Al-Nassr defeat Al-Ahli in all-Saudi Champions League clash to edge closer to glory

Saudi Arabian side Al-Nassr defeated compatriots Al-Ahli Saudi 2-0 to move into the semi-finals of the AFC Champions League. (AFP)
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Updated 30 September 2020

Al-Nassr defeat Al-Ahli in all-Saudi Champions League clash to edge closer to glory

  • Al-Nassr will take on either Esteghlal of Iran or Uzbekistan’s Pakhtakor on Saturday

LONDON: Pity Martinez paid back a hefty slice of his $18 million fee on Wednesday by helping Al-Nassr FC defeat Al-Ahli Saudi 2-0 to move into the semi-finals of the AFC Champions League.

A first-half strike from the Argentina international, who joined earlier this month from MLS team Atlanta United, put Al-Nassr on top early. Abdulfattah Asiri added a second ten minutes after the restart to give the team from Riyadh a deserved win and a place in the last four of Asia’s premier club competition for the first time in the club’s history. 

Al-Nassr will take on either Esteghlal of Iran or Uzbekistan’s Pakhtakor on Saturday with a place in the final, scheduled against a team from East Asia on Dec. 19, at stake.

A smart exchange of passes with Khalid Al-Ghannam released Martinez just inside the area and the 2018 South American Player of the Year skipped past a defender to make room and fire a low shot past Mohammed Al-Owais.

The game, taking place in the Jassim bin Hamad Stadium in Doha, Qatar, should have been over as a contest by the break. Just before the half-hour, Abderrazak Hamdallah somehow managed to head wide from close range. The in-form Moroccan marksman, aiming to make history and become the first player to score in 10 consecutive Champions League games, went close once again seconds later, pulling his shot from the right side of the area just wide of the post.

Al-Ahli, who finished third in the Saudi Pro League, were unable to make the league’s runners-up regret their wastefulness as Al-Nassr extended their lead ten minutes into the second half. Sultan Al-Ghanam’s low cross from the right found Asiri in the area and the midfielder wriggled free to create space, lashing the ball into the net from close range.

The closest Al-Ahli came to getting on the scoresheet was in the last minute as Omar Al-Somah’s shot hit the woodwork, and Hamdallah then missed another chance to make Champions League history as his effort was cleared off the line with goalkeeper former Liverpool goalkeeper Brad Jones beaten.

Al-Nassr now have three days to prepare for one of the biggest games in the club’s history, but coach Rui Vitoria is looking forward to the challenge.

“We did what we had to do today,” the Portuguese tactician said. “We knew it would be a tough game, and it was, but we defended well and looked dangerous going forward as we made a number of chances.

“We have had a lot of games in a short period of time and now we have to think about a big game coming up. We do not mind which team we face as all teams who make it this far are strong. We will be ready.”

The defeat leaves Al-Ahli, who reached the final of the 2012 competition, able to focus fully on the new Saudi Pro League season as the schedule for the opening rounds was released on Tuesday. 

Al-Ahli are in action on Oct. 18, a day after the season starts, and host Al-Wehda. Al-Nassr start their campaign against Al-Fateh. Champions Al-Hilal kick-off the day before against newly promoted Al-Ain.

Vetting of Russian, Belarusian athletes for Paris Games ongoing-IOC

Updated 2 sec ago

Vetting of Russian, Belarusian athletes for Paris Games ongoing-IOC

Each qualified athlete is undergoing a vetting process by a three-member panel appointed by the IOC to make sure they meet certain eligibility criteria.
“The vetting process is ongoing,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said

LAUSANNE: The vetting process for Russian and Belarusian athletes who have qualified for the Paris Olympics has started but is far from complete, the International Olympic Committee said on Wednesday.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the IOC initially recommended a ban from international competitions of athletes from Russia and its ally Belarus, but has since allowed them to qualify for the Paris Olympics as neutrals.
Yet each qualified athlete is undergoing a vetting process by a three-member panel appointed by the IOC to make sure they meet certain eligibility criteria.
Not having actively supported the war in Ukraine and not having been contracted to any military or security agency are among those criteria.
“The vetting process is ongoing,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams told a press conference. “It is ongoing and will continue toward the Games.”
“I cannot give you the exact deadline. The reason it is taking so long is we are doing it very, very thoroughly.”
“We need to get the information from a lot of people. So, the process has to be done properly.”
The IOC has said it expects to see about 36 Russian and 22 Belarusian athletes competing as neutrals in Paris.
The maximum number, depending on qualification standards and country quotas, and which is unlikely to be reached, would be 54 and 28 respectively.
“You can imagine the amount of work required to go through a full and through process,” said IOC sports director Kit McConnell.
“That includes review of contracting situations, social media and so on.”
“In terms of timelines we are conscious of confirming the places available. We are working with international federations and trying to do that as quickly as possible... but obviously in a very thorough way.”
The Paris Olympics kick off on July 26.

