

Malik Basahel (18-2-1 AM.) def. Vinicius Pereira (5-1 AM.) via unanimous decision (30-27, 29-28, 30-27)


Professional Fighters League extends global reach with launch of PFL MENA after inaugural Riyadh event

Professional Fighters League extends global reach with launch of PFL MENA after inaugural Riyadh event
Updated 25 February 2024
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Professional Fighters League extends global reach with launch of PFL MENA after inaugural Riyadh event

Professional Fighters League extends global reach with launch of PFL MENA after inaugural Riyadh event
  • Top MMA fighters from the region will compete in a sport-season format across 4 live events in the Middle East starting in April

RIYADH: The Professional Fighters League has announced the launch of PFL MENA, the promotion’s second international league, which will make its debut in April 2024.

The official announcement was made following the PFL Champions vs Bellator Champions event in the Kingdom Arena in Riyadh, the first-ever MMA event in Saudi Arabia.

PFL MENA will introduce a thrilling four-event sport-season format featuring the region’s top fighters and a groundbreaking initiative with PIF-owned SRJ Sports Investments. The full roster of the league will be revealed in March.

CEO of SRJ Sports Investment, Danny Townsend, said: “The launch of the PFL MENA League is another incredible milestone for the sport of MMA, and one we are delighted to play a role in. Saudi Arabia is quickly emerging as the international home of combat sports; bringing world-class talent here and to the wider MENA region remains at the core of SRJ’s investment mandate.

“With the launch of a new PFL MENA League, we’re backing the development of the region’s exceptional talent, helping provide new pathways to the top. We are confident that investments like these will continue inspiring even more young people to take up sport and help grow the MMA fanbase on a global scale.”

PFL CEO Peter Murray announced the brand’s second international league with partners SRJ.

“Driven by the strategic importance of mixed martial arts in burgeoning markets, SRJ’s investment underscores the immense potential of the sport in the region,” he said. “PFL MENA expands the PFL brand and MMA footprint in the Middle East bringing events to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the wider region.

“We’re very excited to be launching PFL MENA and providing up-and-coming athletes from The Middle East a global platform for them to be able to showcase their skills and potentially compete for a life-changing opportunity at a PFL Championship and a million-dollar purse,” Murray added.

Jerome Mazet, general manager of PFL MENA, said: “Through PFL MENA, we hope to be able to not only find and develop the next Middle Eastern MMA star, but we also want to be able to put the spotlight on MMA in the region and give it the attention and the exposure that it deserves.”

Ahead of the launch of PFL MENA, the PFL organized the first-ever international MMA event in Riyadh — PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions — which featured world champions and some of the biggest names in combat sports.

To further highlight the launch of the PFL’s newest international league, selected fighters from the Middle East were in attendance in Riyadh, including Ahmed Amir, Mostafa Rashed Neda, Jarrah Al-Silawi, Abdullah Saleem, and Omar El-Dafrawy.

Abdullah Al-Qahtani, the first fighter to represent Saudi Arabia in the PFL, defeated India’s Edukondal Rao in a featherweight contest on the night.

The inaugural PFL MENA season will feature 32 fighters competing across four weight classes in a sports-season format, with a regular season, playoffs, and championship.

The league will also host showcase fights to develop local and regional talents, such as Hattan Alsaif, the first female fighter from Saudi Arabia to sign a contract with a major global MMA promotion. She will be making her amateur PFL debut in showcase bouts on the PFL MENA cards.


Jasmine Paolini ends Anna Kalinskaya fairytale to win Dubai Tennis Championship

Jasmine Paolini ends Anna Kalinskaya fairytale to win Dubai Tennis Championship
Updated 25 February 2024
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Jasmine Paolini ends Anna Kalinskaya fairytale to win Dubai Tennis Championship

Jasmine Paolini ends Anna Kalinskaya fairytale to win Dubai Tennis Championship
  • Italian battles back from a set and a break down to beat the Russian qualifier and claim her first WTA 1000 title

DUBAI: Italian Jasmine Paolini battled back from a set and a break down in the final of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships to win 4-6, 7-5, 7-5, secure her first WTA 1000 title, and spoil qualifier Anna Kalinskaya’s fairytale week.

Kalinskaya had already written her name into the history books, beating world No.1 Iga Swiatek in the semifinals on Friday to become the first qualifier to reach the Championship match at the Dubai Tennis Stadium. And the 25-year-old looked on course to go one step further when she took the first set under the lights and broke Paolini in the first game of the second set.

Paolini, however, had been in the same position earlier in the week. In her opening match of the tournament against Brazilian Beatriz Haddad Maia on Sunday, she also lost the opening set and opening game of the second, before rallying back strongly to close out the win. And against Kalinskaya, she repeated the trick.

“It’s so special; I’m really happy and really surprised — I don’t know what to say,” an emotional, smiling Paolini said on court after securing the biggest win of her career.

