Saudi Arabia talent should be ‘playing in Europe’: Future Falcons technical director

Saudi Arabia talent should be ‘playing in Europe’: Future Falcons technical director
Saudi Arabia's players react at the end of the Qatar 2023 AFC Asian Cup football match between Saudi Arabia and South Korea at Education City Stadium in al-Rayyan, west of Doha, on January 30, 2024. (AFP)
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Updated 14 February 2024
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Saudi Arabia talent should be ‘playing in Europe’: Future Falcons technical director

Saudi Arabia talent should be ‘playing in Europe’: Future Falcons technical director
  • Program that develops young Saudi footballers in Spain is led by former Kuwait national team coach Romeo Jozak

It has been another AFC Asian Cup disappointment for Saudi Arabia.

It has now been 17 long years since the Green Falcons last made it to the quarterfinals of the tournament, and by the time the Kingdom hosts the next edition in 2027, it will be two decades.

Roberto Mancini, a European Championship- and English Premier League-winning coach, was brought in with high expectations, but could not inspire a transformation in Asian Cup fortunes.

It means that the joy and positivity that followed the FIFA 2022 World Cup victory over eventual champions Argentina has now firmly dissipated, and there is some serious soul-searching going on in Saudi Arabia football.

Fortunately for fans of the Green Falcons, there are still plenty of reasons for optimism.




Saudi Arabia supporters react at the end of the Qatar 2023 AFC Asian Cup football match between Saudi Arabia and South Korea at Education City Stadium in al-Rayyan, west of Doha, on January 30, 2024. (AFP)

Despite the disappointment of his side’s Asian Cup exit, Mancini was responsible for integrating a number of promising players into the senior side in recent months.

The most headline-grabbing of those was record-breaking Al-Ittihad striker Talal Haji, who at 16 years old became Saudi Arabia’s youngest-ever player last November. And then, against South Korea, made history as the Asian Cup’s youngest debutant.

Beyond Haji, a quartet of 2022 AFC Asian Under-23 Cup winners also played in Qatar, including last-16 goalscorer Abdullah Radif, defender Hassan Tambakti, right wing-back Saud Abdulhamid and Al-Ahli striker Firas Al-Buraikan.

This progression from the youth ranks to the senior set-up is something Saudi Arabia is hoping to see more regularly in the coming years. At the heart of this is a pioneering initiative by the Saudi Football Federation —  the Future Falcons program.

Designed to select and train the Kingdom’s most exciting prospects and ready them for potential careers in European football, Future Falcons is led by former Kuwait national team coach and Croatian player Romeo Jozak.

“We bring together Saudi players between the ages of 18 to 21 to train year-round in a camp in Spain,” Jozak, the program’s technical director, told Arab News. “From these guys, we choose the best ones that we think have the quality and personality to realistically sign for European clubs.

“With Saudi Arabia now hosting the World Cup in 10 years, Future Falcons has become even more important.”

Future Falcons is run like a professional football club, with its players training regularly and competing against the academies of other European clubs including the likes of Real Madrid and Sporting. The youngsters’ performances and personalities are evaluated and those who are good enough are connected with European clubs.

“I often use the example of basketball in Croatia,” Jozak said. “We have had a good national team for many years because we have had players in the NBA — playing at the highest level. When we haven’t had NBA players, we haven’t done well.

“Europe is the center of the world in football terms and so we need Saudi Arabian talent to be playing in Europe. This is our objective. In 10 years’ time when the World Cup is in Saudi Arabia, the players we have now will be at their peak and we need them to be competitive.”

There have already been successful player placements, with Rayan Fallatah and Samer Al-Mohaimeed signing for Greek second-tier side Diagoras. In addition, Mohammed Al-Rashdi is moving to Slavia Prague, Saleh Alrakaf and Faisal Alharthi are playing in Croatia with Jadran Porec, and Abdulmalik Al-Jaber is moving to Bosnian Premier League side Zeljeznicar.

“It is not only about the football quality,” said Jozak. “It is about being able to adapt into different team situations, the understanding of — and ability to cope — with pressure; mentality is vital because European football can be cruel, it can be brutal. There is huge competition with players from Africa, from South America — it is survival of the fittest in football.

