Steven Gerrard aiming to be Al-Ettifaq’s modern-day ‘Nawkhada’

Steven Gerrard aiming to be Al-Ettifaq’s modern-day ‘Nawkhada’
Ettifaq coach Steven Gerrard speaks to Hamed Al-Ghamdi during the Roshn Saudi Pro League match against Al Fayha. (Getty images)
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Updated 20 November 2023
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Steven Gerrard aiming to be Al-Ettifaq’s modern-day ‘Nawkhada’

Steven Gerrard aiming to be Al-Ettifaq’s modern-day ‘Nawkhada’
  • The former Liverpool captain is building team he hopes can emulate the club’s 1980s success

RIYADH: The summer of 2023 marked 40 years since the most memorable moment in the history of Al-Ettifaq, the green and red club based in Dammam on the eastern shores of Saudi Arabia.

It was in the 1982-83 season that Al-Ettifaq made Saudi football history, becoming the first team in the nation’s history to win the league without a single defeat. It was the first league triumph for a club that was until that point not considered one of Saudi Arabia’s powerhouses, and it would be followed by only one more league title, four years later.

The success of the 1980s shaped the identity of the club nicknamed “Al-Nawkhada,” a nod to the ancient profession of Nawkhada, captains of the traditional dhow boats that roamed the waters of the Arabian Gulf for centuries, transporting goods between the Arabian Peninsula and places like India, Iran and East Africa as well as carrying experienced pearl divers on whose shoulders the fortunes of the region were built long before the discovery of oil.

Coach Khalil Al-Zayani was the original Nawkhada, leading Al-Ettifaq to their two league titles as well as guiding Saudi Arabia to their maiden AFC Asian Cup trophy in 1984.

Four decades later, Steven Gerrard, a man who established his legendary status in two iconic port cities thousands of miles away, in Liverpool as a player and then in Glasgow as a coach, is hoping to become the new Nawkhada in Saudi Arabia’s main port city of Dammam.

The former Liverpool captain says his journey to the Middle East began six months before putting pen to paper at the Prince Mohammed bin Fahd Stadium, when an icon of his former club’s fiercest rivals, Manchester United, arrived in the Kingdom.

“The arrival of ‘The GOAT’ as we call him, Cristiano (Ronaldo), in January (was) a huge signing. He still had a lot of football to offer,” said Gerrard as he sat in front of the Roshn Saudi League cameras.

“So, from afar, for six months, I was looking in at Ronaldo’s results, at the league, watching results and highlights. I think from that moment, the league around the world had become a popular talking point for everyone. After Ronaldo’s arrival, even more big-name signings, talents and skillsets were joining the league.

“At the time, it coincided with me being out of the game and looking for my next opportunity, so I was fascinated from afar looking in, and when my agents brought a couple of opportunities from the Gulf area at the time, I was fascinated to explore them.”

After a short trip to the Eastern Province where he explored the club facilities, discussed with the board and learned about the history and ambitions of the club hoping to restore their glory days and compete with the established elite of the RSL, Gerrard’s mind was made up.

“The Ettifaq proposal and opportunity was the most exciting for me because I’ve signed up to a club where the board are very passionate. They understand where the club are, they understand it’s something that’s going to need building, and it’s going to take time. That’s the reason why I was very interested to analyze this one because in my job you need time, especially when a club has finished seventh in the league and so many points behind the top four, that’s not an easy fix; it’s not something you fix in a week, a month, or six months. It’s a project to build on the pitch, which is obviously the priority, but also a lot of things needed to change around it to give the first team the support it needs.”

In a summer when the RSL title challengers brought in the likes of Neymar, Karim Benzema, Riyad Mahrez and Sadio Mane, Gerrard had the task of rebuilding his squad, albeit not with the same resources or promise of immediate success that the likes of Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr or Al-Ittihad could offer.

The first port of call for the Scouser was the man who succeeded him in wearing the Liverpool captain’s armband, Jordan Henderson, and for Gerrard, the decision to bring his former teammate was a no-brainer. 

“I think when you’re the coach, the manager, you want players going into games that can be an extended version of the staff. People, who can really help on-pitch coaching, where the team needs to be in terms of distances, to make on-field decisions.

“Myself and Jordan (Henderson), we have that trust. We played together and he’s a fantastic player still, a fantastic human being. For us, to execute that signing was key and very important and I think a lot of the other signings we made came on the back of Jordan agreeing to come here. I think he wanted to still play, I think that was the key.