Esports World Cup and the Esports Awards announce three-year partnership

Updated 35 min 59 sec ago

Esports World Cup and the Esports Awards announce three-year partnership

  • Awards ceremony in Riyadh will be one of the most prestigious nights in the world esports calendar

RIYADH: The Esports World Cup Foundation and the Esports Awards have announced a three-year partnership that brings the world’s most prestigious esports awards ceremony and platform to the Esports World Cup, the world’s largest gaming festival, scheduled to take place this summer in Riyadh.

The 2024 Esports Awards will be held on Aug. 24 in Riyadh with a gala to honor the best in esports from every corner of the globe, celebrating clubs, athletes, content creators, games and more. The partnership ensures that the Esports Awards will be a platform for experiences such as the lifetime achievement mixer, red carpet event, esports village and the awards ceremony itself. Fans can vote for awards finalists when they are revealed on June 27.

Since its inception in 2015, the Esports Awards has earned a reputation for recognizing excellence in esports globally and supporting initiatives to grow the industry. Over the past decade, it has evolved from a London dinner event into the premier global awarding body and de-facto platform for esports recognition.

The global red carpet event has been held in London, Dallas and Las Vegas and now comes to Saudi Arabia for the first time.

Last year’s star-studded ceremony attracted more than 22 million viewers and some of the biggest brands, athletes and publishers took home 30 awards in categories for entertainment, industry, creative, pro, on-air talent, and collegiate. The event secured a Guinness World Record for largest digital video game display when WWE superstars and gaming legends alike played Pac-Man on a screen with an area of 100,000 square feet.

“Partnering with the Esports World Cup enables us to offer an even more exceptional experience to our nominees, guests and viewers," said Michael Ashford, CEO, Esports Awards. “The Esports Awards have always been dedicated to celebrating incredible achievements in esports, so we naturally saw the opportunity to join forces with EWC in Riyadh as an excellent fit.

“The Middle East is home to one of the fastest growing and most passionate esports communities in the world and I’m delighted to be bringing the awards to the region for the first time. I cannot wait for this year’s ceremony, which I expect will be the most impressive and memorable one yet.”

Ralf Reichert, CEO of Esports World Cup Foundation, said: “Hosting the Esports Awards in Riyadh enriches the Esports World Cup, bringing the entire world together to commemorate esports excellence.

“Here, we can support the Esports Awards as a valuable bridge between Eastern and Western audiences. The Esports Awards is a fantastic gala that celebrates stakeholders from across the global esports ecosystem, recognizing not only competitive greatness but also greatness in production, broadcasting, leadership, creative design and more. I’m excited to attend the Esports Awards this year in Riyadh and honor the best in esports.”

The Esports World Cup starts on July 3 in Riyadh and will turn the city into the epicenter of esports fandom and gaming culture for eight weeks.

Fans can watch the action at Boulevard City across 20 game championships for a share of more than $60 million in prize money — the largest prize pool in esports history. The Esports World Cup will also feature festival activities that include numerous gaming activities, community tournaments, pop culture celebrations, international experiences and more.

Besides Messi, there is Vinicius Júnior, Valverde, Garnacho and Pulisic to watch at Copa America

Updated 12 June 2024

Besides Messi, there is Vinicius Júnior, Valverde, Garnacho and Pulisic to watch at Copa America

  • Vinicius Júnior will have his first chance to be Brazil’s main focus during a major tournament
  • Federico Valverde is the past, present and future of his national team Uruguay

