Time for Saudi Arabian players to take spotlight under Mancini

Special Time for Saudi Arabian players to take spotlight under Mancini
Roberto Mancini arrives in Riyadh. (Twitter/@SaudiNT_EN)
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Updated 06 September 2023
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Time for Saudi Arabian players to take spotlight under Mancini

Time for Saudi Arabian players to take spotlight under Mancini
  • World Cup qualifiers start in November with games against either Cambodia or Pakistan and then Jordan
  • Roberto Mancini: The presence of top players in the Saudi Pro League indicates the potential for growth in the national football scene

It was just over two years ago that Roberto Mancini was ending Italy’s 52-year drought at the European Championships in London; now he is setting his sights on taking Saudi Arabia to an Asian Cup title for the first time since 1996.

Fittingly, his first two games are also in England as Costa Rica and South Korea head to Newcastle on Friday and Tuesday respectively.

The twin test against Central American and East Asian opposition should give the man who led Manchester City to the most dramatic of English Premier League titles in 2012 — and also took Inter Milan to a hat-trick of Serie A crowns in the decade before that — a good idea of where his team is at.

With the Green Falcons not in action since March and twin defeats against Venezuela and Bolivia, after which Herve Renard left to take over the France women’s national team, Mancini has a blank slate, but one that needs filling quickly.

World Cup qualifiers start in November with games against either Cambodia or Pakistan and then Jordan. More importantly in the short term is January’s Asian Cup and a group containing Thailand, Kyrgyzstan and Oman.

Renard was a respected coach who had delivered success in Africa before leading Saudi Arabia to victory against Argentina at the World Cup in November. Mancini, on the other hand, is regarded as an elite tactician and is a world famous name.

Mancini, who has signed a four-year contract, said: “I believe this is a great opportunity for me to experience football in a new country, especially with the growing popularity of football in Asia.

“The presence of top players in the Saudi Pro League indicates the potential for growth in the national football scene."

The games come at a time when there is huge interest in Saudi Arabian football, with the likes of Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema active in the league.

It is now time for domestic talent to show Mancini what it can do. After a decent showing at the World Cup, it is time to go to the next level.

There is no major departure in terms of personnel from Renard’s squads. The biggest club contingent is Al-Hilal, with the other big boys such as Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli and Al-Shabab also contributing.

Scoring goals is a priority. There have been concerns that with all the fantastic attacking talent coming into the country there will be fewer opportunities for local forwards to get minutes on the pitch.

While there is no doubt that training alongside the likes of Ronaldo, Neymar and Benzema offers fantastic opportunities to learn, there is still a fight for places at club level.

That is why the likes of Firas Al-Buraikan are vital. The 23-year-old left Al-Nassr in 2021, where he had barely played, and headed to Al-Fateh where he scored regularly and was the fourth highest in the league last season.

It was a hugely impressive feat given that he was not playing for one of the best teams, and given the other goalscoring talent in the league. A big-money move to Al-Ahli last month is not only a measure of his worth, but a chance to show he can score goals to win titles.

With his confidence sky high, it is also a perfect chance for Al-Buraikan to show Mancini that he should be the go-to guy for goals.

Mancini should see the benefits of a stronger league. A number of national team players are shining this season amid the wealth of world-class talent.

Salem Al-Dawsari, now the most experienced international player in the squad, is starting to hit top form for Al-Hilal. The likes of Sultan Al-Ghannam and Abdulrahman Ghareeb are impressing at Al-Nassr, while Al-Hilal’s Saud Abdulhamid has been outstanding.

Goalkeeping could be an issue as foreigners dominate in the position. Raghed Al-Najjar has been called up for a potential debut but has yet to feature for Al-Taawoun this season. With the arrival of Yassine Bounou at Al-Hilal last month, there is unlikely to be much playing time for Mohammed Al-Owais or Mohammed Al-Yami.

That leaves Nawaf Al-Aqidi at Al-Nassr as the only one of four keepers selected who is playing regular football. It is just something that Mancini will have to get used to.

Costa Rica won one game at the World Cup, beating group winners Japan, before losing to Germany and Spain. Since then they have reached the quarter-finals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup where they were defeated 2-0 by Mexico, the same team that ended the Kingdom’s World Cup campaign.

Ranked 46 in the world, eight places higher than the Green Falcons, Los Ticos have players making short journeys to Newcastle, including Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who has had loan experience at Nottingham Forest; Forest’s Brandon Aguilera; and fellow England-based Jewison Bennette of Sunderland. 

