What a year: How Saudi football has flourished since World Cup win over Argentina

Special What a year: How Saudi football has flourished since World Cup win over Argentina
Salem Al-Dawsari celebrates scoring the winning goal against Argentina, Lusail Stadium, Lusail, Qatar, Nov. 22, 2022. (Reuters)
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Updated 22 November 2023
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What a year: How Saudi football has flourished since World Cup win over Argentina

What a year: How Saudi football has flourished since World Cup win over Argentina
  • Green Falcons beat Lionel Messi’s world-beaters 2-1 on Nov. 22, 2022
  • Now new coach Roberto Mancini is building a team for the future

On Nov. 22, 2022, Saudi Arabia’s footballers pulled off a sporting miracle.

Saleh Al-Shehri and Salem Al-Dawsari scored two goals to give the Green Falcons a come-from-behind 2-1 win over Argentina at the World Cup in Qatar.

It was a stunning result that had the thousands of fans at the Lusail Stadium and millions more around the world celebrating.

When the Saudi players walked off the pitch at halftime, trailing to Lionel Messi’s penalty strike, not even the most optimistic of supporters would have given them much chance of a comeback.

But Herve Renard’s halftime team-talk reenergized the players and they went on to play the 45 minutes of their lives.

Such a result against the eventual winners would have been the highlight of the decade for most countries. But it turned out to be just the spark for a new era of football in the Kingdom.

Just weeks after a wild-eyed Messi trudged off that pitch shaking his head, a much-happier looking Cristiano Ronaldo was putting pen to paper to sign for Al-Nassr. The headlines around the world reflected even more disbelief. One of the two most recognizable football players of the 21st century came to Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam to play football (and Messi almost did). Once again, this was a development that signaled the start of something new.

Ronaldo came halfway through the 2022-23 season. He was followed by a whole host of stars, like Karim Benzema, Neymar, N’Golo Kante, Fabinho, Riyad Mahrez, Roberto Firmino, Ruben Neves, Yassine Bounou, Kalidou Koulibaly, Sadio Mane, Edouard Mendy, Aymeric Laporte and Aleksandar Mitrovic, to name but a few.

Ever since, the eyes of the world have been on the league and the action this season has been enthralling. Saudi Arabian sides dominated the King Salman Club Cup and are going well in the Asian Champions League.

It is understandable that the focus has been on the foreign players: Ronaldo has one of the most recognizable faces on the planet. But visit any major city around the world and there is now a reasonable chance you will see the yellow shirts of Al-Nassr flying in shop windows and market stalls, something that would have been unthinkable a year ago.

Clubs like Al-Ittihad and Al-Hilal, already Asian powerhouses, are now global names, with the latter reaching the final of the FIFA Club World Cup, losing 5-3 to Real Madrid after beating the champions of Africa and South America en route.

But it is not just about the big stars. There is a women’s league that is going from strength to strength and a women’s national team that has a FIFA ranking and is preparing to qualify for the 2026 AFC Asian Cup. It is huge progress in a very short space of time.

Speaking of Asian Cups, in February, the Kingdom was given the hosting rights for the 2027 continental tournament for the first time. And in October, it was confirmed that the biggest sporting event of all — the FIFA World Cup — will be heading to Saudi Arabia in 2034. That is still more than a decade away, but before the Green Falcons’ shock win over Argentina, nobody thought it could ever happen.

The men’s national team has also changed a good deal too. Renard left in March to manage the France women’s team, taking them to the Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in July. He was replaced in August by another sharp-dressing European tactician, Roberto Mancini, who had formerly been head coach of the Italian national side.

After a run of poor results in friendly games — albeit against some decent opposition — eyebrows were raised when Mancini left out the likes of Firas Al-Buraikan and Abdullah Al-Hamdan for his first competitive matches, qualifiers for the 2026 World Cup against Pakistan and Jordan.

The first saw his first win, a 4-0 defeat of the South Asians that started in the pouring rain in Al-Ahsa. It was followed by a much trickier test in Amman but ended 2-0, with Al-Shehri scoring twice to add to the two goals he picked up five days earlier.