“That is why focus has to not only be on the big leagues in Europe; Mohamed Salah is one of the world’s best players and he made his breakthrough in Switzerland. You can still have an amazing career without starting in the big leagues. There are intermediate steps you can take.

“But ultimately, European football is an objective filter and if these Saudi players survive it, then they will make it happen for themselves. That is the goal of myself and my staff here at Future Falcons.”

Jozak has an impressive pedigree when it comes to advancing the careers of young talents, having coached Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic and Vedran Corluka — players who formed the core of Croatia’s historic run to the 2018 FIFA World Cup final.

The emergence of Croatia’s golden generation was, according to Jozak, the result of extensive work behind the scenes from scouts, technical staff and coaches, over the course of many years.

With Saudi Arabia hosting the 2034 World Cup, the need for the Future Falcons project to be successful has become more pressing, but Jozak insists that it must still be viewed through a long-term lens.

“It is going to be challenging but if I had to start from scratch with either Croatia or Saudi Arabia, it would be Saudi Arabia every time because of the numbers,” Jozak said. “There is a much bigger pool of talented players — the challenge is of course finding them.

“In Croatia, we basically knew every good young player in the country, they couldn’t hide from us. In Saudi Arabia this is not possible yet because it is a huge country and detecting the talent is a complex job.

“Future Falcons is definitely a long-term project but things are changing fast and we hope these foundations will help Saudi football reach new levels in the future.”


Saudi and Japanese football leagues to work together to develop the sport in both countries

Saudi and Japanese football leagues to work together to develop the sport in both countries
Updated 23 May 2024
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Saudi and Japanese football leagues to work together to develop the sport in both countries

Saudi and Japanese football leagues to work together to develop the sport in both countries
  • They will collaborate on ways to achieve sustainable growth of the sport, enhance the standard of football, and facilitate exchange of expertise between players and coaches
  • The agreement also includes plans for talent-discovery networks, cultural-exchange events, and friendly matches between Japanese and Saudi clubs

RIYADH: The Saudi Pro League and Japan’s Professional Football League have signed an agreement to cooperate on ways to develop the sport in both countries.

To achieve this they will work with teams in both leagues and collaborate on ways to achieve sustainable growth of the sport, enhance the standard of football, facilitate the exchange of experiences and resources between players and coaches, and establish an effective system for communication about technical and administrative matters.

The agreement was signed on the sidelines of a Saudi-Japanese business forum by the vice chair of the SPL’s board of directors, Saad Allazeez, and Yoshokaze Ninomura of the J.League.

Allazeez said the agreement reflects the SPL’s transformation strategy and added: “This partnership will open new horizons for exchanging experiences and promoting the continuous development in the field of football between the two countries.

“We look forward to working with our counterparts in Japan to raise the level of the game at all levels.”

The agreement also includes support for the continued growth and development of SPL and J.League through workshops and conferences to consider ideas for strengthening football infrastructure, cooperation in talent-discovery networks to help identify and nurture stars of the future, cultural-exchange events that celebrate the diverse cultures of the two countries and enhance the global appeal of football, and friendly matches between Japanese and Saudi clubs.


Lookman hat-trick fires Atalanta to Europa League, ends Leverkusen’s unbeaten run

Lookman hat-trick fires Atalanta to Europa League, ends Leverkusen’s unbeaten run
Updated 23 May 2024
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Lookman hat-trick fires Atalanta to Europa League, ends Leverkusen’s unbeaten run

Lookman hat-trick fires Atalanta to Europa League, ends Leverkusen’s unbeaten run
  • Lookman became the first player to score a hat-trick in a European final since 1975 to secure Atalanta’s first ever continental trophy

