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)
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Updated 13 February 2024
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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.”


Strong field assembled for 2024 Saudi Open presented by PIF

Strong field assembled for 2024 Saudi Open presented by PIF
Updated 35 min 25 sec ago
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Strong field assembled for 2024 Saudi Open presented by PIF

Strong field assembled for 2024 Saudi Open presented by PIF
  • Peter Uihlein, who plays for LIV Golf team RangeGoats GC, is making his first visit to Riyadh and expressed his excitement at playing in the Saudi capital
  • Haotong Li: I want to see different golf courses to the ones I have played previously and to visit new parts of the world

RIYADH: A strong field has assembled for the 2024 Saudi Open presented by PIF, commencing tomorrow, April 17, with Asian Tour, LIV Golf and DP World Tour stars teeing off at Riyadh Golf Club.

Thai star Denwit Boriboonsub won the 2023 Saudi Open in December in stunning fashion, but Henrik Stenson, Peter Uihlien and Haotong Li are the standout names hoping to dethrone him, as 144 players from 33 different countries fight for glory from 17-20 April.

There are 20 Arab golfers from eight nations in the field, including seven from Saudi Arabia, who have all been handed the opportunity to compete alongside some of the world’s best players as golf continues to develop in the region. Golf&More will be on display at the course throughout the week with live DJ sessions at sunset, special activities for children and the authentic Sajah Bazaar giving fans the opportunity to immerse themselves in local culture.

Peter Uihlein, who plays for LIV Golf team RangeGoats GC, is making his first visit to Riyadh and expressed his excitement at playing in the Saudi capital. The American believes it will be an action-packed four rounds, filled with low scores and plenty of birdies.

Uihlein said: “I watched the 2023 Saudi Open on TV in December and the Aramco Series Ladies International recently and I saw a lot of low scores, so I am hoping for a tournament full of birdies. It does depend how much the wind blows, but hopefully it dies down later in the week. 

“It’s my first time in Riyadh, having been to Jeddah a few times, and I’m excited about it. I spoke to Othman [Almulla] about how many courses are planned and the ones they are already building around the Kingdom. It is really cool to be here.

“I feel like the stuff I am working on is getting better and better, and I feel a little bit sharper as the weeks go on. It is why I’m here - to carry on working on my game ahead of LIV Adelaide and LIV Singapore.”

Chinese sensation Haotong Li is a four-time DP World Tour winner and has chosen to play in the 2024 Saudi Open presented by PIF to experience the continued growth of the game in the Kingdom.

Li said: “I want to see different golf courses to the ones I have played previously and to visit new parts of the world. It’s extremely exciting to play this week and do something special. I am truly honoured to be here and be a part of growing the game as big as possible. Hopefully everybody starts to fall in love with golf.

Golf Saudi CEO Noah Alireza spoke to gathered media ahead of the tournament and he stressed the importance of the 2024 Saudi Open presented by PIF’s commitment to handing opportunities to national and regional players.

Alireza said: “We are delighted to welcome a strong field to the 2024 Saudi Open presented by PIF following its first staging on the Asian Tour last year and I am certain that this week will prove a success with exciting golf on show at Riyadh Golf Club.

“The opportunity that the Saudi Open presents to all of the competitors, but particularly to the seven Saudi nationals and the 13 other Arab golfers in the field, is one of the main driving forces behind our desire to host this tournament in Riyadh. Playing alongside the best Asian Tour players, plus a number of LIV Golf and DP World Tour members, helps them understand what it takes to reach this level and is a vital part of their golf education. It is a key part of Golf Saudi’s commitment to golf in our country.”


Wife of British cyclist in Islamophobic social media rant

Wife of British cyclist in Islamophobic social media rant
Updated 16 April 2024
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Wife of British cyclist in Islamophobic social media rant

Wife of British cyclist in Islamophobic social media rant
  • Michelle Froome: ‘There are no innocent Gazans,’ Muslims a ‘drain on modern society’
  • Husband Chris Froome rides for Israel-Premier Tech cycling team

LONDON: The wife of a former Tour de France-winning cyclist has caused controversy in the UK following an Islamophobic outburst on social media.

Michelle Froome, wife of Chris Froome, said on her X profile on Monday that there are “no innocent Gazans” and called Muslims a “drain on modern society.”

In her first posts on the platform since 2020, she told her 15,000 followers that she is “sick of sitting idly by quietly supporting Israel while the Hamas propaganda takes over social media.”

Her husband, who won four Tours de France and was an Olympian for Team GB, is a member of the Israel-Premier Tech cycling team.

