5 things we learned from Al-Hilal’s Classico win over Al-Ittihad

Analysis 5 things we learned from Al-Hilal’s Classico win over Al-Ittihad
Al-Hilal defeated Al-Ittihad 3-1 in the quarterfinals of the King Salman Cup on Saturday. (Twitter: @Alhilal_EN)
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Updated 11 August 2023

5 things we learned from Al-Hilal’s Classico win over Al-Ittihad

5 things we learned from Al-Hilal’s Classico win over Al-Ittihad
  • The 3-1 win in quarterfinals of King Salman Cup shows former champions are ready to fight for SPL title once again

Al-Hilal defeated Al-Ittihad 3-1 in the quarterfinals of the King Salman Cup on Saturday, just days before the start of the Roshn Saudi League. The result could have serious implications for the former and current Saudi Pro League champions in the campaign ahead.

Here are five things we learned from the first Classico of the season.

1. Al-Hilal will be greatly encouraged by the result and performance

Every observation should obviously be tempered by the fact that this was not a league game, merely a prestigious pre-season clash, but Al-Hilal will be delighted with the outcome. Last season, Al-Ittihad won the title and conceded just 13 goals in 30 games along the way. Yet in Abha, the team conceded three against an energetic Al-Hilal team.

New coach Jorge Jesus and his men won the midfield battle thanks to the discipline, energy and intelligence of Mohamed Kanno while Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Ruben Neves are genuine top-class players and have taken Hilal’s midfield to a new level.

They combined for the first goal, and it was an effort that will please coach Jesus with Savic heading home a Neves corner. The Portuguese star offers much and was coveted by the likes of Barcelona and Manchester United, but his set pieces are going to be a real threat for opponents this season.

With Malcom, another new signing, taking his goal well to put the game beyond Ittihad, it was a fine offensive performance and a deserved win and means that Al-Hilal get another game at least to prepare for the new season.

2. It could be a useful defeat for Al-Ittihad

Fans of the Tigers may come to be happy about this loss once the real action starts. After being deserved champions last season, coach Nuno Santo now has a much-strengthened squad, but any thoughts that the arrival of Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante and others would mean a stroll to a second successive title will be buried a little deeper today.

Benzema, who saw his penalty hit the post with 12 minutes left, looked a little isolated in attack and was not the threat of previous games. The injury to Omar Hawsawi left the central defense struggling, especially as Ahmed Hegazi is not yet due to return from a serious injury.

So, for coach Santo, there is plenty to ponder, but better it happens now than when the serious action starts.

3. The next Classico is now even more eagerly awaited

The result means that Al-Ittihad have not beaten Al-Hilal since 2021 in a run that now stretches to six games.

Santo has now played the Riyadh giants four times since arriving in Jeddah and has failed to record a single win. As well as the King’s Cup semifinal loss, the Blues took four points from the Tigers.

It is a run that has not yet reached worrying proportions, but this season is likely to be closer than the last when Al-Ittihad pulled away at the end. Being able to beat Al-Hilal when the pressure is on could be the difference between a successful title defense and missing out.

Fortunately, or not, for Santo, there is an early meeting this season, and victory in the league could really set the tone for the rest of the campaign. It will be a massive encounter.

4. Hamdallah issue could become a distraction

Abderrazak Hamdallah was absent, and his cutting edge was missed in attack. Yet the Moroccan marksman, top scorer in the league last season, was not injured, with Santo saying that it was due to an internal matter.

There are rumors that Hamdallah, who is a strong character on and off the pitch, is unhappy with the coach and his preference for Benzema, the most recent recipient of FIFA’s Ballon d’Or, as a single striker.

Whatever the truth may be, it is an issue that the coach will need to deal with and not allow to fester. For the big clubs that will challenge on a number of fronts in the coming weeks and months — and Ittihad have the Champions League and the FIFA Club World Cup to deal with as well as domestic issues — this is a squad game. It is a challenge to keep talented players happy, but this is modern football.