DUBLIN: Ademola Lookman scored a stunning hat-trick as Atalanta ended Bayer Leverkusen’s 51-match unbeaten run to win the Europa League final 3-0 on Wednesday and claim their first trophy for 61 years.
Lookman became the first player to score a hat-trick in a European final since 1975 to secure Atalanta’s first ever continental trophy.
“One of the best nights of my life. Amazing performance from the team,” said Lookman.
“We’ve got to celebrate, we made history tonight.”
The side from Bergamo have long lived in the shadow of nearby giants AC and Inter Milan.
However, they have enjoyed a golden era under Gian Piero Gasperini, reaching the Champions League on four occasions, and now have silverware to show for it.
Leverkusen have made a habit of late fightbacks in their remarkable run to winning a first ever Bundesliga title without tasting defeat.
But this time they failed to dig themselves out of a hole created by a slow start.
“It’s a shame that the time it didn’t work out for us was in a final,” said Leverkusen midfielder Granit Xhaka.
“It’s bitter, definitely, we lost a final today but we go on and we’ll make up for it on Saturday (in the German Cup final).
Atalanta’s more purposeful play in the opening stages was rewarded after just 12 minutes.
Davide Zappacosta got to the by-line and Lookman caught Exequiel Palacios napping to fire into the top corner at the back post.
The Nigerian has at times endured a nomadic career, bouncing around the lower reaches of the Premier League on loan spells at Fulham and Leicester after being discarded by RB Leipzig.
But Lookman has found a home in Bergamo, where he will now forever be a hero.

The 26-year-old’s second goal was fit to win any final as he nutmegged Xhaka before curling a powerful shot into the far corner.
Leverkusen’s flying full-backs have been at the heart of their stunning season and should have got them back in the game either side of half-time.
Alex Grimaldo fired tamely into the arms of Juan Musso before Jeremie Frimpong blazed over with the goal gaping.
Leverkusen were also denied a lifeline when Gianluca Scamacca was lucky to escape with a yellow card for wild challenge on Florian Wirtz.
For the fourth time in seven Europa League knockout matches, Xabi Alonso’s men found themselves 2-0 down.
Alonso has enjoyed a rapid rise to become one of Europe’s hottest coaching properties.
The Spaniard has rejected the advances of former clubs Liverpool and Bayern Munich to remain at the BayArena next season.
However, Alonso’s decision to start without a recognized striker did not work and he threw on Victor Boniface at half-time to give his side a focal point up front.
The damage, though, was already done as the German champions looked a side drained by their record run across three competitions.
Atalanta were happy to soak up the Leverkusen pressure after the break and hit on the counter-attack.
The final blow was another fabulous finish from Lookman as he skipped past Edmond Tapsoba and this time blasted into the top corner on his weaker left foot.
Atalanta had lost all three of their previous finals under Gasperini, most recently in last week’s Coppa Italia defeat to Juventus.
But this time they were not to be denied their shot at history as they were roared across the finishing line by the thousands clad in blue and black that had made the trip from northern Italy to the Irish capital.
In doing so they became the first Italian side to win the competition since Parma lifted the UEFA Cup in 1999.


Djokovic celebrates 37th birthday with much-needed win

Djokovic celebrates 37th birthday with much-needed win
Updated 22 May 2024
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Djokovic celebrates 37th birthday with much-needed win

Djokovic celebrates 37th birthday with much-needed win
  • The crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to Djokovic as a cake with candles was brought out onto the court

GENEVA: Novak Djokovic celebrated his 37th birthday on Wednesday with a much-needed win as he gears up for his French Open title defense, progressing to the Geneva quarter-finals.
The world number one downed Germany’s Yannick Hanfmann 6-3, 6-3 in the second round at the Parc des Eaux-Vives grounds.
Djokovic took a wild card to play in Geneva in a bid to rescue an alarming dip in form ahead of next week’s French Open, the second Grand Slam of the year.
The crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to Djokovic as a cake with candles was brought out onto the court following his win.
He lifted the cake and showed it off to the crowd, having a nibble before offering some to the ball boys and girls.


Rain washes out England-Pakistan T20 opener

Rain washes out England-Pakistan T20 opener
Updated 22 May 2024
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Rain washes out England-Pakistan T20 opener

Rain washes out England-Pakistan T20 opener
  • Match was supposed to be launchpad for England’s defense next month of T20 World Cup title
  • Both teams will now meet each other on Saturday at Edgbaston in second of four-match series 

Leeds, United Kingdom: Persistent rain saw the first Twenty20 international between England and Pakistan at Headingley on Wednesday abandoned without a ball being bowled.

