I feel I have a strong purpose in being in Saudi Arabia, says Ittihad Ladies’ Ashleigh Plumptre

I feel I have a strong purpose in being in Saudi Arabia, says Ittihad Ladies’ Ashleigh Plumptre
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Updated 16 December 2023
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I feel I have a strong purpose in being in Saudi Arabia, says Ittihad Ladies’ Ashleigh Plumptre

I feel I have a strong purpose in being in Saudi Arabia, says Ittihad Ladies’ Ashleigh Plumptre
  • In the first of two exclusive features with Arab News, the Nigerian discusses her groundbreaking move to the Kingdom and desire to help develop women’s football

LONDON: Most footballing destinies are shaped in grandiose settings — gleaming stadiums or opulent boardrooms.

However, for Ashleigh Plumptre, the momentous discussion about her life-changing move to Saudi Arabia unfolded in far more ordinary surroundings: A car journey to collect an Indian takeaway for her father’s birthday after Plumptre’s relaxing holiday in Los Angeles.

June 2023 marked a pivotal juncture for the Saudi Women’s Premier League’s new superstar, who on Thursday scored a hat-trick as Al-Ittihad defeated Al-Ahli 6-2 in the Jeddah Derby. That was when her contract with England’s Women’s Super League outfit Leicester Ladies expired.

The cultured central defender, a stalwart at her hometown club for three years as a professional and seven years as a youth player, harbored no specific aspirations about her next move. The looming World Cup in July and August presented a global stage where Plumptre, 25, would excel in the green and white of Nigeria as they embarked on an exhilarating journey to the last 16.

The footballing world was Plumptre’s oyster. The lucrative offers her father and agent, Tim, received from clubs in the WSL, Europe and the US, bore testimony to that.

However, an intriguing call from Nick McCreery of Jobs4Football about his recruitment for Jeddah-based Al-Ittihad Ladies captured his imagination.

“It was weird how it happened,” Plumptre reflected during an exclusive interview with Arab News. “My dad messaged me while I was away in LA right at the end of the season for about a week and a half and said: ‘You’ve got interest from a club in Saudi Arabia.’ And I was like, ‘Well, OK.’ There’s nothing that would draw me there if I haven’t spoken to anybody about it. I wouldn’t just come here for the sake of coming here.”

Al-Ittihad, having finished fifth in the inaugural Saudi Women’s Premier League season, had launched an ambitious recruitment drive. Kelly Lindsey, a former US international and ex-manager of the Morocco and Afghanistan women’s national teams, had taken the managerial reins, with her assistant Myles Smith, a figure with experience at Manchester United and West Ham.

Attracting an international footballer like Plumptre signaled an intent to emulate the men’s Saudi Pro League’s star-studded signing strategy. Notable footballing royalty, including Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar, had recently arrived in the Kingdom.

However, McCreery had emphasized that the overarching aim of signing Plumptre was to help grow the Saudi women’s game.

This resonated greatly with Plumptre senior, who told Arab News that his daughter enjoys giving back and broadening her horizons.

Aged only 18 in 2016, she moved to the US to play college football at the University of Southern California.

Fast forward seven years, and another life-affirming odyssey awaited Plumptre in a Saudi port city.

The unconventional setting and timing for the call — her father had just picked her up from the airport after her holiday — exemplified Plumptre’s instinctive approach to life.

“I spoke to Kelly (Lindsey) and a couple of her staff members for about an hour and I came off the call and I said to my dad, ‘Mm, yeah, this is a feeling I’ve not had before’,” she said. “From that moment, there was nothing that could sway me from this decision (to move to Saudi Arabia).”

Interestingly, the pair’s captivating conversation did not revolve around football tactics or “boasts about what was on offer” but delved deeper, exploring Plumptre’s values and personality.

“Kelly’s always in the background and doesn’t get a lot of plaudits but she’s a very, very powerful and inspirational human being,” Plumptre said. “I don’t think she said anything specifically that drew me in; it was just her honesty and authenticity that I really connected with.

