Romain Saiss believes joining Al-Shabab was best choice for his ‘football and life’

Romain Saiss believes joining Al-Shabab was best choice for his ‘football and life’
Morocco's defender #6 Romain Saiss speaks during a press conference at the Laurent Pokou stadium in San-Pedro on January 16. (File/AFP)
Short Url
Updated 13 February 2024
Follow

Romain Saiss believes joining Al-Shabab was best choice for his ‘football and life’

Romain Saiss believes joining Al-Shabab was best choice for his ‘football and life’
  • Standfirst: The Moroccan international signed for the Riyadh club ahead of the recent Africa Cup of Nations
  • Standfirst 2: Saiss says his international teammate Yacine ‘Bono’ Bounou is one of the world’s best goalkeepers

The recent Africa Cup of Nations in the Ivory Coast was one of the most unpredictable in recent memory, with early exits for several of the continent’s traditional heavyweights. Among those was FIFA World Cup semifinalist Morocco, surprisingly eliminated at the last-16 stage by South Africa.

It means that, a little earlier than expected, Morocco captain Romain Saiss returned to Saudi Arabia and his club Al-Shabab, for whom he signed on a permanent basis ahead of AFCON after a successful loan spell in the first half of the season.

A move to Ligue 1 giants Marseille fell through last summer, hastening his arrival in Saudi Arabia, but Saiss says he has been happy with his unexpected switch to the Kingdom.

“I was close to signing for Marseille but it did not happen for me and Al-Shabab was the best choice in terms of football and life,” Saiss told Arab News. “For me it was really interesting because the league is growing a lot, they are investing a lot by bringing players and coaches and staff to improve the standard — so it seemed like a good opportunity.

“I wanted a club with a good project that would be right for me and my family. And as a Muslim it is also great to play football and live in Saudi Arabia.”

Having previously played in the English Premier League, for a six-year stint at Wolves, Saiss has been enjoying the opportunity to test himself against some of the world’s best players in the Kingdom. Now the Morocco skipper is hoping that Shabab — currently 11th in the Saudi Pro League table — have an upturn in fortunes in the second half of the season.

“I’ve been really impressed by the league so far; of course, everything’s not perfect, but it’s a good challenge and it’s nice to play against top players most weekends,” Saiss said.

“It has only really been one year now of this (investment in the Saudi Pro League) and I think each year it will get even better. I’m happy to be part of this project to help to improve football in Saudi Arabia.

“Most of the new players that have come to Saudi Arabia from Europe are offensive players. For me that’s a great thing because it has helped me stay competitive playing against players like Benzema, Ronaldo and Mitrovic.

“It is always tough but also good as a defender and really, I’m enjoying my life here at the moment. I’m just hoping we can get better results with Al-Shabab but they will come with time I’m sure.”

The arrival of Croatian international Ivan Rakitic in the January transfer window will help fuel those ambitions.

Although Saudi Arabia, like Morocco, suffered an early continental exit at the recent Asian Cup, Saiss expects to see an improvement in young Saudi talent as they are increasingly exposed to the high professional standards of players with European experience.

Saiss plays with ex-Atletico Madrid winger Yannick Carrasco at Al-Shabab and says the Belgian is an excellent mentor to the club’s younger players.

“Of course, it’s not the English Premier League (in Saudi Arabia) but there is a lot of talent here in the league and the arrival of a lot of players from Europe is helping the local players to challenge themselves and to improve.

“I think they have the best example here now in terms of work ethic and mentality with Cristiano Ronaldo.

“At Shabab we have Yannick, who firstly is a very good person but also a top player. He showed this in Madrid with Atletico — he won so many trophies and reached a lot of finals.

“He is a great example to our teammates of what they have to do in terms of mentality of working hard on and off the pitch. He’s always there to give advice to players if they want to ask him questions — whether it is something technical, or just about his experiences at Madrid.

“He is a really talented player but also a hard worker — the kind of player I really like to have on my side because he is not just focused on going forward — he is defending and working hard for the team.”