A win, then, would be welcome, especially after some poor friendly results in the past couple of years. More important, however, is for Mancini to start building his team for Qatar in January. The road to Doha starts in Newcastle. 


'They love their cricket': Rohit Sharma lauds Pakistani fans for praising Indian cricketers

'They love their cricket': Rohit Sharma lauds Pakistani fans for praising Indian cricketers
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'They love their cricket': Rohit Sharma lauds Pakistani fans for praising Indian cricketers

'They love their cricket': Rohit Sharma lauds Pakistani fans for praising Indian cricketers
  • India and Pakistan, bitter political adversaries, enjoy one of sports fiercest rivalries in cricket
  • Indian captain Rohit Sharma bats for Test series with arch-rivals, says Pakistan “overall a good team”

ISLAMABAD: Indian captain Rohit Sharma recently praised Pakistani fans for appreciating Indian cricketers, saying that he would love to play in a Test series between the two arch-rivals if it were ever to take place. 

The South Asian neighbors are bitter political adversaries and have fought three wars against each other since they were partitioned at the end of British colonial rule in 1947. Their tensions mean the two countries rarely play bilateral series against one another and meet only at “neutral venues” during international tournaments. 

Sharma, 37, appeared on ‘Dubai Eye 103.8,’ a Dubai-based talk radio station on Wednesday to discuss the upcoming T20 World Cup 2024 and his journey as India’s skipper so far. During the show, the hosts relayed a message to Sharma from a Pakistani fan. 

“Loved the messages from the Pakistani fans,” Sharma said, smiling. “I know they love their cricket, they love it. Every time, mainly when we are in the UK these guys come and just tell us how, respectfully, how they love us, how they love Indian cricketers and how they love to watch some of us at big stages.”

India and Pakistan are bitter political adversaries and have fought three wars against each other since they were partitioned at the end of British colonial rule in 1947.

Their cricket teams have not faced off in a Test since 2007. Instead, they play only occasionally in the shorter versions of the game. 

When asked whether there were chances of India and Pakistan playing each other in a Test match soon, Sharma said:

“I don’t know the status of it. Personally if you ask me, I’m a cricketer at the end of the day. I want to play cricket and I want to get challenged at whatever stage I play cricket, and I feel Pakistan is a good team.”

Sharma praised Pakistan for having “solid bowlers,” saying that the green shirts are “overall a very good team.” He said cricket fans around the world would love to watch a Test series between the two arch-rivals. 

“I actually have no issues it’s just from a pure cricketing perspective if I have to look at it, it’s going to be a great cricket contest,” he explained. 

India and Pakistan have not faced each other on either side’s soil in a bilateral series since 2012.

India last year refused to travel to Pakistan for the white-ball Asia Cup, prompting part of the tournament to be staged in Sri Lanka. They last met at the 50-over World Cup in India in October.

The two cricket giants will square off on June 9 in New York when the T20 World Cup 2024 gets underway. 


US Anti-Doping Agency blasts WADA’s Banka over ‘hit job’ on US athletes

US Anti-Doping Agency blasts WADA’s Banka over ‘hit job’ on US athletes
Updated 21 May 2024
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US Anti-Doping Agency blasts WADA’s Banka over ‘hit job’ on US athletes

US Anti-Doping Agency blasts WADA’s Banka over ‘hit job’ on US athletes
  • The US agency said Banka had distorted facts “to deflect from the real concerns the world has about how WADA allowed China to sweep 23 positive tests under the carpet”
  • On Friday, Banka cited three US doping cases that resulted from environmental contamination, as the Chinese swimmers’ cases have also been ruled

LOS ANGELES: The US Anti-Doping Agency on Monday accused World Anti-Doping Agency president Witold Banka of smearing US athletes in a bid to divert attention from WADA’s handling of the case of 23 Chinese swimmers who tested positive before the Tokyo Olympics.

In a statement released on Monday, USADA responded to comments made by Banka during an extraordinary virtual meeting of WADA’s Foundation Board on Friday.

The US agency said Banka had distorted facts “to deflect from the real concerns the world has about how WADA allowed China to sweep 23 positive tests under the carpet.”

WADA came under fire in April after it was revealed that the Chinese swimmers tested positive for trimetazidine — which can enhance performance — ahead of the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

The swimmers were not suspended or sanctioned after WADA accepted the explanation of Chinese authorities that the positive tests for the prescription heart drug were caused by food contamination at a hotel where they had stayed.

USADA chief Travis Tygart has called the situation a “potential cover-up.”

On Friday, Banka cited three US doping cases that resulted from environmental contamination, as the Chinese swimmers’ cases have also been ruled.