“I naturally gravitate towards people like that, and that’s when I was like, ‘well, yeah, I want this all sorted before I go to the World Cup.’ I actually signed before the World Cup but kept it on the down-low as I didn’t want any distractions.”

Plumptre’s swift and decisive move raised eyebrows in England, where the expectation was that she would join an established footballing force. Furthermore, it was a significant leap of faith as “Leicester meant a lot to me because I grew up there and I was supported by the community there.”

Magnifying the audaciousness of her move is the nascent nature of the women’s football landscape in Saudi Arabia.

To put things in context, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation organized the first unofficial women’s competition in Jeddah only four years ago. Moreover, the Saudi Arabia’s women’s national team played their first match just over two years later, in February 2022.

Plumptre’s knowledge about the brave new world she was entering was scant; she admitted to having done “only a little bit of research” about the Saudi league and her new club.

Plumptre is no reckless adventurer, however. A thoughtful and reflective individual, she is thoroughly engaging during a fascinating and wide-ranging hour-long Zoom call.

How many young female footballers would candidly admit to routine pre- and post-match tears, expressing the visceral emotions that consume them? How many would reject the lure of the Lionesses, England’s national women’s football team, and opt to represent her paternal grandfather’s birthplace instead?

“I’ve never been somebody who conforms,” Plumptre said. Her mantra, the “fulfillment of the soul,” exemplifies this unorthodox modus vivendi. Plumptre prioritizes personal happiness over conventional footballing goals.

“The decisions I’ve made in life have always made me feel good because I’ve done what I wanted to do, not what society or friends or family have said, ‘Oh, this is what you should do.’ I have a very strong intuition, I think.”

The “blend of cultures” and the prospect of mutual learning at Al-Ittihad is evidently fulfilling Plumptre’s soul.

Al-Ittihad’s summer player recruitment also included Morocco’s Women’s World Cup star Salma Amani, former Liverpool defender Leighanne Robe and young Swedish striker Nor Mustafa, who recently played for West Ham.

Their synergy with Saudi internationals such as Bayan Sadagah has translated into impressive results on the field.

At the time of writing, Al-Ittihad lie second in the eight-team Saudi Women’s Premier League after six matches. Plumptre, living up to her status as the league’s highest-profile player, embellished her debut with a remarkable hat-trick in Al-Ittihad’s 3-0 win away to Eastern Flames in Dammam, before adding the second treble in Thursday’s defeat of Al-Ahli.

Plumptre acknowledges that the Saudi Women’s Premier League “in its infancy” is completely different from the WSL, one of the best leagues globally. However, she steadfastly refuses to “stagnate” and is consistently challenging herself in myriad ways.

“There are so many things I’m learning even with my game as it’s given me an opportunity to work on things that I probably wasn’t brave enough to do when I was in the WSL.

“Here, I can almost try different things, like I’m a left-footed player and I don’t want to be solely left-footed. I want to be able to know that I can do the same kind of passes with my right foot, which I’m brave enough to now step into doing here.

“So, even though the game isn’t necessarily as fast-paced, I cover a lot of distance because sometimes I’m allowed, as a center-back, to get myself in a higher position.

“That’s why I scored my goals (on the opening day).”

How does she feel about being labeled a trailblazer? “It’s not really trailblazing for me because I’m stepping into something that I believe I was always meant to do,” she said.

While she is “fiercely competitive” and has a burning desire to win games and trophies — she won the 2020-21 FA Women’s Championship with Leicester City — Plumptre’s ultimate success would be seeing her teammates developing physically and emotionally.

“For me, it’s about winning in a way that would make me feel fulfilled,” she said.

Plumptre, a habitually “smiley” person off the pitch, said she can appear aggressive on it given her intense will to win.

She has enjoyed having some “incredibly powerful conversations” with some of her Saudi teammates about this and their Muslim faith.