“He was at Liverpool at the time. He’s had a fantastic career, he’s achieved everything at that club, he’s been a fantastic servant to Liverpool Football Club, but I think in the previous months, maybe him not being a regular starter in the team, when you get to that age.

“I’ve been there myself under Brendan Rodgers. When you’re the captain, you play all the games, then all of a sudden you’re on the bench or you’re not getting as many minutes as you’d like, and that’s when you analyze and think about the different challenges, and when we knew it was a possibility, I wanted to be aggressive and wanted that to be my first signing, because for me it was a no-brainer.

“Still a fantastic player, he’s a leader, an on-pitch coach,” Gerrard added. “His standards on how he lives his daily life on and off the pitch is good for our young players to see, watch and learn. Jordan understands the size of the project, that it’s not a quick fix. He wants to be part of the journey and building it with us, but he was a very important signing at a key time.”

With one former Liverpool player signed, attention turned to another member of the 2019 UEFA Champions League winning side’s midfield. Dutchman Giorgino Wijnaldum had just returned to Paris Saint-Germain following a disappointing loan spell at AS Roma where his single season under Jose Mourinho was plagued by an injury that kept him out of the side for over half of the 2022-23 campaign.

“Gini (Wijnaldum) recently hasn’t played as much football as he would have liked,” said Gerrard. “He had an injury where he broke his leg, and his last couple of experiences haven’t brought him football happiness, so he was looking to play regular football, he wanted to smile again, to feel an important part of the team and we could give him that platform.

“He’s got many similarities to Jordan in terms of leadership, professionalism. He’s a winner, a different type to Jordan in terms of style, but they complement each other very well and I’ve seen that firsthand being a Liverpool fan for many years. We’re looking for that combination, we’re looking for that leadership and we’re looking for them to play those key roles in terms of presence and contribution on the pitch.

Looking for further additions to enable his squad to compete at the top, Gerrard was in pursuit of an established goalscorer and he looked no further than a man with connections to his former Old Firm rivals Celtic.

“I watched Moussa Dembele for many years up in Scotland when he played for Celtic and competed against him, so I’ve seen him live and up close a lot of times. He’s a goalscorer, he scores important goals. He’s a box player, he gives you profile, he gives you strength, structure and I think it’s important to have a focal point in your team as your forward and Moussa gives us that.

“Bringing the likes of Jordan Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum, Moussa Dembele and Jack Hendry, it was important they were the right characters. The right people to also support us and give us a good core strength in the dressing room.” 


Al-Ittihad sign Algerian midfielder Houssem Aouar on a four-year contract

Karim Benzema welcomes Houssem Aouar to Al-Ittihad’s training camp in Alicante, Spain. (X/@ittihad_en)
Karim Benzema welcomes Houssem Aouar to Al-Ittihad’s training camp in Alicante, Spain. (X/@ittihad_en)
Updated 17 July 2024
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Al-Ittihad sign Algerian midfielder Houssem Aouar on a four-year contract

Karim Benzema welcomes Houssem Aouar to Al-Ittihad’s training camp in Alicante, Spain. (X/@ittihad_en)
  • Aouar joins from Roma, where he scored four goals in 16 appearances last season
  • Midfielder previously played for hometown club Lyon in France’s Ligue 1, scoring 30 goals in seven seasons

JEDDAH: Al-Ittihad have signed French-born Algerian international midfielder Houssem Aouar on a four-year contract.

Aouar joins from Roma, where he scored four goals in 16 appearances last season.

The 26-year-old midfielder previously played for hometown club Lyon in France’s Ligue 1, scoring 30 goals in seven seasons.

The signing ceremony took place at the team’s training camp in Alicante, Spain on Tuesday.

The event was officiated by the club’s CEO, Domingos Oliveira, and witnessed by sporting director Ramon Planes, following Aouar’s successful medical examination this morning.

Domingos Oliveira expressed his warm welcome to Aouar, noting that this move marks a significant new chapter in Aouar’s career. He emphasized that Aouar will contribute significantly alongside his teammates to achieving the high standards and results anticipated by the club’s fans and supporters.

Oliveira highlighted that Aouar’s signing aligns with the team’s technical requirements for a player possessing specific qualities that enhance the squad. This strategy is based on the technical needs identified by the sports committee and reviewed by the coach.

Houssem Aouar shared his enthusiasm about joining Al-Ittihad Club, recognizing its rich history, passionate fan base, distinguished players, and experienced coaching staff. He is motivated to deliver his best performance to represent the club and bring joy to its supporters.


