Sami Zayn reflects on Saudi Arabia’s role in his journey to WrestleMania glory

Exclusive Sami Zayn reflects on Saudi Arabia’s role in his journey to WrestleMania glory
Zayn prepared to defend his Intercontinental Title this weekend in a triple threat match against Chad Gable and Bronson Reed at the WWE King and Queen of the Ring event in Jeddah. (X: @SamiZayn)
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Updated 23 May 2024
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Sami Zayn reflects on Saudi Arabia’s role in his journey to WrestleMania glory

Sami Zayn reflects on Saudi Arabia’s role in his journey to WrestleMania glory
  • He defends his Intercontinental Title this weekend in a triple threat match against Chad Gable and Bronson Reed at the WWE King and Queen of the Ring event in Jeddah
  • It comes 11 years after he signed with WWE and 10 years after he first visited the Kingdom to compete in an event
  • ‘If you’re an Arab kid … with a dream of chasing this, becoming a wrestler or the WWE or whatever it is, it’s much more attainable than it’s ever been,’ he says

RIYADH: Amid the expansive global reach of the WWE, few wrestling stars embody the spirit of international connectivity quite as completely as Sami Zayn. His journey from pre-WWE days to competing in Saudi Arabia for the first time a decade ago and then glory at WrestleMania surely reflects the transformative power of sports entertainment.

In an exclusive interview with Arab News, he shared some insights into the evolution of his career, his aspirations, and the effects the partnership between WWE and Saudi Arabia has had on him personally and wrestling in general.

It came as Zayn prepared to defend his Intercontinental Title this weekend in a triple threat match against Chad Gable and Bronson Reed at the WWE King and Queen of the Ring event in Jeddah.

As he reflected on his journey, Zayn, who signed with WWE in 2013, reminisced about his first visit to Saudi Arabia the following year, in the early days of WWE’s partnership with sports authorities in the Kingdom.

Though Zayn is not of Saudi descent — he was born in Canada to Syrian parents — he expressed a profound sense of belonging in Saudi Arabia and the wider region because it resonates with him on a cultural level and he appreciates its familiar characteristics.

“You know, with your culture, your language, your people, the food, the smells, the sounds, I don’t know, there’s something about it,” he said. “It just feels like home, even though it’s not home, you know?”

Discussing his victory over Gunther in April at WrestleMania 40 to claim the Intercontinental Title, which his opponent had held for a record-breaking 666 days, Zayn said he achieved something many people thought was impossible, and it was a pivotal moment marked the end of a significant chapter in Gunther’s illustrious career.

“I think just being in the ring with Gunther — who obviously has shown that he’s one of our top superstars now and, you know, probably the best Intercontinental Champion we’ve ever had — to beat him at the biggest show of the year, I mean, I think it’s very, very memorable. And I think that’s one of the hardest things to do right now.”

Zayn did his best to articulate the indescribable thrill of competing on WWE’s grandest stage. Amid the deluge of content in modern wrestling, he said it is particularly significant if one can craft memorable moments that will endure beyond the duration of the event itself.

“I feel like the hardest thing to do nowadays is to have a memorable match and memorable moments that people will remember, oh, two, three, four, five, maybe even 10 years down the road,” he said.

“And I feel like that match (against Gunther) was good, if nothing else because of how long he held the title. I feel like it’ll be very well remembered. So I’m very proud of that.”

As Saudi Arabia continues to evolve and open up to the world, the rapid pace of developments in the country over the past few years has made sport and entertainment accessible to all and opened up ever-greater opportunities, which means that the prospects have never been better for aspiring Arab wrestlers to follow in Zayn’s footsteps.

He acknowledges that what not so long ago was a distant dream for Saudis is now a realistic possibility, and he credits the long-established presence of WWE in the Kingdom for helping to foster a sense of connectivity and inspiration. He also stressed the importance of encouraging emerging talents to show determination and perseverance as they pursue their dreams.

“Now, because of the fact that we run shows in Saudi and we have this partnership with Saudi Arabia and we’re more connected to the region, if you’re an Arab kid or a young man with a dream of chasing this, becoming a wrestler or the WWE or whatever it is, it’s much more attainable than it’s ever been,” he said.

“If you have that goal, look, it’s not easy, it’s never easy, but it’s more achievable now than it’s ever been … for somebody from anywhere here in the Middle East.”

As for his own future, Zayn has a pragmatic but optimistic view. While harboring ambitions for world championship glory, he said he prioritizes the art of storytelling and emotional engagement as his guiding principles. He remains committed to making a lasting impact on fans as he continues to evolve as a performer and storyteller.

