Spanish Super Cup in Riyadh was ‘amazing,’ says Atletico Madrid chief

Special Spanish Super Cup in Riyadh was ‘amazing,’ says Atletico Madrid chief
Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone arrives in Riyadh ahead of the Spanish Super Cup tournament in January. (Supplied)
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Updated 15 May 2024
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Spanish Super Cup in Riyadh was ‘amazing,’ says Atletico Madrid chief

Spanish Super Cup in Riyadh was ‘amazing,’ says Atletico Madrid chief
  • Andoni Moreno spoke to Arab News about Saudi Arabia hosting Supercopa de Espana, promoting the club’s brand in the region and Atletico’s famed academy

MADRID: In the bowels of Estadio Civitas Metropolitano, home of La Liga giants Atletico Madrid, adorning the wall of one of the club’s many conference rooms, is a poster of a player that many present-day followers of the club would struggle to name.

The Moroccan Larbi Benbarek — who represented his country of birth as well as France internationally — was not just one of the first players from an Arab or African background to became a successful professional in Europe, but arguably one of the most important figures during a golden period for the Madrid club.

From 1948 to 1953, the “Black Pearl” was one of Atletico’s finest players and, alongside legendary coach Helenio Herrera, played a pivotal role in landing consecutive La Liga titles in 1949-50 and 1950-51.

Andoni Moreno, the club’s commercial director, smiles as he points to Benbarek’s black-and-white photo, and says that these days the club’s links to the Middle East are far more widespread — from taking part in the Spanish Super Cup in the Saudi capital and a partnership with Riyadh Air, to Atletico jerseys being worn around the Kingdom and academy prospects from Morocco following in Benbarek’s footsteps.

“It (Spanish Super Cup) was amazing. I mean, when you see a full stadium following a national title, it was impressive to see the environment, the atmosphere, it was like a real derby, but in Saudi, so it was a great experience,” Moreno said. “And I think we had a great show, real competition match between Real Madrid and Atletico. Unfortunately, we didn’t win, but we were very close and the show for the fans, I think, was amazing, on site, on TV.”

Atletico lost 5-3 to Real Madrid in the first semifinal at Al-Awwal Park Stadium, before the recently crowned La Liga champions went on to lift the Super Cup with a 4-1 win over Barcelona.

“We were close but we couldn’t win, but I think the most important thing was that the experience for the fans was fantastic, was real. And I think it is one of the best ways to keep growing internationally, increasing our fan base,” Moreno said.

La Liga is working closely with clubs to push its brand name in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, but just as importantly, to ensure that individual clubs are establishing their own identities across the region as well.

“We started to see Atletico jerseys in Saudi, and it was something that was almost impossible 10 years ago,” Moreno said. “So now you see the potential of the brand, with great activations on site, plenty of fans there, we had jerseys on site in Nike stores.

“We work very close with (La Liga), it’s part of the expansion plan. These kinds of activations, on site, watch parties, playing games, having your stars there. We did many activations with our main partner, which is Riyadh Air, so we visit the office, we visit touristic places, with legends like David Villa. This is part of ambitious strategy to develop our brand and to become bigger in the region.”

Such developments have been accelerated in no small part by the remarkable success Atletico has enjoyed under Diego Simeone, at a time when Real Madrid and Barcelona continue to be arguably the world’s two most popular clubs.

“The last decade or 12 years, I would say, it’s been incredible how the club has been able to keep growing, competing against these two big clubs in the same league, and also in a European international competitions,” Moreno said. “And it’s not easy, because we must be much more efficient. That’s the key, on the pitch and off the pitch, because the size in terms of followers, in terms of incomes, is more than double, but we have found the balance. Obviously the sport side is crucial, it’s the key, keep performing at that level, always qualify for Champions League (by being) third, even second or first, in La Liga.”

While Simeone’s team has many international stars, Moreno says an important factor in the team’s recent success is the club’s academy and intelligent scouting.

“One of our key pillars is the academy,” he said. “If you see our (first team) squad, we have currently four players from our academy. And then if you see some of the main clubs in Europe, there are many players coming from the Atletico Academy. This is one very important pillar. Of course, we go to the market, we see international players, and we have some stars. But this balance, this efficiency is very important for us. If you see our current squad, most of our players have been with us for a long period. So we try to keep them in order to have the sustainability on the pitch. Also our manager (has had) the longest period for a manager in Europe, I would say. It’s part of the success of the club.”

