Football fever grips Jeddah as FIFA Club World Cup kicks off

Football fever grips Jeddah as FIFA Club World Cup kicks off
The fans of Saudi Arabia champions Al-Ittihad are hoping for a first Asian victory and the first non-European win since 2012. (X: @ittihad)
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Updated 21 December 2023
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Football fever grips Jeddah as FIFA Club World Cup kicks off

Football fever grips Jeddah as FIFA Club World Cup kicks off
  • Globe’s greatest clubs and players to compete for one of the game’s most iconic trophies
  • Local hopes on Jeddah giants and Saudi Arabia champions Al-Ittihad

The eyes of the football world are on Jeddah as the FIFA Club World Cup kicks off on Tuesday, a fact that visitors will be aware of as soon as they arrive at King Abdulaziz Airport and board the train that takes them to the terminal. Posters and billboards abound everywhere. Taxi drivers, even fans of Al-Ahli, the other major team in the Red Sea port that is not participating, are excited.

They talk of seeing Manchester City, the all-conquering champions of Europe and England, coached by Pep Guardiola and featuring some of the most talented players in the world: Erling Haaland, Rodri and Ederson to name just a few. As always in the tournament, the focus is on the team from Europe but there is also more than usual international interest in the local side.

Jeddah giants and Saudi Arabia champions Al-Ittihad have stars of their own in Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante and Fabinho. But just like Guardiola, new coach Marcelo Gallardo has injury issues, including with Benzema who has been absent of late in the Saudi Pro League. If the Frenchman can lead Al-Ittihad to the title it will not just be the first Asian victory and the first non-European win since 2012, he will secure his sixth global title, equaling the record of former Real Madrid teammate Toni Kroos.

That will not concern the coach too much as Gallardo just wants the striker fit, especially as there are doubts over the availability of Moroccan marksman Abderrazak Hamdallah. Last season’s league top scorer will miss Tuesday’s opener against Auckland City, Oceania champions, and faces a race to be ready to take on Africa giants Al-Ahly if Al-Ittihad make it that far. The Egyptians —  the 11-time Africa champions have had some titanic clashes with Saudi Arabia sides in this tournament — are also not quite at their best at the moment.

The same can be said of City. Kevin De Bruyne has not played since the start of the English Premier League season and the goalscoring phenomenon that is Haaland sat out Sunday’s win over Luton Town, a victory that ended a run of four league games without a win.

Regardless, City will be the ones to beat, not least because they arrive for the semifinal stage and will take on either the Asian champions Urawa Reds or Leon, representing CONCACAF. The Mexico side, making their debut in this competition, are the favorites to win given the fact that the Japan team, that defeated Al-Hilal in the final earlier this year, are in poor form after losing six of their last nine games.

Straight into the other semifinal are the South America representatives Fluminense. Another debutant, the team from Rio stand in the way of Al-Ittihad’s path to the final. Should the Tigers get past Auckland and Al-Ahly then there will be a game with Fluminense. After Al-Hilal defeated Flamengo at the same stage in the last edition, there is no reason why a full-strength and in-form Al-Ittihad cannot do the same.

It remains to be seen if the team are either and the fitness and form of Benzema could be key. Home advantage will help too. This is the first time that the Club World Cup has been held in Saudi Arabia. It is also the last time that it will take place in its current format with just one representative from each confederation as well as the champions from the host nation. The next time it will be held in the US in 2025 when there will be no less than 32 teams.

Four will be from Asia with Al-Hilal, as 2021 continental champions already booked in, with six from South America and 12 European sides. It is going to make for a much bigger and potentially exciting tournament but it is also going to make it much more difficult to win with group stages and knockout rounds against many of the world’s best teams.

This December, however, all teams that arrive in Jeddah know that there is a short step to glory. There are three that are appearing on this stage for the first time. Manchester City and Fluminense are just two games away from being crowned world champions — for the English team it would be a fourth major prize of 2023. Leon have just three games.

Of those that have appeared before, Al-Ahly will relish the chance to win in their own backyard. The same is true for Al-Ittihad in their home city. Al-Hilal reached the final last time around but Real Madrid were too strong, led by Benzema. Now Benzema is a Tiger and with the support of a nation, the team from Jeddah have what it takes to be the first from Asia, the first not from Europe or South America, to be world champions. They are just 270 minutes from glory. The world will be watching.


Al-Hilal’s record 34-match winning run ends at Al-Ain

Al-Hilal’s record 34-match winning run ends at Al-Ain
Updated 18 April 2024
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Al-Hilal’s record 34-match winning run ends at Al-Ain

Al-Hilal’s record 34-match winning run ends at Al-Ain
  • Morocco striker Soufiane Rahimi was the star of the show after he scored a first-half hat-trick in a 4-2 win for Al-Ain in their semifinal first leg
  • Al-Hilal, the four-time Asian champions, last failed to win a game in September last year when they drew a Saudi Pro League match