Given that it was the Al-Hilal hit man who scored the first goal against Argentina to get an amazing 12 months going, it was fitting that he has been the star for Mancini so far. It is also worthy of note that Salem Al-Dawsari, still the team’s star player, was out through injury. The new boss has brought in plenty of new faces and there are signs that, with a three-man defense lining up against Jordan, he is starting to develop a new style of play too.

The results over the past week mean the team can look forward to the AFC Asian Cup in Qatar with increasing confidence. Mancini is building a side that should be able to compete and challenge for a first continental title since the last century. After that, comes the rest of the road to North America in 2026.


IT firm Atos announces Riyadh HQ, sports technology center during LEAP conference

IT firm Atos announces Riyadh HQ, sports technology center during LEAP conference
Updated 8 sec ago
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IT firm Atos announces Riyadh HQ, sports technology center during LEAP conference

IT firm Atos announces Riyadh HQ, sports technology center during LEAP conference
  • The firm said its new Riyadh HQ and center of excellence would also help support Saudi Arabia’s development

LONDON: Global information technology services firm Atos announced on Sunday its plans to open a sports technology center in the second quarter of 2024 as part of its new MENA (Middle East and North Africa) headquarters in Riyadh.

Announced at the LEAP 2024 conference, an Atos statement said the center would enable the firm to continue providing “best-in-class IT services and solutions to global sporting events” and “develop cutting-edge technology applications to benefit athletes, fans and the sports sector in Saudi Arabia.”

Marc Veelenturf, CEO for the Middle East and Turkiye at Atos, said: “Through the Sports Technology Center of Excellence, Atos will empower organizations in Saudi Arabia with the technologies needed to thrive in the Kingdom’s digital economy. Drawing upon our best-in-class digital tools and IT solutions, the center will become the epicenter for major events technology and digital innovation in the region.” 

The firm said its new Riyadh HQ and center of excellence would also help support Saudi Arabia’s public sector initiatives, transformation projects and various giga-projects and smart destinations such as Expo 2030 and Saudi Entertainment and Amusement Expo.

Mutaz Salem, general manager at Atos, said: “Atos will enable Saudi’s major projects to become pioneering, future-proof smart destinations rooted in tradition, sport and culture with strong expertise and experience.”

Javier Escudero, commercial director at the firm’s Major Events arm, said: “The center of excellence will be located in the heart of Riyadh to provide major events with seamless technology, orchestrating flawless operations and secure data flow.

“Our unique track record in sport includes over 25 Asian projects such as the Olympic Games, and Asian, Arab and Gulf Games. Atos’ innovative solutions will serve as the backbone, enabling organizers to captivate audiences worldwide while ensuring reliability and precision behind the scenes.”


Table-toppers Multan Sultans defeat Karachi Kings by 20 runs in PSL clash

Table-toppers Multan Sultans defeat Karachi Kings by 20 runs in PSL clash
Updated 54 min 59 sec ago
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Table-toppers Multan Sultans defeat Karachi Kings by 20 runs in PSL clash

Table-toppers Multan Sultans defeat Karachi Kings by 20 runs in PSL clash
  • Usman Khan played a brilliant innings of 106 runs not out to build momentum for Multan
  • Chasing 190 runs to win, Karachi Kings could barely reach 169 runs at the end of 20th over

ISLAMABAD: Table-toppers Multan Sultans defeated Karachi Kings by 20 runs in their Pakistan Super League (PSL) 9th edition match at the National Stadium in Karachi.

Multan decided to bat first after they won the toss. Usman Khan played a brilliant innings of 106 runs not out to build momentum for his side.

Along with Khan, Mohammad Rizwan scored a half century to power Multan to 189 runs. In response, Karachi could only score 169 runs from their 20 overs.

“Sultans Supremacy in Karachi,” the PSL commented on X after the match. “Multan keep their place at the top of the standings after achieving a commanding win over Karachi.”

Blessing Muzarabani took two wickets for 32 runs, while Hasan Ali dismissed one for 34 runs.

Chasing 190 runs to win, Shoaib Malik and Shan Masood scored 38 (28) and 36 (29) respectively. Mohammad Nawaz chipped in with 27 runs not out as Karachi reached 169 at the end of 20th over.

Usama Mir dismissed two for 29, while Khushdil Shah and David Willey took one wicket each.

This was Multan’s sixth win from their seven matches, while Karachi have won only two of their six games this season.