“I would just like to keep doing what I’m doing now, which is to continue to tell good stories, prominent stories,” he said.

“I want to be an important part of the television show. And I think what I bring to the table, just as much as anybody if not more than most, is the emotional component of the stories that I tell in the ring or, you know, leading up to these matches.”

Still, he acknowledged that he would love to win the world championship before he steps out of the ring for the final time.

“But hopefully that’s not for another few years, you know, God willing, inshallah, at least five more years or something. But you don’t know what life has for you.”

Looking back on into his formative years, and his journey from wrestling fan to superstar, Zayn pays tribute to his own childhood idols and inspirations. From Hulk Hogan and Bret Hart to the Hardy Boyz, Mick Foley and Eddie Guerrero, they all left an indelible mark and influenced his journey.

He said the Hardy Boyz and Mick Foley in particular had a big impact on him “because they had stories that, in some ways, I could really relate to: They started in their backyard and then they got trained. It just seemed like a more attainable route to get there. I think they kind of opened my eyes in that way.”

WWE returns to Saudi Arabia this weekend with the double-header of SmackDown and then King and Queen of the Ring at Jeddah’s Superdome. The action begins on May 24 with the Kingdom’s inaugural SmackDown event, which will be broadcast live globally and include the second semifinals of the King and Queen of the Ring championships. The finals of those competitions will take place at the main event on May 25, along with Zayn’s battle and two other championship bouts.


England thrash Oman to revive T20 World Cup campaign

England thrash Oman to revive T20 World Cup campaign
Updated 14 June 2024
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England thrash Oman to revive T20 World Cup campaign

England thrash Oman to revive T20 World Cup campaign

ST. JOHN’S, Antigua and Barbuda: England thrashed Oman by eight wickets as the reigning champions revived their T20 World Cup campaign with a record-breaking success in Antigua on Thursday.
Needing a heavy win to bolster their net run-rate (NRR) as they attempt to overhaul Scotland in the race to qualify for the second-round Super Eights, England dismissed Oman for just 47.
England then made 50-2 in a mere 3.1 overs, captain Jos Buttler 24 not out and Jonny Bairstow, who hit the winning boundary, unbeaten on eight.
This overwhelming Group B victory meant England recorded the largest win in T20 World Cup history in terms of balls remaining.
Oman had no answer to England’s combination of spin and pace, leg-break bowler Adil Rashid taking 4-11 from his four overs, while express quicks Jofra Archer and Mark Wood both had figures of 3-12 in an innings that ended with nearly seven overs to spare.
Number seven Shoaib Khan (11) was the only Oman batsman to reach double figures after Buttler won the toss.
Significantly, England’s NRR climbed to 3.081, better than Scotland’s 2.16. England, however, stayed third on three points, behind Scotland’s five.
Already-eliminated Oman, who ended the tournament having lost all four of the games, just scraped past the record lowest completed total of 39 at any T20 World Cup, posted by fellow-non Test nation Uganda against co-hosts West Indies in Guyana last week.
Archer did the early damage with 2-12 in nine balls.
Oman then lost two wickets in Wood’s first over as they slumped to 25-4 in six overs.
The very next delivery wicketkeeper Buttler luckily removed the bails at the second attempt to stump Khalid Kail off Rashid’s first ball Thursday as wickets continued to tumble.
Phil Salt struck the first two balls of England’s chase for six, only to be bowled off the third by Bilal Khan, but his side were on their way.
England, beaten by Australia after their group game with Scotland was abandoned due to rain, play Namibia on Saturday.
Australia and Scotland, however, will meet on Sunday after England have completed their group games.


Nagelsmann urges Germany to harness the ‘privilege of pressure’

Nagelsmann urges Germany to harness the ‘privilege of pressure’
Updated 13 June 2024
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Nagelsmann urges Germany to harness the ‘privilege of pressure’

Nagelsmann urges Germany to harness the ‘privilege of pressure’
  • “I think it’s normal that you feel a little bit of pressure before a tournament and before important games like these,” the 36-year-old told reporters
  • “We will work out the pressure and we will work out Scotland“