“I’m just happy that I believed I could win every match. I remember my first match this week: It was second set, I’d lost the first and was a break down, yet now I’m here winning the title. It’s unbelievable.”

Speaking directly to the vocal fans who increasingly cheered for her throughout the match, Paolini added: “It’s great to play in front of so many people — you are crazy, guys. Thank you very much for supporting me.”

Qualifier Kalinskaya had produced some of the biggest shocks of the week as the world No.40 overcame 2022 winner Jelena Ostapenko in the Round of 16, edged world No.3 Coco Gauff in the quarterfinals and beat four-time Grand Slam winner Swiatek in straight sets. And as a capacity crowd filed into their seats to watch two players contesting their first WTA 1000 final, it was Kalinskaya — making her Main Draw debut in Dubai this week after coming through two rounds of qualifying — who settled first, breaking a nervous Paolini in the first game.

The Italian, ranked No.26 in the world, gradually grew into the match, breaking back in the fourth to take the set to 2-2 before the pair, who met last month at the Australian Open with Kalinskaya coming out on top, exchanged successive breaks. In the ninth game, Kalinskaya broke serve once more to take a 5-4 lead and after serving her first ace of the match — a 172 kph thunderbolt — she served out for the first set.

The second set started similar to the first, with Kalinskaya breaking in the first game with a thunderous winner. Yet once more she let her lead slip, this time in the sixth. And with the crowd baying for a third set, Paolini found herself in the ascendancy, pulling her opponent around the court, forcing errors, and eventually breaking in the 12th to take the set 7-5.

Kalinskaya took the lead once more in the third set, but again failed to pull away, seeing her own service game broken immediately by a fired up Paolini. Undeterred, the qualifier broke again to take the outright lead and this time held it for much of the deciding set. Yet, serving for the championship, Kalinskaya’s game evaporated as she double-faulted, started overcooking forehands, and found the net with an unnecessary drop shot that allowed Paolini to stay in the match with a crucial break.

After serving for the match, Kalinskaya found herself needing to break her opponent, but Paolini was unaccommodating, showing ferocity to close out the match and take her first title since October and first above WTA 250 level. The win is expected to project her into the top 15 when the WTA’s latest rankings are released next week.

“I have to say at the end of the match maybe she missed some balls that she never missed all the match,” Paolini said. “It’s tough; tennis is tough mentally. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. I’m happy that this time I was able to win.”

Kalinskaya, who conceded Paolini “totally deserved it and (fought) for every ball,” told the fans during the prize cermony: “I’ve never played so much tennis in one week, but it was a pleasure playing in front of you. You make it very special and give a lot of energy and support, so hopefully see you all next year.”

Meanwhile, the doubles final saw No.4 seeded Storm Hunter and Katerina Siniakova triumph over No.3 seeds Nicole Melichar-Martinez and Ellen Perez 6-4, 6-2. Attention now turns to the ATP 500 men’s tournament, which starts on Monday and features six of the world’s top 20, including three previous winners in Daniil Medvedev, Andrey Rublev, and Andy Murray.


Eddie Howe calls for Newcastle United ‘unity’ as Premier League struggles continue with Arsenal hammering

Eddie Howe calls for Newcastle United ‘unity’ as Premier League struggles continue with Arsenal hammering
Updated 25 February 2024
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Eddie Howe calls for Newcastle United ‘unity’ as Premier League struggles continue with Arsenal hammering

Eddie Howe calls for Newcastle United ‘unity’ as Premier League struggles continue with Arsenal hammering
  • The 4-1 loss sees the Magpies fall further behind in the race for European qualification
  • ‘There’s only one way for success, and that’s for the club to be as one,’ said Howe

LONDON: Eddie Howe has called for unity as Newcastle United’s Premier League struggles continue to derail their season.

The Magpies suffered a 4-1 hammering at the hands of Arsenal at the Emirates, with a Sven Botman own goal, Kai Havertz, Bukayo Saka and Jakub Kiwior sealing all three points for the title-chasing Gunners. Newcastle scored a late consolation via former Arsenal man Joe Willock.

The result sees them fall further behind in the race to try and qualify for Europe again next season. And while criticism is building — the Magpies’ form since December is bottom six, rather than top six — head coach Howe has called for everyone to stick together, saying that is the only route to success.

“We need to stick together. There’s only one way for success, and that’s for the club to be as one,” said Howe.

“We know that our run of form has not been as consistent as we want it to be. Coming here I think we were unbeaten in five, so I don’t think it was all bad, but this defeat, we’ll have to take on the chin and we’ll have to come back stronger for it.

“I think Joe’s (Willock) cameo was excellent and I think again he showed exactly what we’ve missed from him and his qualities of attacking the box late and getting goals. Alex’s (Isak) return was a huge positive and hopefully improved for that 60 minutes. Apart from that I’m struggling to find too many more.”

Just the Premier League bottom three plus Nottingham Forest and Bournemouth have conceded more goals than the Magpies this season. The 45 goals already conceded this campaign, far outstretches the 33 they let in for the whole of the 38-game Premier League season in 2022/23.