While not directly affiliated with the Israeli state, it has strong ties to the country through billionaire owners Sylvan Adams and Ron Baron.

Earlier this year, the team dropped “Israel” from its vehicles for security reasons. In recent weeks, pro-Palestinian activists have called for the team to be confronted with “more protests than ever” ahead of the upcoming Giro d’Italia race in May.

In a 13-post diatribe, Michelle Froome said: “The silent majority needs to stand up and be heard. We don’t want your religion, we don’t want your beliefs. It is not compatible with modern civilisation … There are no innocent Gazans.”

She added: “Muslims are no longer the minority they claim to be. They are here to take over. The UK, France, they are happy to claim the benefits but will not integrate into those communities. They will continue to TAKE what suits them. They are a drain on modern society.

“It’s time people stop pandering to the political correctness. It’s all a facade. They burned babies alive. They deserve no remorse what so ever. This is just the beginning. WAKE UP.”

Israel’s war on Gaza recently entered its sixth month, with over 34,000 Palestinians having been killed so far. 


Hosts Qatar defeat Indonesia as 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup begins

Hosts Qatar defeat Indonesia as 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup begins
Updated 16 April 2024
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Hosts Qatar defeat Indonesia as 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup begins

Hosts Qatar defeat Indonesia as 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup begins
  • Saudi Arabia kick off their campaign on Tuesday night, facing Tajikistan
  • The tournament provides a path to the 2024 Olympic Games

DOHA: The 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup kicked off on Monday with hosts Qatar controversially beating nine-man Indonesia 2-0. Australia and Jordan drew 0-0 earlier in the tournament opener.

The event, which runs until May 3, also acts as a route to the men’s football competition at the 2024 Olympic Games, which take place in Paris this summer.

Qatar took the lead just before half-time at Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium, with VAR intervening to award a penalty that Tajik referee Nasrullo Kabirov had missed. Khalid Ali Sabah duly converted from the spot.

Indonesia’s task became significantly harder after the break when Ivar Jenner was sent off for a second bookable offence. Qatar doubled their lead just seven minutes later with an excellent long-range free kick from Ahmed Al-Rawi.

The visitors’ misery was complete when, deep into stoppage time, Ramadhan Sananta received a straight red card.

In the competition opener, Australia played out a stalemate with Jordan — who saw Danial Afaneh sent off after 82 minutes — at Abdullah Bin Khalifa Stadium.

The results leave Qatar at the top of Group A with three points. Australia and Jordan lie joint second with a point apiece, while Indonesia are bottom of the table on zero.

Tuesday will see Japan take on China and South Korea face the UAE in Group B, while Group C action begins with Iraq v Thailand before Saudi Arabia take on Tajikistan.

The Green Falcons will then face Thailand on April 19 and Iraq on April 22.

The 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup sees 16 nations split into four groups of four with the top two from each progressing to the quarterfinals.

The winners of both semifinals secure automatic qualification to the Olympic Games, regardless of which team wins the final.

The two losing semifinalists will contest third place, with the winners also booking their spot in Paris. The fourth-place finishers have one final chance by taking part in a play-off against an African qualifier.


Paris presents latest in long history of curious Olympic mascots

Paris presents latest in long history of curious Olympic mascots
Updated 16 April 2024
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Paris presents latest in long history of curious Olympic mascots

Paris presents latest in long history of curious Olympic mascots
  • This summer’s offering, a Phrygian cap, stands apart from the traditional animals and invented creatures of past games

On Monday, the Olympic flame was lit in Greece, and the traditional torch began its 68-stage three-month journey to Paris, where it will arrive on July 25 to signal the start the following day of the Games of the XXXIII Olympiad.

As the torch relay travels the length of France, and global interest in the Olympics grows daily over the next three months, one question above all others will be puzzling sports fans around the world.

What on earth is that peculiar mascot Paris has chosen to represent itself on the world stage?

The answer is a hat — or, more specifically, a Phrygian cap, as modelled by Marianne, symbol of the French Revolution.

Captured in oils in an 1830 painting by Eugene Delacroix, on show in the Louvre, Marianne and her hat are omnipresent in France, represented in busts and statues throughout the nation and pictured on coins and stamps.

Traditionally, Olympic mascots have either been animals or invented creatures of some sort.

But in a minor revolution of its own, 235 years after the storming of the Bastille, the Paris Olympic committee has gone in a different direction.

Instead, it has chosen to animate an object — not, as most people might have assumed, the Eiffel Tower (too predictable and, some might argue, too identifiable) but a piece of historic millinery.