These days, there may not be a Benbarek — yet — at the club, but Atletico’s scouting department has maintained a link with players from North Africa, as it does with the rest of the world, over the years.

“We have done it for a long time,” Moreno said. “We have brought players from all countries to our academy. Thomas Partey, who’s playing in Arsenal, the Hernandez brothers (Lucas and Theo), they come from France, so we have had historically players from other countries. And now that we are getting more global, it’s important to have scouts everywhere, trying to find talent at the proper age.

“Our structure in the academy is huge, it’s one of the biggest academies in the world. We have more than 70 teams here in Madrid, so we have to manage a lot of boys and girls. We try to bring talent from everywhere,” Moreno said.

The 20-year-old Moroccan Abde Raihani recently made his debut for the first team, replacing Stefan Savic in the 2-0 loss to Deportivo Alaves. Another Moroccan, Salim El Jebari, 20, is also on the club’s books.

“(On April 21) we had a new player from the academy (Raihani) with an Arab connection, family. The Arab world is getting more and more powerful within the football industry. So obviously, it’s one of the key regions, markets, for players.”

Off the pitch, Atletico Madrid are also keen to strengthen their brand interests in the region, and in particular Saudi Arabia.

“We are trying to find the best global companies in each sector,” Moreno said. “Obviously, Riyadh Air, within the airline sector, for the coming future is going to be one of the key players, and we are very proud and happy to be their first sports partner. But of course we are very interested to keep growing in the region through companies, because for us it’s very important to have really relevant companies in different industries, because they are our speakers globally and in the region.”

Despite the recent defeat in the semifinals of the UEFA Champions League, Atletico Madrid have secured qualification for the first expanded FIFA Club World Cup next year, Mundial de Clubes FIFA 25, thanks to their record in the Europe’s top competition over the past four years. Moreno called being the only La Liga club, alongside Real Madrid, at the tournament in the US, a “milestone” and highlighted that Atletico could well face Arab teams there, including Saudi’s Al-Hilal, Egypt’s Al-Ahly, Morocco’s Wydad Casablanca and Tunisia’s Esperance.

Atletico will also have a stake in the 2030 FIFA World Cup being co-hosted by Spain, Portugal and Morocco.

“Our stadium is going to be one of the main stadiums in the World Cup,” Moreno said. “We have a very big project around the stadium for not only football, but sport and entertainment; it is going to be probably one of the best destinations for international fans. They want to come to Madrid, enjoy the city, enjoy all their activities apart from football, and also watch a World Cup match. For us it is very important, this World Cup, for the team (Spain) but also for the venue.”


UEFA picks Budapest to host 2026 Champions League final, delays 2027 decision on San Siro

UEFA picks Budapest to host 2026 Champions League final, delays 2027 decision on San Siro
Updated 22 May 2024
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UEFA picks Budapest to host 2026 Champions League final, delays 2027 decision on San Siro

UEFA picks Budapest to host 2026 Champions League final, delays 2027 decision on San Siro
  • The Puskás Arena and San Siro were the only two candidates for the two finals scheduled to be awarded
  • The next final on June 1 is at Wembley Stadium in London and Bayern Munich’s home will host next year

