Saudi Pro League announces new strategy, appoints Michael Emenalo as director of football

Michael Emenalo, director of football at the Saudi Pro League. supplied
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Michael Emenalo, director of football at the Saudi Pro League. supplied
Saad Allazeez, SPL Interim CEO and Vice Chairman. supplied
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Saad Allazeez, SPL Interim CEO and Vice Chairman. supplied
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Updated 18 July 2023
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Saudi Pro League announces new strategy, appoints Michael Emenalo as director of football

Michael Emenalo, director of football at the Saudi Pro League. supplied
  • Plans align and build upon youth development program, regulations to be implemented during 2023-2024 season
  • SPL appoints Michael Emenalo as director of football to lead new Player Acquisition Center of Excellence
  • Innovative model gives clubs best possible expertise, governance to drive sustainability

RIYADH: The Saudi Pro League announced on Tuesday a new strategy, in alignment with the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, to drive competitiveness on and off the pitch, with an emphasis on fostering young Saudi talent, alongside the best internationally, and improving governance of all clubs for long-term success.

Amongst a number of new regulations and initiatives to be revealed ahead of the new season, the SPL will increase the playing time of young Saudi players in the league by reducing the age of eligibility from 18 to 16 for 2023-2024.

A further step focused on youth development will see the reduction of squad sizes from the current number of 35 players overall to 25 senior players, with the remaining 10 squad members all having to be under the age of 21, from the 2025-2026 season.

The new SPL strategy will provide a robust and clear pathway for young Saudi players, and help bridge the progress from youth team football within the federation’s current player development system into the top tier of the country’s football league.

By the start of the 2026-2027 season, the SPL has also announced a mandate for clubs to include eight “homegrown” players, who are graduates of the club academies, within their main roster of 25 squad players, of whom four would be direct graduates from the club’s system.

In a further effort to create elite squads that combine exciting up-and-coming young Saudi talent with world-class international players and role models, the SPL has launched a new Player Acquisition Center of Excellence led by Michael Emenalo, who joins the league as the new director of football with immediate effect.

All clubs have been fully briefed on the PACE process for international transfers and are actively working with Emenalo.

The former Nigerian international is best known for 10 years of success at Chelsea where, as technical director, he overhauled all aspects of football operations. Under his guidance, he revolutionized the club’s scouting, recruitment, development, and loan systems.

Emenalo will lead PACE and start assisting with squad mapping and player care. He will be responsible for providing a centralized approach to transfers and help give all clubs the best possible expertise and governance to ensure a dynamic, young, and yet sustainable future.

Saad Allazeez, SPL’s interim CEO and vice chairman, said: “The Saudi Pro League has an incredible and vital opportunity to help fulfill the country’s football ambitions and inspire more of our people into football and sport.

“From next season, the SPL will become younger and more competitive, taking advantage of the groundwork the Saudi Arabian Football Federation has been putting in at the grassroots for many years.

“The new strategy also sees the Saudi Pro League take a central, elevated role in supporting and developing clubs through its Club Framework business unit, and by initiating PACE will provide and centrally implement checks and balances in dealings on the international transfer market.

“There is much potential for new talent arriving in Saudi Arabia, and a central function providing control and strong governance will ensure our investments are smart and benefit all in the league moving forward.

“Every club in the Saudi Pro League will get the opportunity to improve their squad through this innovative new model, and Michael is the perfect man for the job. He has the ideal pedigree, knowledge, experience, coaching qualifications, and contacts to drive value and success for the overall league through this ambitious project.

“The steps taken through PACE are part of a bigger plan and strategy that will be announced to improve the league and make it a world-class experience and product that engages globally and is competitive and sustainable in the long term, as one of the very best leagues in the world. This will be good for all football, good for all players, and good for all fans.”

Allazeez said that the strategy “has been years in the making and has involved a lot of global footballing expertise to make the most of this unprecedented opportunity for growth.”

Allazeez added: “It goes far beyond and much deeper than the player transfers that are dominating headlines, and focuses just as much on what happens off the pitch at the clubs.