SAO PAULO: Lionel Messi is undoubtedly the face of this year’s Copa America.
But there are other players to watch when the South American soccer championship starts this month in the United States with 16 teams from the Western Hemisphere competing.
With Neymar out injured, Vinicius Júnior will have his first chance to be Brazil’s main focus during a major tournament. The Real Madrid player has become a better striker, rather than just a great dribbler, in 2024, which has made him a serious candidate for this year’s Ballon d’Or award. He scored 15 goals in the Spanish league this season, five more than in the previous campaign. The 23-year-old Vinicius also scored key goals in his team’s Champions League title campaign, including one in the final, and combines to help Rodrygo excel up front. Vinicius will also have another opportunity to spread his anti-racism message, which has given him more fans back home.
Federico Valverde is the past, present and future of both his national team and Real Madrid. The 25-year-old midfielder has established himself as a pacemaker for the Spanish giants, a role that Uruguay coach Marcelo Bielsa seems eager to give him with the national team. This season, Valverde has scored only three goals and contributed eight assists for his club, but he continues to be one of the best passers in the game.
Madrid-born left winger Alejandro Garnacho was one of the few positives for Manchester United this season — something that has given hope to Argentina as well. The 19-year-old Garnacho scored one of his team’s goals in the 2-1 win over Manchester City in the FA Cup final. The teenager scored 10 goals in 50 matches for his club this season. Garnacho can also play on the right flank, which boosts his chances of appearing in Argentina’s team.
Kendry Páez has played at home for Independiente del Valle for two years, with long shots and dribbles that turned into great goals. The 17-year-old striker, who will join Chelsea next year, scored five goals in 29 matches in his first professional season and became the youngest to score in the Ecuadorian league. Last year, Páez had an assist in his Ecuador debut, a 2-1 win over Uruguay, in the second round of South American World Cup qualifying. This year, he became a starter and a key player of Independiente del Valle.
Christian Pulisic just had one of his best seasons in Europe, scoring 12 goals with nine assists in Italy for AC Milan. The 25-year-old striker’s career now looks less promising than it did several years ago when he played for Borussia Dortmund as a young right winger, but he can still score goals, give smart passes and read the game. Pulisic also proved this season he could play on the left and even in the midfield as a sort of playmaker.
Santi Gimenez had a prolific season at Dutch club Feyenoord, making some Mexican watchers believe the team has a shot at winning the Copa America. The 23-year-old Argentina-born striker scored 23 goals and had six assists to help his team finish second in the Dutch league. His coach, Arne Slot, just joined Liverpool and could well take the target man to Anfield. Giménez has skill, power, speed and calm in front of opposing goalkeepers. Dutch players have compared him to a young Robin van Persie.

Noor Slaoui: 1st Arab woman to represent MENA in equestrian sports at Paris 2024 Olympics

Updated 12 June 2024

Noor Slaoui: 1st Arab woman to represent MENA in equestrian sports at Paris 2024 Olympics

  • Achievement marks a milestone in her career and for equestrian sports in the MENA region
  • Slaoui is dedicated to promoting the development of equestrian sports in the region

DUBAI: Noor Slaoui, a 29-year-old Moroccan, has become the first Arab female equestrian to represent Africa and the Middle East after qualifying for the Paris 2024 Olympics, it was announced on Wednesday.
The professional rider has officially qualified for the Olympics, becoming one of two representatives from Africa and the Middle East, a media statement said.
Slaoui’s journey to this prestigious event marks a significant milestone in her career and for the region’s equestrian sports.
The 29-year-old is dedicated to promoting the development of equestrian sports in the MENA region, with the aim of inspiring greater representation in the coming years.
“I am honored and excited to represent my region at the Paris 2024 Olympics. This journey has been a testament to the dedication and support of my team and the incredible bond with my horses,” she said.
Slaoui said that she looked forward to challenging herself and showcasing the talent from the MENA region on the Olympic stage.
“While medals are a goal, my focus is on building a strong foundation for success in the years to come,” she said.
Her passion for horses began in childhood while exploring Morocco’s landscape on horseback. This early love of animals and nature evolved into a dream of making a career of her equestrian interests.
After attaining her baccalaureate at 18, Slaoui took a gap year and moved to France. She earned her riding instructor certification at the National Riding School in Saumur, setting her on the path to equestrian sports and competition.
Later, she moved to the UK to pursue her journey and studied political science at the University of Warwick. It was during that time that when she discovered eventing, often described as the “triathlon of equestrian sports.”
Working with professional riders to refine her skills, the Moroccan managed to balance her practical experience and academic studies.
After meeting her coach and business partner, Deborah Fellous, on graduation they launched her professional riding career, representing group F — “Africa & Middle East” — on the international stage.
Currently, they manage a professional yard in England, home to 17 horses, dedicated to breeding, training and preparing them for top-tier competitions.
Over the past seven years, Slaoui has achieved several notable milestones, becoming the first Moroccan female rider to compete internationally in eventing, and representing the MENA region at the World Championships for Young Horses in 2022 and 2023.
She also participated in Nations Cup events and secured top 10 finishes in 4-star competitions.

