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.”


Riyadh Season to hosts Crawford-Madrimov world title clash in Los Angeles

Riyadh Season to hosts Crawford-Madrimov world title clash in Los Angeles
Updated 13 sec ago
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Riyadh Season to hosts Crawford-Madrimov world title clash in Los Angeles

Riyadh Season to hosts Crawford-Madrimov world title clash in Los Angeles

RIYADH: Riyadh Season will hold the first boxing bout outside Saudi Arabia  as Terence Crawford challenges Israil Madrimov for the WBA and WBO interim World Super-Welterweight title.

The event will take place at Los Angeles’ BMO Stadium on Aug. 3, 2024, the Kingdom’s entertainment authority said on Wednesday.

Turki Alalshikh, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the General Entertainment Authority, announced that Visit Saudi, MDL Beast and Red Sea Global will be the sponsors of the event.

Promotion will be handled by Riyadh Season Card, Sela, League 1 and Matchroom Boxing in association with World Of Boxing, TGB Promotions, Golden Boy, Goldstar, Queensberry, Salita Promotions and Warriors Boxing Promotions.

“We are delighted for Riyadh Season to host its first overseas event in Los Angeles and this fight in the United States is a special one to mark this moment,” Alalshikh said.

“We want to give people around the world the opportunity to enjoy their own Riyadh Season experience and this is exactly what we hope to achieve by staging this and also future events around the world.”

Crawford (40-0 31 KOs) is gunning to become a Four-Weight World champion as he moves up to 154lbs after conquering the Welterweight division with a stunning KO win over Errol Spence to be crowned the undisputed champion at 147lbs in Las Vegas in July.

The Omaha star has already ruled the roost at Super-Lightweight and Lightweight, and now the pound-for-pound great is arrowing in on cementing greatness by claiming honors at a fourth weight.

Madrimov (10-0-1 7 KOs) is the man that stands in Crawford’s way, and the Uzbek champion makes his first defense of his title against the toughest opposition possible after winning the belt in spectacular fashion in his last outing in Saudi Arabia.

The 29 year old took on Magomed Kurbanov for the vacant title in Riyadh in March, and stopped the Russian in five rounds with a dominant performance to continue his impressive unbeaten run in the paid ranks, following a glittering amateur career.

British boxing promotor Eddie Hearn said: “This is a fantastic fight between a pound-for-pound great and one of the best World champions in the sport.”

“Terence is a pound-for-pound great and continues to strive to be the very best, but in Israil, he meets a hungry champion that has no intention of relinquishing his title in his first defense - this promises to be one of the fights of the year.”

“I cannot wait to get back in the ring in my fourth weight class and remind the world why I’m the best pound for pound fighter in the world,” said Terence Crawford. “Israil Madrimov is a tremendous and entertaining fighter, but on August 3, he will be my next victim. This is the Terence Crawford era.”

“Terence Crawford is one of my favorite boxers and one of the best boxers in the world,” said Israil Madrimov. “I am very excited to get this opportunity to make a statement, and I will Inshallah.”

The main event is complemented by an undercard that is set to captivate fight fans.

Recently crowned WBA Super-Lightweight champion Isaac Cruz defends his title for the first time against United States southpaw Jose Valenzuela.

Two of the United States’ most fearsome boxing Heavyweights will do battle with former unified Heavyweight champion Andy Ruiz returning to the ring for the first time since a unanimous decision win against Luis Ortiz in September 2022, to face Jarrell Miller, who will be going all out to produce a winning outcome after losing his undefeated record in Riyadh in December last year.

Former Super-Welterweight world champion Tim Tszyu awaits Vergil Ortiz Jr, subject to the outcome of his fight against Thomas Dulorme this weekend, while David Morrell of Cuba will seek to preserve his unbeaten record in a Light Heavyweight contest against US fighter Radivoje Kalajdzic.

Andy Cruz, the Olympic Lightweight gold medalist, continues his Lightweight campaign when he takes on Mexico’s Antonio Moran.