AL-AIN: Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal saw their record run of 34 successive victories end on Wednesday at the hands of UAE’s Al-Ain in the Asian Champions League.
Morocco striker Soufiane Rahimi was the star of the show after he scored a first-half hat-trick in a 4-2 win for Al-Ain in their semifinal first leg.
Al-Hilal, the four-time Asian champions, last failed to win a game in September last year when they drew a Saudi Pro League match.
Wednesday’s game had been postponed 24 hours after torrential rain swamped the UAE and the record-setting Saudis must have wished it had kept raining.
Rahimi opened the scoring after just six minutes from a pass by Yahia Nader and added a second from the penalty spot 20 minutes later after he was brought down by goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais who was yellow carded for his troubles.
Rahimi completed his hat-trick in the 40th minute, again from a penalty after Ali Al-Bulayhi chopped down Brazilian defender Erik in the area.
Al-Hilal reduced the deficit early in the second period when Malcom scored from a pass by Sergej Milinkovic-Savic.
However, the Saudis conceded yet another penalty just before the hour mark with Kalidou Koulibaly bringing down Rahimi.
This time Paraguayan star Alejandro Romero took over spot-kick duties to make it 4-1 for Al-Ain, the inaugural winners of the Asian Champions League in 2003.
Salem Al-Dawsari kept Al-Hilal in the tie ahead of next Tuesday’s return leg by scoring his team’s second goal of the night in the 78th minute.
Earlier Wednesday, South Korea’s Ulsan claimed a slender lead in their semifinal with a 1-0 first leg win over Japan’s Yokohama F-Marinos.


Saudi beat Tajikistan 4-2 in AFC U-23 Asian Cup group opener

Saudi beat Tajikistan 4-2 in AFC U-23 Asian Cup group opener
Updated 17 April 2024
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Saudi beat Tajikistan 4-2 in AFC U-23 Asian Cup group opener

Saudi beat Tajikistan 4-2 in AFC U-23 Asian Cup group opener
  • The Green Falcons lead Group C on goal difference as Thailand beat Iraq

DOHA: Saudi Arabia kicked off their 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup campaign in style with a 4-2 win over Tajikistan on Tuesday at Khalifa International Stadium in Al-Rayyan.

In the other Group C match, Thailand defeated Iraq 2-0 at Al-Janoub in Al-Wakrah.

The Green Falcons now have three points and lead their group ahead of Thailand on goal difference. Tajikistan and Iraq are third and fourth respectively with zero points.

Saudi Arabia took the lead on seven minutes through Rayane Hamidou, but Tajikistan struck back through Ruslan Khayloev after 23 minutes. Deep into stoppage time at the end of the first period, Saudi regained the advantage thanks to Haitham Asiri.

Saad Al-Shehri’s men looked to have put the game to bed with goals by Ayman Yahya on 55 and 61 minutes, before Rustam Soirov gave Tajikistan a glimmer of hope nine minutes later to make it 4-2.

Earlier in the day, Japan beat China 1-0 in the opening match in Group B at Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium, before South Korea defeated the UAE team at Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium.

Saudi Arabia’s next game is against Thailand on Friday. They will then face Iraq on April 22. 

The 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup, which sees 16 nations split into four groups of four, also acts as a route to the Olympic Games in Paris this summer.

The top two teams from each group progress to the quarterfinals, with the winners of both semifinals automatically qualifying for the Olympics.

The losing semifinalists will contest third place, with the winner also booking a spot in Paris. The fourth-place finishers have one final chance to secure a place at the Games through a play-off against an African qualifier.


Al-Hilal shifts focus to the Asian Champions League semifinals as it continues a four-title bid

Al-Hilal shifts focus to the Asian Champions League semifinals as it continues a four-title bid
Updated 16 April 2024
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Al-Hilal shifts focus to the Asian Champions League semifinals as it continues a four-title bid

Al-Hilal shifts focus to the Asian Champions League semifinals as it continues a four-title bid
  • Al-Hilal are in contention for an unprecedented collection of four titles

DUBAI: The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema haven’t been able to halt Al-Hilal’s dominant run in Saudi Arabia’s domestic football league. Now it’s the turn of Al-Ain of the UAE to come up against this seemingly unstoppable force in the semifinals of the Asian Champions League.

Al-Hilal are in contention for an unprecedented collection of four titles. The first trophy was secured last week when Malcom scored twice for the club in a 4-1 win over Al-Ittihad in the Saudi Super Cup final. With seven games in the Saudi Pro League remaining, the Blues are 12 points clear of Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr.

On April 30, the Riyadh-based club will meet Al-Ittihad of Jeddah in the semifinals of the King’s Cup, a domestic knockout competition.

Al-Hilal also have their sights set on a record fifth continental title, though is expecting a challenge Tuesday against the Hernan Crespo coached Al-Ain, the 2003 champions who ousted Al-Nassr in the Asian Champions League quarterfinals.

“We have only won one trophy and there are three more to go for,” defender Ali Al-Bulaihi told Saudi Arabian TV ahead of the continental semifinals. “Al-Hilal is a system and everyone at the club from the bottom to the top works hard and this is the reason for success. We are not afraid of any team and we are ready for any challenge.”

Despite being without injured striker Aleksandar Mitrovic, the joint leading scorer in this season’s Asian Champions League, and Brazilian superstar Neymar, Al-Hilal are still in great form. The Super Cup victory over Ittihad extended their world record winning streak for top tier teams to 34 games.