One of the highlights of Saiss’ football career came against Carrasco’s Belgium at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, when the Morocco captain scored the opening goal in a 2-0 win that set his team on the path to the semifinals and led to the Red Devils’ premature exit at the group stage.

“It is not a good memory for him of course but you know he also reached the semifinal in 2018,” Saiss said. “In 2022 it was the time of Morocco instead and it was more difficult for him and for Belgium. I don’t talk about it too much as I don’t want to make him sad.”

Saiss also shares the pitches of Saudi Arabia with several of his compatriots; there are 11 Moroccan players in the division, including national team goalkeepers Yassine “Bono” Bounou and Munir Mohamedi, who play for Al-Hilal and Al-Wehda respectively.

With Bono also based in Riyadh, Saiss has spent a lot of time with the Al-Hilal goalkeeper in recent months — with the pair living just 10 minutes away from each other in the capital. The two have forged a close bond playing together for Morocco and Saiss feels that there are few goalkeepers globally as good as his Atlas Lions teammate.

“I’ve played with him for more than 10 years in the national team and he is an excellent goalkeeper,” said Saiss. “As a defender, you always hope to have this kind of player behind you — it makes you feel more secure and you are less worried about making a mistake.

“It’s important for me to have a good, good relationship with my goalkeeper; you have to trust them because if you don’t trust your goalkeeper, it can be difficult as a defender. 

“We are lucky that Morocco has very good goalkeepers and of course having Bono in our team is always major strength. I think Bono showed for the last few years he is one of the best in the world.

“You can see with Al-Hilal, they only conceded nine goals in the league. Of course, it’s not all about Bono, but I think he has had a big part to play in that. He’s a top player and top guy also — very friendly with everyone, always smiling. You can count on him.”

While Bono has been one of Saiss’ best teammates, his list of toughest opponents is a long one that includes Kylian Mbappe and Romelu Lukaku. But it is another Belgian who Saiss highlights as the trickiest he has faced.

“I can talk about many, many players, but Eden Hazard was always very, very difficult,” Saiss recalled. “We want to play professional football to be able to meet these kinds of players, to play against them.

“When I look back now, I’m very happy and proud about what I’ve done in the game and the players I have played against. I have suffered against these guys too of course — that’s inevitable when you are facing such quality players. But yes, Hazard in his prime is something I will always remember.”


Green snatches HSBC Women's World Championship with dramatic birdie on 18

Green snatches HSBC Women's World Championship with dramatic birdie on 18
Updated 17 sec ago
Follow

Green snatches HSBC Women's World Championship with dramatic birdie on 18

Green snatches HSBC Women's World Championship with dramatic birdie on 18
  • Green completed a hat trick of birdies over the closing holes to snatch victory when her snaking putt on the 18th green curled into the cup to a huge ovation
  • It was the Australian’s first win in Asia and also eased the heartbreak of finishing second in Singapore three years ago

SINGAPORE: Australia’s Hannah Green drained a remarkable 30-foot birdie putt at the final hole to edge Celine Boutier of France and win the HSBC Women’s World Championship by a stroke in Singapore on Sunday.

The US LPGA Tour’s flagship event in Asia had looked like it was heading for a playoff after Boutier’s 5-under 67 put her in the clubhouse at 12-under par and for Green to draw level with birdies at the 16th and 17th.

But the Australian completed a hat trick of birdies over the closing holes to snatch victory when her snaking putt on the 18th green curled into the cup to a huge ovation.

“I knew I needed to at least birdie the last to win by one,” said world No. 29 Green, who was drenched in champagne by her fellow Australian competitors in celebration after finishing the tournament on 13-under 275.

“As soon as that putt went in, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve won!’,” said the 27-year-old, who lifted her fourth LPGA Tour title.

“You have to take these highs when they come because it doesn’t always come and golf can be a learning sport sometimes.

“Celine played great today but she didn’t end up with the trophy in her hands. But she should still be proud of how she performed under this pressure,” said Green.