Saudi Arabia’s Joud Bukhari wins bronze at Asian 9Ball Ladies & Girls Tournament

Saudi Arabia’s Joud Bukhari wins bronze at Asian 9Ball Ladies & Girls Tournament
Updated 14 min 23 sec ago
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Saudi Arabia’s Joud Bukhari wins bronze at Asian 9Ball Ladies & Girls Tournament

Saudi Arabia’s Joud Bukhari wins bronze at Asian 9Ball Ladies & Girls Tournament

RIYADH: Saudi billiards national team player Joud Bukhari won the bronze medal at the Asian Confederation of Billiard Sports 9Ball Ladies and Girls Tournament 2024 currently held in the Saudi capital Riyadh.

As Saudi Arabia marks its first official participation in the tournament, Bukhari became the first Arab, gulf, and Saudi woman to win a medal during the championship.

Separately, eight Saudi male and female officials completed a course held on the sidelines of the Asian tournament, enabling them to officiate international billiards and snooker matches.


Xavi to remain Barcelona coach: club to AFP

Xavi to remain Barcelona coach: club to AFP
Updated 24 April 2024
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Xavi to remain Barcelona coach: club to AFP

Xavi to remain Barcelona coach: club to AFP
  • The 44-year-old decided on his dramatic change of mind after a day of meetings

BARCELONA: Xavi will remain as coach of Barcelona, the Spanish giants told AFP on Wednesday, despite having announced in January that he planned to quit at the end of the season.
Spanish media reported that the 44-year-old, who had signed a contract extension until 2025 last autumn, decided on his dramatic change of mind after a day of meetings with club president Joan Laporta and sporting director Deco.


Kewell’s Yokohama beat Ulsan to reach Asian Champions League final

Kewell’s Yokohama beat Ulsan to reach Asian Champions League final
Updated 24 April 2024
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Kewell’s Yokohama beat Ulsan to reach Asian Champions League final

Kewell’s Yokohama beat Ulsan to reach Asian Champions League final
  • Yokohama will host Al Ain in the first leg of the final on May 11, with the return being held in the UAE on May 25

YOKOHAMA: Harry Kewell said his Yokohama F-Marinos players can “handle any pressure” after beating Ulsan Hyundai 5-4 on penalties on Wednesday to set up an Asian Champions League final against Al Ain.

Former Liverpool and Leeds forward Kewell’s side came through a pulsating semifinal that ended 3-3 on aggregate to reach the Champions League final for the first time.

Trailing 1-0 from last week’s first leg in South Korea, Yokohama scored three goals in the opening 30 minutes in Japan but then conceded twice and had a man sent off before halftime.

Goalkeeper William Popp saved from Ulsan’s Kim Min-woo in the shootout to hand Yokohama the advantage in constant driving rain, before Carlos Eduardo converted the decisive spot kick.

Kewell, who took over as Yokohama coach at the start of the year, said he told his players that “the hardest games you will play are semifinals.”

“I said: ‘Nothing easy in this game’,” said the Australian.

“You are going to get pushed to the limit where I believe you can handle it.

“I think it showed them tonight, they believe now they can handle any kind of pressure.”

Yokohama will host Al Ain in the first leg of the final on May 11, with the return being held in the UAE on May 25.

Al Ain beat Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal 5-4 on aggregate on Tuesday to reach the final.

Yokohama looked certain to join them after a barnstorming start to the second leg but two goals for Ulsan and a 39th-minute red card for defender Takumi Kamijima cranked up the tension.

Ulsan laid siege to the Yokohama goal but Kewell said his players grew in stature as the game went on.

“The players were composed, they were confident,” he said.

“They were getting stronger and stronger as they got closer to the final whistle.”

Ulsan, who had already booked their place in next year’s 32-team Club World Cup in the US by winning the semifinal first leg, were looking for their third Champions League title.

“My players kept going until the end,” said coach Hong Myung-bo.

“It’s unfortunate because we had a lot of chances to score in both the first and second legs.”

Yokohama took the lead in the 13th minute when a defensive mix-up between Kim Young-gwon and Hwang Seok-ho allowed Asahi Uenaka to streak through and score.

Anderson Lopes added a second in the 21st minute, firing home a left-foot shot from just inside the box.

