‘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.”


Al-Hilal beats Al-Ittihad 4-1 in final of the Saudi Super Cup

Al-Hilal beats Al-Ittihad 4-1 in final of the Saudi Super Cup
Updated 12 April 2024
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Al-Hilal beats Al-Ittihad 4-1 in final of the Saudi Super Cup

Al-Hilal beats Al-Ittihad 4-1 in final of the Saudi Super Cup
  • “It was a difficult game and I am very happy to score two goals,” Malcom told Saudi television

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates: Al-Hilal beat Al-Ittihad 4-1 in the final of the Saudi Super Cup on Thursday to stay on course for an unprecedented quadruple.
The trophy, lifted in Abu Dhabi’s Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium, is the first of the season for the Riyadh giant but is unlikely to be the last as the team is also 12 points clear of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr at the top of the Saudi Pro League with just seven games remaining.
Al-Hilal, also in the semifinal of the Asian Champions League and the Saudi King’s Cup, has also expanded its world record winning streak for top-tier teams to 34 consecutive games in all competitions.
Three days after defeating Al-Nassr in the semifinal, during which Ronaldo was sent off for elbowing Ali Al-Bulaihi, two goals from Brazilian winger Malcom did the damage for Al-Hilal. Salem Al-Dawsari and Nasser Al-Dawsari sealed the win with late goals.
“It was a difficult game and I am very happy to score two goals,” Malcom told Saudi television. “We are also happy to collect our first title of the season but we are chasing more trophies.”
Ittihad striker Karim Benzema, signed from Real Madrid last summer, was unable to find the target while colleague Abderrazak Hamdallah made up for missing a penalty by getting on the scoresheet.
The Moroccan forward featured in a controversial incident at the end of the match, however, as he seemed to get involved in an altercation with a fan standing close to the field. The supporter was led away by security personnel.
In 2023, the Super Cup was expanded from a single game between the league champion and King’s Cup winner to include the runners-up from both competitions. It was also moved to Abu Dhabi.
Al-Hilal returns to the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday to take on Al-Ain in the first leg of the Asian Champions League semifinals as it seeks a record fifth continental title.
The club’s potentially record-breaking season comes after it spent about 350 million euros ($380 million) on player transfers after being taken over by the Saudi sovereign wealth operation, the Public Investment Fund which is controlled by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.


French footballer Bafetimbi Gomis defends ex-teammate Ali Al-Bulayhi in Ronaldo saga

French footballer Bafetimbi Gomis defends ex-teammate Ali Al-Bulayhi in Ronaldo saga
Updated 11 April 2024
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French footballer Bafetimbi Gomis defends ex-teammate Ali Al-Bulayhi in Ronaldo saga

French footballer Bafetimbi Gomis defends ex-teammate Ali Al-Bulayhi in Ronaldo saga
  • ‘He is far from being a bad person,’ says Gomis on X
  • Post attracts over 11,000 likes, 4,500 retweets, more than 1,500 replies

RIAYDH: French footballer Bafetimbi Gomis on Thursday defended Al-Hilal’s Saudi defender Ali Al-Bulayhi following his altercation with Al-Nassr’s Cristiano Ronaldo on Monday during their Super Cup semifinal showdown.
The Portuguese international was sent off for elbowing Al-Bulayhi during Al-Nassr’s narrow 2-1 defeat.
Gomis, a former Al-Hilal player who turned out for the Riyadh giants between 2018 and 2022, said of his former teammate Al-Bulayhi on X: “An exemplary teammate, first come, last left from training. He gives everything for his country and for his club. Actually, he’s one of the best center-backs in the world and I know a few things from my experience. He is far from being a bad person!!!”

Currently playing for Japanese club Kawasaki Frontale, Gomis’ post has attracted more than 11,000 likes, 4,500 retweets and in excess of 1,500 replies.
One user posted a video of Al-Bulayhi and Gomis hugging, and wrote: “Two historic legends.”
Another user posted a video — which is believed to have been filmed when Gomis left Al-Hilal — of the two players saluting each other and a comment citing the Frenchman as saying “I love you, Bulayhi.”
A user called Yousef commented, saying: “Thank you Gomis for the unforgettable days!”
The Saudi Ministry of Sport denied rumors on Wednesday that its minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki bin Faisal, had held discussions with Ronaldo after his controversial sending off.


Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema extend Eid Al-Fitr wishes to their followers

Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema extend Eid Al-Fitr wishes to their followers
Updated 10 April 2024
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Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema extend Eid Al-Fitr wishes to their followers

Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema extend Eid Al-Fitr wishes to their followers
  • ‘Eid Mubarak! Wishing you all joy, peace and happiness on this special day,’ writes Ronaldo
  • Benzema says in a short video clip: ‘Salam alaikum, Eid Mubarak to you all, and may Allah accept from us all’

RIYADH: Al-Nassr’s Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo and Al-Ittihad’s French legend Karim Benzema took to X on Wednesday to wish their followers a happy Eid Al-Fitr.
The Saudi Pro League giants extended their best wishes to followers in Saudi Arabia and across the world on the evening of the first day of Eid Al-Fitr, a celebration that started on Wednesday and ends on Friday.
“Eid Mubarak! Wishing you all joy, peace and happiness on this special day,” wrote Ronaldo on X as he posted a picture of himself in a white top.
The Frenchman posted a short video clip of himself, saying: “Salam alaikum, Eid Mubarak to you all, and may Allah accept from us all.” He spoke partly in French and partly in Arabic.
Up until this article went up online, the Portuguese player’s post had garnered over 425,000 likes, 36,000 retweets and 9,700 replies.

A follower called Nungua wrote: “Happy Eid Mubarak, my goat. I love you.”
Yaseen said: “I love you.”
Sadaf, a female fan, wrote: “Wishing you a very happy Eid.”
A follower called Hsnain wrote: “Yes, much special day. Thank you. This means a lot from the man of millions.”
“Be blessed, and thank you so much for the kind words,” commented a user called Raisa, who added an Eid Mubarak image as well.
The Al-Ittihad striker’s post generated over 80,000 likes, 7,800 retweets and more than 1,600 replies

“Happy Eid, Karim. Get ready for the match against Al-Hilal,” said a follower called Ahmad on Benzema’s video.
Another follower said: “Eid Mubarak, brother.”
Abdol Mohsen wrote in Arabic: “May God accept from you and us!”
A user called Ali wrote: “The best person ever to wish us Eid Mubarak,” adding four white heart emojis.
A Benzema fan called Abu Zaid replied to the Frenchman’s post in French, saying: “Eid Mubarak, and every year get creative against your opponents.”


Saudi footballers target Olympic qualification at 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup in Qatar

Saudi footballers target Olympic qualification at 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup in Qatar
Updated 10 April 2024
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Saudi footballers target Olympic qualification at 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup in Qatar

Saudi footballers target Olympic qualification at 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup in Qatar
  • Saad Al-Shehri’s team beat South Korea in their final friendly before heading out to Doha on Thursday

ABU DHABI: Saudi Arabia’s U-23 national football team on Tuesday defeated South Korea 1-0 in their final friendly match before turning their attention to qualification for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.

The match at Al-Nahyan Stadium in Abu Dhabi concluded the squad’s preparation camp before the start of the 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup in Qatar, which will take place from April 15 to May 3, providing a pathway to the football competition at the Paris Olympics this summer.

Jihad Zakry scored the only goal for Saad Al-Shehri’s team in the 72nd minute of a match attended by Sultan Al-Anqari, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UAE; Ibrahim Al-Kassim, secretary-general of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation; and Naeem Al-Bakr, board member at SAFF.

The Saudi squad is set to fly out to Doha on Thursday, before kicking off their Group C fixtures against Tajikistan on April 16 at Khalifa International Stadium.

The Green Falcons will then face Thailand (April 19) and Iraq (April 22) at the same venue.

The 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup sees 16 nations split into four groups of four teams, with the top two from each progressing to the quarterfinals.

The winners of the two semifinals will both secure automatic qualification to the Olympic Games regardless of which team wins the final.

The two losing semifinalists will contest the third place, with the winners also booking their spot in Paris, while the losers (fourth-place finishers) will have take part in a play-off against an African qualifier for one final chance at qualification.


Saudi sports ministry denies communication between minister and Ronaldo

Saudi sports ministry denies communication between minister and Ronaldo
Updated 10 April 2024
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Saudi sports ministry denies communication between minister and Ronaldo

Saudi sports ministry denies communication between minister and Ronaldo

RIYADH: The Saudi Sports Ministry denied rumors that its minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki bin Faisal, had discussions with Al-Nassr’s Cristiano Ronaldo after his dismissal in a cup game on Monday.
Chatter circulated online that the minister talked to the Portuguese international about the quality of refereeing in the Saudi game.
A ministry source told Arab News: “There is no truth to  the rumors circulating about any contact between HRH the Minister of Sport and the Portuguese football star Cristiano Ronaldo. What is being talked about in this regard is completely untrue.”
Ronaldo was sent off for elbowing Ali Al-Bulayhi during Al-Nassr’s 2-1 loss to Al-Hilal in the Saudi Super Cup semi-final.