‘Starstruck’ Al-Ghamdi embraces Steven Gerrard’s Ettifaq revolution

The young Saudi midfielder Ahmed Al-Ghamdi (top right) admits to being “starstruck” for the first few days after Steven Gerrard took over as manager of his club, Ettifaq. (X/@Ettifaq_EN)
The young Saudi midfielder Ahmed Al-Ghamdi (top right) admits to being “starstruck” for the first few days after Steven Gerrard took over as manager of his club, Ettifaq. (X/@Ettifaq_EN)
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Updated 23 September 2023

‘Starstruck’ Al-Ghamdi embraces Steven Gerrard’s Ettifaq revolution

‘Starstruck’ Al-Ghamdi embraces Steven Gerrard’s Ettifaq revolution
  • The 21-year-old joined the Dammam-based club in 2020 after his return to the Kingdom from Canada

RIYADH: The young Saudi midfielder Ahmed Al-Ghamdi admits to being “starstruck” for the first few days after Steven Gerrard took over as manager of his club, Ettifaq.

Al-Ghamdi, 21, joined the Dammam-based club in 2020 after returning to Saudi Arabia from Canada, where he had lived since the age of one, and has witnessed the transformation at the club first-hand.

While much of the recent investment in Saudi football has focused on the four major clubs from Riyadh and Jeddah, Ettifaq have been making headlines of their own after signing England and Liverpool legend Gerrard as manager, then adding another former Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson, Scottish international Jack Hendry, Lyon striker Moussa Dembele and, most recently, Dutch midfielder Gini Wijnaldum to their squad.

It has heralded a new era for the club and catapulted the two-time Saudi champions into the global spotlight.

“It was kind of a shock to see someone you’ve been watching on TV, on social media all the time and then finally, he’s here; he’s your coach,” Al-Ghamdi told Arab News.

“So for the first (few) days, I was kind of starstruck. But then, after it sank in, I realized what a great opportunity I have to learn from such a player, such a coaching staff, and all the experience they have.”

Al-Ghamdi’s journey to professional football was somewhat unconventional compared to most of his Saudi counterparts. Though he was born in Jeddah, Al-Ghamdi grew up almost 12,000 km away in Vancouver, Canada, where his parents moved when he was just one in search of greater opportunities for both themselves and their children.

“(Growing up in Canada has) given me a different perspective on life,” Al-Ghamdi said. “There’s more diversity over there, you get introduced to all different cultures from around the world, all different kinds of immigrants, you learn new things, new customs, and you just understand everything through a broader perspective.”

While there were frequent trips back to his homeland, Al-Ghamdi, one of four brothers, grew up in a typically North American environment, and while football was always a passion — passed down from his father — he also had other sporting interests.

“Obviously, when you’re in North America, football isn’t the biggest sport, it’s more ice hockey and basketball,” he said. “At school, they always gave you opportunities to play different sports and, at the time, I was really into basketball. Even now I still love watching the NBA. When I was younger, I used to play on the teams there, and you could say it helped develop my athletic ability as well.”

While sport was a constant throughout his childhood, Al-Ghamdi was no slouch in the classroom either, and, were it not for fate intervening, he could very well be on his way to becoming a doctor. After signing for Vancouver-based Pacific FC in the Canadian Premier League when he was just 17, Al-Ghamdi had earned a place at the prestigious University of British Columbia, which counts Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau among its alumni, to study medicine.

With one season of professional football under his belt, he was ready to pursue his academic ambitions, but a trip back to — ironically — Dammam with the Saudi under-19 national team changed everything.

“I signed a one-year contract with Pacific in the first season of the CPL,” he explained. “I really didn’t have a plan for after that, I was just thankful that I was doing what I love at 17. I saw (it) as a massive opportunity, because it’s very difficult to play professionally out of Vancouver because there’s not that many pathways

“After my contract finished, I thought I was going to leave football. My parents are really big on education, so the plan was to find some sort of agreement (to see if) I could stay (at Pacific) and go to UBC. If I couldn’t reach an agreement with Pacific, I would just go to UBC and focus on my degree,” he continued. “But, at the same time, I was introduced to football in Saudi through the youth national team. I went with them for the U19 Asian Cup qualifiers in Dammam. After the qualifiers finished, I heard that there were clubs in Saudi interested in me, so I decided to take the semester off and see where it took me.”

Now playing under Gerrard, and alongside so many international stars, it’s safe to say that Al-Ghamdi is happy with his decision.

