Why Al-Shabab’s Ivan Rakitic is ‘the happiest guy in the world playing football’

Why Al-Shabab’s Ivan Rakitic is ‘the happiest guy in the world playing football’
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Ivan Rakitic says he has embraced his new life in Riyadh since joining Al-Shabab in January. (X/@AlShabab_EN)
Why Al-Shabab’s Ivan Rakitic is ‘the happiest guy in the world playing football’
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Ivan Rakitic and Al-Shabab teammate Yannick Carrasco. (X/@AlShabab_EN)
Why Al-Shabab’s Ivan Rakitic is ‘the happiest guy in the world playing football’
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Ivan Rakitic on the ball for Al-Shabab. (X/@AlShabab_EN)
Why Al-Shabab’s Ivan Rakitic is ‘the happiest guy in the world playing football’
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Ivan Rakitic during Saudi Foundation Day. (X/@AlShabab_EN)
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Updated 05 April 2024
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Why Al-Shabab’s Ivan Rakitic is ‘the happiest guy in the world playing football’

Why Al-Shabab’s Ivan Rakitic is ‘the happiest guy in the world playing football’
  • Ex-Barcelona midfielder tells Arab News he wants to ‘win everything’ with struggling Saudi Pro League giants Al-Shabab
  • Former Croatia international would love to work with his great admirer Jose Mourinho in the Kingdom

LONDON: Jose Mourinho once called Ivan Rakitic, who joined struggling Saudi Pro League giants Al-Shabab in January, “fantastic” and “one of the most underrated players in the world.”
The rich praise from The Special One underscores what a significant coup Al-Shabab achieved in luring the former Croatia and Barcelona midfielder from La Liga side Sevilla.
Like Mourinho, Rakitic, 36, is a serial winner, having claimed 16 major honors in his illustrious career.
But he arrived in Saudi Arabia to find the six-time Pro League champions in dire need of revitalization, after the dismissal of two managers during a tumultuous campaign.
Despite Al-Shabab’s 11th place in the league, Rakitic, in an exclusive interview with Arab News, expressed supreme optimism about inspiring a resurgence.
“(During) our first training session after the break, the first thing the coach (Vitor Pereira) said to me was: ‘Ivan, you’re so happy all the time’,” a beaming Rakitic said over Zoom. “I told him: ‘Why not? It’s one life. We don’t have another one.’
“I’m the happiest guy in the world playing football.”
Rakitic’s relentless positivity and ferocious competitive spirit, honed alongside luminaries such as Lionel Messi and Luka Modric for club and country, will surely galvanize Al-Shabab.
“The most important part, as I (said) when I arrived, is bringing a winning mentality. I just told the guys: ‘Sorry if sometimes I get angry, but I want to win everything all the time. If you’re traveling and playing something on the iPad, I will try to win. If you play short games in a training session, if I have to kick you, sorry, I have to kick you because I want to win this game’.”
His great admirer, Mourinho, would heartily approve of such pugnacity in the quest for success.
The admiration is mutual. Rakitic revealed he hugged Mourinho at the Anthony Joshua-Francis Ngannou fight in March. He would be delighted to see the Portuguese maestro move to the Kingdom — an increasingly likely prospect.
Mourinho was heavily linked with Al-Shabab’s managerial vacancy in January following his dismissal from AS Roma. He has said he will “definitely” work in Saudi Arabia.
“I’ve been really proud of my career, but if I could have the opportunity to work with Jose Mourinho, it (would be) an amazing step in my career,” Rakitic, who has moved to Saudi Arabia with his wife Raquel and daughters Althea (10) and Adara (8), said. “My respect for him is truly amazing. I think that we are very similar.
“We want to win everything. We want to be at the top in all that we do.
“He’s one of the best coaches in the history of football. Hopefully, in the future, we can have this opportunity to work together or to be closer to each other.”
Rakitic had not anticipated following world-renowned footballers, including his former Barcelona teammate Neymar, in taking the well-trodden path to the Pro League.
After earning legendary status through 323 appearances in two separate stints, he had intended to remain at his second home, Sevilla.
“If somebody (said to) me three or four months ago that I will be here in Riyadh and have an interview with you, I would say you were crazy. This is not possible,” said Rakitic, who won the Europa League twice with Sevilla and 13 trophies — including the 2015 Champions League (he scored in the 3-1 win over Juventus in the final) — in a glittering spell with Barcelona between 2014 and 2020.
“Everything changed when I had my first meeting with (Al-Shabab) President Mohammed (Al-Munajam). To hear about his vision, what he wanted to create with Al-Shabab, where he wanted to reach in this league, was amazing.”
After becoming president in September, Al-Munajam promised a bountiful new era for the third most successful Saudi Pro League team.
Sacking Rakitic’s fellow Croat Igor Biscan as manager in December was certainly not part of his master plan.
Biscan’s wretched reign, yielding only three wins in 11 matches, was at least longer than Dutchman Marcel Keizer’s 40-day tenure between July and September.
Portugal’s Pereira, who won two league titles with Porto in an impressive managerial career that has included successful spells in Greece and China, has the task of reviving Al-Shabab’s fortunes.
Three wins in seven matches (before Saturday’s trip to Al-Tai) after the winter break may not have represented the renaissance he desired.
But Rakitic, who scored with a scorching strike from outside the box on his debut in the 1-0 win at Damac, is convinced that brighter days are ahead.
With him marshaling the midfield, the redoubtable former Wolves player Romain Saiss at center-back, and the ex-Atletico Madrid winger Yannick Carrasco providing attacking guile, that appears eminently possible.
“We would like to be close to the PIF teams (Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli, Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal, who are majority-owned by the Saudi Public Investment Fund), but I think now first of all we have to think about going step by step. Every game is like a final for us.
“We have to be higher in the table. This is really clear.
“(We have) amazing players and an amazing new coach. We have to (achieve) big results together working really hard, and then finish as high as possible.”
Al-Nassr superstar Cristiano Ronaldo said that the Pro League could rival the top leagues globally and was already superior to France’s Ligue 1.
Rakitic, who reached the 2018 World Cup final with Croatia, said it was “maybe too fast” to make such a judgment — but he has witnessed the huge growth potential.
He said that “many talented players” in the Kingdom could benefit from playing for “big teams in big leagues” in Europe.
Rakitic’s Al-Shabab contract runs until only the summer of 2025.
However, he is sure “my president will come soon to me to try to give me a new contract.”
Until then, he is determined to savor every day in the Kingdom.
He is excited about the country’s Vision 2030 project, which he endorsed by choosing Al-Shabab’s squad number 30.
His adviser told Arab News that Rakitic was eager to immerse himself in Saudi Arabia’s culture and values after reading extensively about them when traveling to the Kingdom.
He said that Rakitic, “a very, very cool guy,” preferred to go to traditional restaurants than fancy ones to sample the true flavor of the country. Rakitic, who wore the national dress for Saudi Founding Day on Feb. 22, has also enjoyed visiting the historic town of Diriyah. Born in Switzerland to Croatian parents and with 106 caps for his adopted country before his international retirement in 2020, Rakitic speaks effusively about his new home.
“I really want to recommend to everybody to visit because it’s an amazing country with amazing people. To have this opportunity, hopefully when we get much older, to say: ‘Look, they reached (Vision 2030) but everything started with me. I was there to give a hand and (achieved) something amazing.’
“That’s why I am so happy (here).”


