Ivan Rakitic: Luka Modric moving to Saudi Arabia would be ‘amazing’

Ivan Rakitic: Luka Modric moving to Saudi Arabia would be ‘amazing’
Al-Shabab’s Ivan Rakitic, left, with former Croatia colleague and close friend Luka Modric. (Supplied)
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Updated 22 April 2024
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Ivan Rakitic: Luka Modric moving to Saudi Arabia would be ‘amazing’

Ivan Rakitic: Luka Modric moving to Saudi Arabia would be ‘amazing’
  • Al-Shabab midfielder would waste no time in promoting the Kingdom to his former Croatia teammate if he decides to leave Real Madrid

LONDON: Ivan Rakitic hopes his strong brotherly bond with his former Croatia team-mate Luka Modric can persuade the timeless maestro to join him at Al-Shabab in the Saudi Pro League.

Modric may be 38 but Rakitic said that his enduring class was something his fellow Real Madrid midfielder, the free-scoring tyro Jude Bellingham, could learn from.

Modric’s Real Madrid contract expires in the summer, and rumors of a move to Saudi Arabia have been swirling. Rakitic, eager to reunite with his former teammate, would be delighted to help facilitate it.

“If you come to Saudi but don’t come to Al-Shabab, you’re going to have some problems with me,” Rakitic told Arab News with a laugh when asked what he would tell Modric, whom he has said “is like a brother to me.”

Rakitic suffered an injury inlets month’s 4-3 home defeat to Al-Hilal and was absent from Al-Shabab’s 5-0 win over Abha on Thursday, a result that sees them sit ninth in the Saudi Pro League table.

The 36-year-old joined the Riyadh club from La Liga side Sevilla in January and told Arab News over Zoom that he would be thrilled to share a pitch again with Modric, with whom he played for Croatia for 12 years until his international retirement in 2019.

The pair’s midfield majesty helped to propel Croatia to the 2018 World Cup final, which they lost 4-2 to France.

“If he decides to move, it would be amazing. I would call him directly after two minutes to try to do everything for Al-Shabab, for Saudi, to bring him to the Saudi Pro League, or give him all the information that maybe he needs.

“If he decides to stay in Madrid for one more year, I think enjoying Luka at the highest level would also be amazing.”

A renowned playmaker after trophy-laden spells at Barcelona and Sevilla, Rakitic is well-placed to assess the merits of other leading midfielders.

Of the credentials of England’s Bellingham, who, at only 20, has enjoyed a marvelous debut season with Real Madrid and scored a stoppage time winner in Sunday’s 3-2 win over Barcelona, Rakitic said: “Of course, (there are many talented young players) and Jude is one of the first we look for but I like the old generation. I like Luka, (Kevin) De Bruyne, Bernardo. I have (so much) respect for Real Madrid because they were able to understand they had to do this change of generation step by step by giving the opportunity to big talents like Bellingham, (Federico) Valverde, (Eduardo) Camavinga. But there are still many things to learn from Luka and Toni (Kroos).”

Bellingham, Camavinga, Modric and Kroos are all set to appear at Euro 2024 in the summer and Rakitic expects “a really special” tournament. He said there would be “surprises for sure” and cited hosts Germany, France, and Portugal as his top contenders.

Rakitic also believes Croatia and the evergreen Modric can have “a big tournament” — despite being in a tough group with Spain and Italy.

He is similarly enthusiastic about Saudi Arabia hosting the 2034 World Cup.

“I think it will be the best World Cup because if the Saudis are at the top in something it is in organization and motivation,” he said.

An interview with Rakitic would not be complete without mentioning the iconic triumvirate of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez with whom Rakitic enjoyed halcyon days at Barcelona.

“Why not? I think we can do many, many, many important things together,” Rakitic said when Arab News mooted the dream scenario of him and the legendary trio joining forces in Saudi Arabia.

Messi may have rejected Al-Hilal’s $399 million-a-year deal last summer in favor of joining Inter Miami in the US but remains the Kingdom’s tourism ambassador.

Xavi has vowed to quit as Barcelona manager in the summer and has significant experience in the Middle East, having played for and managed Al-Sadd in Qatar between 2015 and 2021.

Iniesta is already in the region after joining Emirates Club in the UAE on a one-year deal in August.

“I think the season we did together, 2014-2015, I think (we were) the best team in the history of football,” Rakitic said.