Having made his senior international debut earlier this year at the Gulf Cup — a moment he described as “unbelievable” — Al-Ghamdi is part of a generation of talent hoping to force their way into Roberto Mancini’s reckoning over the next three years ahead of the next FIFA World Cup.

He played a leading role in helping Saudi Arabia win last year’s AFC U23 Asian Cup, scoring the opening goal in the final as the Green Falcons prevailed 2-0 over host nation Uzbekistan, and impressed again at the Gulf Cup earlier this year, making two appearances off the bench.

With the next World Cup due to take place in the USA, Mexico and Canada, the prospect of ‘completing the circle’ and playing for Saudi Arabia in a World Cup match in Canada — possibly even in Vancouver — is one that understandably excites the 21-year-old.

“That would be amazing. It would be a full-circle moment for me to play for Saudi, in Canada, at the 2026 World Cup,” he said. “That would be a really amazing moment for me and my family.”

Champions Ahly drop more points in pursuit of 12th title

Updated 7 sec ago

Champions Ahly drop more points in pursuit of 12th title

Champions Ahly drop more points in pursuit of 12th title
JOHANNESBURG: CAF Champions League title-holders Al Ahly dropped points for the second successive weekend when held 0-0 at home by Chabab Belouizdad of Algeria on Friday.
After an away draw against Young Africans in Tanzania six days ago, the record 11-time African champions were expected to collect maximum points from the Group D match in Alexandria.
But a defiant Belouizdad defense, backed by former Algeria goalkeeper Rais M’Bolhi, contained an Ahly attack including Mahmoud Kahraba, Hussein el Shahat and South African Percy Tau.
The result was a major boost for Belouizdad, who conceded an added-time goal to lose away to Medeama of Ghana last weekend.
Medeama could not achieve back-to-back home victories, however, as they surrendered the lead in a 1-1 draw against Young Africans in Kumasi.
Jonathan Sowah, recalled after being ruled out of the Belouizdad match by suspension, converted a 27th-minute penalty for group debutants Medeama.
It was his third goal of the African campaign, and Ivorian Pacome Zouzoua also scored for a third time in the Champions League this season by equalising nine minutes later.
Ahly have five points, Medeama and Belouizdad four each and Young Africans two at the halfway stage of the mini-league. Group winners and runners-up qualify for the quarter-finals.
On a night when three matches produced only three goals, the best came from Cameroonian Jacques Mbe, which gave Etoile Sahel of Tunisia a 1-0 win over Al Hilal of Sudan in Rades near Tunis.
With just two minutes of regular time remaining, Mbe unleashed a thunderbolt past Ivorian goalkeeper Issa Fofana to earn Etoile their first points in Group C.
Petro Luanda of Angola, who play on Saturday, top the table with six points while Hilal, four-time champions Esperance of Tunisia and Etoile have three each.

Al-Dawsari, Mitrovic on target as Al-Hilal beat Al-Tai

Al-Dawsari, Mitrovic on target as Al-Hilal beat Al-Tai
Updated 31 min 23 sec ago

Al-Dawsari, Mitrovic on target as Al-Hilal beat Al-Tai

Al-Dawsari, Mitrovic on target as Al-Hilal beat Al-Tai
  • Saudi Pro League leaders wrack up 16th straight win in all competitions
  • Serbian striker first player since 2012 to score in 7 consecutive league matches

The Al-Hilal machine goes rolling on after the Saudi Pro League leaders defeated Al-Tai 2-1 on Friday to record a 16th successive victory in all competitions.

It was a strange game in that the Riyadh giants dominated but were never able to kill off their hosts, for whom goalkeeper Moataz Al-Baqawi was in fine form.

In the end, it did not matter as Hilal, threatening to pull away at the top of the table, went at Al-Tai from the start.

In the 15th minute, Kalidou Koulibaly’s smart half volley from outside the area drew a good diving save from Al-Baqawi and three minutes later the in-form Aleksandar Mitrovic should have opened the scoring.

A delightful volleyed through ball from Sergej Milinkovic-Savic freed the former Fulham forward who, with just the goalkeeper to beat, dragged his shot wide.

He was relieved in the 20th minute when a classic combination for both Al-Hilal and Saudi Arabia swung into action. Salman Al-Faraj crossed from the right and there was Salem Al-Dawsari to send a flying side-footed volley high into the net from near the penalty spot. The two club legends embraced in celebration of a beautiful and important goal.

Ten minutes later, Hilal were given a penalty after Ibrahim Al-Nakhli handled a shot from Mitrovic. The Serbian stepped up to grab his 14th league goal of the season and to get on the score sheet for the seventh successive game, a feat last achieved in Saudi Arabia in 2012 by Brazilian striker Wesley.