SPL unveils exciting 2024-25 RSL fixtures list

SPL unveils exciting 2024-25 RSL fixtures list
Updated 15 July 2024
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SPL unveils exciting 2024-25 RSL fixtures list

SPL unveils exciting 2024-25 RSL fixtures list
  • Opening round of games takes place from Aug. 22, with champions Al-Hilal starting title defence at Al-Okhdood
  • New ‘Magic Rounds’ will feature derbies across Riyadh, Jeddah and the Eastern Province in weeks 9 and 26

Riyadh: The Saudi Pro League’s competitions department has officially announced the fixtures for the upcoming 2024-25 Roshn Saudi League season, which is set to kick off from Aug. 22-24.

The opening weekend will see reigning champions Al-Hilal beginning their title defense away against Al-Okhdood.

This season will feature 306 matches, meticulously scheduled to accommodate international breaks, continental competitions, and Saudi Arabian Football Federation tournaments. Notably, no fixtures will be held during the last 10 days of Ramadan, ensuring respect for the holy month.

The league has also prioritized player welfare by ensuring a minimum two-day rest between matches.

One of the highlights of this season is the introduction of “Magic Rounds.” Scheduled for Matchweeks 9 and 26, these special weekends will host thrilling derbies across Riyadh, Jeddah, and the Eastern Province, showcasing rivalries such as Al-Ahli versus Al-Ittihad and Al-Hilal against Al-Nassr.

The league’s fixture list is designed to ensure a balanced competition. Each team will play nine home matches and eight away matches in the first half, mirroring the same structure in the second half. Teams will avoid playing more than two consecutive matches at home or away, with a maximum of two such occurrences permitted per half of the season.

Clubs from the same city will be paired to guarantee that when one team is at home, the other is away, promoting exciting local derbies. Additionally, the season’s start and end are synchronized; a team playing at home in Matchweek 1 will play away in Matchweek 34, and vice versa. The final four rounds will feature each team playing two home and two away matches, ensuring an electrifying conclusion to the season.

The season opens with a series of compelling matchups.

Al-Shabab will host Al-Ettifaq, while 2023-24 runners-up Al-Nassr will face Al-Raed at home. Newly promoted Al-Orobah will travel to Jeddah to challenge Al-Ahli, and Al-Taawoun will welcome Al-Fayha. In Ar Rass, Al-Ittihad will take on newcomers Al-Kholood. The 2023-24 First Division League champions, Al-Qadsiah, will host Al-Fateh, and Damac will begin their campaign at home against Al-Khaleej, with Al-Riyadh traveling to Makkah to meet Al-Wehda.

The Roshn Saudi League fixtures list. photo credit: @SPL_EN

The SPL will announce match dates and kick-off times in a phased manner:
July 18: breakdown for Matchweeks 1 and 2.
Aug. 18: (Subject to AFC draw date) breakdown for Matchweeks 3 to 8.
Sept. 30: (Subject to King’s Cup Round of 16 draw date) breakdown for Matchweeks 9 to 13.
Oct. 31: (Subject to King’s Cup quarter-final draw date) breakdown for Matchweeks 14 to 22.
Feb. 22: (Subject to AFC Round of 16 draw date) breakdown for Matchweeks 23 to 34.

These announcements will depend on confirmation from the AFC and SAFF regarding their respective competition draw dates.

As the league prepares for another thrilling season, fans can look forward to a calendar packed with drama, excitement, and unforgettable moments in Saudi football.


Former France boss Laurent Blanc takes over at Saudi club Al-Ittihad

Former France boss Laurent Blanc takes over at Saudi club Al-Ittihad
Updated 13 July 2024
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Former France boss Laurent Blanc takes over at Saudi club Al-Ittihad

Former France boss Laurent Blanc takes over at Saudi club Al-Ittihad
  • Frenchman will be reunited in Jeddah with one star from his 2012 Euro squad Karim Benzema