Plumptre is ostensibly the ideal person to galvanize Saudi women’s football’s exciting growth; the number of registered female football players between 2021 and 2023 has risen by 86 percent.

She is actively brainstorming ideas about grassroots projects to ensure the women’s game continues to flourish. She also envisions going to schools, encouraging self-expression and fostering a supportive environment.

“It would be cool to do a class where I can just encourage kids like I’ve done with my younger siblings to just draw themselves or write their names and the things they’re passionate about,” said Plumptre, who is an ambassador for Menphys, a Leicestershire charity supporting young people with disabilities — including her autistic brother Lewis. “It doesn’t have to be football; it could be art, it could be music. But I think your hobbies say a lot about you and allow you to express yourself in some way, which I think is really important.

“I feel I have a strong purpose in being here, and that always goes beyond football.”

Would she encourage other stars to follow in her footsteps?

Al-Ittihad’s assistant manager Smith told Arab News in October that the club had been in talks with “five, eight-times Champions League winners, World Cup winners, some of the best players that have kicked a ball in women’s football.”

Plumptre would welcome such “high-caliber” signings, provided they share her philanthropic motivations.

“I think it’s really important that while the league is new, and there are so many Saudi players who are trying to learn and take things from us, that we come here not just making it about ourselves. These girls haven’t necessarily had the opportunities that I have had, for example, being able to play from the age of four.”

Seven and a half years ago, Plumptre was among the Leicester City supporters celebrating the Foxes’ miraculous Premier League title success (the club had odds of 5,000-1 at the start of the 2015-16 season to achieve such a feat).

Today, Saudi Arabia’s women’s footballers may find themselves indebted to her for helping them script another extraordinary footballing narrative.


Jrue Holiday’s finishing flurry helps Celtics beat Pacers 114-111 for 3-0 lead in East finals

Jrue Holiday’s finishing flurry helps Celtics beat Pacers 114-111 for 3-0 lead in East finals
Updated 26 May 2024
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Jrue Holiday’s finishing flurry helps Celtics beat Pacers 114-111 for 3-0 lead in East finals

Jrue Holiday’s finishing flurry helps Celtics beat Pacers 114-111 for 3-0 lead in East finals
  • Boston can clinch their second NBA Finals trip in three seasons with a Game 4 win Monday in Indianapolis
  • Holiday played despite being listed as questionable with an illness unrelated to COVID-19 and missing the morning shootaround

INDIANAPOLIS: Jrue Holiday overcame an illness to convert the go-ahead three-point play with 38 seconds left, then make the game-saving steal to help the Boston Celtics rally from an 18-point deficit to beat the Indiana Pacers 114-111 on Saturday night for a 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals.

Boston can clinch their second NBA Finals trip in three seasons with a Game 4 win Monday in Indianapolis.

Jayson Tatum matched his playoff career high with 36 points and had 10 rebounds and eight assists. Jaylen Brown added 24 points and Al Horford had 23 points and seven 3-pointers as the Celtics won their sixth straight playoff game and stayed unbeaten on the road this postseason.

Holiday played despite being listed as questionable with an illness unrelated to COVID-19 and missing the morning shootaround.

“For him to come out here and put it all on the line for us and come up with a big play to win the game, we’ve got a hell of a team,” Tatum said in his postgame TV interview.

Andrew Nembhard led the Pacers with a career-high 30 points before Holiday stole the ball from him with 3.3 seconds remaining. T.J. McConnell finished with 23 points, nine rebounds and six assists, while Myles Turner and Pascal Siakam each had 22 points.

Indiana played without All-NBA guard Tyrese Haliburton, who sat out with a left hamstring injury, and certainly missed him as Boston closed the game on a 13-2 run. It’s the first loss in seven postseason home games for the Pacers.

The sellout crowd, decked out primarily in gold checkered flag shirts featuring dozens of individual stamps of Indiana’s state outline as part of the Indianapolis 500 weekend celebration, helped inject energy with Haliburton out.