Joaquin Niemann crowned LIV Golf Jeddah champion

Joaquin Niemann crowned LIV Golf Jeddah champion
Updated 03 March 2024
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Joaquin Niemann crowned LIV Golf Jeddah champion

Joaquin Niemann crowned LIV Golf Jeddah champion
  • Crushers GC team to beat after stunning performances at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club

JEDDAH: Joaquin Niemann once again proved he is the hottest golfer on the planet right now and Crushers GC showed they are the most dominant team in the LIV Golf League with stunning performances at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club.

The Chilean golfer, captain of Torque GC, won the individual title by four shots with birdies on his last two holes. A four-under par 66 took him to 17-under par, four clear of Stingers captain Louis Oosthuizen (67) and his compatriot Charl Schwartzel (68).

Niemann’s win, his second of the season in three starts after LIV Golf Mayakoba, was remarkable, but it was the performance of the Bryson DeChambeau-led Crushers (-38) that became the talk of the golf course. They staged a magnificent charge on the final day, coming back from 11 shots behind and beating overnight leaders Stingers (-34) by four shots.

On a difficult, windy day, captain DeChambeau led from the front with the day’s lowest round of eight-under 62, which helped him finish fourth in the individual standings, while Charles Howell III contributed a 64 and Anirban Lahiri 65 (both tied sixth). They beat the previous record of the biggest comeback by a team in LIV history by four shots (4Aces in Adelaide last year).

Niemann now has three wins (Australian Open in December and two LIV wins), a third, a fourth, and a fifth position in his last six starts worldwide.

He started the final round two ahead and immediately increased that margin with a birdie on his opening hole. Thereafter, he continued to hit one good shot after another, with the only bogey of the day on the 13th hole, which also happened to be only his second bogey of the tournament. He closed with birdies on the 17th and 18th, which came after a huge drive of 410 yards.

The 25-year-old from Santiago, who has received a special invitational to play this year’s Masters and also qualified for the Open Championship following his win in Australia, said: “It feels amazing. It’s a super special moment. It’s always nice when you win, but I’m more proud of how I’m playing right now and the way I played out there today. It was a tough day. It was windy.

“I think this is the most confident I have ever felt on a golf course, the best I’ve ever played. I just want it to keep going in the same direction. There is a lot more to improve, and I think I just need to be curious about that and see how much I can learn.”

Niemann won $4 million and 40 points, which takes him to the top of the individual standings after three tournaments at 80 points.

Crushers were off to a solid start, but the real momentum boost was provided by DeChambeau, when he eagled the par-5 18th hole with a 20-feet putt, and then almost willed in a 15-feet birdie putt on his next hole to take his team level with Stingers. Howell and Lahiri kept adding birdies and it turned out to be a romp for the team.

On whether he thought a win was possible at the start of the day, DeChambeau said: “No, but I knew that our team is good enough to do it any day, especially with four scores counting. I can count on these guys to play really well.

“The top priority for us was to play our best, and it obviously showed today. Especially in these conditions, when it’s really windy, we do pretty well. We just hold our heads high.”

Lahiri said: “Bryson’s low round was the key. That was unbelievable golf. I was playing so well given the conditions that I thought I might be one of the lowest scores of the day, and if that gets beaten by two of my own teammates, it just shows how well we played as a team.”

Crushers are the reigning Team Championship winners and have moved to the top of the team standings. With a second place in Mayakoba, they now have 68 points, 18 ahead of second-placed Smash GC.


UAE Pro League review: Al-Wasl maintain 8-point lead over Al-Ain at top of table

Al-Wasl have an 8-point lead over Al-Ain at the top of the ADNOC Pro League. (@AlWaslSC)
Al-Wasl have an 8-point lead over Al-Ain at the top of the ADNOC Pro League. (@AlWaslSC)
Updated 03 March 2024
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UAE Pro League review: Al-Wasl maintain 8-point lead over Al-Ain at top of table

Al-Wasl have an 8-point lead over Al-Ain at the top of the ADNOC Pro League. (@AlWaslSC)
  • Walter Zenga’s Emirates endure another defeat, look set for drop

DUBAI: Relentless leaders Al-Wasl heaped pressure on Cosmin Olaroiu’s underperforming Sharjah, Spain icon Andres Iniesta’s sinking Emirates Club looked doomed, and Farhad Majidi’s inconsistent Ittihad Kalba-reign was brought to an ignominious end during ADNOC Pro League’s matchweek 15.