Barcelona won La Liga, the Copa del Rey, and the Champions League, becoming the first European team to secure the treble twice — a feat Bayern Munich emulated in 2020.

“(We achieved) the perfect Champions League that season (beating) the French champions (Paris Saint-Germain), the English champions (Manchester City), the German champions (Bayern Munich) and the Italian champions (Juventus). It was the best season possible.”

Messi reportedly asked the Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham to persuade Rakitic to join his club last year.

But Rakitic said he “never spoke” to the former England, Real Madrid and Manchester United star.

“Hopefully I can speak to him because I’m a big fan,” he said.

“I wear my (Adidas) Predators because I saw him taking his free-kicks with (those boots). If David would like to meet and even take some free-kicks together, it would be amazing.”


Team Falcons emerge champions in Saudi qualifier for Esports World Cup

Team Falcons emerge champions in Saudi qualifier for Esports World Cup
Updated 13 June 2024
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Team Falcons emerge champions in Saudi qualifier for Esports World Cup

Team Falcons emerge champions in Saudi qualifier for Esports World Cup
  • The Honor of Kings Invitational Midseason-Esports World Cup will take place in Riyadh from July 4 to Aug. 25

RIYADH: Team Falcons have guaranteed their spot at the $3-million Honor of Kings Invitational Midseason-Esports World Cup in Riyadh from July 4 to Aug. 25.

Team Falcons demonstrated their dominance in the Saudi Arabia qualifier, with Luban emerging as their best player.

They overcame rival Saudi Arabia esports clubs including Twisted Minds, R8 Esports, Geekay Esports, Onyx Ravens, RTG (Road to Glory), The Vicious, Dragons, and GS Team.

The tournament was broadcast live from June 9 to 11 on the official Honor of Kings Arabia channels and within the “Honor of Kings” game.

The “Honor of Kings” game has become the world’s most popular mobile multiplayer online battle arena contest. It has over 200 million registered users and more than 100 million daily players.

The free-to-play game was launched in the Middle East and North Africa in February 2024.


‘Incredibly rewarding’ — head of SAFF Women’s Football Department hails Saudi Women’s futsal team

‘Incredibly rewarding’ — head of SAFF Women’s Football Department hails Saudi Women’s futsal team
Updated 13 June 2024
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‘Incredibly rewarding’ — head of SAFF Women’s Football Department hails Saudi Women’s futsal team

‘Incredibly rewarding’ — head of SAFF Women’s Football Department hails Saudi Women’s futsal team
  • The national team secured back-to-back wins against Serbia in their training camp
  • Aalia Al-Rasheed says the victories ‘are indications that we’re on the right path’

RIYADH: The head of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation’s Women’s Football Department, Aalia Al-Rasheed, has lauded the Kingdom’s female futsal players as they near the end of their training camp in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In the last two weeks, Saudi’s national futsal team has secured impressive back-to-back victories against Serbia in Sarajevo.

In the first match, they recorded a 3-2 thanks to goals from Al-Bandari Mubarak, Seba Tawfiq and Al-Bandari Hawsawi. This was followed by a 5-2 win, with Al-Bandari Mubarak scoring all five of Saudia Arabia’s goals.

The national team are currently ranked 51st in the FIFA Futsal Women’s World Ranking, whilst the Serbian national team are ranked 43rd.

“These wins show just how much effort and passion our team puts into every game,” said Al-Rasheed. “Winning against a strong team like Serbia really boosts (their) confidence and highlights the progress we’re making in women's futsal. It’s incredibly rewarding to see the hard work of our players and coaching staff pay off in such a significant way.”

She added: “We’ve been focusing on building a strong, cohesive team, and these victories are indications that we’re on the right path. Our goal is to keep pushing forward, learn from every match, and continue to grow. We’re determined to keep this momentum going and reach even greater heights. The support from SAFF and the dedication of our players are key to our success, and I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve achieved so far.”

The friendly matches were part of the team’s training camp in Sarajevo, which started in May and continues until June 15. Overseen by head coach Mato Stankovic, it is seen as a critical part of their preparation for upcoming competitions and matches.

The players currently in Sarajevo are: Layla Ali, Leen Mohammed, Al-Bandari Mubarak, Noura Ibrahim, Atha Fahad, Abeer Nasser, Raghad Mukhayzin, Rahaf Al-Mansouri, Al-Hanouf Saud, Mohrah Al-Malhi, Nadeen Saleh, Al-Bandari Hawsawi, Raghad Saleh, Lana Abdulrazaq, Bayan Sadagah, Seba Tawfiq, Yara Alfaris, Raghad Munai, Manar Al-Onaizi, and Noura Al-Athel.