Meet the “Phryges” (pronounced “freej” — the “s” is silent.)

There are two of the things, decked out in red, white and blue, with one sporting a running blade on its right leg to symbolize the Paralympics.

In the official online Olympic shop, they are available as plush toys or printed variously on backpacks, T-shirts, hoodies, mugs, tote bags, caps, water bottles, badges, lunch boxes. You can even buy an actual Phrygian cap, although regrettably only in infant size.

What has revolution got to do with the Olympics? Simple, says the committee behind the Phryges: “As Paris 2024’s vision is to demonstrate that sport can change lives, the mascots will be playing a major role by leading a revolution through sport.”

To scholars of ancient history, the hat is also a symbol of 18th-century cultural appropriation.

Although it came to symbolize the French Revolution, the Phrygian cap was worn originally in ancient Phrygia, a kingdom that thrived between 1200 and 700 BCE in the center of what is today Turkiye.

There is a funny thing about Olympic mascots. Including Paris, there have been 28 of the things since 1968, when the very first one appeared, but most people would be hard pressed to remember any of them.

It has not been for want of trying on behalf of the organizing committees — there have been some very peculiar offerings.

Take “Miraitowa,” the mascot of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Remember him — or it?

A subtle blend of “traditional and futurist style,” Miraitowa embodied “both the old and the new, echoing the concept of innovation from harmony.”

One of 2,042 submitted designs, it was chosen in a poll of Japanese primary school children.

In 2014, Russia played it relatively straight and, perhaps unable to settle on a single mascot, chose three for the winter games in Sochi: a hare, a polar bear and a leopard, for no apparent reason.

It was certainly a welcome break from London’s surreal offering in 2012.

“Wenlock” was a baffling confection of obscure references — a metallic look explained by the fact that he was, supposedly, “made from one of the last drops of steel used to build the Olympic Stadium,” the light on his head reminiscent of that found on London’s famous black cabs, and the shape of his forehead “identical to that of the Olympic Stadium roof.”

His large single eye was “the lens of a camera, filming everything he sees,” while “the three points on his head represent the three places on the podium for the medal winners.”

Wenlock was an object lesson in death by committee.

And why “Wenlock”? From the town of Much Wenlock in Shropshire, of course, where the traditional Much Wenlock Games were said to have inspired Pierre de Coubertin, father of the modern Olympic movement.

In terms of obscure references, two other mascots stand out as contenders with Wenlock for a place on the podium.

In 2004 Athens offered Phevos and Athena, a brother and sister double act named for two gods of ancient Olympus but modelled on the “daidala,” a terracotta child’s toy from the 7th century BCE.

But until Paris entered the race, it was widely considered that the gold medal belonged to “Izzy,” which represented Atlanta in 1996. At the time, Izzy was unusual in being neither an animal, nor a human figure, nor an object. In fact, no-one was entirely sure what it was.

Originally named, appropriately, “Whatizit,” after a poor reception at its launch after the closing ceremony of the 1992 Games in Barcelona (which was represented by “Cobi,” a cubist vision of a Pyrenean mountain dog), Izzy underwent a radical makeover.

Alas, no-one was any wiser after Izzy’s relaunch, but it was finally put of its misery in November 2022, when the Phryges were unveiled in Paris.

As a snarky Associated Press report put it at the time, “Hey, Izzy: your 26-year reign as the worst Olympic mascot is over.”

Ironically, it is to France that the credit must go for making Olympic mascots a thing in the very first place — the first one was born in 1968, for the Winter Games in Grenoble.

It comes as little surprise to learn that “Shuss,” a cartoonish man with a large, round head, leaning forward over a pair of skis, “was created in a hurry,” according to the International Olympic Committee.

In fact, “in January 1967, his designer had only one night to prepare a plan for submission.”

While amusing, such matters might at first appear to be of little interest in a Saudi Arabia rightly focused on preparing for its 13th appearance at the summer Olympics, when it will be represented in the equestrian and taekwondo events.

But in August 2022, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal Al-Saud, Saudi Arabia’s sports minister and the Saudi Olympic and Paralympic Committee president, hinted that one day, in the not-too-distant future, the Kingdom might bid to host the Olympics.

“We’re open to discuss with the IOC about this for the future,” he said during an interview with France 24. “I think Saudi Arabia has showcased that we can host such events.”

It most certainly has, investing in, promoting and hosting global sports including football, golf, Formula One, tennis, boxing and wrestling, winning the bid to host the 22nd Asian Games and 7th Asian para games in Riyadh in 2034 and, demonstrating its ability to bring imagination to bear on the biggest stage, being chosen by the world to stage Expo 2030 in Riyadh.

