Ronaldo returns against Al-Ain as Al-Nassr eye AFC Champions League glory

Ronaldo returns against Al-Ain as Al-Nassr eye AFC Champions League glory
The 39-year-old had been banned for one game after making an offensive gesture during a Saudi Arabia league match four days earlier (X/@AlNassrFC)
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Updated 04 March 2024
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Ronaldo returns against Al-Ain as Al-Nassr eye AFC Champions League glory

Ronaldo returns against Al-Ain as Al-Nassr eye AFC Champions League glory
  • 9 points behind Al-Hilal in the SPL title race, Al-Nassr’s best chance of success this season could be in the Asian competition

RIYADH: Cristiano Ronaldo returns to action for Al-Nassr on Monday with a simple task: rescue the team’s season and lead them to success in the AFC Champions League.

On Monday, the nine-time Saudi Arabia champions will make the short trip to the UAE to take on Al-Ain in the first leg of the quarterfinal in Asia’s biggest club competition. It comes at a crucial time in the season for a team that has never won the continental title.

At the moment, Al-Nassr are in second in the Roshn Saudi League but Ronaldo was on the sidelines last Thursday with head in his hands as Al-Nassr hosted the bottom team Al-Hazem.

Four times the Yellows took the lead and fans and Ronaldo sat back in anticipation of a comfortable win. Yet four times the visitors came back, helped by some dreadful Al-Nassr defending, to draw 4-4 and grab a point.

The 39-year-old had been banned for one game after making an offensive gesture during a Saudi Arabia league match four days earlier. At the end of the 3-2 win over Al-Shabab, video footage appeared to show Ronaldo cupping his ear and repeatedly thrusting his hand forward near his pelvis, in a gesture that seemed to be aimed at Al-Shabab fans.

The draw with Al-Hazem leaves Al-Nassr — even at this stage of the season — with a mountain to climb if they are to win the Saudi Pro League.

“Ronaldo strengthens the team and ensures that the opponent respects you more but his absence had nothing to do with the result,” said a visibly frustrated Al-Nassr coach Luis Castro. “The fact is that we are conceding too many goals and the problem is not organizational but due to individual mistakes. At the moment we are now focused on the Asian Champions League.”

Al-Hilal’s 3-1 win over Al-Ittihad on Friday leaves them strong favorites for another league championship. In theory it is not over — Hilal themselves have overturned such deficits in the past to lift the title. But with the leaders winning their last 25 games in all competitions, it is almost unimaginable that they will not win a 19th league title.

So it means that Al-Nassr know that only glory in Asia and winning the continental championship for the first time will save their season. The King’s Cup is always a welcome domestic trophy, but does not quite hold the same gravitas.

The tie against Al-Ain will not be easy. The Emirati club won their group and then got past Nasaf of Uzbekistan in the round of 16. They are going well at home and abroad and are unbeaten in eight, with seven of those ending in victory.

They possess plenty of attacking talent and will have watched Al-Nassr’s defensive issues of late with interest. Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba especially will be looking forward to it. The Togolese international has already scored six goals in Asia this season and has been in fine form domestically.

Al-Ain boss Hernan Crespo will have some sympathy for Al-Nassr. The Argentine legend was in charge of Qatar’s Al-Duhail last year and took the team to the last four where they were hit for seven by Hilal.

“We know how strong Al-Nassr are,” said Crespo. “They are full of talented players and it will be a great challenge for us. You expect to face tough opposition at this stage of the continental championship. We will have to be at our best.”

While Ronaldo’s return is big news, there will also be huge interest in Tuesday’s clash between Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad in Riyadh.

Hilal’s recent SPL win over the Tigers was deserved though, the team from Jeddah could have gone in at the break 2-0 ahead instead of 1-0, and then the rest of the game would have been very different.

The problem for Al-Ittihad, and shared by the rest of the Saudi Arabia teams as well as Asia, is how to stop Al-Hilal.

Now that the Blues are nine points clear at the top of the table, they can almost afford to turn their focus to the Champions League.

Hilal may still have Neymar out, but Aleksandar Mitrovic is in excellent form as are Ruben Neves and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic.

But Al-Ittihad can also save their season. The best they can probably manage at home is to sneak into the top three.

A win in Asia, however, and a third continental title would make what has been a forgettable season into something special. It is the biggest game of their season and Al-Nassr can say the same.


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). 

 


Francillonne, Aebersold victorious at junior fencing championships in Riyadh

Francillonne, Aebersold victorious at junior fencing championships in Riyadh
Updated 16 April 2024
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Francillonne, Aebersold victorious at junior fencing championships in Riyadh

Francillonne, Aebersold victorious at junior fencing championships in Riyadh

RIYADH: France’s Oceane Francillonne and Switzerland’s Alban Aebersold won gold medals in  solo junior epee contests on Monday, as young fencers meet in the Saudi capital Riyadh for the Junior and Cadet Fencing World Championships.

Francillonne overcame Canada’s Julia Yin 15-12 in the final of the women’s individual epee. Francillonne defeated US’ Leehi Machulsky 15-14 in the semis.
Machulsky won the bronze, and Italian Anita Corradino received the other bronze.

In the final of the men’s individual epee, Aebersold beat Britain’s Alec Brooke 15-13. The Swiss youngster overcame US’ Samuel Imrek 15-9 on his way to gold. Imrek and Italian Nicolo del Contrasto both claimed bronze.

President of the Saudi Fencing Federation, Ahmed Al-Sabban, and Vice President Mohammed Bou Ali, awarded the winners their medals on the fourth day of the international competition that runs until Apr. 20.

The contest, which is being held at the King Saud University Sports Arena, brings together 169 women and 214 men.

The Saudi team is being represented at the contest by Ahmed Hazazi, Youssef Al-Banali, Ali Al-Fuzai, Dania Al-Saeed, Yasmeen Al-Saleh, and Dana Al-Saeed.

On Tuesday, the youth epee competitions for men and women under 20 will be held.

Abd Almonem Al-Husseini, the vice president of the International Fencing Federation, praised the organization of the event. He also commended the remarkable efforts of all committees and the tremendous capabilities provided by the organizing committee.

Al-Husseini predicted a rapid and significant development for Saudi fencing in the coming years.