King’s Cup fixtures announced for next Saudi football season

King’s Cup fixtures announced for next Saudi football season
Updated 12 June 2024
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King’s Cup fixtures announced for next Saudi football season

King’s Cup fixtures announced for next Saudi football season
  • Al-Nassr will play Al-Hazem, Al-Ahli welcome Al-Jandal
  • Al-Ittihad at home to Al-Ain, Ettifaq will take on Al-Adalah

RIYADH: Holders Al-Hilal-will begin their defense of the King’s Cup in Qassim province against first division side Al-Bukiryah, the Saudi Football Federation announced, posting the 2024/25 fixture list for the prestigious cup competition on Wednesday.

This year’s finalist Al-Nassr will also travel to Qassim to take on Al-Hazem as Cristiano Ronaldo and company try to end a long King’s Cup drought.

Ronaldo, who broke the all-time league scoring record this season, was in tears last month as Riyadh rivals Al-Hilal lifted the trophy after winning on penalties in a dramatic game in Jeddah.

Start-studded Al-Ittihad, who were finalist this year, will have a home opener against first division side Al-Ain.

Fellow Jeddah giants Al-Ahli will invite Al-Jandal to the Red Sea city to begin their cup ambitions.  

Steven Gerrard-managed Ettifaq will take on Al-Adalah in an Eastern Province derby, in a bid to bring home the trophy to Dammam for a third time.  

Kick-off times and venues are yet to be announced.

The King’s Cup, founded in 1957, is the premier club cup competition in Saudi Arabia. Al-Ahli has won the trophy 13 times, the most of any club in the Kingdom, but Al-Hilal with victories this year and last have managed to close the gap with 11 cups.  


FULL LIST OF FIXTURES:

Ettifaq vs. Al-Adalah
Al-Qadsiah vs. Al-Orobah
Al-Okhdood vs. Al-Arabi
Al-Wehda vs. Al-Faisaly
Al-Ahli vs. Al-Jandal
Abha vs. Al-Taawoun
Al-Hazem vs. Al-Nassr
Al-Fayha vs. Al-Batin
Al-Ittihad vs. Al-Ain
Al-Tai vs. Al-Khaleej
Al-Bukiryah vs. Al-Hilal
Al-Kholood vs. Al-Shabab
Al-Jabalin vs. Al-Fateh
Jeddah vs. Al-Raed
Al-Najmah vs. Damac
Al-Safa vs. Al-Riyadh


Saudi Arabia falls to Jordan, ending 13-year World Cup qualification streak

Saudi Arabia falls to Jordan, ending 13-year World Cup qualification streak
Updated 12 June 2024
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Saudi Arabia falls to Jordan, ending 13-year World Cup qualification streak

Saudi Arabia falls to Jordan, ending 13-year World Cup qualification streak
  • Saudi Arabia 1-2 Jordan in Riyadh
  • Green Falcons join Jordan in the next round

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia suffered their first defeat in nearly 13 years in home World Cup qualifiers after losing to Jordan in Riyadh on Tuesday.

The Green Falcons finished second in Group G but still went through to the next round of qualifiers for the upcoming World and Asian cups. Jordan topped the group with 13 points, exactly the same as Saudi Arabia, but had a superior goal difference.

Persistent pressure from the home side created the chance for Ali Lajami to open the scoring for the Green Falcons in the 16th minute with a right-footed shot from the center of the box. The visitors hit back in the 27th minute after Ali Olwan’s close-range header into the bottom right corner finished a rapid counter-attack.

Noor Al-Rawabdeh’s powerful shot from outside the box before halftime was enough for Jordan to secure the victory at Al-Awwal Park. The Green Falcons' second-half pressure could not break through a determined Jordanian defense.

The Jordanians completed their revenge after losing to the Green Falcons 2-0 in the first leg in November.


From the abyss to hosting Mancini’s Saudi squad: how South Shields FC turned their fortunes around

From the abyss to hosting Mancini’s Saudi squad: how South Shields FC turned their fortunes around
Updated 11 June 2024
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From the abyss to hosting Mancini’s Saudi squad: how South Shields FC turned their fortunes around

From the abyss to hosting Mancini’s Saudi squad: how South Shields FC turned their fortunes around
  • Club from the North East of England are making their way up the football pyramid after being saved by chairman Geoff Thompson nine years ago
  • Thompson is hoping to sell the historic club to new investors as he looks to retire

When the Saudi national team set up camp in the North East of England last year for two friendly matches at Newcastle’s St. James’ Park, they also gave a boost to one of the region’s most historic if, for global audiences at least, lesser-known clubs.

