‘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.”


‘Truly exceptional’: Jorge Jesus hails Al-Hilal players as champions lift Roshn Saudi League trophy in glitzy ceremony

 ‘Truly exceptional’: Jorge Jesus hails Al-Hilal players as champions lift Roshn Saudi League trophy in glitzy ceremony
Updated 26 May 2024
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‘Truly exceptional’: Jorge Jesus hails Al-Hilal players as champions lift Roshn Saudi League trophy in glitzy ceremony

 ‘Truly exceptional’: Jorge Jesus hails Al-Hilal players as champions lift Roshn Saudi League trophy in glitzy ceremony
  • Club can secure an invincible league season if they avoid defeat at Al-Wehda on Monday
  • Al-Hilal beat Al-Tai 3-1 on Thursday through Salem Al-Dawsari, Michael and Malcom goals

RIYADH: After newly crowned Roshn Saudi League champions Al-Hilal lifted the league trophy in a stunning ceremony at Kingdom Arena on Friday night, manager Jorge Jesus says the season may be the best ever in the 66-year history of the club.

Unbeaten domestically this season, Al-Hilal — who created world history by winning 34 matches in succession between September and April across all competitions — clinched the title with three games to spare. The champions are 14 points ahead of second-placed Al-Nassr.

An invincible league season will be secured for the Saudi Super Cup winners if they avoid defeat in their final match at Al-Wehda on Monday. The King’s Cup final against Al-Nassr concludes Al-Hilal’s campaign.

Jesus said: “This season has been truly exceptional for the team — arguably our best ever. The credit goes to the immense talent within the squad and the incredible sense of unity that transcends both on and off-field interactions. We’re currently vying for three local trophies this season. We’ve already secured two and are determined to win the last one.”

Al-Hilal’s latest victory saw them beat Al-Tai 3-1 on Thursday thanks to first-half goals from Salem Al-Dawsari and Michael, and a goal on the hour mark from Malcom. Andrei Cordea netted a consolation strike for Al-Tai.


Al-Hilal stars Mitrovic, Neves praise new Saudi lifestyles

Al-Hilal stars Mitrovic, Neves praise new Saudi lifestyles
Updated 25 May 2024
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Al-Hilal stars Mitrovic, Neves praise new Saudi lifestyles

Al-Hilal stars Mitrovic, Neves praise new Saudi lifestyles
  • Mitrovic: ‘I’m really happy. My family is happy. The club is amazing. So far, it’s a great experience’
  • ‘A lot of players from Europe call and ask how can they get here’

LONDON: Football stars Aleksandar Mitrovic and Ruben Neves have praised their moves to the Saudi Pro League, speaking highly of their new lives in the Kingdom.

In an interview with Sky News, the two Al-Hilal players — who left Fulham and Wolves, respectively — discussed the lifestyle differences between England and Saudi Arabia.

Last year, more than 23 European players moved to the Kingdom’s top football league in a major coup for Saudi sporting administrators.

“After seven years in England I think the first thing was the sun. I never had summer sun in my life,” Mitrovic said.

“It’s been different you know, different culture, different football, the mentality of people as well, but so far I’m really happy.

“My family is happy. The club is amazing. So far, it’s a great experience and looking forward to more years.”

The Serbian international praised the privacy and laid-back way of life in Riyadh. “The people here are crazy about football but you have a bit more privacy here. We live on a compound, we’re a little bit more isolated, and people from Europe and around the world live there you know, the life is really nice,” he said. “You wake up, have breakfast, a little workout, then recovery in the pool in the sun.”

One difference from the European training standard is that clubs in the Kingdom train in the evening, avoiding the midday heat.

Neves told Sky News that Al-Hilal’s regime gives him more time to spend with his family. “It’s a bit different to the routine from Europe here because of the weather, of course,” he said.

Portuguese midfielder Ruben Neves, center, says that Al-Hilal’s regime gives him more time to spend with his family. (AFP)

“We train most of the time after 6 p.m. I like it because I can spend the day at home relaxing. I can take the kids to school, I can pick them up from school, and I can be a little bit with them before I come to training. We have a lot of things to do here because it’s a big, massive city, so we are enjoying it.”

Though both players said the Premier League is the world’s best, they believe that the SPL is not far behind — and is on par with some European leagues.

Mitrovic expects more major European signings during the summer transfer window this year.

“Any of the big names is going to have a big impact and would be welcomed with open hands,” he said.

“A lot of players from Europe, you know they call and ask how can they get here. A lot (of calls), trust me.”

Neves hailed the dedication of Al-Hilal fans. “When you play at home the stadium is always full, 30,000 people. The difference I felt here from England is that when we go to play away the stadium is mainly our fans,” he said. “We have fans all around Saudi, so that feels really good for us.”


Saudi squad announced for the upcoming World Cup, Asian Cup qualifiers

Saudi squad announced for the upcoming World Cup, Asian Cup qualifiers
Updated 24 May 2024
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Saudi squad announced for the upcoming World Cup, Asian Cup qualifiers

Saudi squad announced for the upcoming World Cup, Asian Cup qualifiers

RIYADH: Saudi national team boss Roberto Mancini announced the 31-player list in preparation for the fifth and sixth games of the 2026 World Cup and the 2027 Asian Cup qualifiers.


The Green Falcons will play Pakistan on June 6 in Islamabad and host Jordan on June 11 in Riyadh.