Five minutes before the break, the ball fell to Ruben Neves just outside the area and the Portuguese star curled home only for the goal to be ruled out due to an offside in the buildup, though it was a very tight call.

And it became painful for Hilal deep into added time thanks to another spectacular strike. Salman Al-Muwashar was twisting and turning in the middle of the Hilal half as he attempted to protect the ball from a group of blue-shirted players and then, suddenly, Tariq Abdullah stepped forward to side-foot a looping shot that beat the jumping Yassine Bounou, not far off his line on the edge of the 6-yard box.

Instead of 3-0 at the break, it was 2-1 and a game that had been dominated by the 18-time champions was suddenly looking very interesting indeed.

Al-Hilal were determined to make it as predictable as possible and within five minutes of the restart, Mitrovic’s half volley stung the hands of the goalkeeper. Moments later, a delicate chip from Neves just cleared the bar to land on the roof of the net.

Nobody will ever know how it was not 3-1 three minutes before the hour. Neves curled a delightful cross into the area. Milinkovic-Savic’s volley came back off the inside of the post but there was Al-Dawsari to react quickly and drive the rebound toward the top. Somehow, however, Al-Baqawi got there to tip the ball over.

The goalkeeper ensured that Hilal did not get a third goal but they picked up the points nonetheless.

Elsewhere, Al-Taawoun went third behind Al-Nassr with a 4-1 win at home to Al-Fayha, the losers perhaps tired after their Asian Champions League heroics in midweek when they won 4-1 at the Uzbekistan home of Pakhtakor to progress to the knockout stage.

Saudi Arabia ready to host 2034 World Cup: Sports minister

Saudi Arabia ready to host 2034 World Cup: Sports minister
Updated 08 December 2023

Saudi Arabia ready to host 2034 World Cup: Sports minister

Saudi Arabia ready to host 2034 World Cup: Sports minister
  • Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal tells BBC Kingdom has proved itself able to host major events
  • Government has invested over $6.26bn in sports since 2021 as part of Vision 2030

LONDON: Saudi Sports Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal has talked up the sporting and economic opportunities of the Kingdom hosting the 2034 FIFA World Cup, saying his country is ready to host the world’s biggest sporting event.
In an interview with the BBC, he raised the prospect of the Kingdom hosting the competition in the summer rather than the winter, noted the importance of sport in a country where the majority of citizens are below the age of 30, and discussed the progress made by the Saudi Pro League.
The government has invested over £5 billion ($6.26 billion) in sports since 2021 as part of the Vision 2030 strategy to diversify the economy away from dependence on fossil fuels.
With the FIFA Club World Cup set to begin in the Kingdom next month, Prince Abdulaziz said Saudi Arabia is more than ready to host the biggest prize in football.
“We’ve showcased that — we’ve hosted more than 85 global events and we’ve delivered on the highest level,” he said.
“We want to attract the world through sports. Hopefully, by 2034, people will have an extraordinary World Cup.”
Since 2021, Saudi Arabia has hosted high-profile boxing matches, ATP tennis tournaments and Formula 1 racing.
The Public Investment Fund made waves when taking control of Premier League side Newcastle United and setting up the LIV Golf tour.
“Twenty million of our population are below the age of 30, so we need to get them engaged — we are playing our role to develop sports within the world and to be part of the international community,” Prince Abdulaziz said.
He added that lessons would be taken from the 2022 FIFA World Cup in neighboring Qatar, which had to be held in winter to avoid high temperatures.
He said Saudi Arabia is “definitely” looking into whether a summer contest would be feasible.
“Why not see what the possibilities are to do it in the summer? Whether it is summer or winter, it doesn’t matter for us, as long as we make sure that we (deliver) the right atmosphere to host such an event,” he added.
On the subject of the World Cup’s sustainability, Prince Abdulaziz said: “It’s a mandate on us in the Kingdom to make sure that we abide by the international regulations … to make sure that we play our role, to make sure that it’s eco-friendly.”
He addressed the progress of football in the Kingdom, which has taken on global significance since the £750 million influx of big names to the Saudi Pro League earlier this year, including Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Neymar.
At grassroots, too, football is gaining in popularity, and the Kingdom even sees over 70,000 women and girls regularly taking part in the sport.
“All of our big matches have attracted record numbers so far … We’re broadcasting to 147 countries around the world,” Prince Abdulaziz said.
“When we planned to develop the league we never thought that we would do it with such pace, but to see that is actually refreshing and it actually showcases the importance of this. Our focus is to develop our league to attract the best in the world.”