5. It sets the scene beautifully for the new season

There is no doubt that once the new campaign starts, this game will not be remembered for too long, but this was an appetizer that really got the juices flowing in anticipation. In recent weeks, there has been so much international attention on the Saudi Arabian clubs and their signing of big-name foreign stars that it was a relief to watch two of the biggest go toe-to-toe where it counts.

It was a very entertaining clash, and those who tuned in for the first time will surely have enjoyed the experience and been impressed with the standard of the game and the attacking nature of Saudi Arabian football. They will surely be returning for the start of the new season.

As Al-Hilal’s new defensive star Kalidou Koulibaly said after the game: “A magical night. But we need to stay focused and work harder and harder. Let’s keep it up!”

It was a memorable occasion but just a delicious starter for the months-long main course that it set to follow.

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

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

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

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.

Frankly Speaking: Is tennis the next ‘Grand Slam’ for Saudi sports?

Frankly Speaking: Is tennis the next ‘Grand Slam’ for Saudi sports?
Updated 18 February 2024

Frankly Speaking: Is tennis the next ‘Grand Slam’ for Saudi sports?

Frankly Speaking: Is tennis the next ‘Grand Slam’ for Saudi sports?
  • Hundreds of thousands of women and girls are now taking part in sports, says Saudi Tennis Federation president
  • Arij Mutabagani invites critics to visit the Kingdom now in ‘a phase of change’ and see the progress for themselves

DUBAI: Tennis is fast becoming a popular sport in Saudi Arabia with thousands of young people, including women and girls, signing up to clubs and taking part in tournaments across the Kingdom, Arij Mutabagani, president of the Saudi Tennis Federation, has said.

Appearing on Arab News’ current affairs show “Frankly Speaking,” Mutabagani said one only had to look at the numbers to see the sport’s huge potential, raising the possibility of the Kingdom taking part in — or even hosting — major tournaments.

“Saudi Arabia has gone through a great transformation, especially when it comes to the world of sports and female participation,” said Mutabagani.

“The numbers speak for themselves. We have increased female participation in sports. Now, we have 330,000 females registered in sports and around 14,000 female participants in tennis.”

Much of this success is down to government initiatives introduced under the Vision 2030 reform agenda, which has made investment in sport and the promotion of public health and well-being top priorities.

“We have a huge program with the Ministry of Education in partnership with the Sports For All Federation, where we would like to introduce tennis as a new sport to children,” said Mutabagani.

“We started in 2023 with 30 schools across Saudi Arabia. We’ve increased it to 90 schools, later in 2023 and 2024. We are expanding to 400 schools.” The initiative is gender neutral and split between boys’ and girls’ schools, she said.

“Back in 2019, we had no female participation in clubs. Now, we have seven clubs that have female participation,” she added, noting that the newly created women’s national team has already played in 20 events.

“We’ve had an increase in participation. We had 90 females playing in 2019. Now, we have 700 females registered playing tennis.”

The Saudi Sports for All Federation is responsible for the development of community sports and the promotion of a healthy lifestyle across the Kingdom, in line with the country’s long-term development plan for social and economic progress, Vision 2030.

“We’ve seen tennis introduced in clubs,” Mutabagani told Katie Jensen, the host of “Frankly Speaking.” “In 2019, we had zero clubs participating in tournaments. Now, we have seven clubs that have female participants. We have increased the number of tennis tournaments for females. We had three. Now, we have 20. You can see there is big progress.”

Saudi youngsters such as Yara Alhogbani are leading the way in building a thriving tennis community in the Kingdom. (Supplied)

Despite these successes, tennis legends Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova recently said a lack of gender equality in Saudi Arabia ought to prohibit the Kingdom from hosting big events like the Women’s Tennis Association Finals.

In a statement, Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud, the Saudi ambassador to the US, rejected Evert and Navratilova’s “beyond disappointing” arguments.