It was the Australian’s first win in Asia and also eased the heartbreak of finishing second in Singapore three years ago.

“I almost won the championship in 2021 when I was playing it for the first time,” said Green.

“I remembered I three-putted 17 and then three-putted again on 18 to lose. It feels great to have this trophy in my hands now.”

Playing in the group ahead of Green on the Tanjong course at Sentosa Golf Club, Boutier was unable to make a birdie over her closing holes to put pressure on the Australian and missed a great chance on 17.

“I knew my putt (on 17) was going to be important but it ended up being short-sided. It was frustrating,” said world No. 3 Boutier.

“I gave myself chances. I made some putts and also missed some. But such things happen and I can’t be too mad about my round today.”

Ko Jin-young of South Korea, who was defending her 2022 and 2023 titles, briefly threatened to get into the mix when she drained a monster 90-foot birdie putt at the 11th.

But two bogeys followed and her 1-under 71 saw her finish six shots behind Green on 7-under 281.

Japan’s Ayaka Furue took a two-shot lead into the final round Sunday but had a day to forget, completing a 3-over card of 75 with a scruffy double bogey at the 18th to finish six behind playing partner Green.

World No. 1 Lilia Vu, who started the day five shots back of the lead, withdrew during her final round because of illness.


Record-setting Bol, Holloway shine at world indoors as Doom thwarts Warholm

Record-setting Bol, Holloway shine at world indoors as Doom thwarts Warholm
Updated 4 min 2 sec ago
Follow

Record-setting Bol, Holloway shine at world indoors as Doom thwarts Warholm

Record-setting Bol, Holloway shine at world indoors as Doom thwarts Warholm
  • Holloway made no mistake in the 60m hurdles, an event in which he has remarkably not lost since he was 16, stretching over 74 races
  • Bol once again stole the show, the two-time world 400m hurdles champion bettering her own world indoor record to 49.17 seconds to win the 400m

GLASGOW: Record-setting Femke Bol proved unstoppable and Grant Holloway extended his 10-year win streak at a high-octane second day of the world indoor championships in Glasgow on Saturday that also featured double British gold.

Bol once again stole the show, the two-time world 400m hurdles champion bettering her own world indoor record to 49.17 seconds to win the 400m, leading from gun to tape in an exceptional display of running.

“It was amazing. It was such a strong race. I knew I had to go out fast,” said the Dutch athlete after sending a warning to potential rivals at this summer’s Paris Olympics.

Norway’s Karsten Warholm, like Bol an elite hurdler seeking a pre-Paris Games workout over the 400m flat, was undone by hard-charging Belgian Alexander Doom.

But the Norwegian, the world record holder, three-time outdoor champion and Olympic gold medallist in the 400m hurdles, was not too upset by the result.

“All in all, it’s an acceptable time, so it’s OK,” he said. “It was a last-minute decision to come here. Of course, I wish I had won today but it was so nice coming out here and performing in front of all that noise.”

Holloway made no mistake in the 60m hurdles, an event in which he has remarkably not lost since he was 16, stretching over 74 races.

He matched his own championship record of 7.29sec for a totally dominant victory.

“The streak is for you guys, I come out here and get to the finish line before everyone else!” said Holloway, the three-time 110m hurdles world champion.

There was a particularly British, and notably Scottish, tang to the evening session, with Molly Caudrey, Josh Kerr and Laura Muir guaranteeing a raucous home welcome at a packed-out Emirates Arena.

Caudrey and Kerr came good, winning the women’s pole vault and men’s 3000m to help set the stage for a thrilling night of track and field.

It climaxed with Saint Lucia’s Julien Alfred reeling in fast-starting Pole Ewa Swoboda for gold in the women’s 60m.

Alfred clocked 6.98sec, two-hundredths ahead of Swoboda, with Italy’s Zaynab Dosso taking bronze (7.05).

“Losing last season at the world championships and coming that close to a medal in both the 100m and the 200m, gave me a boost,” said Alfred.

“I was very hungry coming to the next season.”