But the crowd was quieted by Holiday’s big layup, the ensuing free throw and the defensive play of the game. He closed it out by making two free throws with 1.1 seconds to go.

Indiana had a chance to force overtime but Aaron Nesmith’s 3-pointer was off the mark.

It was a wild game, with Indiana taking an 18-point lead midway through the second quarter and again midway through the third. But Boston responded the second time by forcing a flurry of turnovers that it turned into a 13-4 spurt to close to 90-81 after three quarters.

The Celtics were just getting started. Boston opened the fourth quarter on a 9-3 run that cut it to 93-90 on a 3 from Horford with 8:29 to play.

Then, after Indiana rebuilt a 107-99 cushion with 3:05 left, Boston closed the game on the 13-2 run that sealed its fifth consecutive road victory in these playoffs.


WWE’s epic SmackDown and King And Queen showdowns shake up Jeddah

WWE’s epic SmackDown and King And Queen showdowns shake up Jeddah
Updated 26 May 2024
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WWE’s epic SmackDown and King And Queen showdowns shake up Jeddah

WWE’s epic SmackDown and King And Queen showdowns shake up Jeddah

JEDDAH: WWE’s epic SmackDown and King and Queen showdown shook up Jeddah on Saturday night.
WWE star Randy Orton was defeated by Gunther and was crowned King of the Ring. 


Wrestler Nye Jax achieved the title of Queen of the Ring in the women’s category, after defeating Lyra Valkyrie. 
Over 20,000 fans filled up the arena to watch Liv Morgan retain her WWE world champion belt after defeating Becky Lynch. 
In a match for the undisputed WWE championship belt, Cody Rhodes defeated American YouTuber and boxer Logan Paul.


Barcelona avenge Lyon defeats to win third women’s Champions League

Barcelona avenge Lyon defeats to win third women’s Champions League
Updated 26 May 2024
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Barcelona avenge Lyon defeats to win third women’s Champions League

Barcelona avenge Lyon defeats to win third women’s Champions League
  • The defending champions had never beaten the French giants, losing in the 2019 and 2022 finals against them, but finally succeeded in Bilbao
  • Securing their third Champions League trophy from five final appearances, Barcelona demonstrated that they are the new powerhouse of the women’s game

BILBAO, Spain: Aitana Bonmati and Alexia Putellas struck to earn Barcelona their third women’s Champions League trophy, securing a 2-0 triumph over record eight-time winners Lyon on Saturday.

The defending champions had never beaten the French giants, losing in the 2019 and 2022 finals against them, but finally succeeded in Bilbao to compete a spectacular quadruple this season in coach Jonatan Giraldez’s last match in charge.

Bonmati pounced after 63 minutes and substitute Putellas finished the job in stoppage time to avenge Barcelona’s prior defeats by Sonia Bompastor’s side.

Securing their third Champions League trophy from five final appearances across the last six seasons, Barcelona demonstrated that they are the new powerhouse of the women’s game.

“(It’s) a dream day, it is difficult to explain with words the feeling I have now. It is a special moment,” said Giraldez.

“It is one of happiest days of my life.”

Barca’s stars had insisted that this time they were capable of beating Lyon, adding experience and mental strength to their undoubted talent, and so it proved at a packed San Mames.

Backed by the vast majority of a 51,000 record crowd at a women’s Champions League final, Bonmati and her side completed one of the few challenges remaining to them.

“It’s the first time we’ve beaten Lyon. I’m proud of the team, and we know that with these fans we have, we can’t fail,” Bonmati told DAZN.

“It’s incredible what we’re living through as a team, I’m so lucky... to see we’re creating that for so many people, the historic amount of fans we’ve brought, it’s the proudest I’ve felt, I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

Giraldez started Mariona Caldentey in attack and moved Fridolina Rolfo to left-back, dropping Ona Batlle to the bench alongside two-time Ballon d’Or winner Putellas.