DUBLIN: UEFA picked Budapest on Wednesday to host the men’s Champions League final in 2026 and delayed giving the 2027 game to Milan amid uncertainty over the future of San Siro.
The Puskás Arena and San Siro were the only two candidates for the two finals scheduled to be awarded. The next final on June 1 is at Wembley Stadium in London and Bayern Munich’s home will host next year.
The iconic San Siro, formally known as Stadio Giuseppe Meazza and owned by the city of Milan, has been under long-term threat of demolition. Its shared tenants AC Milan and Inter Milan have looked for new homes they can own.
UEFA put off a decision until a September meeting of its executive committee subject to the Italian soccer federation “submitting information on refurbishment plans” for San Siro.
Earlier Wednesday, uncertainly increased in Milan as ownership of Inter switched from Chinese corporation Suning to United States investors Oaktree because of failure to repay debts.
The 75,000-seat San Siro still could host the European Cup or Champions League final for the fifth time, one year after staging the opening ceremony of the 2026 Winter Olympics.
The 70,000-seat Puskás Arena opened five years ago and has been a go-to venue for UEFA, hosting a Europa League final last year and replacement games during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is a big fan of soccer and billionaire banker Sándor Csányi is a FIFA vice president representing UEFA.
UEFA’s executive committee also sent the Women’s Champions League final in 2026 to Oslo, Norway.
Istanbul will host the 2026 Europa League final in the downtown stadium of Besiktas and the 2027 game is going to Eintracht Frankfurt’s home. The 2025 Europa final is in Athletic Bilbao’s stadium, which also hosts the Women’s Champions League final next week.
The third-tier Conference League final in 2026 will also go to Germany, in Leipzig, and in 2027 to Istanbul, potentially also at the Besiktas stadium though that could change.
The Turkish soccer federation said it hopes the 2027 final can move to the new stadium being built in the capital Ankara ahead of the country co-hosting the men’s European Championship with Italy in 2032.
Turkiye gets to host European finals in back-to-back years while the Romanian national stadium in Bucharest, which last hosted a Europa League final in 2012, lost in votes to bring that title match back.
The Israeli soccer federation had originally entered the Conference League bidding contest last year proposing Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem.
In other UEFA executive committee business ahead of the Europa League final, trials of safe standing areas for fans at European club competition games was extended next season to Austria, Belgium, Netherlands, Portugal and Scotland.
The UEFA-recognized Football Supporters Europe group has run a “Europe Wants to Stand” campaign and welcomed the new additions to consent for trials over the last two seasons in England, France and Germany. Also on the permitted list are Italy and Spain.
“Standing at matches positively contributes to the atmosphere of games enormously, is a significant element of fan culture across the continent, and helps to lower the pricing for these games generally,” FSE executive director Ronan Evain said in a statement.


‘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.


Al-Shabab crowned winners of Women’s Futsal Tournament 2024 in Riyadh

Al-Shabab crowned winners of Women’s Futsal Tournament 2024 in Riyadh
Updated 22 May 2024
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Al-Shabab crowned winners of Women’s Futsal Tournament 2024 in Riyadh

Al-Shabab crowned winners of Women’s Futsal Tournament 2024 in Riyadh
  • Al-Shabab defeated Najmat Jeddah in the final to earn their second futsal title
  • The national tournament featured 18 women’s teams from across the Kingdom in the knock-out tournament from May 8-20

RIYADH: After a sensational 25-match tournament that saw 339 goals, Al-Shabab FC captured their second women’s futsal title on Monday in thrilling fashion to conclude the 2024 edition of the Women’s Futsal Tournament.

With 18 of Saudi Arabia’s top women’s futsal sides competing in the second edition of the tournament, the final saw goals galore as Al-Shabab ran out winners, beating Najmat Jeddah 22-2 in the final to earn their second domestic honor.

The competition aims to inspire the growth of women’s futsal in the Kingdom, with the Saudi National Women’s Futsal team set to meet later this month in Bosnia for a training camp until June 15.

Aalia Al-Rasheed, head of the Women’s Football Department at the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, said: “The Women’s Futsal Tournament has demonstrated the incredible talent that lies within the women’s game in Saudi Arabia. The skill on display has been remarkable, and we congratulate all clubs for their participation in the competition.

“The unprecedented growth we are seeing in the women’s game across all levels is exciting, and we look forward to seeing how this supports our national program to continue to develop in the coming months.”


Ronaldo leads Roshn Saudi Pro League stars set to boost their nations at Euro 2024

Ronaldo leads Roshn Saudi Pro League stars set to boost their nations at Euro 2024
Updated 22 May 2024
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Ronaldo leads Roshn Saudi Pro League stars set to boost their nations at Euro 2024

Ronaldo leads Roshn Saudi Pro League stars set to boost their nations at Euro 2024
  • Aleksandar Mitrovic and N’Golo Kante among 15 players expected in Germany at end of the SPL season

RIYADH: Several Roshn Saudi Pro League players are preparing to join their nations for the Euro 2024 tournament taking place from June 14 to July 14 in Germany.

The 24-team tournament kicks off at Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena and ends with the final at the Olympiastadion.

As things stand, and fitness permitting, this year’s edition will have 15 players from seven SPL teams taking part.

According to the Transfermarkt website, these SPL players, most of whom moved to the Kingdom last summer, are valued at an estimated total of $267 million. The collective market value of all players participating in Euro 2024 stands at an impressive $12 billion.

Leading the pack is Al-Nasser with four players expected to compete at Euro 2024, led by superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. Joining him in the Portuguese squad will be Otavio, while Aymeric Laporte will represent Spain, and Marcelo Brozovic will run out for Croatia. The four players have a combined market value of $96 million.