There was a shock in the women’s 3000m as American Elle St. Pierre dug deep to outsprint massive Ethiopian favorite Gudaf Tsegay down the home stretch for victory in 8min 20.87sec to shatter, by 13sec, the championship record set by Dutchwoman Elly Van Hulst in Budapest in 1989.

“It was a hard pace from the beginning, I knew it was a very competitive field,” said St. Pierre, who won silver at the last world indoors in Belgrade in 2022 and gave birth to her first child just a year ago.

Tsegay, a global medal winner over multiple distances and 5,000m world record holder, accelerated away with two laps to go, taking Kenya’s Beatrice Chepkoech and St. Pierre with her, not thinking that the latter had the legs to outdo her for gold.

While Muir had to be happy with fifth, world outdoor 1500m champion Kerr timed his run to perfection to win the men’s 3000m in 7:42.98, with American Yared Nuguse taking silver and Ethiopia’s Selemon Barega bronze.

Barega and teammate Getnet Wale took turns to put in surges to split the field, Kerr bided his time and sprang into action as the bell rang for the final lap, outstripping Barega down the far straight before sprinting clear.

“I didn’t want to shortchange anyone,” said Kerr, draped in the Saltire flag. “It was a hard-fought race, up and down like we expected.

“I wanted to make sure I wasn’t emotional out there. Keep a cool head and send it with 400m to go. I win every 50-50 I’m in.”

In the field, Caudery sealed Britain’s second gold of the night when she held off New Zealand’s Eliza McCartney to win the pole vault with a best of 4.80m.

The competition was held up for several minutes after France’s Margot Chevrier tumbled off the mat and had to be stretchered off.

Chevrier said on Instagram later that she had fractured her ankle and would have surgery in Glasgow on Sunday followed by another operation after she returns to France.

“It will take what it takes,” she said. “Paris 2024, I will be there.”

Burkina Faso’s Hugues Fabrice Zango won the men’s triple jump with a best of 17.53m on his fifth attempt ahead of Yasser Mohamma Triki of Algeria (17.35m) and Portugal’s Tiago Pereira (17.08).


Ugo Humbert dominates Alexander Bublik to claim glory at 32nd Dubai Tennis Championships

Ugo Humbert dominates Alexander Bublik to claim glory at 32nd Dubai Tennis Championships
Updated 9 min 37 sec ago
Follow

Ugo Humbert dominates Alexander Bublik to claim glory at 32nd Dubai Tennis Championships

Ugo Humbert dominates Alexander Bublik to claim glory at 32nd Dubai Tennis Championships
  • French No. 5 seed dispatches 7th seeded Kazakh 6-4, 6-3 to win 6th career title
  • Tallon Griekspoor, Jan-Lennard Struff claim men’s doubles title with 6-4, 4-6, 10-6 victory over Ivan Dodig, Austin Krajicek

Dubai: Ugo Humbert produced a ruthless masterclass to defeat Kazakhstan’s Alexander Bublik in straight sets and seal ATP 500 victory in the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.

The French No. 5 seed, who rose to a career-high world No. 14 after his heroics in Dubai, made it a clean sweep of six titles in six ATP finals with a clinical 6-4, 6-3 dismantling of No. 7 seed Bublik, the world No. 19, in front of a capacity Center Court crowd at Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium.

Humbert, who defeated compatriot Gael Monfils, Britain’s Andy Murray, world No. 8 Hubert Hurkacz, and world No. 4 Daniil Medvedev to reach the final, unleashed his full repertoire of booming forehands and laser-like double-handed backhands to eclipse Bublik, who progressed past 2022 Dubai champion Andrey Rublev in a dramatic semi-final, which saw the No. 2 seed disqualified for unsportsmanlike conduct.

After tight opening exchanges where the pair were evenly matched, the final stayed on-serve until the 10th game when Humbert, who had failed to convert break points in Bublik’s two previous service games, finally broke the Kazakh’s resistance to clinch the first set 6-4.