Lyon left Ada Hegerberg started on the bench too, with the all-time top scorer in the competition’s history struggling for form after injury.

Lucy Bronze deflected a ball onto her own crossbar and Lyon’s towering captain Wendie Renard hit the outside of the post as Barcelona suffered a couple of early jitters.

After going four goals down by half-time in the 2019 final and three down in 2022, this time the Catalans dug deep to hold it together at the back.

Barca threatened increasingly at the other end. Patri Guijarro, who scored twice in last year’s final against Wolfsburg, broke in for their first big chance after half an hour.

Christiane Endler saved and Selma Bacha cleared the ball off the line after it rebounded back toward goal.

Barca’s Caroline Graham Hansen, in sparkling form this season, gave left-back Bacha a torrid time and had 11-time finalist Renard backpedalling fearfully near the end of the first half, but dragged her shot wide.

Barcelona made their quality count after the hour mark when Bonmati sent them ahead.

The Ballon d’Or winner had been quiet but arrived to collect Caldentey’s clever pass and burst into the area.

Bonmati’s low shot deflected off Vanessa Gilles and flew over the helpless Endler, for her sixth goal of the tournament.

Champions League top goalscorer Kadidiatou Diani curled agonizingly over for Lyon as Bompastor’s side tried to fight back. Hegerberg headed off target as Lyon’s chances ebbed away.

“We have to recognize Barcelona had a great match and deserved to win even though it’s hard to accept it,” said Bompastor, tipped to join Chelsea next season, although she stayed tight-lipped on her future.

“We lacked attacking efficiency, we should have scored a goal.”

Eventually Putellas, on as a late substitute, put on the captain’s armband and settled the game by rifling into the top corner to get Barcelona’s celebrations started early.

“Obviously it’s a dream come true, what we have achieved,” said Putellas after her goal locked in Barcelona’s quadruple.

Bronze who won the competition for the fifth time — including three times with Lyon — praised Putellas.

“She’s the captain of the team, she’s the ‘queen’ of Barcelona for a reason,” said Bronze.

“She’s got the quality to do that in the last minute of the Champions League final when we were up against it at the end and just sealed the win for us.”
 


Bayer Leverkusen win the German Cup and complete undefeated domestic double

Bayer Leverkusen win the German Cup and complete undefeated domestic double
Updated 26 May 2024
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Bayer Leverkusen win the German Cup and complete undefeated domestic double

Bayer Leverkusen win the German Cup and complete undefeated domestic double
  • Leverkusen won the Bundesliga unbeaten, a historic feat
  • The only blip on the record of Xabi Alonso’s team this season was losing the Europa League final to Atalanta 3-0 on Wednesday in Dublin

BERLIN: Granit Xhaka’s early strike was enough for Bayer Leverkusen to win the German Cup final 1-0 over Kaiserslautern for an unbeaten domestic double on Saturday.

Xhaka fired the ball in under the crossbar from distance in the 16th minute. It proved to be enough against second-division Kaiserslautern despite losing defender Odilon Kossounou to a second yellow card just before the break.

Leverkusen won the Bundesliga unbeaten, a historic feat. The only blip on the record of Xabi Alonso’s team this season was losing the Europa League final to Atalanta 3-0 on Wednesday in Dublin. That ended Leverkusen’s record 51-game unbeaten run across all competitions. It was their only loss in 53 games this season.

“The whole journey, the whole season was wonderful,” the Spanish coach said after doubling Leverkusen’s trophy haul in just one season. “What we did this season is unbelievable.”

Alonso and his players ran to their fans after the whistle on Saturday in Berlin’s Olympiastadion. They had supported the team loudly throughout, though were drowned at times by the even more vociferous Kaiserslautern supporters.

They displayed a spectacular tifo of a red devil grasping the trophy in front of a hellish background of fire and brimstone before the game. Flares sending red smoke into the sky embellished the effect – and gave an inkling of what was to come.

The stadium announcer’s repeated requests to stop the pyrotechnics were met with continued indifference. The second half began to a huge fireworks display from the Leverkusen fans.

