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.”


Al-Ain’s glory: 4 talking points from the 2023-24 AFC Champions League

Al-Ain’s glory: 4 talking points from the 2023-24 AFC Champions League
Updated 26 May 2024
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Al-Ain’s glory: 4 talking points from the 2023-24 AFC Champions League

Al-Ain’s glory: 4 talking points from the 2023-24 AFC Champions League
  • A victorious end to this AFC Champions League-era was earned by the UAE’s Al-Ain after a 5-1 win over Yokohama Marinos at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium

DUBAI: Al-Ain are kings of Asia after a remarkable AFC Champions League campaign culminated in a 5-1 win over Yokohama Marinos in the second leg of the final on Saturday night.

Morocco phenomenon Soufiane Rahimi helped gain a richly deserved second continental crown for Hernan Crespo’s troops, sparking wild celebrations at a jubilant Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in the Garden City.

The Boss’ 6-3 aggregate finals triumph over Japan’s Yokohama F. Marinos was enriched by consecutive knockout-stage eliminations of red-hot Saudi Arabian favorites Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr and came with added poignancy as they go down in history as the first and last victors throughout 21 editions of this format ahead of next season’s sweeping changes for AFC Champions League Elite/AFC Champions League Two/AFC Challenge League.

Here, Arab News takes a look at the talking points for the Middle East’s competitors after this unforgettable — and unrepeatable — 2023-24 campaign:

Crespo and Rahimi make difference for unstoppable Al-Ain

Al-Ain’s curious campaign gained a fittingly glorious conclusion.

The Boss looked well off the pace domestically to a rampant Al-Wasl yet were the undisputed class of the continental field. That is, in part, attributable to the searing drive of Rahimi and Crespo’s charisma.

They swept through the group stage under the unpopular Alfred Schreuder, before their celebrated Argentine supremo orchestrated a tight victory versus Uzbekistan’s Nasaf and then two modern classics against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal.

A Marinos similarly prone to drama awaited in the decider. Al-Ain would only trail for 14 regulation minutes across the two legs, with a 2-1 away defeat being followed by a dominant 5-1 home victory.

There would be no repeat of the showpiece suffering caused by Douglas’ missed penalty in 2016 or Al-Ittihad’s inexorable 2005 second-leg display.

Crespo learned from the 2022 semifinal embarrassment inflicted upon him by Al-Hilal when in charge of Qatar’s Al-Duhail. His reintroduction of compatriot Matias Palacios — mystifyingly shunned by Schreuder — was influential.

Other heroes included Yahia Nader, Kaku, the ceaseless Mohammed Abbas and skipper Bandar Al-Ahbabi.

But the final words must go to Rahimi. The top scorer’s 13 goals were five more than anyone else, including three goals in two legs versus Al-Nassr and a first-leg hat-trick against Al-Hilal.

In the final’s second stanza, he leveled the tie on eight minutes, won the penalty for Kaku, which put them back ahead, and a supremely intelligent arching run kept him onside before being felled by goalkeeper William Popp for the red card. There was even time to link back up with gregarious Togo hit man Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba, who raised the roof via a late brace despite being continually ignored by Crespo.

In a sign of what awaits, however, links to a Saudi Arabian summer move will not abate.

Saudi Arabia’s time should come again

Shock and disappointment are the prevailing emotions for Saudi Arabia’s heavyweights as they look back on a 2023-24 campaign derailed by neighbors Al-Ain.

A quarterfinal double-header for the ages witnessed Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr eliminated on penalties, with a Rahimi-inspired Al-Ain then inflicting more pain on Al-Hilal in the subsequent round. Such early exits were far from the commentariat’s minds when Roshn Saudi League’s revolutionary summer 2023 spending spree was conducted.

There are multiple reasonable to believe, however, that a seventh AFC Champions League trophy will be won by a club from the Kingdom in a year’s time.

The AFC’s decision to scrap their own foreign quota from 2024-25 should exponentially benefit Saudi clubs.

This season’s limit to six foreign players — of whom one must be Asian-qualified — was two more than Saudi clubs are permitted domestically, or three if they did not possess an Asian foreigner. Hence Nassr’s panicked January acquisition of little-used Australia left-back Aziz Behich.

In comparison, only five open-age foreigners were allowed in this season’s ADNOC Pro League of the UAE and Qatar’s Expo Stars League.

The rule unduly disrupted the chemistry within Saudi squads, leading to consequential selection calls such as esteemed Senegal center-back Kalidou Koulibaly sitting out Al-Hilal’s last-four decider with Al-Ain.

There is also an undeniable home-soil advantage baked into the 2024-25 and 2025-26 Elite editions with the quarterfinals, semifinals and final being played in one-leg ties within the Kingdom.

Roshn Saudi League clubs can also look forward to another ambitious summer recruitment spree to further bolster already fearsome rosters. Jeddah giants Al-Ahli’s return to Asia’s premier club competition for the first time since 2021 will see the likes of Franck Kessie and Riyad Mahrez compete for glory.

In time, 2023-24 may just be looked upon as an unwelcome blip for Saudi Arabia’s strongest.

More middling Qatar performances

Another AFC Champions League passed by with no telling impact from Qatari clubs, despite an abundance of star quality and the national team’s second successive Asian Cup success this winter.

It is now 13 years and counting since Al-Sadd defeated South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in the final. This is also the nation’s last showpiece appearance.

This season, Al-Arabi and Al-Wakrah exited in the play-offs to unfancied Uzbekistani opposition. It got little better in the competition proper, with Al-Sadd and Al-Duhail failing to make the knockouts.

It feels like a window of opportunity in the AFC Champions League has permanently closed for Qatar, without reward.

Focus on COVID-19 and the World Cup 2022 has shifted to Saudi Arabia’s AFC Champions League Elite “Final Stage” hosting rights for 2024-26, plus lengthy run-ups to the 2027 Asian Cup and World Cup 2034.

Shifting balance?

Change to the direction of travel from east to west within Asian football was notable, throughout 2023-24.

The question, now, is whether this is permanent.

Western supremacy seemed pre-determined in 2023/24, from the imposing strength of Saudi Arabia’s clubs to Al-Ain appearing as the only opponent with a realistic retort. It had, resolutely, not been this way for much of the recent past.

Al-Hilal (2019, 2021) and Al-Sadd (2011) were the only western-zone teams to prevail from 2006 to 2022.

With the financial might of the Chinese Super League continuing to emphatically wane and K League 1 and J1 League outfits remaining exporters of outstanding talent rather than importers, AFC Champions League Elite may have a drastically different roll of honor.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bayer Leverkusen win the German Cup and complete undefeated domestic double

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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