“Like many women around the world, we looked to the legends of tennis as trailblazers and role models… glimmers of hope that women truly could achieve it all,” she said.

“But these champions have turned their back on the very same women they have inspired and it is beyond disappointing.”

Undeterred by Evert and Navratilova’s comments, Mutabagani invited the tennis stars to visit the Kingdom to witness firsthand the transformation in Saudi sports and the huge strides in women’s participation.

“Be part of this journey in changing and transforming tennis and especially female participation. We will learn a lot from them, and they’d just have to come and see for themselves,” she said.

“They’ve done so much for tennis and for female participation, and gender equality and getting equal prize money. I respect that everyone is free to say and comment.

“But I would really like to invite them to come to Saudi Arabia and really see the progress. We are in a phase of change. We are trying to change.”

Mutabagani hopes the Kingdom will soon host a tennis major event or Grand Slam, as it will further encourage Saudis to take up the sport.

“Everything and anything is possible,” she said. “Bringing this kind of international event to the country will only shed more light on the sport of tennis. It will make it more popular.

“The players will have role models to look up to. It will inspire a new generation to really work harder and train harder to become champions in the future, and be able to compete in these tournaments in their country.”

Appearing on “Frankly Speaking,” Arij Mutabagan told host Katie Jensen one only had to look at the numbers to see the sport’s huge potential in Saudi Arabia, raising the possibility of the Kingdom taking part in, or even hosting, major tournaments. (AN Photo)

She added: “We’re working hard on it. We’re working closely with the WTA and the ATP to try to make this possible and happen, hopefully in the near future.”

While nothing is set in stone, Mutabagani is hopeful that the WTA or ATP will choose the Kingdom to host a Grand Slam.

“We are trying to have and build a long-lasting relationship with the official governing bodies of tennis, whether it’s ATP, WTA or ITF,” she said.

“We successfully delivered the Next Gen finals last year in Jeddah, so we started this relationship with the ATP. Now, we’re also trying to build up the relationship with the WTA.”

Grand Slam championships, the most prestigious tournaments in professional tennis, are organized by the WTA and ATP, and overseen by the International Tennis Federation.

Mutabagani predicts these pro events will help to increase participation in amateur sports across Saudi Arabia, particularly among the youth.

“We’re still in discussions,” she said. “But our goal is to build all of these relationships for the long term that will help develop tennis in Saudi Arabia, whether it is big events or lower events, from challenges to futures, because that will improve the level of our local tennis players.”

Saudi Arabia has sought to increase its sporting presence by establishing the LIV Golf series, signing top soccer players like Christiano Ronaldo and hosting the 2023 Next Generation ATP Finals.

“Tennis has taken a very important part in the transformation of sports in Saudi Arabia,” said Mutabagani. “We have seen that by the increased number of events specifically in tennis. In 2022, we started hosting the first international junior tournament that took place in Riyadh.”

The Kingdom hosted its first professional tournament in 2019 with the Diriyah Tennis Cup. It parlayed its success from 2019 to 2022 into the Next Gen ATP Finals, which are being hosted in Riyadh from 2023 to 2027.

The Six Kings Slam men’s tennis exhibition will feature international tennis stars Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic plus three other Grand Slam winners in October.


Princess Reema bint Bandar, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US, rejected calls by tennis legends Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova for a ban on holding the Women’s Tennis Association Finals in Saudi Arabia. Click here to read more.

Given the sport’s relative novelty in Saudi Arabia, there were some initial doubts about how popular tennis events would be. However, Mutabagani says the players have been thrilled by the number of spectators turning out to matches.

“They have been extremely happy with the audiences,” she said. “We had the full stadium for the exhibition match in Riyadh. Tickets were sold out and the audience was really, really engaged.

“We’ve noticed that the audience understood the game of tennis, which is very important.”

Top international players typically begin playing in sports academies or clubs as young children. The Kingdom will need experienced coaches, trainers and specialized facilities to retain its own top talent.