The match was meant to be the launchpad for reigning champions England’s defense next month of their T20 World Cup title in the Caribbean and the United States.

But a heavy and lengthy downpour in Leeds led the umpires to call the game off approximately an hour before the scheduled 17:30 GMT start.

The four-match series against Pakistan, the team England beat to win the 2022 T20 World Cup final in Melbourne, will now continue at Birmingham’s Edgbaston ground on Saturday before games next week in Cardiff and at the Oval.

England were also the defending champions heading into last year’s 50-over World Cup in India but Jos Buttler’s men suffered a tame exit, losing six of their nine matches.

The Pakistan T20 series could see the return to international duty of England fast bowler Jofra Archer. Injuries have blighted the quick’s career, with elbow and back problems sidelining the 29-year-old from top-level cricket for 14 months.


2024 LIV Golf Team Championship heads to Dallas

2024 LIV Golf Team Championship heads to Dallas
Updated 22 May 2024
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2024 LIV Golf Team Championship heads to Dallas

2024 LIV Golf Team Championship heads to Dallas
  • Fans throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex will welcome LIV Golf’s star-studded teams for the season finale
  • LIV Golf CEO: ‘Our LIV Golf players are looking forward to playing in the Dallas-Fort Worth area with its great golf tradition’

LONDON, NEW YORK, WEST PALM BEACH: LIV Golf announced on Wednesday the details for the league’s 2024 Team Championship, scheduled to take place Sep. 20-22, 2024, at Maridoe Golf Club in Carrollton, Texas.
Fans throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex will welcome LIV Golf’s star-studded teams for the season finale, with the excitement of head-to-head competition featuring both match play and stroke play that will determine the 2024 LIV Golf League Team Champions.
“Our LIV Golf players are looking forward to playing in the Dallas-Fort Worth area with its great golf tradition,” LIV Golf Commissioner and CEO Greg Norman said in a media statement.
“Texas is legendary for producing and hosting great golfers who set a high bar while competing for championships. Our LIV Golf Team Championship at Maridoe Golf Club will be a great experience for our players and all the fans in attendance,” added Norman.
“This year’s Team Championship at Maridoe Golf Club holds special significance for me as we make our Dallas debut and our team strives to defend our title in front of a home crowd,” said Bryson DeChambeau, Crushers GC captain.
“I’m excited to play this course and compete in front of Texas fans for our closing event and can’t wait to bring LIV Golf’s electrifying energy and fierce competition to Dallas,” DeChambeau added.
Meanwhile, Maridoe Golf Club founder Albert Huddleston, said: “Maridoe has been honored to previously host the Southern Amateur, Trans-Mississippi Amateur, East West Cup Matches, USGA Women’s Four-Ball Championship as well as two 2020 COVID tournaments won by Scottie Scheffler and Brandon Wu.”
Maridoe is designed to be an enjoyable but demanding member’s club, according to Huddleston, while always ready to provide a great test for elite golfers to entertain golf enthusiasts.
Maridoe Golf Club, located just 20 miles from downtown Dallas, was ranked by Golf Digest among the top three new private courses in 2018. Built on the site of the old Columbian Club and designed by Steve Smyers, the course is considered among the most difficult in the Metroplex, tipping out at 7,817 yards, and will be the host for LIV Golf’s 2024 finale — a three-day, survive-and-advance tournament featuring team match play and stroke play.
For the LIV Golf Team Championship, teams will be seeded 1-13 based on the final regular season team standings following the 13th event, LIV Golf Chicago, taking place Sep. 13-15 at Bolingbrook Golf Club. Adjustments to the Team Championship format have been implemented to enhance the competition across the three days at Maridoe.
In addition to hosting world-class competition, the LIV Golf Team Championship will feature live music entertainment and family-friendly fun for all ages. Fans can secure the ultimate tournament experience with LIV Golf’s renowned hospitality packages, each delivering an array of amenities.
Tickets for the Team Championship are on sale now at LIVGolf.com