‘Amazing to be part of this club’: Al-Ittihad women’s goalkeeping coach Dan Smith

‘Amazing to be part of this club’: Al-Ittihad women’s goalkeeping coach Dan Smith
Al-Ittihad are currently fourth in the Saudi Women's Premier League. (X/@ittiladiesclub)
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Updated 05 March 2024
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‘Amazing to be part of this club’: Al-Ittihad women’s goalkeeping coach Dan Smith

‘Amazing to be part of this club’: Al-Ittihad women’s goalkeeping coach Dan Smith
  • Smith spoke to Arab News about his eye-opening move to Jeddah and the development of talent in the Saudi Women’s Premier League

Behind the ambition, the astronomical transfer fees, and the star power of the men’s game, in recent years another transformation has been quietly taking place in Saudi Arabian football.

While the headlines have been about Cristiano Ronaldo, Sadio Mane, Neymar, Malcom, Karim Benzema and N’Golo Kante, the Kingdom has been investing in women’s football by establishing the Women’s Premier League and First Division League.

And here too, there are big names getting on board including former Leicester City defender Ashleigh Plumptre and former West Ham striker Nor Mustafa. Other experienced campaigners have been brought in which includes Kelly Lindsey, the former US international, who manages Al-Ittihad’s female team.

This is a part of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation’s initiative to strengthen the women’s game. Indeed in 2022, Saudi Arabia announced its intention to bid for the 2026 AFC Women’s Asian Cup. With the country implementing its national Vision 2030, football has a huge part to play.

A glimpse into this revolution and evolution can be found at Al-Ittihad in the form of goalkeeping coach Dan Smith who arrived in Jeddah from England’s Bristol City last summer. Smith believes this burgeoning league has the potential to be the best and biggest in the world.

“It’s amazing to be a part of this club,” he told Arab News. “You really feel wanted, and you feel the connection between the players and the supporters and the community.”

Ten rounds into the second season of the Women’s Premier League, Al-Ittihad are in fourth place.

The symbiotic relationship between the team and the passionate fan base creates an atmosphere that Smith considers refreshing.

“Any time that we get the fans to the games, you know, they bring the drums, they bring the songs, they bring the noise,” he added. “It’s very, very different to what we’ve experienced before in England.”

The women’s game, Smith acknowledges, is growing in popularity but there are challenges.

“There’s been a lack of coaching over the past few years, especially for goalkeepers,” he said. This did not mean starting from scratch but looking at refining techniques in handling, footwork and overall skills, he added.

Smith believes these challenges are opportunities for growth.

“It’s been brilliant in terms of what it has done for my coaching, my patience,” said Smith. “And it’s reinforced the stuff that maybe, for a few years, I’ve not necessarily had to focus on as much.”

Smith has had to deal with other challenges as a foreign coach in Saudi Arabia.

“That language barrier is something different, but we’re lucky to have people, for example our goalkeepers when it comes to my work with the club, who can translate. I’ve had to learn a bit of Arabic along the way, so it’s been good.”

The coaching side has been fulfilling, he said. “When it comes to working alongside the players, it’s been amazing. They’re so eager to learn, eager to improve.”

He is adamant that the game in Saudi Arabia is being developed from the grassroots level.

“The project as a whole is one that is so, so exciting to be involved in,” Smith stressed. “The investment not only brings foreign staff and players but also continues into the school systems, encouraging young girls to play football from a young age.”

“People just see the money and think they’re just investing it into the first team or into staff,” said Smith. “But no, there’s a plan in place, there’s a strategy in place by the federation to get women’s football propelled onto a bigger stage."

“That’s another reason why the project as a whole is one that is so exciting to be involved in,” he added. “Of course, it’s going to take time, a hundred percent, but with more investment and the more people coming into the right roles, this project for women’s football in Saudi is only going one way. And that is up.”

Smith said there was still a great deal of misconceptions about Saudi Arabia’s transformation.

“Unless you are here, I don’t think you can speak with an educated view about it, to be honest. It is completely different.” He added that it was “completely different to what you’ve been reading about or seeing online.”

All of this has contributed to what he describes as an “amazing first eight months in the country.”

He said the women’s game had gained a great deal from the recently concluded West Asian Football Federation Women’s Championship which was held in the country, even though Saudi Arabia lost their three group games.

“The women’s team have just played their first international tournament. They’ll gain so much experience and knowledge from that, which they can then use to push on in future years.”

The future holds much promise, which includes the potential hosting of the 2026 Women’s Asian Cup.

“That again is something that can grow the audience massively.”

With club games being broadcast, this was creating interest among females. “There’s the opportunity for young girls in this country to see what they could become,” said Smith. “They can dream it, and they can believe.”


Indian walks from Dubai to Riyadh hoping to meet hero Ronaldo

Indian walks from Dubai to Riyadh hoping to meet hero Ronaldo
Updated 20 April 2024
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Indian walks from Dubai to Riyadh hoping to meet hero Ronaldo

Indian walks from Dubai to Riyadh hoping to meet hero Ronaldo
  • “I pray to God to make this dream come true and meet Ronaldo”

JEDDAH: A Cristiano Ronaldo superfan has arrived in Riyadh after a grueling walk from Dubai hoping to meet the Al-Nassr star.