“Our main aim is to start with the grassroots and introduce tennis to all the population, and then grow it from there and concentrate on the high performance,” said Mutabagani.

One young Saudi tennis star to emerge is 19-year-old Yara Al-Hogbani.

“She is a great ambassador for the sport, and inspiring the new generation of little kids, whether boys or girls,” said Mutabagani.

Al-Hogbani played in the Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open this year with top international players like Ons Jabeur, a Tunisian who is WTA number six, and Naomi Osaka from Japan — the first Asian player ranked number one in the world.

“(Al-Hogbani) worked very hard from a very young age,” said Mutabagani. “She has two other siblings who are also national players.”

She played with her oldest brother, Ammar, at the Asian Games in Hangzhou in 2023, making history as the Kingdom’s first professional mixed doubles team. Their middle brother, Saud, plays at Wake Forest University in the US.

Al-Hogbani also met tennis legends like Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, the newly minted ambassador for the Saudi Tennis Federation, during the Next Gen ATP Finals in Jeddah in December. Nadal has committed to helping Saudi Arabia develop its young talent.

“It has given her the chance to feel what it is to be at those high levels and it has inspired her to work harder, try harder and to reach higher levels in the future,” said Mutabagani. “Having these chances can turn somebody’s future around and they can … be stars for the next generations.”

Asked what her message would be to young Saudis who are considering taking up tennis, Mutabagani, herself a lifelong tennis player, said: “I would tell them to really grab a tennis racket, try the sport, play tennis, be the Next Gen champion, be a role model on the court and off the court.

“Because tennis is a life learning experience, it teaches us to be great human beings before being sportsmen. So, be an ambassador for tennis in Saudi Arabia on and off the court.”



Saudi Sports for All Federation, ASICS Arabia sign partnership

Saudi Sports for All Federation, ASICS Arabia sign partnership
Updated 18 February 2024

Saudi Sports for All Federation, ASICS Arabia sign partnership

Saudi Sports for All Federation, ASICS Arabia sign partnership
  • ASICS Arabia will serve as a strategic partner for two SFA events and will play a prominent role as a key sponsor of the Riyadh Marathon

LONDON: The Saudi Sports for All Federation announced on Sunday that it had signed a partnership with the Middle East arm of Japanese sportswear brand ASICS.
Saleh Al-Husseini, the SFA’s managing director, and Seiji Hori, ASICS Arabia general manager, signed the agreement at a ceremony in Riyadh.
Under the terms of the agreement, ASICS Arabia will serve as a strategic partner for two SFA events and will play a prominent role as a key sponsor of the Riyadh Marathon.
The partnership follows a visit by SFA members to Japan, where they engaged with sports organizations, met representatives of ASICS at its international headquarters, and learned about innovative technologies at the ASICS Institute of Sports Science, the federation said in a statement.
During that trip, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the two parties, laying the groundwork for future collaborations.

The Riyadh Marathon takes place annually every February, and will now include ASICS as an official sportswear brand. (Supplied/SFA)

The Riyadh Marathon takes place annually every February, and will now include ASICS as an official sportswear brand.
All participants will receive an ASICS performance running top designed with recycled materials, highlighting the brand’s ongoing sustainability drive.
Other SFA events and campaigns, at national and community levels, will be scheduled throughout the year.
“The SFA is honored to collaborate with ASICS Arabia as a strategic partner. This collaboration marks the beginning of a dynamic relationship aimed at building key events and supporting different sports initiatives,” Al-Husseini said.
“We believe this partnership will not only take our events to the next level but continue to position Saudi Arabia as a global sporting destination.”
Hori said: “ASICS Arabia is proud to collaborate with the SFA as a strategic partner. We see this as the beginning of a dynamic partnership, helping to build key events and support different sports initiatives.
“This collaboration will not only develop physical and mental well-being in the Kingdom but encourage everyone to become a Lifetime Athlete, in line with our company’s Sound Mind Sound Body philosophy.”