In September, the Green Falcons faced Costa Rica and South Korea at the home of the PIF-owned Premier League giants, with their training sessions taking place at nearby South Shields FC, a team that plays in English football’s sixth tier.

For Geoff Thompson, the National League North club’s chairman, it was vindication of a labor of love to rescue the institution from obscurity almost a decade ago.

“We had the Saudi national team train with us last year, which was a fantastic occasion,” Thompson told Arab News. “We were able to sort of welcome Roberto (Mancini) and Claudio (Donatelli), the team’s manager and fitness coach.”

“I’m sure you’ll have heard they had a great time with us,” Thompson said. “We looked after them very well, and they trained in our facility prior to their game at St. James’ Park.”

South Shields, established in 1888, is now a club very much on the up after struggles in recent decades. Thompson’s investments saved the club from the abyss, and now their first-class facilities had become a welcoming home for Mancini’s squad. Donatelli was impressed.

“I know the region very well; in the past, I worked at Sunderland AFC and lived in Newcastle,” the fitness and performance coach said.

“The entire North East of England has a great passion for football, with children and adults crowding the stadiums. I found the same vibrant passion running on the pitch of the 1st Cloud Arena, the home of South Shields Football Club. For me, it was a happy return home.”

Above, South Shields Chairman Geoff Thompson. (Supplied)

Saudi Arabia may have lost both matches, but overall it was a positive experience, with many locals showing support for the country that delivered Newcastle United from the unpopular regime of previous owner Mike Ashley.

“What I remember most is the courteous hospitality and helpfulness of everyone who welcomed our team and the technical staff,” Donatelli said. “We also greatly appreciated the excellent condition of the football pitch and the locker rooms. Everything was very professional. Talking with the staff of South Shields FC, I understood how much this football club is connected to the community and the people of the entire area, thanks to a series of sports and social services that help people live their daily lives well.”

Thompson hopes that the experience can be repeated in the future and highlights that the relationship was two-way.

“In fairness, the players and the management were incredibly courteous and friendly. And I’d like to think we were obviously, you know, very good hosts and, likewise, friendly and courteous.

“The players, I think, enjoyed the experience of training at our ground. So it was all quite a surreal moment, really, for us because, nine years ago, we were languishing further down the pyramid and here we are later hosting the Saudi national team,” he said.

“It’s kind of fairytale stuff really. They were incredible guests, very courteous, and enjoyed the experience. We loved having them with us. It’s very humbling; we got some very pleasant feedback from both Roberto and Claudio, and indeed from the players as well.”

The club was established back in 1888 as South Shields Adelaide Athletic and were playing in the Football League in the late 1920s. In 1930, the club folded and moved to Gateshead. It was reestablished as South Shields FC in 1974.

“I like to tell the story that South Shields were beating the likes of Man United and Chelsea back in the 1920s, which is quite a remarkable comment. Unfortunately, the club fell on slightly harder times.”

Thompson bought the club and Mariners Park ground in 2015, and they have been on an upward trajectory since then.

“I got involved because the club were in some difficulty back in 2015. We were playing our football outside of our hometown,” he said.

As a local businessman who was born in South Shields, Thompson felt he owed the club a lifeline.

“I really wanted to step in and try to help. It’s been an amazing journey. I’ve really enjoyed it and we’ve come a long way in that nine years.”

Thompson points out that South Shields is equidistant between Newcastle United, once branded the “richest club in the world,” and their fierce rivals Sunderland.

“The town itself has about 100,000 people who live there. South Tyneside, the area, has 150,000. And the broader geography in the North East is about, I think it’s about 1.5 to 2 million people. The region is renowned for its passion for football.”

Thompson smiles when he says that while his investment is “not quite the Saudi investment in Newcastle,” it was still a considerable amount that has changed the fortunes of the club.

“We’ve progressed the club through the English football pyramid. We’re now hoping at some point to get back into the Football League. We’re currently in the National League system, sitting in the National League North.”

Promotions achieved on the field, however, would not have been sanctioned if the club had not got their house in order off it. The investment in infrastructure as much as players meant the club was in rude health.