With Bublik delighting the Dubai crowd with a combination of whipped forehands and a deft array of dropshots, Humbert, relaxed and controlled, raced into a 3-1 second set lead after breaking Bublik. From there, the 25-year-old left-hander relied on his own dominant serve – unbroken throughout the final – to close out the match on his second championship point.

Humbert, who claimed the winner’s prize of $550,140, said: “I played a fantastic level all through the week, but it was not easy. I really don’t know how I stayed calm.

“I have too much respect for (Bublik), he’s such a nice guy on and off the court, and congratulations to him on a great start to the year.”

Bublik said: “This week has had almost everything for me, and I can’t wait to come back here again in 2025.

“Before the final, I thought if I won, I would dedicate it to my son, but sorry, maybe next time,” the 26-year-old, who bagged the runner-up prize of $296,000, added.

In the men’s doubles final, the Netherlands’ Tallon Griekspoor and Germany’s Jan-Lennard Struff narrowly defeated Croatia’s Ivan Dodig and the US’ Austin Krajicek 6-4, 4-6, 10-6.

With a pair of service breaks enough to settle the opening two sets, Griekspoor and Struff came from 1-3 down in the deciding super tiebreak, winning nine of the last 12 points to claim a maiden Dubai title and a share of the $180,700 prize pool. Beaten finalists Dodig and Krajicek split a runners-up purse of $96,370.

After the match, Griekspoor said: “It’s the first time we’ve played together, so maybe we should keep it one week. We played really well and had a great time; it was a lot of fun on court. I had such a pleasure on court this week.”

Colm McLoughlin, executive vice chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free, said: “This magical evening has provided a fitting end to a memorable Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships fortnight. We have seen crowds of over 45,000-plus revel in match after match of wonderful tennis during the men’s ATP 500 week.

“Our congratulations go to the 2024 Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships winners, men’s singles champion, Ugo Humbert, and our doubles champions, Tallon Griekspoor and Jan-Lennard Struff – all truly worthy winners.

Ramesh Cidambi, chief operating officer of Dubai Duty Free and chairman of the tournament organizing committee, said: “This year’s ATP 500 at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships has, once again, exceeded our expectations with a week of scintillating tennis, unbelievable moments on and off court, and enthusiastic grandstands.

“Thank you to all the players, officials, and fans who have contributed to the runaway success of the 32nd Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. We look forward to welcoming you back to the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium in 12 months’ time.”


Aussie Alex de Minaur repeats as ATP Acapulco champion

Aussie Alex de Minaur repeats as ATP Acapulco champion
Updated 21 min 28 sec ago
Follow

Aussie Alex de Minaur repeats as ATP Acapulco champion

Aussie Alex de Minaur repeats as ATP Acapulco champion
  • The 25-year-old from Sydney captured his eighth career ATP title after dropping four straight finals since downing American Tommy Paul in last year’s final, the most recent last month at Rotterdam

MEXICO CITY: Australia’s Alex de Minaur won his second consecutive ATP Mexican Open title on Saturday, defeating Norway’s Casper Ruud 6-4, 6-4 in the final at Acapulco.

The 25-year-old from Sydney captured his eighth career ATP title after dropping four straight finals since downing American Tommy Paul in last year’s final, the most recent last month at Rotterdam.

World No. 9 de Minaur, a two-time winner also at Atlanta, dispatched 11th-ranked Ruud after one hour and 57 minutes, improving to 2-0 against his European foe after winning their only prior meeting at the 2019 ATP NextGen Finals.

Ruud, a two-time French Open runner-up and the 2022 US Open runner-up, missed out on his 11th ATP title for the second week in a row after dropping last week’s final at Los Cabos to another Aussie, Jordan Thompson.

Ruud’s most recent ATP crown came last April at Estoril.

The players exchanged praise after the match, Ruud telling de Minaur: “Fantastic playing all week. Too good today. Seems like you are enjoying Acapulco quite well. You did a great job.”

De Minaur replied, “Great stuff. It was hard work. Thank you for a great match.”