But USADA noted on Monday that the three US contamination cases were made public and resulted in violations and disqualifications for the named athletes.

Banka also pointed to “inconsistent rule implementation in the US” and claimed that 90 percent of American athletes — in professional leagues and college sport — do not compete under the world anti-doping code.

USADA said that remark was “a particularly manipulative comment in an effort to indicate that 90 percent of US athletes are dirty and only 10 percent are clean.”

USADA noted leagues such as the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball have their own anti-doping systems, and that it was “incredibly reckless for the President of WADA to suggest these sports do not have robust and effective programs and that their athletes are not clean.

“Simply put, these comments are harmful and an insult to all athletes in these leagues and to the leagues themselves,” USADA said, noting that college athletes become subject to WADA rules when they take part in competitions sanctioned by international governing bodies.

“There is nothing more classic in a cover-up than diversion and smoke and mirrors,” USADA said.

“The second most classic response to a cover-up is to attack the messenger, which is the current situation as Banka and surrogates plumb the depths of misinformation and half-truths to make personal attacks, even stooping so low as to attempt a hit job on all US athletes.”


Youth movement: NBA’s 20-something stars set to battle in conference finals

Youth movement: NBA’s 20-something stars set to battle in conference finals
Updated 21 May 2024
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Youth movement: NBA’s 20-something stars set to battle in conference finals

Youth movement: NBA’s 20-something stars set to battle in conference finals
  • Boston’s 26-year-old Jayson Tatum and 27-year-old Jaylen Brown are already experienced hands after the Celtics reached the conference finals in each of the past two seasons
  • Kyrie Irving, traded to the Mavericks in February 2023, has seen close-up what Doncic and the rest of the league’s rising stars bring to the table

LOS ANGELES: The NBA conference finals starting Tuesday will showcase a new generation of stars as the Boston Celtics take on Indiana in the East and Dallas clash with Minnesota in the West for a place in the NBA Finals.

Boston’s 26-year-old Jayson Tatum and 27-year-old Jaylen Brown are already experienced hands after the Celtics reached the conference finals in each of the past two seasons.

They made it to the championship series in 2022 but fell to the Golden State Warriors then were stunned by eighth-seeded Miami in the conference finals last year.

In the Pacers they’ll face a high-octane offense led by 24-year-old Tyrese Haliburton while in the West 25-year-old Luka Doncic will lead the Mavericks against 22-year-old Anthony Edwards and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Kyrie Irving, traded to the Mavericks in February 2023, has seen close-up what Doncic and the rest of the league’s rising stars bring to the table.

“They have no fear,” Irving said after the Mavericks polished off a six-game victory over the top-seeded Oklahoma City in the conference semifinals.

“They want to kill our records. They want to kill us every time they get on the court,” said Irving, an eight-time All-Star who won a title with Cleveland in 2016.

“That was the first thing I noticed about Luka, that he just had no fear going against the best in the world,” Irving said. “He always walks around like he’s the best player in the world. I think that’s the confidence of a champion. That’s where it starts.”

LeBron James is still a force at 39 but his Lakers were swept by Denver in the first round of the playoffs.

The Timberwolves swept Kevin Durant and the Phoenix Suns out of the first round when the Pacers took care of Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks.

Stephen Curry’s Golden State Warriors didn’t make it out of the play-in and three-time Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic and the defending champion Nuggets were subdued in seven games in the West semis by Minnesota.

Edwards, averaging 28.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.9 assists in the playoffs, showed his maturity in Game 7, when he shook off a poor shooting night to dig in on the defensive end and help author one of the greatest Game 7 comeback wins in NBA history.

“I’m not one-dimensional,” declared Edwards, whose stellar season has seen him tabbed for the US Olympic team.

But Irving thinks Doncic has the edge in maturity. The Slovenian star is in the playoffs for the fourth time, his longest prior run a trip to the conference finals in 2022.

Irving says Doncic is set to shine with a new supporting cast around him — not least himself.

The Mavs, seeking to add to the lone NBA title they won in 2011, host the Timberwolves in Game 1 on Wednesday.

The Celtics, who share the record for most NBA titles at 17, host the Pacers in Game 1 on Tuesday, with Brown and Tatum aiming to become the latest to lead Boston to the crown.

“We’ve just been in a lot of battles together,” Tatum said of his partnership with Brown. “Seven years as teammates. He’s been in the conference finals six times, this is my fifth time.

“(We’re) really getting to a stage where we understand what we can do individually. We know how gifted we are offensively, but each night just kind of presents different challenges ... both of us are capable on the basketball court to do literally everything.”