Friday’s grandstand clash in Dubai witnessed goals from Abdulrahman Saleh and outstanding UAE attacker Ali Saleh to maintain Al-Wasl’s grip on their first title since 2006-07 with a 2-0 triumph, while pushing star-studded Sharjah 13 points off the pace.

On the same evening, Tunisia playmaker Haykeul Chikhaoui’s ferocious opener sent improving Ajman on their way to a 2-0 win which moved them nine points away from danger and pushed Walter Zenga’s bottom-placed Emirates – enduring a 10-match losing streak – eight points from safety.

Fellow promoted outfit Hatta showed fight in a 5-3 reversal at AFC Champions League quarter-finalists Al-Ain and third-placed holders Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club required an instant brace by substitute Yuri Cesar in an eventual 3-0 victory at 10-man Khor Fakkan.

Shambolic defending caused 13th-placed Kalba’s 2-1 loss to Al-Bataeh and was followed by the exit of former Iran under-23 and Esteghlal boss Majidi after almost two years at the helm. Ex-Brazil and Napoli defensive midfielder Allan netted an unlikely pair to hand Al-Wahda the Abu Dhabi Derby spoils in a pulsating 3-2 defeat for Mirel Radoi’s unconvincing Al-Jazira, while Alfred Schreuder’s flourishing Al-Nasr rose to sixth with a 1-0 triumph versus Baniyas – their fourth in five top-flight fixtures.

Here are Arab News’ top picks and a talking point from the latest action.

Player of the week: Allan (Al-Wahda)

Al-Wahda supporters could have been tricked into thinking they had landed Kaka, instead of Allan.

Their skipper’s granite reputation was earned via winning countless midfield battles in Serie A and the Premier League, rather than through artfully dispatched doubles.

Saturday’s unexpected turn, however, made all the difference on home soil when they welcomed floundering near-neighbors Al-Jazira to Al-Nahyan Stadium.

It was quite the way to open his ADNOC Pro League account, after being recruited back in September 2022.

A deft dummied shot and incisive strike through numerous flailing Pride of Abu Dhabi-defenders made it 2-0 on 41 minutes. The 33-year-old had also clipped in the 17th-minute free-kick from which on-form Iran midfielder Ahmad Nourollahi eventually back-heel half-volleyed the opener.

Even better was to come past the hour mark. By that point, a frantic derby had swung back toward the Pride of Abu Dhabi after ex-Fulham player Neeskens Kebano struck twice to make it 2-2.

Allan’s stepover at pace on the edge of the penalty box sent retreating Moroccan youngster Mohammed Rabii off balance, prior to lashing into the roof of stranded UAE goalkeeper Ali Khaseif’s net. It was a fitting winner for a high-quality and high-drama clash.

For fourth-placed Al-Wahda, January’s call to draft in former Ajman miracle-worker Goran Tufegdzic has been rewarded with seven points from nine. Al-Jazira, meanwhile, are yet to ignite since snaffling ex-Romania boss Radoi from Bataeh and slipped to seventh.

Goal of the week: Ali Saleh (Al-Wasl)

Whatever challenge is put in front of Al-Wasl, they have got the firepower to overcome it.

Their ninth win from their last 10 top-flight outings was sealed by homegrown hero Saleh.

The 24-year-old collected UAE colleague Caio Canedo’s flicked header, composed himself and then curled past helpless Sharjah goalkeeper Adel Al-Hosani from 20 yards. It was a beautiful way to produce a seventh goal contribution in 14 matches.

Al-Wasl remain in control of their title destiny, eight-points ahead of Al-Ain with a game extra played. It also feels increasingly perplexing why Saleh was handed just 210 minutes on the way to the UAE’s dispiriting round-of-16 exit at 2023 Asian Cup.

Coach of the week: Daniel Isaila (Ajman)

A fine rescue job is being performed by Daniel Isaila at 11th-placed Ajman.

Last season’s dark horses in sixth spot had rapidly declined to relegation certainties under Caio Zanardi. Friday’s consummate win against Emirates featured 13 attempts on target to the visitors’ three, even with Iniesta starting in the league for the first time since Dec. 1.