Newcastle’s defensive record is a continuing concern for Howe, who says his coaches and his players are working to turn things around.

Howe said: “I mean, with every game that goes by and we concede goals, it’s a concern.

“Of course, we’re working on lots of things behind the scenes to try and improve that, but that probably wasn’t evident in the performance.

“I keep saying the same thing regarding conceding goals. It’s collective. Last year, we had that collective mentality that we weren’t going to concede. Even the game coming here last year, we were magnificent in collective defending from the front to the back. I don’t think we’ve lost the desire to do that. We’re just not as competent at the moment at doing it than we were. We need to refind that solidity.

“Of course, it comes from work on the training ground. I think it comes from a collective responsibility, really, and a focus to make that your priority. I think we have attacking players. I think we’ll have players always that will score goals and create moments for us that could win us games, but at the moment we’re sort of taking that away from ourselves by not defending properly.”

With European hopes hanging by a thread, attention now turns to the FA Cup, Newcastle’s only remaining hope for silverware. Howe’s men travel to Championship outfit Blackburn Rovers in the fifth round of the competition on Tuesday evening.

“As I said, in really, really challenging situations, the players have really stuck together. We have to do that now for Blackburn,” said Howe.

“We have to look at this as the biggest game of our season. And, yeah, there’s a lot resting on this next game.”


‘Excellent’ Bashir takes four wickets to put England on top

‘Excellent’ Bashir takes four wickets to put England on top
Updated 25 February 2024
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‘Excellent’ Bashir takes four wickets to put England on top

‘Excellent’ Bashir takes four wickets to put England on top
  • India were on the back foot at 219-7 on Day 2 of the fourth Test match
  • Bashir missed the opener due to visa delay and is playing his second Test

RANCHI, India: Spinner Shoaib Bashir took four wickets to lead England’s bowling charge and put India on the back foot at 219-7 on day two of the fourth Test on Saturday.

The rookie off-spinner rattled the Indian reply to England’s first innings of 353 in a marathon spell of 31 overs unchanged spread over three sessions in Ranchi.

Wicketkeeper-batsman Dhruv Jurel, on 30, and Kuldeep Yadav, on 17, were batting at the close of play with an unbeaten stand of 42 but India still trail the visitors by 134 runs.

The in-form Yashasvi Jaiswal made 73 but Bashir bowled him after the left-hander attempted to defend a low ball that caught the toe of the bat and crashed into the stumps.

Bashir, who missed the opener due to a visa delay and is playing his second Test, was ably supported by two wickets from fellow spinner Tom Hartley.

Joe Root hit an unbeaten 122 for England, who trail 2-1 and are fighting to stay alive in the five-match series.

But the day belonged to Bashir, who came on to bowl in the ninth over of India’s innings and remained unchanged from his end until Root replaced him shortly before stumps.

“I think he’s been excellent since he’s come into the squad,” Root said of the 20-year-old Bashir.

“The way he bowls is a great little insight into his character and personality, he is quite cheeky and great fun to be around,” he said.

“There’s clearly a huge amount of skill in what he does. To be able to continually put pressure on some very good players of spin, I know the wicket was helpful at times, but he did an amazing job and it’s a great sign for English cricket moving forward.”

Bashir removed Shubman Gill (38) and Rajat Patidar (17), both out lbw, and then had Ravindra Jadeja caught at short leg to put India in trouble at 131-4 at tea.

“I think they bowled well,” India’s bowling coach Paras Mhambrey said of the opposition spinners. “Bashir bowled well. He has just kept it simple and picked up wickets for that.”

Mhambrey said Bashir “stuck to his strength, he’s not a big spinner, he is a tall guy, keeps his length, and keeps it simple. It’s the same for Hartley as well.”

Fast bowler James Anderson struck first to send back India skipper Rohit Sharma, caught for two before lunch, but the left-handed Jaiswal rebuilt the innings in an 82-run stand with Gill.

Jaiswal, who tops the series batting chart with 618 runs, including two match-winning double centuries in the second and third Tests, raised his bat to applause after reaching his fifty.

The 22-year-old hit 171 on debut in the West Indies last year and has since amassed 934 runs over eight Tests and 14 innings.

He survived a close call on 40 when he appeared to edge an Ollie Robinson delivery to Ben Foakes for a caught behind but the third umpire denied England’s appeal after many replays.

Anderson moved to 697 Test wickets in the first session after Root ran out of partners and England’s innings ended.

The 41-year-old is poised to become only the third bowler to take 700 wickets in Tests, after Sri Lanka’s Muttiah Muralitharan (800) and the late Australian spin wizard Shane Warne (708).

England resumed on 302-7 and Root put on 102 runs with overnight partner Robinson, whose departure on 58 brought a quick end to the innings.
Jadeja returned figures of 4-67 with his left-arm spin and wiped out the tail.