Barcelona can’t register nine of their 25 first-team players — here’s the state of play

Last August saw a number of players moved out against their wishes during the final days of the window. AFP
Updated 12 June 2024

Barcelona can’t register nine of their 25 first-team players — here’s the state of play

  • The Athletic reported last month that Barcelona must find about 130 million before June 30 or it will be very difficult to add new players to their squad due to how they overshot La Liga's salary limit during 2023-24
  • The club has been looking to find new investors for their troubled Barca Studios lever and to renegotiate and/or extend their deal with kit supplier Nike

Recent summers have brought plenty of drama at Barcelona as president Joan Laporta and his directors have looked to build competitive squads despite serious and ongoing financial problems.
That has often meant wheeling and dealing right down to the final day of the transfer window. Barcelona's board has found increasingly inventive ways to work within La Liga's salary limit regulations, including the famous levers of summer 2022 and 2023.
Last August saw a number of players moved out against their wishes during the final days of the window before Joao Felix and Joao Cancelo arrived on loan just before the deadline. Board members gave personal guarantees worth 18.5million to La Liga.
This year is sure to bring more such maneuvering. The Athletic reported last month that Barcelona must find about 130 million before June 30 or it will be very difficult to add new players to their squad due to how they overshot La Liga's salary limit during 2023-24.
This week, Barcelona sources, who, like all of those spoken to for this article asked to be kept anonymous to protect relationships, told The Athletic there was confidence that a solution to their need for 130m would be found by the end of the month. The club has been looking to find new investors for their troubled Barca Studios lever and to renegotiate and/or extend their deal with kit supplier Nike.
But no concrete details have yet been shared with La Liga and cashing in on squad assets such as Ronald Araujo, Frenkie de Jong or Raphinha cannot be ruled out. Especially as Laporta said this week: "We'd like to strengthen in holding midfield and add an out-and-out winger."
Meanwhile, as things stand, nine of the 25 players who started games for Barcelona in La Liga during 2023-24 currently cannot be registered for next season.
Sergi Roberto and Marcos Alonso are out of contract on June 30, when the loan deals for Felix and Cancelo also expire. That date also sees Inigo Martinez and Vitor Roque become unregistered with La Liga due to the unorthodox ways both were levered onto the squad list for last season.
Senior deals for La Masia products Alejandro Balde, Lamine Yamal, Pau Cubarsi, and Hector Fort all still have to be formally accepted by La Liga. A legal battle with the league over the status of another homegrown youngster Gavi is also yet to be concluded.
Making it even more difficult to find space within the salary budget to add new names is that players returning from loans are all automatically registered for 2024-25. This means the hefty salaries of Ansu Fati, Eric Garcia, Sergino Dest, and Clement Lenglet are all currently being counted by La Liga for next season even if none of those players figure in the club's long-term plans.
Laporta and Barcelona sporting director Deco now have a series of difficult cases to resolve. It will clearly be quite a while before new head coach Hansi Flick's squad for next season is finalized. A source close to a player whose future is uncertain said: "It's going to be a very long summer."
Barcelona's current club captain renewed on a lower salary last summer. He then played 24 games during an injury-hampered campaign, scoring three goals and providing three assists.
Another 12-month extension was expected had his former team-mate Xavi continued as head coach, however nothing has been signed. Laporta is said to value the Catalan-born La Masia graduates representation of the club's values. Whether that contribution is considered valuable enough to offer him a new contract remains to be seen.
Marcos Alonso was always a strange signing and played just 389 minutes in all competitions last season.
A back issue has not helped, but even when fit the former Chelsea defender was well down the pecking order. The 33-year-old has surely played his last game for Barcelona.
Vitor Roque was meant to join Barcelona from Athletico Paranaense this coming summer for an initial 30 million plus a potential further 31 million in add-ons.
The Brazilian starlet was initially registered with La Liga in January as an emergency short-term signing to cover Gavis's injury. So the salary he was paid while mostly sitting on the bench for the last six months must now be subtracted from Barcelonas total available for the coming season.
Had Xavi continued as coach, a loan move for next season was being considered. His agent Andre Cury told Catalan radio in early May that we dont want a loan if he has to go, it will be a permanent sale. Laporta suggested this week the 19-year-old would be in Flick's squad next season.
Martinez signed a two-year deal when he joined Barcelona on a free transfer from Athletic Bilbao last summer. However, that contract was registered with La Liga for just one year to ensure he could be added to the official squad last August.
Xavi was a fan of the Basque's technical qualities and he played 25 games for Barcelona last season, despite some injury absences.