The home side kept up the pressure and Uenaka notched his second of the game on the half-hour mark when he slipped his marker and curled a shot past goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo.

But just as it looked like turning into a rout, Ulsan hit back when Matheus Sales headed home direct from a corner in the 35th minute.

Moments later, Ulsan had a penalty and Yokohama were reduced to 10 men when Kamijima was red-carded for a handball as he slid in to make a tackle.

Substitute Darijan Bojanic, who had come on in the 34th minute, made no mistake from the spot.

Kewell admitted Yokohama “rode our luck at times” as they held off Ulsan but said his players “deserved everything they got.”

“We’re going to enjoy the final,” he said.

“You don’t get a chance to play many finals in your career so when you do, enjoy it and play the way that you’re born to play.”


India’s Pant boosts World Cup hopes with IPL batting blitz

India’s Pant boosts World Cup hopes with IPL batting blitz
Updated 24 April 2024
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India’s Pant boosts World Cup hopes with IPL batting blitz

India’s Pant boosts World Cup hopes with IPL batting blitz
  • Delhi posted 224-4 courtesy of a 113-run stand between Pant and fellow left-hander Axar Patel, who hit 66
  • Hosts kept Gujarat down to 220-8 to win by four runs after David Miller’s 23-ball 55 and an unbeaten 21 off 11 deliveries by Rashid Khan

NEW DELHI: Rishabh Pant smashed an unbeaten 88 as he led Delhi Capitals to a tense IPL win over Gujarat Titans on Wednesday, boosting his chances of playing for India at the T20 World Cup.
Delhi posted 224-4 courtesy of a 113-run stand between Pant and fellow left-hander Axar Patel, who hit 66, after they slipped to 44-3 inside six overs at their home Arun Jaitley Stadium.
The hosts kept Gujarat down to 220-8 to win by four runs after David Miller’s 23-ball 55 and an unbeaten 21 off 11 deliveries by Rashid Khan.
Mukesh Kumar kept his nerve in the final over for Delhi’s fourth win in nine matches as they kept their playoff hopes alive in the T20 tournament.
Pant, 26, struck his third half-century of this season after 14 months away from top level cricket following a frightening car accident when his Mercedes rammed into a barrier, flipped and caught fire in December 2022.
Pant, a wicketkeeper-batsman, suffered multiple injuries and was rushed to hospital before being airlifted to Mumbai for further treatment and surgery.
“Everyday that I’m in the middle, I feel better,” man of the match Pant said after his 43-ball blitz studded with five fours and eight sixes.
“Every hour on the field matters, I love being on the field. I try to give it my 100 percent. I think the first six in the match gives me the confidence in a game.”
Pant has not only fired with the bat in the IPL but his sharp work behind the stumps prompted Delhi’s director of cricket Sourav Ganguly and coach Ricky Ponting to back the India star for making the national team for the World Cup in June.
Up and coming Australian batsman Jake Fraser-McGurk gave Delhi a strong start with his 14-ball 23 but medium-pace bowler Sandeep Warrier took three wickets including two in one over.
Patel, a bowling all-rounder promoted to number three in the batting, brought up his fifty with a boundary off Rashid before another Afghanistan spinner Noor Ahmad had him caught at long-on.
Pant reached his fifty in style with a six off Mohit Sharma and then hammered the medium-pace bowler in a 31-run 20th over when he finished with a six, four and three hits over the fence to raise the roof.
South African Tristan Stubbs watched the blitz from the other end after he smashed Sai Kishore in the 19th over, which went for 22 runs, for his unbeaten seven-ball 26.
In reply, Gujarat lost skipper Shubman Gill for six off Anrich Nortje before impact substitute Sai Sudarshan smashed 65 off 39 balls.
Gujarat lost regular wickets but the left-handed Miller smashed Nortje for three sixes and a four to give Delhi a scare before his departure in the 18th over.
Rashid kept up the fight till the end as Gujarat needed 19 off the final over and five on the last ball.
“I think we played some really good cricket, disappointing to lose in the end, but great character shown by everyone,” said Gill. “Great fight till the end and we never thought we were out of the game at any point.”