PARIS: Former France manager Laurent Blanc has been hired as coach of Al-Ittihad, the Saudi Arabian club announced on Saturday.
Blanc, who had been out of work since being fired by Lyon last September, will be reunited in Jeddah with one star from his 2012 Euro squad Karim Benzema.
After the team finished fifth in the Saudi league last season, the 36-year-old striker, the club’s star recruit, reportedly campaigned for a French-speaking coach.
This prompted the resignation of club president Louay Nazer, who had reportedly reached an agreement with Italian Stefano Pioli, who had left AC Milan.
The Al-Ittihad squad also includes N’Golo Kante, a starter in the France team that reached the last four at the current Euros, and former Monaco and Liverpool Brazilian Fabinho.
The 58-year-old Blanc was at the heart of the France defense as they won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000.
In his second season as a manager he led Bordeaux to a League 1 title. He coached France from 2010-12.
He guided Qatari-own Paris Saint-Germain to three Ligue 1 titles and five domestic cups between 2013 and 2016, had a stint in Qatar with Al-Rayyan from December 2020 to February 2022 and a painful 11 months from October 2022 when he was unable to reverse Lyon’s decline.
Al-Ittihad have not specified the length of Blanc’s contract.
He will be the club’s third coach in a year following Nuno Espirito Santo, who led the club to a ninth Saudi title in 2023, and Marcelo Gallardo.
Last season the club finished only fifth in the table, 42 points behind runaway champions Al-Hilal. They failed to qualify for the Asian Champions League.
Argentine Gallardo, who dropped the misfiring Benzema for a time, was fired in July after less than seven months in the job.


Riyadh to host African Super Cup between Egyptian rivals Al Ahly, Zamalek

Riyadh to host African Super Cup between Egyptian rivals Al Ahly, Zamalek
Updated 13 July 2024
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Riyadh to host African Super Cup between Egyptian rivals Al Ahly, Zamalek

Riyadh to host African Super Cup between Egyptian rivals Al Ahly, Zamalek

RIYADH: Riyadh will host the CAF Super Cup between two of Africa’s top teams in September, organizers announced on Friday.

The head-to-head will see the current African Champion League holders Al Ahly take on fellow Egyptian side Zamalek, who are the current African Confederation champions.

Confédération Africaine de Football President Patrice  Motsepe said: “The partnership between CAF and Saudi Arabia is based on the excellent relationship and mutual commitment of both parties.”

Turki Alalshikh said: "We are delighted to host the African Super Cup at Riyadh Season, which represents one of the most important tournaments on the African continent.”

The match will take place on Sept. 27, but the venue and kick-off time are yet to be announced.

Both teams clashed in the Egypt Cup in the Saudi capital in March, with Al Ahly beating their city rivals 2-0 and winning the trophy for the 39th time.

Al Ahly finished third in the Saudi-hosted FIFA Club World Cup in December, with English champions Manchester City defeating Brazil’s Fluminense in the final.


SPL outlines priorities for player acquisitions, club development before new season

SPL outlines priorities for player acquisitions, club development before new season
Updated 11 July 2024
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SPL outlines priorities for player acquisitions, club development before new season

SPL outlines priorities for player acquisitions, club development before new season
  • League remains committed to providing a supportive, centralized approach to transfers
  • Clubs continue to attract top-tier talents to their administrative ranks

RIYADH: The Saudi Pro League, in collaboration with all 18 clubs, announced on Thursday its comprehensive preparations and key priorities for the upcoming summer transfer window and the 2024-25 season.
As part of the Player Acquisition Center of Excellence program, which was launched in 2023, the SPL held meetings with all top-flight clubs in the final months of last season to understand more fully their targets and requirements. The program was launched as one of seven in the SPL’s transformation strategy.
The SPL remains committed to providing a supportive and centralized approach to transfers. This includes assisting clubs with squad mapping and player care by offering expertise, governance, and sustainability measures.
The SPL’s priorities for the season and transfer window include supporting existing contracts by prioritizing current deals to ensure the success of players by providing the necessary resources.
Other aims include strategic acquisitions to address clubs’ technical gaps and secure top talent.
Another priority is its sustainability policy, which is to ensure players are signed for technical needs, supported for success, and fairly valued.
Off the pitch, the SPL clubs continue to attract top-tier talents to their administrative ranks.
Al-Shabab recently appointed Domenico Teti as sporting director, while Al-Nassr appointed Fernando Hierro. Both sporting directors join Esteve Calzada, Al-Hilal’s CEO; Ron Gourlay, Al-Ahli’s CEO; Lee Congerton, Al-Ahli’s sporting director; Ramon Planes, Al-Ittihad’s sporting director; and James Bisgrove, Al-Qadsiah’s CEO, as new appointments ahead of the new season.
In addition, the SPL has conducted a series of workshops with partner leagues in Europe and Asia to further develop areas of cooperation and mutual benefit. Discussions have covered topics such as mutual promotion, broadcast development, and alignment on transfer window dates.
The Player Acquisition Center of Excellence program, according to the SPL, serves as a collaborative tool with clubs to enhance their acquisition capabilities.
The program has so far recruited 97 players and reviewed over 200 contracts, significantly reducing contract termination costs and lowering the average age of signed players from 29 to 27.5 years. The ultimate aim is to focus on signing players under the age of 21.