After 1,200 km and 36 days of travel mostly across the arid landscape separating the cities, Civin KP arrived in the Saudi capital.

“Finally, I am here in front of Al-Awal Park where Al-Nassr plays (their) official games and I hope I can meet Ronaldo,” he said.

He posted images of himself on Instagram at the stadium where he managed to take a seat at the home team’s bench and walked pitch-side at the 25,000-capacity venue.

“I came all the way from Dubai on foot and crossed all this distance just to pay respect and show my love to the best player in the world,” said Civin, who is originally from the state of Kerala in India.

Ronaldo is one of the most recognizable faces of international football and has fans across the world who enjoy his skills and passion for the game. He signed for the Riyadh club in 2022 after years of playing in Europe’s top leagues.

Civin feels proud to have completed the journey but still awaits the biggest prize.

“The unexpected moment is always sweeter,” he wrote, “hopefully waiting for more.”

A photo with the Portuguese great and an autograph would be a moment of a lifetime, Civin told MBC as he visited the ground.

“I pray to God to make this dream come true and meet Ronaldo,” he said. “I will cherish this moment, if it happens, for the rest of my life.”

On Friday, Civin was able to secure a ticket to watch Al-Nassr beat Al-Fayha 3-1, but unfortunately his hero did not feature as he is serving a suspension.


Al-Hilal’s record 34-match winning run ends at Al-Ain

Al-Hilal’s record 34-match winning run ends at Al-Ain
Updated 18 April 2024
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Al-Hilal’s record 34-match winning run ends at Al-Ain

Al-Hilal’s record 34-match winning run ends at Al-Ain
  • Morocco striker Soufiane Rahimi was the star of the show after he scored a first-half hat-trick in a 4-2 win for Al-Ain in their semifinal first leg
  • Al-Hilal, the four-time Asian champions, last failed to win a game in September last year when they drew a Saudi Pro League match

AL-AIN: Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal saw their record run of 34 successive victories end on Wednesday at the hands of UAE’s Al-Ain in the Asian Champions League.
Morocco striker Soufiane Rahimi was the star of the show after he scored a first-half hat-trick in a 4-2 win for Al-Ain in their semifinal first leg.
Al-Hilal, the four-time Asian champions, last failed to win a game in September last year when they drew a Saudi Pro League match.
Wednesday’s game had been postponed 24 hours after torrential rain swamped the UAE and the record-setting Saudis must have wished it had kept raining.
Rahimi opened the scoring after just six minutes from a pass by Yahia Nader and added a second from the penalty spot 20 minutes later after he was brought down by goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais who was yellow carded for his troubles.
Rahimi completed his hat-trick in the 40th minute, again from a penalty after Ali Al-Bulayhi chopped down Brazilian defender Erik in the area.
Al-Hilal reduced the deficit early in the second period when Malcom scored from a pass by Sergej Milinkovic-Savic.
However, the Saudis conceded yet another penalty just before the hour mark with Kalidou Koulibaly bringing down Rahimi.
This time Paraguayan star Alejandro Romero took over spot-kick duties to make it 4-1 for Al-Ain, the inaugural winners of the Asian Champions League in 2003.
Salem Al-Dawsari kept Al-Hilal in the tie ahead of next Tuesday’s return leg by scoring his team’s second goal of the night in the 78th minute.
Earlier Wednesday, South Korea’s Ulsan claimed a slender lead in their semifinal with a 1-0 first leg win over Japan’s Yokohama F-Marinos.


Saudi beat Tajikistan 4-2 in AFC U-23 Asian Cup group opener

Saudi beat Tajikistan 4-2 in AFC U-23 Asian Cup group opener
Updated 17 April 2024
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Saudi beat Tajikistan 4-2 in AFC U-23 Asian Cup group opener

Saudi beat Tajikistan 4-2 in AFC U-23 Asian Cup group opener
  • The Green Falcons lead Group C on goal difference as Thailand beat Iraq

DOHA: Saudi Arabia kicked off their 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup campaign in style with a 4-2 win over Tajikistan on Tuesday at Khalifa International Stadium in Al-Rayyan.

In the other Group C match, Thailand defeated Iraq 2-0 at Al-Janoub in Al-Wakrah.

The Green Falcons now have three points and lead their group ahead of Thailand on goal difference. Tajikistan and Iraq are third and fourth respectively with zero points.

Saudi Arabia took the lead on seven minutes through Rayane Hamidou, but Tajikistan struck back through Ruslan Khayloev after 23 minutes. Deep into stoppage time at the end of the first period, Saudi regained the advantage thanks to Haitham Asiri.

Saad Al-Shehri’s men looked to have put the game to bed with goals by Ayman Yahya on 55 and 61 minutes, before Rustam Soirov gave Tajikistan a glimmer of hope nine minutes later to make it 4-2.

Earlier in the day, Japan beat China 1-0 in the opening match in Group B at Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium, before South Korea defeated the UAE team at Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium.