“We are looking to the long term and will be judged on that, especially with helping the clubs become commercially successful with robust business models.

“The Club Development Program will also activate the fair play financial system, and monitor compliance with local and Asian licensing standards. We look forward to rolling out the full strategy in the coming months.”

Emenalo said: “I believe this is a role that I’ve spent the last 45 years preparing for. It was not a difficult role or offer to accept. I am intrigued by the audacity of the project and the ambition.

“This project has been in the making for a while. It’s not a spur-of-the-moment decision, it’s well thought out. I’m impressed by the knowledge and input that’s gone into this. The Saudi Pro League offers a new opportunity first and foremost for the entire industry and I think will create avenues for good competition and for more development of young talent.”

The new SPL strategy builds upon the existing player pathway unveiled as part of Tactics for Tomorrow, which was introduced in 2021 by the SAFF and has since witnessed massive investment in time and resources.

Funding in Saudi youth football has increased by 162 percent since 2021, and 23 regional training centers have been established and opened.

The number of registered male players has increased by 58 percent and the number of coaches has risen from 750 in 2018 to over 5,500 in 2023, of which more than 1,000 are female.

As a result, every high-potential Saudi footballer is now tracked and has a comprehensive plan, starting from the age of 6 through to turning professional.

SAFF President Yasser Al-Misehal said: “At the last FIFA World Cup in Qatar, Saudi Arabia gave a glimpse of what we are capable of at the international level, and demonstrated the quality of our domestic league, the SPL.

“But equally, if not more pleasing, was our victory in the U-23 AFC Asian Cup without conceding a goal.

“The future is bright, and a lot of good thinking has gone into advancing football in Saudi Arabia, men’s and women’s.

“As you can see, everyone is on the same page. There is a very clear and connected pathway. Yes, we want a league to be proud (of), to entertain local fans and the world, but it has to serve the ambitions of the national team now and in the future. It has to be for the good of the game. That means a commitment to youth and the new strategy and regulations demonstrate just that.”

The full new strategy, including PACE and the Club Framework business unit, will go live ahead of the 2023-2024 season.


US and local glory as Senor Buscador wins $20m Saudi Cup main race

US and local glory as Senor Buscador wins $20m Saudi Cup main race
Updated 24 February 2024
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US and local glory as Senor Buscador wins $20m Saudi Cup main race

US and local glory as Senor Buscador wins $20m Saudi Cup main race
  • 6-year-old, owned by Saudi Sharaf Mohammed S. Al-Hariri and American Joe R. Peacock Junior, won the race by a head

LONDON: Senor Buscador came from a long way back to win a dramatic Saudi Cup race on Saturday under jockey Junior Alvarado, beating Ushba Tesoro and Saudi Crown.

The 6-year-old, owned by Saudi Sharaf Mohammed S. Al-Hariri and American Joe R. Peacock Junior, won the race by a head to make up for a second-placed finish at the GI Pegasus World Cup Invitational last month.

The winning team take home half of the $20 million pot, with $3.5 million going to the Ushba Tesoro team and $2 million to the locally-owned Saudi Crown team.

“The plan, as of now, is Dubai,” winning trainer Todd Fincher said after the race at King Abdulaziz Racecourse, referencing the Dubai World Cup race set to run on March 30.

“I don’t have the words to put it all together that express how pleased and grateful I am for this victory and for representing my country and winning this race, I still don’t have the right words,” Alvarado told Arab News.

“He (Senor Buscador) had more speed just because some horses broke from different positions, I never like to change the style of the horse.

“I was in a good spot in the back just looking at everything just biding my time, letting him get his feet under, and he’s a horse that when he’s ready he will start letting you know, he will start picking up (pace) and after that you just start riding along with him,” he added.

Alvarado was full of praise for his charge and the King Abdulaziz track.

“It was a very exciting race, I think the best of the horses was running today, mine was one of the best horses and he proved it today that he was one of the top performers and one of those horses in the world,” he said.

“It’s definitely a different track, a different feeling, but the horses move out very well on it and it feels like probably top three one of the best tracks I’ve rode in the world for sure,” he added.