Despite the smoke above, there was little fire on the field after a long hard season. Kossounou was booked for stopping Kenny Prince Redondo’s break in the third minute, then issued another yellow for a foul on Boris Tomiak in the 44th.

It didn’t stop the Leverkusen machine from grinding out the win. Jeremie Frimpong should have made it 2-0 in the 75th after going past the goalkeeper.

It’s Leverkusen’s second German Cup title after beating Hertha Berlin’s reserve team in the 1993 final. Leverkusen’s other trophy is the 1988 UEFA Cup.


PSG win the French Cup and the double in Kylian Mbappe’s last game

PSG win the French Cup and the double in Kylian Mbappe’s last game
Updated 26 May 2024
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PSG win the French Cup and the double in Kylian Mbappe’s last game

PSG win the French Cup and the double in Kylian Mbappe’s last game
  • Mbappe: Now, I have nothing left with PSG. But I’m very happy to have been able to finish with a trophy
  • PSG won the league and cup for the first time since 2020 when they achieved a domestic treble by also lifting the now defunct League Cup

VILLENEUVE D’ASCQ, France: Paris Saint-Germain beat Lyon 2-1 in the French Cup final and completed the domestic double in Kylian Mbappé’s last game for the club on Saturday.

France winger Ousmane Dembele and Spain midfielder Fabian Ruiz scored for PSG in the first half.

Lyon defender Jake O’Brien got a consolation goal in the second half.

PSG won the league and cup for the first time since 2020 when they achieved a domestic treble by also lifting the now defunct League Cup.

Mbappe celebrated with a big roar after the final whistle. With an equally big smile on his face, he hugged and high-fived his teammates. The ecstatic PSG staff lifted Mbappe and threw him in the air.

“You feel a bit more the weight of things because you realize that it’s really over,” Mbappe told broadcaster beIN Sports. “When I said goodbye to the Parc des Princes, there were still some games left, so you are still focused on what awaits you. Now, I have nothing left with PSG. But I’m very happy to have been able to finish with a trophy.”

Despite losing in the final, Lyon still qualified for the Europa League by finishing sixth in the league.

Dembélé opened the scoring in the 22nd minute by heading home a cross from Nuno Mendes.

Ruiz doubled the lead by converting a rebound in the 34th after his header was blocked by O’Brien.

Lyon goalkeeper Lucas Perri pulled off some outstanding saves in the opening minutes, denying Bradley Barcola and Warren Zaire-Emery, but misjudged the flight of the ball when Mendes made the cross for the opener.

O’Brien cut the deficit to 2-1 by heading in a corner in the 55th.

PSG has struggled in the air this season and nearly conceded from another corner in the 64th, but goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma tipped a header from Lyon left back Nicolas Tagliafico over the bar.

“The players are disappointed but let’s not forget that we must also be proud of what we have done,” Lyon coach Pierre Sage told broadcaster beIN Sports.

Lyon was bottom of the league in December but racked up more points than any other club in the second half of the season to finish sixth.

Mbappe tried hard to find the net in his last outing for PSG. A curling shot from the edge of the box didn’t trouble Perri in the 20th and he volleyed over the bar in the 41st.

In seven seasons with PSG, Mbappe has won 15 trophies, including four French Cups.

Although Mbappe did not add to his tally, he leaves as PSG’s all-time top scorer in all competitions with 256 in 308 appearances.

“I’m happy to have been part of its history and to have made it a bit,” Mbappe said.

The French Cup final was marred by violence as Lyon and PSG supporters clashed on a highway leading to the venue a few hours before kickoff.

Supporters threw flares and windows were smashed on buses full of supporters. Some buses were set on fire.

The match was relocated to Stade Pierre Mauroy in the north of France because of preparations for the Olympic Games.

Villeneuve d’Ascq became the first city outside the Greater Paris area to host the French Cup final since the competition’s inception in 1917.