Saudi Arabia’s next game is against Thailand on Friday. They will then face Iraq on April 22. 

The 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup, which sees 16 nations split into four groups of four, also acts as a route to the Olympic Games in Paris this summer.

The top two teams from each group progress to the quarterfinals, with the winners of both semifinals automatically qualifying for the Olympics.

The losing semifinalists will contest third place, with the winner also booking a spot in Paris. The fourth-place finishers have one final chance to secure a place at the Games through a play-off against an African qualifier.


Al-Hilal shifts focus to the Asian Champions League semifinals as it continues a four-title bid

Al-Hilal shifts focus to the Asian Champions League semifinals as it continues a four-title bid
Updated 16 April 2024
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Al-Hilal shifts focus to the Asian Champions League semifinals as it continues a four-title bid

Al-Hilal shifts focus to the Asian Champions League semifinals as it continues a four-title bid
  • Al-Hilal are in contention for an unprecedented collection of four titles

DUBAI: The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema haven’t been able to halt Al-Hilal’s dominant run in Saudi Arabia’s domestic football league. Now it’s the turn of Al-Ain of the UAE to come up against this seemingly unstoppable force in the semifinals of the Asian Champions League.

Al-Hilal are in contention for an unprecedented collection of four titles. The first trophy was secured last week when Malcom scored twice for the club in a 4-1 win over Al-Ittihad in the Saudi Super Cup final. With seven games in the Saudi Pro League remaining, the Blues are 12 points clear of Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr.

On April 30, the Riyadh-based club will meet Al-Ittihad of Jeddah in the semifinals of the King’s Cup, a domestic knockout competition.

Al-Hilal also have their sights set on a record fifth continental title, though is expecting a challenge Tuesday against the Hernan Crespo coached Al-Ain, the 2003 champions who ousted Al-Nassr in the Asian Champions League quarterfinals.

“We have only won one trophy and there are three more to go for,” defender Ali Al-Bulaihi told Saudi Arabian TV ahead of the continental semifinals. “Al-Hilal is a system and everyone at the club from the bottom to the top works hard and this is the reason for success. We are not afraid of any team and we are ready for any challenge.”

Despite being without injured striker Aleksandar Mitrovic, the joint leading scorer in this season’s Asian Champions League, and Brazilian superstar Neymar, Al-Hilal are still in great form. The Super Cup victory over Ittihad extended their world record winning streak for top tier teams to 34 games.

While Al-Hilal is strongly favored to overcome Al-Ain and progress to next month’s final, the meeting in the eastern zone — Asia’s top continental club tournament is divided into two geographic halves until the final — appears closer to call.

The eastern zone playoff is between last season’s champion of South Korea and Japan’s runner-up as Ulsan HD, Asian champions in 2012 and 2022, welcomes Yokohama F. Marinos.

Five-time Japanese champion Yokohama has never reached this stage in Asia before, even under successful coaches Ange Postecoglou and Kevin Muscat.

Harry Kewell is the third successive Australian coach at the club and is hoping to take Yokohama all the way.

“It’s important to understand when I first came into the job it was always going to be a quick turnaround for us because of the AFC Champions League games that were coming up,” Kewell, appointed in December, said. “The attitude of the players has been excellent — the willingness from them to learn a slightly new style.”

“It’s been quite easy to implement my ideas,” added Kewell, who won the UEFA Champions League as a player with Liverpool in 2005. “They’ve accepted it and they’ve worked very hard in perfecting them throughout the games.”

Yokohama will host Ulsan in the return leg of the semifinals on April 24, a day after Al-Hilal takes on Al-Ain in Saudi Arabia.


Saudi FA to review fan code of conduct after supporter appears to whip player

Saudi FA to review fan code of conduct after supporter appears to whip player
Updated 15 April 2024
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Saudi FA to review fan code of conduct after supporter appears to whip player

Saudi FA to review fan code of conduct after supporter appears to whip player
  • Incident took place at the end of Al-Ittihad’s defeat by Al-Hilal in the Saudi Super Cup in Abu Dhabi
  • Footage shows Al-Ittihad striker Abderrazak Hamdallah throw water at a fan, who then strikes the player twice with what looks like a whip

RIYADH: The Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) is to review its spectator code of conduct after a supporter appeared to whip an Al-Ittihad player.

The incident took place at the end of Al-Ittihad’s defeat by Al-Hilal in the Saudi Super Cup in Abu Dhabi.

Footage that circulated on social media showed Al-Ittihad striker Abderrazak Hamdallah throw water at a fan, who then struck the player twice with what looked like a whip.

Moroccan Hamdallah scored for his side as they lost 4-1.

The SAFF said it was “shocked with the disgraceful scenes.”

A statement released by SAFF said: “Football in Saudi Arabia is a family game and, thankfully, fan disorder is extremely rare.”

It continued: “It’s why the actions of this ‘so called’ fan go against all that Saudi football represents and we completely condemn the incident.

“There will be a thorough review of the spectator code of conduct. The review will ensure updated rules and regulations are put in place to swiftly and effectively impose suitable penalties to help avoid any repeat of such incidents.”