The Pacers’ Haliburton is in unfamiliar territory, but he can rely on the experience of Pascal Siakam, an NBA champion with Toronto who was acquired from the Raptors in January.

After surprising in the regular season — and earning national attention with their run to the final of the new in-season tournament — the Pacers are out to prove they can flout conventional wisdom and use their up-tempo offense to carry them all the way.

“Well, we’re the uninvited guest,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said of sixth-seeded Indiana’s arrival in the conference finals. “So here we are, OK.”


Siblings trying to make US water polo teams for Paris Olympics

Siblings trying to make US water polo teams for Paris Olympics
Updated 21 May 2024
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Siblings trying to make US water polo teams for Paris Olympics

Siblings trying to make US water polo teams for Paris Olympics
  • Chase and Ryder Dodd are trying to make the men’s roster, alongside Dylan and Quinn Woodhead, while Ella Woodhead is in the mix for the loaded women’s squad
  • The women’s team is going to be announced on May 30, and the men’s team will be unveiled on June 18

WALNUT, California: Chase Dodd started swimming when he was just a kid. Once he began playing water polo, he was hooked.

When Ryder Dodd got a chance to follow his older brother, he was in.

“When I was around 6 years old, my mom was just like, ‘You want to hop in and play?’” Ryder Dodd said. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, of course I do.’”

That’s how it started for the Dodds, the very beginning of their road to USA Water Polo and, quite possibly, the Paris Olympics this summer. For Dylan, Quinn and Ella Woodhead, it’s a similar story.

The US water polo teams for this year’s Olympics could have a much deeper connection than just a mutual love of their grueling sport. Chase and Ryder Dodd are trying to make the men’s roster, alongside Dylan and Quinn Woodhead, while Ella Woodhead is in the mix for the loaded women’s squad.

The women’s team is going to be announced on May 30, and the men’s team will be unveiled on June 18.

“It’s interesting, just seeing the brotherly dynamic,” US men’s captain Ben Hallock said, “how they’re different, how they’re similar, what makes them special. ... So sort of seeing the traits that make them so good, but also a little bit of bickering and competitiveness is also fun to see.”

An invaluable connection

Dylan Woodhead, a 6-foot-7 defender who turned 25 in September, made his Olympics debut when the US finished sixth in Tokyo. Quinn, a 6-4 attacker, turns 24 next month, and Ella, a 5-10 defender, is 20.

“To have my brother here who I grew up playing with basically my whole career, it’s just special,” Dylan Woodhead said. “My sister, too, going through the same process, it’s just people that you’re more comfortable with. ... Playing with Quinn and talking through things with Ella, you can be brutally honest and that’s invaluable in this line of work.”

The Woodhead siblings are from Northern California. Their mother, Laura, was a swimmer at Stanford, and their father, Jeff, was a rower at California. Dylan and Quinn helped the Cardinal win NCAA title in 2019, and Ella will go back to Stanford after redshirting this season to try out for the US team.

The siblings grew up going to the Big Game — the annual college football showdown between Stanford and Cal. Dylan and his dad rooted for the Bears, and Ella and Quinn joined their mom in cheering for the Cardinal.

“(Dylan) was the first one to decide on Stanford, so kind of flipped the tide right there,” Quinn said.

A grinning Dylan offered a careful description of his father’s reaction to his college choice.

“I don’t know if he ever told me, but my mom said, ‘You know, it really hurt him,’” he cracked. “I think he’s OK with it now, there are worse schools to pick than Stanford in his eyes.”

A family falls for water polo

Dylan, Quinn and Ella got an early start on swimming through their mother. They had a pool in their backyard, and they played water basketball games that occasionally resulted in Ella being put in a headlock by one of the brothers to keep her from scoring.

With water polo, the brothers “found a really good community when we first started playing that we really enjoyed,” Quinn said. Ella vividly remembers going to their games as a kid.

“I was like 7 and 8, up in the stands, watching Dylan and Quinn play, taking stats on my own. Homemade stat sheet that I made,” she said. “So I think before I started playing, I kind of just fell in love with the tactical aspects of the game.”

The Woodhead siblings act as a sounding board for each other as they try to get better at water polo. Dylan and Ella talk about playing defender, and Quinn offers tips on shooting.

Dylan and Quinn also are very competitive, especially when they run into each other at US practice. It’s a similar dynamic with Chase and Ryder Dodd, who are from Southern California.