The first edition of the Saudi Cup race was held in 2020 and the event attracts the world’s finest thoroughbreds and jockeys for the biggest prize in world racing.


Weigh-in results ahead of PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions crossover event in Riyadh

Weigh-in results ahead of PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions crossover event in Riyadh
Updated 24 February 2024
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Weigh-in results ahead of PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions crossover event in Riyadh

Weigh-in results ahead of PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions crossover event in Riyadh
  • The card includes 2 champion-versus-champion bouts; PFL Heavyweight Champ Renan ‘Problema’ Ferreira takes on Bellator Heavyweight Champ Ryan ‘Darth’ Bader
  • PFL Light Heavyweight Champ Impa ‘Tshilobo’ Kasanganay drops down to middleweight to take on Bellator Middleweight Champion Johnny Eblen

RIYADH: As the Professional Fighters League 2024 season gets underway on Saturday with what it is billing as the biggest mixed martial arts event of the year, the PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions at the Kingdom Arena in Riyadh, the fighters gathered for the weigh-in on Friday.

The card feature a pair of champion-versus-champion headline bouts, as some of the biggest names in combat sports go head to head inside the PFL SmartCage.

In the main event, 2023 PFL Heavyweight Champion Renan “Problema” Ferreira will take on Bellator Heavyweight Champion Ryan “Darth” Bader.

At the weigh-in, Ferreira, who is coming off his first championship campaign in the PFL, was 263.2 lbs. Bader, who has held the Bellator title since 2019, was 231.1 lbs.

In the other headline event, 2023 PFL Light Heavyweight Champion Impa “Tshilobo” Kasanganay drops down to middleweight to take on Bellator Middleweight Champion Johnny Eblen.

Kasanganay, who captured PFL gold in his first season, weighed in at 185.8 lbs, while Eblen, who aims to maintain his undefeated career record, was 185.5 lbs.

Two of the world’s top welterweights will clash in a catchweight bout, as two-time PFL champion Ray Cooper III meets reigning Bellator Welterweight Champion Jason Jackson. Cooper III weighed in at 182.4 lbs, and Jackson at 182 lbs.

Former PFL Heavyweight Champion Bruno Cappelozza will take on Bellator’s Vadim Nemkov in a heavyweight bout. Cappelozza weighed in at 236.2 lbs, and Nemkov at 238.1 lbs.

Leading PFL contender Thiago “Maretta” Santos faces top Bellator contender Yoel “Soldier of God” Romero. The former weighed in at 205.2 lbs, and the latter at 205 lbs.

A pair of the lightweight division’s elite will also go head-to-head, as 2023 PFL runner-up “Cassius” Clay Collard takes on former Bellator Lightweight Champion A.J. “Mercenary” McKee. Collard weighed in at 155.5 lbs, and McKee at 154.8 lb.

Official PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions weigh-in results:

PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions Card: 3 pm ET

PFL Champion vs. Bellator Champion — Heavyweight

Renan Ferreira 263.2 lbs vs. Ryan Bader 231.1 lbs

PFL Champion vs. Bellator Champion — Middleweight

Impa Kasanganay 185.8 lbs vs. Johnny Eblen 185.5 lbs

Catchweight (182 lbs) Bout

Ray Cooper III 182.4 lbs vs. Jason Jackson 182 lbs

Heavyweight Bout

Bruno Cappelozza 236.2 lbs vs. Vadim Nemkov 238.1 lbs

Light Heavyweight Bout

Thiago Santos 205.2 lbs vs. Yoel Romero 205 lbs

Lightweight Bout

Clay Collard 155.5 lbs vs. AJ McKee 154.8 lbs

Early Card: 12 pm ET

Lightweight Bout

Henry Corrales 155.7 lbs. Vs. Aaron Pico: 155.7 lbs

Lightweight Bout

Biaggio Ali Walsh 155.4 lbs vs. Emmanuel Palacio 152.6 lbs

Women’s Catchweight (165 lbs) Bout

Claressa Shields 164.4 lbs vs. Kelsey DeSantis 164.6 lbs

Featherweight Bout

Abdullah Al-Qahtani 146 lbs vs. Edukondal Rao 145.7 lbs

Amateur Catchweight (129 lbs) Bout

Malik Basahel 124.9 lbs vs. Vinicius Pereira 129.2 lbs

Pereira missed weight. The bout will be contested at 129 lbs catchweight.