MUNICH: Germany coach Julian Nagelsmann said his side needed to use the pressure of hosting Euro 2024 to their advantage ahead of Friday’s tournament opener against Scotland in Munich.
This summer’s hosts are three-time winners of the European Championship but have endured a poor time since reaching the semifinals at Euro 2016.
Since that tournament, the Germans were eliminated twice at the group stage of the World Cup, and lost to England in the last 16 at the Euros in 2021.
Admitting to being a “little nervous” ahead of his first game coaching Germany at a major tournament, Nagelsmann said he told his players to embrace the pressure in front of their home fans.
“I think it’s normal that you feel a little bit of pressure before a tournament and before important games like these,” the 36-year-old told reporters on Thursday.
“Ultimately for me it’s the most important theme, when I speak with my players, that pressure is a form of privilege.
“We need to simply enjoy being on the pitch. That’s very important. Our players started playing when they were young. They love it (football).
“If you do it that way, you’re doing it right.”
“We will work out the pressure and we will work out Scotland,” he added.
Nagelsmann shed light on the process of bringing veteran midfielder Toni Kroos, who retired from international duty in 2021, back into the squad. Nagelsmann revealed it took a while to convince the 2014 World Cup winner to return.
“It took a period of time to convince him because he wanted to know what we’ll change in the future,” explained Nagelsmann.
“He said he’ll only be part of the team when he feels we can win, so he wanted to know how we’ll change the team.
“Then he said he’ll be part of it and ‘let’s rock’.”
Nagelsmann was wary of Scotland, saying Steve Clarke’s side were not the “kick and rush” team of the past.
“They have flair and good physicality. They may not be full of superstars, but that can make them dangerous.”


Ukraine arrive at Euro 2024 to a patriotic welcome and vivid reminder of the war at home

Ukraine arrive at Euro 2024 to a patriotic welcome and vivid reminder of the war at home
Updated 13 June 2024
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Ukraine arrive at Euro 2024 to a patriotic welcome and vivid reminder of the war at home

Ukraine arrive at Euro 2024 to a patriotic welcome and vivid reminder of the war at home
  • “We need to talk about this,” coach Serhiy Rebrov said
  • This tournament is “100 percent” different and special, Zinchenko said

WIESBADEN, Germany: With patriotic songs broadcast and thousands of exiled Ukrainians in the stadium, the men’s national team was made to feel at home at their first training in Germany for the European Championship.
After the national anthem played, and before the warmups began, there was a vivid reminder of the war at home that is a constant and uniting force for this Ukraine squad.
Each player had a ball to give to a fan and Oleksandr Zinchenko presented his to a military veteran who had prosthetic legs below each knee.
Near the downtown stadium of Wehen Wiesbaden is the United States military headquarters in Germany which is coordinating the delivery of weapons and other aid from Ukraine’s allies to fight against the Russian invasion. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Wiesbaden six months ago.
It is a subject the Ukraine team want to address, and hope Euro 2024 watched worldwide will help put on center stage.
“We need to talk about this,” coach Serhiy Rebrov said. “I know that some people are tired about the news of the war, but we are continuing to fight, and we need your support.”
“It’s very important that Ukraine is represented in the Euro because we, all Ukrainians, we want to be in (the) European family,” said the former national team star who also played in England and Russia, and coached in Hungary. “On the war we are fighting for all Europe.”
Zinchenko was in the Ukraine team that reached the quarterfinals of Euro 2021, the pandemic-delayed tournament. That was the last European summer before the Russians attacked.
This tournament is “100 percent” different and special, Zinchenko said.
“There are still people dying for no reason and we have to stick together,” said the Arsenal player, stressing that what the players have lived through does not compare to fighters on the front lines and their families.
“For them it is super difficult, for us it’s obviously extra motivation. We all know who is behind us. We need to show our best performance,” Zinchenko said.
Ukraine first play on Monday against Romania in Munich. Four days later, Ukraine play Slovakia in Duesseldorf then finish in Group F against favored Belgium on June 26 in Stuttgart.
Preparation for those games started in earnest on Thursday morning after a formal welcome on the field by politicians from the region where Wiesbaden is the state capital.
The 4,000 fans in the stadium gave standing ovations to greet different groups of players as they passed by doing light warmup runs in laps of the field.
“In Germany, the Ukrainian community is everywhere. We were very happy with everything here,” said Rebrov, one day after the squad arrived.
At home, the country is under constant threat of Russian bombs targeting the people and essential infrastructure for daily life like the power grid.
“I hope when we play the games,” midfielder Ruslan Malinovskyi said, “people in Ukraine have lights to watch the games on TV.”
For the past 10 years, Ukrainian champion Shakhtar Donetsk has been unable to play games in its home city because of the conflict in the country’s east involving Russian-backed separatists.
Ukraine midfielder Taras Stepanenko has stayed with Shakhtar through the whole decade, including playing Champions League ‘home’ games this season in Germany. He said on Thursday, “We deserve to be here for our people.
“Every day people die, cities destroyed. Every day when we wake up, we read the news about what the situation is in Ukraine,” said the 34-year-old player appearing at his third straight Euros.
“Every day, I see on my phone screen, messages about air (raids). So, every morning I phone my parents to ask if everything is OK,” Stepanenko added. “We live in this condition almost three years. It’s so difficult.”