Al-Hilal crowned Roshn Saudi League champions after Al-Hazem rout

Al-Hilal crowned Roshn Saudi League champions after Al-Hazem rout
Updated 11 May 2024
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Al-Hilal crowned Roshn Saudi League champions after Al-Hazem rout

Al-Hilal crowned Roshn Saudi League champions after Al-Hazem rout
  • The 4-1 win at Kingdom Arena means the Riyadh giants have now extended their Saudi Pro League record to 19 championships

RIYADH: Al-Hilal wrapped up the Roshn Saudi League title with a comprehensive 4-1 win over Al-Hazem on Saturday at Kingdom Arena in Riyadh.

The victory means that Al-Hilal have now extended their Saudi Pro League record to 19 championships.

Al-Nassr’s 3-2 win over Al-Okhdood on Thursday had delayed Al-Hilal’s coronation for two days at least, but Jorge Jesus and his men knew a win or draw against Al-Hazem would be enough to clinch the title.

Serbian forward Aleksandar Mitrovic, one of the signings of the season, got the party underway with a penalty after 15 minutes but, with nine minutes of the first half left, an unscripted moment saw Faiz Selemani score with a fine left-foot strike after being put through on goal.

Al-Hazem’s joy did not last long however, with Ahmed Al-Juwaid gifting Al-Hilal the lead five minutes later with a bizarre own goal that sailed over goalkeeper Zaid Al-Malki’s head.

The home team scented blood and proceeded to put the result, and the title race, to bed with two goals in first-half added time.

Mitrovic side-footed home from countryman Sergej Milinkovic-Savic’s cross from the left in the 48th minute of the half, and the assister turned goalscorer three minutes later to give Al-Hilal a 4-1 lead at the break.

With Al-Hilal fans already in celebratory mood and the title all but confirmed by the break, the second period inevitably saw the home team take their foot off the pedal.

VAR ruled out what would have been Al-Hazem’s second goal in added time and moments later the final whistle went to confirm the championship for Al-Hilal.

Their fans could finally celebrate a title win that had been on the cards for several weeks. 


