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.”


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.