Chase Dodd, a 6-3 attacker who turned 21 last month, scored 39 times for UCLA during the 2022 season before taking this year off to train with the US team. Ryder, an 18-year-old attacker, is considered one of the sport’s rising prospects.

“We have a really competitive relationship. Almost everything we do is a game,” Chase Dodd said. “Everything we do is competition. It’s always go, go, go, go, go. I think that’s perfect for us playing this game.”

Other siblings to watch at the Paris Olympics

The US track team might have its own family ties. Noah Lyles likely will be among the 200-meter favorites, and his younger brother, Josephus, another sprinter, also is looking to make the US team. The American roster also could have Devon Williams for the decathlon and his sister, Kendell, in the heptathlon.

Siblings Karolien and Finn Florijn are looking to row for the Netherlands in Paris, following in the footsteps of their father, Ronald, who won gold at the Seoul and Atlanta Olympics. Tom and Emily Ford, two more rowing siblings, are hoping to medal for Britain.

Brothers Henrik, Filip and Jakob Ingebrigtsen of Norway are hoping to run in Paris this summer. Ron Polonsky and his sister, Leah, are looking to swim for Israel.


New Liverpool boss Slot admits he could not resist lure of club

New Liverpool boss Slot admits he could not resist lure of club
Updated 21 May 2024
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New Liverpool boss Slot admits he could not resist lure of club

New Liverpool boss Slot admits he could not resist lure of club

LONDON: Arne Slot said the chance to work at one of the world’s biggest clubs was “difficult to ignore” after Liverpool confirmed on Monday that the Feyenoord coach would be their new manager.

Just 24 hours after Jurgen Klopp’s emotional farewell at Anfield, the Premier League club said in a statement that the Dutchman would take up the position of head coach on June 1, subject to a work permit.

The club did not specify the length of Slot’s contract but it was widely reported in the British press that he had signed a three-year deal.

The new manager’s arrival was an open secret, with Liverpool reportedly agreeing a compensation deal worth up to £9.4 million ($12 million) with Feyenoord.

Slot, 45, confirmed Anfield was his next destination at his final pre-match press conference at the Eredivisie club on Friday.

“It is certainly not an easy decision to close the door behind you at a club where you have experienced so many wonderful moments and worked successfully with so many wonderful people,” he told Feyenoord’s website on Monday.

“But as a sportsman, an opportunity to become a head coach in the Premier League, at one of the biggest clubs in the world, is difficult to ignore.”

Klopp, 56, announced in January that the 2023/24 season would be his last at Anfield, and took charge of his final game on Sunday, a 2-0 win against Wolves.

In his farewell speech to the crowd, the German urged fans to throw their full support behind his successor, leading them in a chant of “Arne Slot, na na na na na.”

“You welcome the new manager like you welcomed me,” he said. “You go all-in from the first day. And you keep believing and you push the team.”

Slot, linked with a move to Tottenham last year, became Feyenoord boss in 2021 after impressing in his first managerial role at AZ Alkmaar.

He led the Dutch giants to the inaugural Europa Conference League final at the end of his first season, which they lost 1-0 to Jose Mourinho’s Roma.

Slot then delivered just a second league title in 24 years to De Kuip last season before penning a new three-year deal.

Feyenoord have enjoyed a strong season, winning the Dutch Cup and coming second to an all-conquering PSV Eindhoven side in the league.

Under Slot, Feyenoord have delighted the fans at De Kuip with an attacking brand of football and Slot has won praise from Klopp himself.

“I like the way his team plays football. If he is the one, I like that he wants it,” Klopp said last month.

“It’s the best job in the world, best club in the world. Great job, great team, fantastic people. A really interesting job.”

Liverpool captain and fellow Dutchman Virgil van Dijk has hailed Slot’s attacking mindset, saying it would suit the philosophy at Anfield.

Speaking about the future under the new boss, Van Dijk said: “It is all about sticking together and giving him the chance of showing what he is capable of with the other guys who will come in.

“He probably knows already but everyone knows our expectations are always huge and it is about managing that in the right way and getting the maximum out of all of our players.”

Slot has huge shoes to fill at Anfield after Klopp restored Liverpool to the elite of English and European football during his nine-year reign.

Under his leadership Liverpool won a sixth Champions League crown and a 19th league title, as well as a clutch of other trophies.

Initially, Bayer Leverkusen boss and former Liverpool midfielder Xabi Alonso was the favorite to succeed Klopp at Anfield.

However, Alonso committed to staying at Leverkusen as he led them to a first-ever Bundesliga title.

Liverpool finished third in the Premier League, qualifying for next season’s Champions League, and won the League Cup in Klopp’s final season.