Al-Hilal has to delay title celebrations as Al-Nassr beats Al-Okhdood

Al-Hilal has to delay title celebrations as Al-Nassr beats Al-Okhdood
Al-Nassr players celebrate Marcelo Brozovic's late winner against Al-Okhdood. (X/@AlNassrFC_EN)
Updated 10 May 2024
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Al-Hilal has to delay title celebrations as Al-Nassr beats Al-Okhdood

Al-Hilal has to delay title celebrations as Al-Nassr beats Al-Okhdood
  • Marcelo Brozovic’s 91st minute winner means the leaders can wrap a 19th Saudi Pro League championship against Al-Hazem on Saturday

RIYADH: A stoppage-time goal by Marcelo Brozovic secured a 3-2 win for Al-Nassr against gallant Al-Okhdood on Thursday night at Prince Hathloul Stadium, which means a delay for Al-Hilal’s crowning as Saudi Pro League champions.

Al-Nassr had led 2-0 at half time before the home team mounted a spirited second-half comeback to square the match, a result which would have handed the title to leaders Al-Hilal with four matches left.

The win raised the Yellows’ points tally to 77 points, nine behind their Riyadh rivals. Al-Hilal can wrap up a record-extending 19th championship on Saturday night with a win or draw against Al-Hazem in Riyadh.

Al-Nassr took the lead through Brozovic after only seven minutes and a comfortable win was on the cards when Cristiano Ronaldo made it 2-0 only eight minutes later.

However, goals by Hassan Al-Habib on the hour mark and Saviour Goodwin 10 minutes later looked to have earned the 15th-placed team a vital point in their battle against relegation.

In the unlikely event they fail to win against Al-Hazem, Al-Hilal will have another chance on May 17 against Al-Nassr in the Riyadh Derby at Al-Awwal Park Stadium.


Hero Malcom assists and scores as Hilal edge closer to SPL title

Hero Malcom assists and scores as Hilal edge closer to SPL title
Updated 07 May 2024
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Hero Malcom assists and scores as Hilal edge closer to SPL title

Hero Malcom assists and scores as Hilal edge closer to SPL title
  • The Brazilian played starring role in the 2-1 Saudi Classico win against Al-Ahli in Jeddah

JEDDAH: Brazilian star Malcolm was the hero for Al-Hilal on Monday night when he managed an assist and a decisive goal in their 2-1 win over Al-Ahli in the latest Saudi Classico in Jeddah.

The match had been postponed from the 28th round of the Saudi Pro League due to Al-Hilal’s AFC Champions League commitments.

Malcolm set up Serbian striker Aleksandar Mitrovic for the equalizer on 52 minutes after Saudi international Firas Al-Buraikan had given Al-Ahli the lead on the half-hour mark at King Abdullah Sports City Stadium.

Malcom then brought Al-Hilal within touching distance of a record-extending 19th league title by scoring the winner in the 89th minute.

Al-Hilal signed Malcom on a four-year contract from Zenit St. Petersburg last summer. And with five matches remaining until the end of his first season, he has scored 22 goals for the club, 14 of which have come in the SPL.


Saudi women tackling, kicking their way into football

Saudi women tackling, kicking their way into football
Updated 03 May 2024
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Saudi women tackling, kicking their way into football

Saudi women tackling, kicking their way into football
  • Ministry of Sports has reported a 150 percent increase in women’s participation  

RIYADH: Women are finding new territories in various industries as the Kingdom sets diversity and inclusion goals, and football is no different. 

There are currently 1,100 female football players registered with Saudi clubs through the leagues, three regional training centers, and four active national teams. 

Today, the Women’s Football Department focuses on various areas of grassroots development, like five upcoming local competitions including the Premier League. 

The head of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation’s Women’s Football Department, Aalia Al-Rasheed, told Arab News: “Today, we’re witnessing with Vision 2030 a whole transformation when it comes to the country in general. The Ministry of Sports reported a 150 percent increase in women’s participation (since 2015). The game is growing everyday."

Left to right: Podcast host Mo Islam, CEO of PepsiCo. Middle East Ahmed El-Sheikh, head of SAFF’s Women’s Football Department Aalia Al-Rasheed, Vice President of SAFF Lamia Bahaian, PepsiCo.’s senior marketing manager Anfal Al-Duhilan, Al-Ittihad’s women’s team head coach Kelly Lindsey, Al-Nassr’s goalkeeper Sara Khalid. (Supplied)

Al-Awwal Park Stadium lit up with fireworks Sunday night as Al-Nassr were crowned champions against Al-Ittihad, ending their season on a high with a 1-0 victory.  