Steven Gerrard: ‘Extremely nice’ to have Moussa Dembele back for Al-Ettifaq

Steven Gerrard: ‘Extremely nice’ to have Moussa Dembele back for Al-Ettifaq
Updated 08 December 2023

Steven Gerrard: ‘Extremely nice’ to have Moussa Dembele back for Al-Ettifaq

Steven Gerrard: ‘Extremely nice’ to have Moussa Dembele back for Al-Ettifaq
  • French striker makes return in draw with Al-Shabab after 2 months out
  • Moussa ‘key to us winning games,’ teammate Jack Hendry says

RIYADH: Al-Ettifaq manager Steven Gerrard said it was “extremely nice” to have Moussa Dembele back in Roshn Saudi League action after his No. 9 made a substitute return following knee surgery.
The former Fulham, Celtic, Atletico Madrid and Lyon striker played the final 20 minutes of the 0-0 draw at Al-Shabab on Thursday night. The game at the new Al-Shabab Club Stadium in Riyadh saw Ettifaq finish with 10 men following Demarai Gray’s red card, while the hosts ended with nine after Ever Banega and Gustavo Cuellar were both dismissed.
While frustrated not to have taken all three points — Dembele nearly made the perfect return with a late header that went over the bar — Gerrard said that having his top scorer back was a boost. Al-Ettifaq have failed to score in five of the eight games since the French striker last played, drawing three and losing two.
“It’s extremely nice to see Moussa Dembele back, extremely nice,” Gerrard said.
“When we get Moussa back up in a better place physically and get more minutes into him then I’m sure we’ll carry more of a threat. Moussa Dembele brings goals and assists. The good thing is we have him back. He’s a goalscorer. We’ve missed that quality.”
The former Rangers manager’s comments on the return of Dembele, who netted seven goals in eight Roshn Saudi League matches before his injury at the beginning of October, were echoed by teammate Jack Hendry.
“It’s very big for us to have him back. He’s a figurehead for us up front,” the defender said.
“He’s going to be the key to us winning games and kind of turning our fortunes in the right direction. Moussa’s a proven goalscorer. I played with him at Celtic and I know what he can bring to a team, so to have a figurehead like him up front is going to be important for us moving forward.”
Dembele said: “We will continue to work hard to improve our finishing.”
Ahead of weekend fixtures, Al-Ettifaq — who next play Al-Taawoun at home on Saturday, Dec. 16 — sit eighth in the league table.
“The game as it progressed was certainly there for the taking,” Gerrard said. “When we had a man advantage, we made a tactical change to take a defender off and bring Moussa on to be more aggressive and more opportunities came. We’re a bit frustrated we haven’t gone and taken the big opportunity to go and win the game.
“We’ll continue to grind until we find our rhythm and confidence in the final third, but we want to challenge individuals and the collective to bring more in the final third.”

Rashford must fight for Man Utd place, says Ten Hag

Rashford must fight for Man Utd place, says Ten Hag
Updated 08 December 2023

Rashford must fight for Man Utd place, says Ten Hag

Rashford must fight for Man Utd place, says Ten Hag
  • “Rashford is an incredible, good player,” Ten Hag said on Friday
  • “You can’t do it with 11 players, he can’t play every game”

LONDON: Erik ten Hag says it is up to Marcus Rashford to force his way back into the Manchester United side after he was dropped for the midweek win against Chelsea.
The England international was left out of the starting line-up for the 2-1 win at Old Trafford after a string of disappointing performances, with his attitude questioned after last week’s 1-0 defeat at Newcastle.
Rashford, 26, scored a career-high 30 times for United last season but has netted just twice in the current campaign.
“Rashford is an incredible, good player,” Ten Hag said on Friday. “You can’t do it with 11 players, he can’t play every game, he’s not in this moment in the form he was last year but I am sure he will get there.
“It is up to them (to get back into the side). The team will always line themselves up and the best players who form the best team will play.”
United face an in-form Bournemouth side at Old Trafford on Saturday, and Ten Hag has plenty to consider in his team selection with a must-win Champions League match against Bayern Munich to follow on Tuesday before they head to Liverpool next week.
“I think they have very good form, Bournemouth,” Ten Hag said.
“It’s a very good side, very well constructed, capable players, again you have to play your best.
“Everyone is killing everyone — you have to be 100 percent ready as a team for that game. That’s our job to do, to get there.”