James becomes first NBA player with 40,000 points but Lakers lose

James becomes first NBA player with 40,000 points but Lakers lose
Updated 25 min 57 sec ago
Follow

James becomes first NBA player with 40,000 points but Lakers lose

James becomes first NBA player with 40,000 points but Lakers lose
  • James, who just over a year ago overtook Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the NBA’s all-time scoring mark, is a four-time NBA champion and four-time NBA Most Valuable Player as well as the league’s oldest active player, now in his 21st campaign
  • Mikal Bridges scored 38 points to lead host Brooklyn over Atlanta 114-102 while Jimmy Butler netted 37 points to power the Miami Heat over visiting Utah 126-120

LOS ANGELES: LeBron James became the first NBA player to reach 40,000 career regular-season points on Saturday, the 39-year-old superstar scoring nine against defending champion Denver to achieve the milestone.

But James called the historic effort “bittersweet” because it came in a losing cause as Nikola Jokic scored 35 points to rally the Nuggets late for a 124-114 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.

“Being the first player to do something, it’s pretty cool in this league ‘cause you just know the history, you know the grace that has come through the league,” James said.

“But the main thing is always the main thing and that’s the win. And I hated that had to happen in a defeat especially versus a team that plays extremely well.

“We played some good basketball but wasn’t able to close it out, so bittersweet, but I enjoyed every moment though, while on the floor.”

James scored a team-high 26 points, 13 in the fourth quarter, but the Nuggets stretched their win streak to six games.

“I’m glad we’re playing good,” Jokic said. “We’re doing the things we want to do. We don’t have too many breakdowns. I just like how we’re playing the game right now.”

James, who just over a year ago overtook Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the NBA’s all-time scoring mark, is a four-time NBA champion and four-time NBA Most Valuable Player as well as the league’s oldest active player, now in his 21st campaign.

“Just happy for him. It was a hell of an accomplishment,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “Wish we could have got the win to cap it off. But my hat’s off to him. Amazing, amazing run that continues to this day.”

James scored his first basket on a fast break layup 6:20 into the opening quarter to give the Lakers an 18-12 edge, then added a 3-pointer from the left corner 63 seconds later for a 23-14 advantage.

He sank a layup 14 seconds into the second quarter to pull within two of the milestone, then missed a free throw and on the next Laker possession missed a 3-point shot.

James scored the historic basket with 10:39 remaining in the second quarter, banking in a driving layup from the left side of the basket to give the Lakers a 37-32 lead.

The crowd gave James a standing ovation during a timeout and the ball James used for the milestone hoop was removed from the game.

“Much respect and much loyalty to the Laker fan base for showing me that love during the timeout,” James said.

Asked if he thought another NBA player could crack 40,000, James replied, “I have no idea.”

“You have to play the game quite a while and have some good luck as far as injuries and things of that nature. You have to take care of your body. You have to be present on the floor and then you have to be productive as well.”

The Nuggets equalized at 89-89 entering the fourth quarter and seized command with a 9-0 run in the final minutes to lead 117-110, Denver hitting 15-of-22 from the floor in the final quarter.

“I just want to be better,” James said. “It’s always over the last few minutes of the game where they make plays, we don’t make plays that can be frustrating.”

Denver’s Michael Porter Jr. went 10-for-10 from the floor and scored 25 points while matching Jokic’s 10 rebounds.

“He was amazing,” Jokic said. “It’s always a good thing when you have a guy on your team that can shoot like that.”

The Lakers, 33-29, rank 10th in the Western Conference while the Nuggets are 42-19, third in the West but only a half-game behind leading Minnesota.

In other games, Mikal Bridges scored 38 points to lead host Brooklyn over Atlanta 114-102 while Jimmy Butler netted 37 points to power the Miami Heat over visiting Utah 126-120.

Anfernee Simons hit 30 points to lead Portland’s 107-100 overtime triumph at Memphis while Jalen Green’s 34 points led Houston over host Phoenix 118-109.