As the 2023-2024 Premier League concludes, the spirit of celebration still lingers in the air. Female trailblazers in the football sector came together on Monday to champion the incredible women of the Kingdom who are breaking boundaries in the realm of football at Hiwar, PepsiCo’s signature annual event for women empowerment.  

In the 2024 Hiwar, hosted in collaboration with the SAFF’s Women’s League, industry drivers spoke about their experiences in pushing the boundaries of women inclusion in the sport, during a panel discussion that evening moderated by Mo Islam, featuring Al-Rasheed alongside Al-Nassr’s goalkeeper Sara Khalid, Al-Ittihad’s women’s team head coach Kelly Lindsey, and PepsiCo.’s senior marketing manager, Anfal Al-Duhilan. 

Khalid, one of the Kingdom’s star female football players, reflected on her team’s first-ever international victory last year, winning the premier league twice in a row, and her current, vivid reality in leading the industry into international territory. 

But when Khalid left her day job to pursue a football career, she knew she had an example to set and responsibility on her back. 

She told Arab News: “Today, I can say I’m one of the first players to represent the national team and my country on an international level, and now with us winning the league and participating in the AFC champion’s league, it’s definitely a huge weight on my shoulders.

“Every decision I have to make must be made thoughtfully and in consideration of everything else, and to always inspire and be inspired by the people around me.”

As a coach, Lindsey said the top struggle is creating equilibrium within a team. Her coaching approach blends physical preparation with cultural understanding, acknowledging the importance of nutrition, sports psychology, and family values within Saudi leagues. 

While some Al-Ittihad team members struggled to even pass the ball five times just last summer, they have now managed to compete in the first level of the Saudi football pyramid.

She commended Saudi Arabia’s massive investment into women’s sports, with the SAFF allocating SR49.9 million ($13 million) to women’s football cross-country programs just last year. 

Lindsey told Arab News: “By investing in sports, women are not only out in society, they are front and center for everyone to watch, judge, and support.  

“The dialogue will change about everything that needs to happen around them so that more women can do their passion, live their passion in work and music and art and culture and sport. It will create a natural dialogue and a push for more infrastructure for women to succeed.”

Last October, this support was bolstered even further as PepsiCo. and the SAFF announced that the multinational’s subsidiary, Lay’s potato chips, will sponsor the 2023-24 Saudi Women’s Premier League.

“Our sponsorship is in alignment with the company’s vision, which is to basically drive diversity and inclusion, aligning with the Saudi 2030 Vision. We wanted to make a difference and really give every single Saudi female the opportunity to pursue her dreams in any field and to continue empowering and supporting them,” said Al-Duhilan.
 


Cristiano Ronaldo’s sister describes Saudi Arabia as ‘safest place on earth’

Cristiano Ronaldo’s sister describes Saudi Arabia as ‘safest place on earth’
Updated 02 May 2024
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Cristiano Ronaldo’s sister describes Saudi Arabia as ‘safest place on earth’

Cristiano Ronaldo’s sister describes Saudi Arabia as ‘safest place on earth’
  • Katia Aviero posts message on Instagram in which she says of the Kingdom: ‘If there is a safe place to walk alone, it is here’
  • Aviero, who joined her brother’s partner, Georgina Rodriguez, to watch him play in the King’s Cup semifinal on Wednesday adds: ‘Nobody disrespects you here and there are no thefts’

RIYADH: While Al-Nassr star Cristiano Ronaldo was busy scoring a brace on Wednesday in a 3-1 victory over Al-Khaleej that earned his team a place in the King’s Cup final, his sister was praising Saudi Arabia and describing it as the “safest place on earth.”
Asked whether it was safe to walk alone in the Kingdom, Katia Aviero posted a message on Instagram in Portuguese in which she said of the Kingdom: “If there is a safe place to walk alone, it is here.”
She said: “Saudi Arabia is one of the best in the world in terms of safety. You can leave your phone on the table and go and come back without anything happening.”
She added that “nobody disrespects you here and there are no thefts,” and she feels secure at all times.
A Saudi sports website quoted Aviero as saying: “You can also leave your keys and wallet in the car.”
She also posted a photo of herself with Ronaldo’s partner, Georgina Rodriguez, and another women watching the game on Wednesday from a VIP lounge at Al-Awwal Park stadium. She added a note, saying: “We came to give good luck for our king (Cristiano).”
Aviero, who has more than 1.4 million followers on Instagram, also added several posts to her Instagram Story on Wednesday featuring videos of Riyadh streets filmed from inside a car.
Ronaldo scored the first and third goals for Al-Nassr on Wednesday night, with Sadio Mane netting the second from the penalty spot.
The Portuguese star celebrated the semifinal victory with brief message on social media platform X in which he wrote: “The King’s Cup … let’s go.”
Al-Nassr will face fierce rivals Al-Hilal in the final on May 31.