“You know, the facilities have to satisfy certain conditions. So we’ve achieved all of that, which I’m pleased to say. And we’re now in the National League system.”

South Shields now have their eyes on the English Football League. Thompson said that he wants to “future-proof” the club on that ambitious journey.

“We spent over £3 million ($3.8 million) on a new stand recently; we’ve got a great playing surface, and we’ve got our own separate training facilities.”

There have been trophies along the way, too, with South Shields winning the Northern League Cup in 2017. The same year, there was a 4-0 win over Cleethorpes Town in the FA Vase final at Wembley.

“We had something like 22,000 South Shields fans down at Wembley, which was quite a remarkable weekend for the town,” Thompson said.

The club has established several initiatives through their South Shield Academy system, which caters to talent between the ages of 11 and 19, and more recently the International Academy, catering for ages 18-24.

Around the time the Saudi squad visited South Shields last September, the club launched a partnership with nearby Sunderland University, offering international students keen on accessing football-based training, coaching and knowledge the opportunity to enrol in a one-year study abroad program or a  three-year undergraduate degree program, both for high school graduates. There is also a one-year master’s degree program for students who are graduating from university. 

Initially the club targeted players mostly from the US, but is now looking to attract talent from the Middle East, the Far East and Australasia.

Sadly, for health reasons, Thompson has decided to put the club up for sale.

“Any new owner will really be inheriting a fantastic organization that’s got all of the infrastructure in place.”

They would also be taking over a club that has several money-making initiatives, he said.

“You can’t survive alone on matchday income (alone),” said Thompson. “If you look at our revenue streams, of course, yes, we’re well supported. We typically get around 2,500 fans currently attending our home games. (But also) we’ve separately got our sponsorship revenues. Thirdly, we’ve got merchandise, selling shirts and the like to fans. And, then, in addition, we’ve got the academy revenues themselves.”

Around 40 players have progressed through the academy — established seven years ago — to make appearances for South Shields’ first team.

Thompson said that where South Shields distinguish themselves over other rivals is that they are a full-time professional club, a status achieved in 2021.

He credits South Shields Sporting Director, Lee Picton, for playing a major role in creating a set-up that has seen the club’s profile, and reputation, skyrocket in recent years.

On targeting talent from the Middle East region, Picton said: “We are building strong links with the UAE and wider Middle East region by developing partnership connections with clubs and academic institutions in the region. This is further aided by the strong connection between Newcastle United Football Club and its majority owner, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.” 

Thompson is hoping that the Saudi investment in Newcastle will have an impact — and shine a light — on the region in a way that will benefit other institutions, including South Shields, on and off the pitch.

“I would love to think that will happen over time,” he said. “What I have seen already is obviously under Saudi ownership, the Newcastle United Foundation is doing more and more. And I set up our own foundation, South Shields FC’s Foundation. And so we’ve got a charitable foundation that’s very similar to Newcastle’s, maybe not quite on the same scale, but we’ve got a very similar charitable purpose to try to help young children and to make them more physically active.”

South Shield may also have pulled off a unique feat that many in the region could not have contemplated.

“I’d like to think we’re many people’s first club,” he said. “But we’re also a lot of Sunderland and Newcastle fans’ second club. We’re probably the only club in the entire country where a Newcastle fan and a Sunderland fan can watch a game of football together without any animosity.”

Comparisons with Wrexham AFC are hard to avoid. The Welsh club has in recent years become a global phenomenon thanks to the Netflix series “Welcome to Wrexham,” which followed the team’s return to the EPL after a 15-year absence following the purchase of the club by Hollywood stars Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney.

“One thing I would say is that all of that investment in infrastructure I mentioned earlier, that’s a one-off investment. People don’t have to keep repeating that,” Thompson said.

“So all of the hard yards, all the spade work is being done now, the infrastructure’s in place. We own our own ground, it’s not owned by the council or by a third party. We’ve got a fantastic separate training facility that our foundation, our charitable foundation, run.

“It’s a bit like the Wrexham story in many respects. One thing I would stress is that there’s no debt in the club.”

Thompson said the club is primed for a bright future under any new owners.

“It’s almost approaching 100 years since we were last in the Football League, in the EFL equivalent, although it was the old Second Division, the championship right now,” he said. “But wouldn’t it be an amazing thing? I had this aspiration to get the club back into the Football League within that 100-year window.

“Honestly, I’ve had a fantastic period of time,” he said. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. (Now) I’m going to take my time to find the new owner, the new partner.”