While Al-Hilal is strongly favored to overcome Al-Ain and progress to next month’s final, the meeting in the eastern zone — Asia’s top continental club tournament is divided into two geographic halves until the final — appears closer to call.

The eastern zone playoff is between last season’s champion of South Korea and Japan’s runner-up as Ulsan HD, Asian champions in 2012 and 2022, welcomes Yokohama F. Marinos.

Five-time Japanese champion Yokohama has never reached this stage in Asia before, even under successful coaches Ange Postecoglou and Kevin Muscat.

Harry Kewell is the third successive Australian coach at the club and is hoping to take Yokohama all the way.

“It’s important to understand when I first came into the job it was always going to be a quick turnaround for us because of the AFC Champions League games that were coming up,” Kewell, appointed in December, said. “The attitude of the players has been excellent — the willingness from them to learn a slightly new style.”

“It’s been quite easy to implement my ideas,” added Kewell, who won the UEFA Champions League as a player with Liverpool in 2005. “They’ve accepted it and they’ve worked very hard in perfecting them throughout the games.”

Yokohama will host Ulsan in the return leg of the semifinals on April 24, a day after Al-Hilal takes on Al-Ain in Saudi Arabia.


Saudi FA to review fan code of conduct after supporter appears to whip player

Saudi FA to review fan code of conduct after supporter appears to whip player
Updated 15 April 2024
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Saudi FA to review fan code of conduct after supporter appears to whip player

Saudi FA to review fan code of conduct after supporter appears to whip player
  • Incident took place at the end of Al-Ittihad’s defeat by Al-Hilal in the Saudi Super Cup in Abu Dhabi
  • Footage shows Al-Ittihad striker Abderrazak Hamdallah throw water at a fan, who then strikes the player twice with what looks like a whip

RIYADH: The Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) is to review its spectator code of conduct after a supporter appeared to whip an Al-Ittihad player.

The incident took place at the end of Al-Ittihad’s defeat by Al-Hilal in the Saudi Super Cup in Abu Dhabi.

Footage that circulated on social media showed Al-Ittihad striker Abderrazak Hamdallah throw water at a fan, who then struck the player twice with what looked like a whip.

Moroccan Hamdallah scored for his side as they lost 4-1.

The SAFF said it was “shocked with the disgraceful scenes.”

A statement released by SAFF said: “Football in Saudi Arabia is a family game and, thankfully, fan disorder is extremely rare.”

It continued: “It’s why the actions of this ‘so called’ fan go against all that Saudi football represents and we completely condemn the incident.

“There will be a thorough review of the spectator code of conduct. The review will ensure updated rules and regulations are put in place to swiftly and effectively impose suitable penalties to help avoid any repeat of such incidents.”


Al-Hilal beats Al-Ittihad 4-1 in final of the Saudi Super Cup

Al-Hilal beats Al-Ittihad 4-1 in final of the Saudi Super Cup
Updated 12 April 2024
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Al-Hilal beats Al-Ittihad 4-1 in final of the Saudi Super Cup

Al-Hilal beats Al-Ittihad 4-1 in final of the Saudi Super Cup
  • “It was a difficult game and I am very happy to score two goals,” Malcom told Saudi television

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates: Al-Hilal beat Al-Ittihad 4-1 in the final of the Saudi Super Cup on Thursday to stay on course for an unprecedented quadruple.
The trophy, lifted in Abu Dhabi’s Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium, is the first of the season for the Riyadh giant but is unlikely to be the last as the team is also 12 points clear of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr at the top of the Saudi Pro League with just seven games remaining.
Al-Hilal, also in the semifinal of the Asian Champions League and the Saudi King’s Cup, has also expanded its world record winning streak for top-tier teams to 34 consecutive games in all competitions.
Three days after defeating Al-Nassr in the semifinal, during which Ronaldo was sent off for elbowing Ali Al-Bulaihi, two goals from Brazilian winger Malcom did the damage for Al-Hilal. Salem Al-Dawsari and Nasser Al-Dawsari sealed the win with late goals.
“It was a difficult game and I am very happy to score two goals,” Malcom told Saudi television. “We are also happy to collect our first title of the season but we are chasing more trophies.”
Ittihad striker Karim Benzema, signed from Real Madrid last summer, was unable to find the target while colleague Abderrazak Hamdallah made up for missing a penalty by getting on the scoresheet.
The Moroccan forward featured in a controversial incident at the end of the match, however, as he seemed to get involved in an altercation with a fan standing close to the field. The supporter was led away by security personnel.
In 2023, the Super Cup was expanded from a single game between the league champion and King’s Cup winner to include the runners-up from both competitions. It was also moved to Abu Dhabi.
Al-Hilal returns to the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday to take on Al-Ain in the first leg of the Asian Champions League semifinals as it seeks a record fifth continental title.
The club’s potentially record-breaking season comes after it spent about 350 million euros ($380 million) on player transfers after being taken over by the Saudi sovereign wealth operation, the Public Investment Fund which is controlled by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.