Dutch players cut short postseason vacations to answer emergency call at Euro 2024

Dutch players cut short postseason vacations to answer emergency call at Euro 2024
Updated 13 June 2024
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Dutch players cut short postseason vacations to answer emergency call at Euro 2024

Dutch players cut short postseason vacations to answer emergency call at Euro 2024
  • “And I just had to pack my stuff as quickly as possible and come,” said Maatsen
  • Bologna forward Zirkzee posted a photo of himself smiling broadly on Instagram with the text: “When you get the call to leave Disney for the Euros”

DORTMUND: One of the players was on a boat on a Greek island. The other was in Disney World in Florida.
Yet neither Ian Maatsen nor Joshua Zirkzee had any hesitation answering the emergency call from the Netherlands at the European Championship.
“It’s a childhood dream to be here — it’s definitely worth the return trip,” said Maatsen, the left back who was on vacation in Mykonos with his girlfriend when he was summoned by Netherlands coach Ronald Koeman to replace Frenkie de Jong.
“I suddenly received a call,” he added on Thursday. “And I just had to pack my stuff as quickly as possible and come.”
Maatsen was on loan at Borussia Dortmund from Chelsea in the recently completed season and helped the German club reach the Champions League final, where they lost to Real Madrid on June 1.
He was named in UEFA’s Champions League team of the season and will give Koeman an extra option on the left flank, where he is set to challenge Daley Blind for a starting spot.
“I did enjoy my holiday and processed everything well, including the disappointment of the Champions League final,” he said.
As for Zirkzee, he cut short his postseason vacation in Florida to head to the Netherlands’ base in Wolfsburg after another striker in the squad, Brian Brobbey, hurt a hamstring in training.
After hearing of his call-up, Bologna forward Zirkzee posted a photo of himself smiling broadly on Instagram with the text: “When you get the call to leave Disney for the Euros.”
Zirkzee has never played an international for the Netherlands’ senior team. He joined the Bayern Munich youth academy and played a handful of games for the German powerhouse before moving on loan to Parma then Anderlecht before signing for Bologna in 2022.
The Netherlands open their Euro 2024 campaign on Sunday against Poland in Hamburg.


Germany warns of Islamist threat on eve of Euro 2024 tournament

Germany warns of Islamist threat on eve of Euro 2024 tournament
Updated 13 June 2024
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Germany warns of Islamist threat on eve of Euro 2024 tournament

Germany warns of Islamist threat on eve of Euro 2024 tournament
  • “Our focus of course is above all on the threat of Islamist terrorism, hooligans and their offenses, everyday crime, violent criminals, but this time also on cyber-attacks,” Faeser said
  • Groups such as Daesh have already called for attacks at the month-long tournament

BERLIN: Germany welcomed police officers from across Europe on Thursday to bolster its defenses against potential threats at the Euro 2024 soccer tournament, with Interior Minister Nancy Faeser promising vigilance on the eve of the opening match.
“Our focus of course is above all on the threat of Islamist terrorism, hooligans and their offenses, everyday crime, violent criminals, but this time also on cyber-attacks,” Faeser said at a ceremony for around 350 foreign police officers dispatched for the event.
Groups such as Daesh have already called for attacks at the month-long tournament, which begins with the host country’s Group A opener against Scotland on Friday.
“Our security authorities therefore have the Islamist scene firmly in their sights,” Faeser said, while adding that authorities were not currently aware of any specific plots.
Germany expects 2.7 million people to attend matches in stadiums across the country and some 12 million in its fan zones for outdoor viewing, including on a long stretch of turf laid out in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.
The fan zones were popular during the 2006 World Cup in Germany, but it remains to be seen whether the public mood at this event can rise above simmering tensions at a time of conflict in Ukraine and the Middle East, and as the far right sees its support surge in Europe.
“Some people are trying to bring these conflicts into our country,” the minister warned, adding that propaganda and hate speech on German streets would not be tolerated.
Some 22,000 police officers will be working each day at the tournament.
German security authorities are also working with international partners to identify potential threats and the country has ramped up its border controls.