A preparation camp will be held in Riyadh next Thursday, except for Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr players, who will join their teammates on June 2, after the King’s Cup final between the two Riyadh giants.

Saudi National Team Squad for World Cup & Asian Cup Qualifiers

Goalkeepers: Mohammed Al-Owais, Ahmed Al-Kassar, Raghed Najjar, Mohammed Al-Yami, and Mohammed Al-Absi.

Defenders: Mutib Al-Harbi, Hassan Kadesh, Ali Al-Bulaihi, Aoun Al-Saluli, Ali Lagami, Hassan Al-Tumbakti, Saud Abdulhamid, and Mohammed Al-Buraik.

Midfielders: Mukhtar Ali, Abdullah Al-Khaibari, Musab Al-Juwair, Mohammed Kanno, Rayan Hamed, Sultan Al-Ghannam, Nasser Al-Dawsari, Faisal Al-Ghamdi, and Abbas Al-Hassan.

Attackers: Salem Al-Dawsari, Sami Al-Najai, Ayman Yahya, Marwan Al-Sahafi, Abdulrahman Gharib, Ahmed Al-Ghamdi, Abdullah Radif, Abdullah Al-Hamdan, and Firas Al-Burikan.

Al-Nassr’s Sultan Al-Ghannam returns to the squad after he and five other Saudi internationals were hit with punishments for disciplinary violations before the AFC Asian Cup held in Qatar.

The wing-back took to X and said he was happy to return to the squad.

“Representing the national team is an unparalleled honor. I thank those in charge of the team, including the administrative and technical bodies, and I hope that I, along with the rest of my teammates, will provide a level that is worthy of the reputation of Saudi football,” he added.


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.


‘September or October’: Al-Hilal coach reveals timeline for Neymar’s return to action

Neymar could be back in action in 'September or October' according to Al-Hilal coach Jorge Jesus. (File/Getty Images)
Neymar could be back in action in 'September or October' according to Al-Hilal coach Jorge Jesus. (File/Getty Images)
Updated 22 May 2024
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‘September or October’: Al-Hilal coach reveals timeline for Neymar’s return to action

Neymar could be back in action in 'September or October' according to Al-Hilal coach Jorge Jesus. (File/Getty Images)
  • No. 10 is at ‘a crucial phase’ in his injury recovery, says the Roshn Saudi League champions’ manager Jorge Jesus
  • Al-Hilal teammate Kalidou Koulibaly is eagerly awaiting the return of Neymar: ‘I call him the magician because he has so much magic in his feet’

RIYADH: Neymar is working to make his comeback from injury in the first few months of next season, Al-Hilal manager Jorge Jesus has revealed.
The Brazilian superstar playmaker, a record signing for Al-Hilal last summer, suffered a season-ending cruciate ligament injury while on international duty in October.
Neymar, however, was a big part of Al-Hilal’s recent Roshn Saudi League title celebrations in Riyadh and declared himself as “feeling good” and “impatient to be back on the pitch.”
With the No. 10’s rehabilitation in full swing, Jesus is eagerly anticipating having the world-class attacker back in his plans for the upcoming campaign.
“He’s currently in a crucial phase of treatment, and we’re hopeful he might be ready to rejoin the team and start practicing by September or October,” Jesus said. “He’s a star player, he possesses exceptional talent. Unfortunately, I can’t provide a definitive answer at this point. Injuries like Neymar’s typically require 10 to 12 months for recovery.”
As someone who knows exactly what it is like to both play with and against Neymar, his Al-Hilal teammate Kalidou Koulibaly will be delighted to have the 32-year-old back in action. The Senegalese defender, a key part of the club’s world record-winning run earlier in the campaign, believes the re-addition of Neymar will only make Al-Hilal even better next season — as well as himself.
“It will be really important. Neymar is a really important player for us. I call him the ‘Magia’ — magician — because he has so much magic in his feet,” Koulibaly said. “When he touches the ball, he is incredible. We are waiting for him to be fit and to play with us and to make us happy and to make the supporters happy. Also to play with him — to play with someone of that level — you can only increase your own level and become better. Neymar is really important for us, and I hope that next year he will play all season and that we can win some trophies with him.”
Speaking at the recent title celebrations following Al-Hilal’s 4-1 victory over Al-Hazem, which clinched the Riyadh club’s 19th Saudi Arabian league crown, Neymar said: “I am very happy obviously. Winning titles is always good. The best thing would have been being on the pitch, but I am so happy for my teammates.
“I am fine. I am feeling good. I am impatient to be back on the pitch. The fans are unbelievable. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to give them the happiness they deserve, but you can be sure that next season we are going to have a lot of fun.”
Unbeaten domestically this season, Al-Hilal clinched the Roshn Saudi League title with three matches to spare and have won 29 of their 32 games thus far. Nearest challengers Al-Nassr, who are captained by Cristiano Ronaldo, are 12 points behind. Al-Hilal’s next match is at home to Al-Tai on Thursday in the Roshn Saudi League.
Al-Hilal created top-flight world football history this season by winning 34 matches in succession between September and April across all competitions. The incredible run saw them overtake Welsh club The New Saints’ winning streak of 27 games in season 2016-17. Prior to that, the record stood for 44 years following Dutch giants Ajax’s 26-game winning stretch between 1971 and 1972.