When it comes to planning, investment, infrastructure and organization, in other words, the OIC is unlikely to harbor any doubts about the Kingdom’s ability to give the world one of the best Olympics it has ever seen.

But the big question is this: what would Saudi Arabia choose for its mascot?

As Olympic committees from Grenoble to Paris have demonstrated with depressing consistency, it is never too early to start thinking about this, the most important and potentially embarrassing aspect of every Olympics since 1968.


Fighters announced for upcoming 5 vs 5 Riyadh Season Original

Fighters announced for upcoming 5 vs 5 Riyadh Season Original
Updated 16 April 2024
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Fighters announced for upcoming 5 vs 5 Riyadh Season Original

Fighters announced for upcoming 5 vs 5 Riyadh Season Original
  • A huge prize is on the line as the fight is recognized as a final eliminator for the WBC World Middleweight titl

RIYADH: The fighters selected to take part in the 5 vs 5 Riyadh Season Original bouts have been revealed by Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority. 

Set to take place on June 1, the event will feature the “4 Crown Showdown” and is eagerly awaited by the boxing world. Going head-to-head in a bid to be crowned undisputed light heavyweight champion of the world are Artur Beterbiev and Dmitry Bivol, who will face each other in the Kingdom Arena. Both boast undefeated records as they head into the fight.

The 5 vs 5 consists of five Queensberry boxers going up against five boxers from Matchroom, giving both companies a chance to put their fighters to the test and see which of them is currently on top.

Frank Warren, Hall of Fame promoter and Queensberry chairman, said: “The night of June 1 will mark a thrilling and spectacular return to Riyadh, where the pride and reputation of two companies will be at stake in the 5 vs 5, a Riyadh Season Original concept that neither promoter dares to contemplate losing!”

And Eddie Hearn, chairman of Matchroom Sport, said: “This night is undoubtedly one of the most significant in boxing and I am grateful to His Excellency Turki Alalshikh for providing the opportunity to work in Saudi Arabia. We are talking about fights featuring some of the world’s top champions in this global and popular sport.” 

Turki Alalshikh, head of the GEA, added: “Riyadh Season looks forward to hosting more major events and establishing partnerships that promise unprecedented entertainment for our audiences across the world.” 

Current WBA world light heavyweight champion, 33-year-old Bivol, holds a record of 22-0, 11 Kos, and has successfully defended his title on 10 occasions over the last six years. Wrecking machine Beterbiev, 39, is the WBC, IBF and WBO world champion and has secured all 20 of his professional victories via knockout. 

As well as these two renowned headliners, the other fighters taking part in the 5 vs 5 were also announced on Monday.

Heavyweight Daniel Dubois (20-2, 19 KOs) is the UK powerhouse from Queensberry who will face Matchroom’s Filip Hrgovic (17-0, 14 Kos), an IBF No. 1 contender.

Chinese giant “Big Bang” Zhilei Zhang (26-2-1, 21 KOs) will represent Queensberry in the second heavyweight encounter. The 40-year-old southpaw takes on Matchroom pick and former WBC world heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder (43-3-1, 42 KOs), the Bronze Bomber who has successfully defended the title he won back in 2015 10 times.

In what many predict will be a contender for fight of the year, Queensberry’s Nick Ball (19-0-1, 11 KOs) will square up against Matchroom’s American world champion Ray Ford, (15-0-1, 8 KOs) for the WBA World Featherweight title. This was recently won by Ford in spectacular fashion against Otabek Kholmatov via a stoppage with just seven seconds of the 12 rounds remaining. 

A classic middleweight encounter is guaranteed when Queensberry’s undefeated Hamzah Sheeraz, the WBC Silver and Commonwealth champion with a record of 19-0, 15 KOs, trades blow with Matchroom’s Austin ‘Ammo’ Williams, an American who has impressively notched up a record of 16-0, 11 Kos. He also took the IBF North American title in 2023.

A huge prize is on the line as the fight is recognized as a final eliminator for the WBC World Middleweight title. Sheeraz, aged just 24, is currently on a run of 13 straight stoppages — the longest consecutive KO streak in British boxing to date.

In the final fight, Queensberry light heavyweight and former World Amateur champion Willy Hutchinson (17-1, 13 KOs), one of the brightest talents in British boxing and the current WBC International champion, will face Matchroom’s former British champion and WBA world title challenger Craig ‘Spider’ Richards (18-3-1, 11 KOs).