Two Saudi Arabia clubs will have three players representing their countries at Euro 2024.

The newly crowned SPL champions Al-Hilal will provide the Serbian duo of Aleksander Mitrovic and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, while midfielder Reuben Neves joins Portugal. The three stars are worth $112 million.

Al-Okhdood, somewhat surprisingly considering the number of foreign talent at the top four clubs, are the other team to have three players heading to the European showcase. The Romania pair of Andrei Burca and Florin Tanase, as well as Georgia’s center-half Solomon Kvirkvelia, are valued at $7.7 million.

Al-Ettifaq will have the Netherlands’ Georginio Wijnaldum and Scotland’s Jack Hendry who are valued at $8.3 million. Al-Ahli center-half Merih Demiral, valued at $19.4 million, is expected to join Turkiye’s squad, while Damac’s midfielder Nicolae Stanciu, valued at $5.4 million, will represent Romania.

Rounding out the roster is Al-Ittihad’s French midfield star and World Cup winner N’Golo Kante with a market value of $10.8 million.


Pochettino leaves Chelsea after just one season in charge

Pochettino leaves Chelsea after just one season in charge
Updated 21 May 2024
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Pochettino leaves Chelsea after just one season in charge

Pochettino leaves Chelsea after just one season in charge
  • “Chelsea FC can confirm that the club and Mauricio Pochettino have mutually agreed to part ways,” Chelsea said in a statement
  • “Thank you to the Chelsea ownership group and sporting directors for the opportunity to be part of this football club’s history,” said Pochettino

LONDON: Mauricio Pochettino has left Chelsea after just one season in charge by mutual consent, the English club announced on Tuesday.
The Blues finished sixth in the Premier League thanks to a fine run toward the end of the season but missed out on Champions League qualification and a trophy.
“Chelsea FC can confirm that the club and Mauricio Pochettino have mutually agreed to part ways,” Chelsea said in a statement.
In just two years under the ownership of an American consortium fronted by LA Dodgers co-owner Todd Boehly and private equity group Clearlake Capital, Chelsea have spent over £1 billion ($1.3 billion) on new players.
The vast majority of that was spent on rising stars and Pochettino pointed to a lack of experience and a lengthy injury list for failing to achieve consistent results.
Chelsea lost the League Cup final 1-0 to Liverpool after extra-time and pushed Manchester City all the way before losing in the FA Cup semifinals by the same score.
But there had been signs that Pochettino’s project was coming together in a run of five consecutive wins to end the campaign that ensured Chelsea will be in Europe next season.
They will qualify for the Europa League if Manchester United lose to City in the FA Cup final and the Conference League if the Red Devils shock the English champions.
“Thank you to the Chelsea ownership group and sporting directors for the opportunity to be part of this football club’s history,” said Pochettino.
“The club is now well positioned to keep moving forward in the Premier League and Europe in the years to come.”
Chelsea sporting directors Laurence Stewart and Paul Winstanley said: “On behalf of everyone at Chelsea, we would like to express our gratitude to Mauricio for his service this season.
“He will be welcome back to Stamford Bridge any time and we wish him all the very best in his future coaching career.”
Pochettino is the fourth manager to depart under Boehly’s regime after Thomas Tuchel, Graham Potter and Frank Lampard.
According to the Daily Telegraph, Pochettino met Boehly for dinner on Friday before his departure was confirmed after an end-of-season review with Stewart and Winstanley.
The 52-year-old arrived in west London with the task of getting Chelsea back on track after they finished 12th in the 2022/23 Premier League season.
The Argentine had to bed in another influx of new signings as Chelsea broke the British transfer record to buy Moises Caicedo for £115 million.
He suffered a difficult start as they won just three of their opening 10 Premier League games.
But led by the stunning form of Cole Palmer, only City, Arsenal and Liverpool picked up more points than Chelsea in the second half of the season.
According to reports Stuttgart’s Sebastian Hoeness, Girona boss Michel, Ipswich Town’s Kieran McKenna and Enzo Maresca of Leicester are among those in contention to be next in the Stamford Bridge hot seat.
Pochettino began his coaching career at Espanyol before shining in a short spell at Southampton.
That earned him a move to Tottenham, where he established Spurs as regulars at the top end of the Premier League and took the club to a first ever Champions League final in 2019.
Pochettino was sacked by Tottenham just months later before joining Paris Saint-Germain in 2021, where we won one Ligue 1 title and French Cup in 18 months in charge.