 

 


Saudi golfer Faisal Salhab has impressive opening round at $2m International Series Oman

Saudi golfer Faisal Salhab has impressive opening round at $2m International Series Oman
Updated 23 February 2024
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Saudi golfer Faisal Salhab has impressive opening round at $2m International Series Oman

Saudi golfer Faisal Salhab has impressive opening round at $2m International Series Oman
  • Fellow Saudis Othman Almulla, Saud Al-Sharif also enjoy solid starts in Muscat

Muscat: On a tricky Al-Mouj Golf Club course in the opening round of the $2 million International Series Oman, Saudi Arabia’s Faisal Salhab got off the mark with a solid 1-under par 71 round.

There were two annoying bogeys – one of them a three-putt on the par-3 eighth green that tested everyone in the field with its severity – but Salhab also hit 15 out of 18 greens in regulation and missed only two fairways all day.

Saud Al-Sharif and Othman Almulla, the other two Saudi professionals in the field, had impressive starts too.

Al-Sharif was 1-under par for his round through 15 holes, before a double bogey on the seventh hole pushed him to 1-over par. Almulla started with three bogeys in his first four holes, but came back to make 12 straight pars before an unfortunate triple bogey on the difficult 16th hole saw him finish at 6-over par.

After signing his card, Salhab, 27, flashing his trademark wide smile, predicted that 2024 would be a year of change for Saudi professional golfers.

He said: “It’s so good to see that the things I’ve been working hard for in the offseason with my coach (Jamie McConnell), with other members of the team like my psychologist (Andrea Debellis), Saudi Golf, and the other pros, is showing early results.

“This was a good start, but hopefully, a lot more to come this year. I honestly think this could be a breakthrough year for us Saudi professional golfers. We have been given this incredible opportunity to play the International Series events and on the Asian Tour, and we are on the verge of showing positive results. We have all had good spells and we only need to string it together for a longer period.

“The mentality is back to trying to win — trying to do well. We do not want to try making cuts anymore. These last couple of years have shown us that we have the game. I’ve seen it playing against these guys. They’re excellent players. But we’re very good as well, and we need to believe that more.

“We’re getting that mentality this year of not having any fear — become a kid again. We’ve been dreaming all our lives of playing with these guys. Now that we are here, why are we being timid? It’s completely wrong.

“So, this is a year of what can we do, rather than putting ceilings on ourselves,” Salhab added.

That fearlessness was very evident during Salhab’s round, when he bounced back with a birdie on the 17th hole after making a couple of unforced errors to wind up with a bogey on the previous hole.

He said: “I hit a good drive and then a 3-wood to about 40 yards. The chip went over the green, and then I did not have a great return chip before my par putt from 10-12 feet lipped out.

“But that’s where I think I showed good attitude and some of the talks that I had with Andrea paid off. I spoke to my caddie and told him, ‘let’s forget about the bogey. We’re good enough to birdie any hole here.’ I just hit a couple of good shots after that and made a 15-foot birdie putt.”

Salhab has had better rounds as a professional – his best was a 4-under par 68 in Indonesia last year. But he was pleased with his 71 in Muscat, especially because Al-Mouj was decidedly playing tougher.

“Hundred percent this was better. Even though the scorecard would say the round in Indonesia was better by three shots.

“This was solid. I kept hitting good shots and finding fairways and I stuck to my processes. I was happy with how I thought on the golf course and how I kept pushing myself.

“I just need to keep doing this. I need to keep working hard and believe in myself,” Salhab added.


Saudi female tennis players challenge stereotypes as sporting dreams become reality

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

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

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


Saudi Hockey Federation president welcomes international federation chief

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

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

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