Isaila has transformed horizons since October’s hire. The acumen which evolved outsiders Baniyas into shock 2020/21 runners-up has been transplanted at Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Stadium.

What to do with Olaroiu?

It is not unfair, or unkind, to expect far more from fifth-placed Sharjah.

Their third league loss of a befuddling campaign has kept The King far away from the crown. A points deficit counted in double digits with 11 matches still to play was not expected when the 2023-24 season kicked off.

It is an unbalanced team which is performing below the sum of their parts. Worryingly, serial trophy hoarder Olaroiu’s once-golden touch appears to be waning.

“I am not the one who makes the decisions regarding contracts with players,” was the Romanian’s pointed comment post-match, according to Dubai Sports.

What happens next is the glaring question.

Sharjah’s 11 at Zabeel Stadium contained ex-Barcelona and Juventus superstar Miralem Pjanic, ex-Porto and Al-Hilal attacker Moussa Marega, 184-goal UAE veteran Sebastian Tagliabue, and South Korea’s World Cup 2022 performer Cho Yu-min. They boasted more possession (55 percent/45 percent) and attempts (14/12), yet Al-Wasl’s greater desire proved crucial.

Last season’s disappointing seventh-place finish was forgiven, amid an unprecedented sweep of four domestic trophies. This term, however, has been stained by group-stage collapse in the AFC Champions League, quarter-final elimination in the ADIB Cup, a 6-2 humiliation to Shabab Al-Ahli in the UAE Super Cup, and failure to threaten in the ADNOC Pro League.

Schreuder’s ascendant Al-Nasr and Al-Ain await, either side of the international break. This could be a situation careering toward breaking point.


Sharjah rookie grabs dramatic win as Team Abu Dhabi get top 10 finish

Sharjah rookie grabs dramatic win as Team Abu Dhabi get top 10 finish
Updated 03 March 2024
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Sharjah rookie grabs dramatic win as Team Abu Dhabi get top 10 finish

Sharjah rookie grabs dramatic win as Team Abu Dhabi get top 10 finish
  • Rusty Wyatt makes perfect start at Grand Prix of Indonesia, the opening race of the 2024 UIM F1H2O World Championship

ABU DHABI: Sharjah rookie Rusty Wyatt recorded a dramatic victory in the Grand Prix of Indonesia today as Team Abu Dhabi battled through a tough start to the 2024 UIM F1H2O World Championship.

Reigning world champion Jonas Andersson looked poised for a record fifth race win in a row but dropped to third place as Wyatt and Victory Team’s Erik Stark both passed him in a sensational finish.

Making his Team Abu Dhabi debut and starting down the field after a broken engine in qualifying, Alberto Comparato climbed seven places on the day to finish inside the top 10.

The young Italian will now be aiming for a big improvement on his ninth place when the second round at the end of this month introduces Vietnam as the latest new championship venue.

His Abu Dhabi teammate, Thani Al-Qemzi, will equally be looking for a change in fortunes next time out. Starting his 153rd Grand Prix in ninth spot following a disappointing qualifying run, the veteran Emirati driver reached the finish in seventh place. He later collected a one-lap penalty for a start infringement and dropped to 12th.

After a false start caused by a technical issue, Stark looked to have grabbed an important advantage over Andersson as he squeezed past his fellow Swede on the first lap before the race was halted when Ferdinand Zandbergen crashed out.

Andersson regained control from the re-start and shrugged off several attacks by Stark before the final lap saw them tussling for the win down the last straight, both boats slowing with technical issues.

As the Victory driver squeezed ahead, Wyatt powered his way through on the outside right at the finish to become the first rookie to win a Grand Prix. Sharjah’s Canadian driver takes an immediate lead in the championship from Stark, and Al-Qemzi and Comparato will be determined to ensure that the UAE has three teams challenging for honors as the season progresses.

Team Abu Dhabi have secured 17 world championship titles since Guido Cappellini took over as team manager in 2015, and the Italian racing legend is determined to deliver more success to Abu Dhabi Marine Sports Club.

His meticulous planning and attention to detail will be aimed at giving Al-Qemzi and Comparato a significant boost to see them challenging for podium places in Vietnam.