The 33-year-old is keen to continue at Barca. His future may not be decided until later in the window and depends on what happens with other players, particularly Araujo and Garcia.
We want the Joaos to continue and were working on them continuing another season, Laporta said this week. Flick considers them top-quality players and is counting on both.
This is despite both having had underwhelming 2023-24 campaigns. Cancelo made big mistakes in crucial moments and Xavi often left Joao Felix on the bench for big games.
Both are unwanted at their parent clubs, due to difficult relationships with Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola and Atletico Madrid head coach Diego Simeone.
The close relationship between Laporta and Jorge Mendes, who represents both players, looks just as important for their futures. Mendes also represents various other squad members — including Fati, Yamal, and Balde.
A quirk of Felix's arrival late last August was that Barcelona originally wanted to register him on a very low salary, but Tebas later confirmed that La Liga gave him a market value of 10 million under regulations designed to stop clubs from bending rules or underpaying players.
Center-back Garcia thrived on loan at Girona last season, being a key part of the Catalan side's surprise Champions League qualification.
That loan deal did not contain an option for a permanent transfer and Garcia has two more years on the contract agreed when he returned from Manchester City in July 2021.
"This summer I'll go back to Barcelona and we'll see what the club's plan is for me," he told The Athletic in March.
The 23-year-old also spoke in that interview about confusion at Barcelona in the final days of last summer's transfer window. Xavi said he was counting on him for the season, but the club hierarchy wanted to loan him out to make room in the salary limit to sign other players instead.
Fati was another who did not initially want to leave Barcelona on loan last summer. His experiences on loan were less fruitful than Garcia's.
The 21-year-old scored four goals in 30 games for Brighton but never really convinced Roberto De Zerbi that he was prepared for the demands of the Premier League. The Premier League clubs social media goodbye made clear they did not expect to be seeing him again any time soon.
A post shared by Brighton Hove Albion FC (@officialbhafc)
"It was a pleasure to play for Brighton, but now I'm back with my club and my family," Fati told Mundo Deportivo this week. "My dream remains to play for Barca."
Fati remains popular with many Barcelona fans and it is not long since he was seen as Lionel Messi's long-term successor in the number 10 jersey. However, the club's directors now realize the 10 million-plus annual salary agreed before injuries seriously affected his development is now a big problem.
US international right-back Sergino Dest spent last year on loan at PSV Eindhoven, having never really settled at Barcelona since joining for 21 million from Ajax in the summer of 2020.
Dest had an excellent season at PSV, contributing two goals and seven assists in 37 games before suffering a serious knee injury in April. This will see the 23-year-old miss the USMNT's Copa America campaign this summer.
The Dutch club has an option for a permanent transfer this summer and may now be able to drive a hard bargain. Barcelona will not want an injured player taking up space on their wage bill, especially one whose contract with them ends in June 2025.
Lenglet has not played for Barcelona since May 2022 after spending the last two seasons on loan at Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa.
The former France international, who turns 29 on June 17, still has two more years on the bumper contract agreed when he joined Barcelona from Sevilla in 2018, during Josep Maria Bartomeus's free-spending years as president.
That 16 million salary (inc tax) complicates matters. Barcelona was paying a significant chunk even while he was at Tottenham and Villa. A move to Saudi Arabia would resolve the problem for Barcelona, but the player himself appears keen to continue his career in Europe.
Gavis's long-term contract situation remains in a type of legal limbo.
Having emerged into Barca's first team aged 17, still on his youth team deal and wearing No 30, Gavi signed a first senior contract in September 2022 with a 1 billion release clause.
When La Liga said there was no room for that contract within that season's squad salary limit, Barcelona took a case to the Spanish courts and achieved a temporary injunction to ensure the player was not free to sign for another club last summer.
While waiting for Barcelonas Juzgado Mercantil (Commercial Court) No 10 to resolve the case, Gavi was registered with La Liga for 2023-24. He wore No. 6 for the first months of the season, until suffering a serious knee injury on Spain duty in November, and is still mid-way through a long recovery process.
Until the Barcelona court offers a final judgment on the legal case, doubts will remain over his long-term future.
Home-produced left-back Alejandro Balde signed a senior contract with Barcelona in September 2023 that tied him to the club until June 2028 with a 1 billion release clause.
However, Barcelona did not have space to formally register that contract with La Liga and still do not.
The 20-year-old's ability and potential mean he would be among the priority players to register first — assuming they make space this summer.
Teenagers Lamine Yamal, Pau Cubarsi, and Hector Fort played big roles for the first team through the second half of 2023-24 and have all agreed to new contracts befitting their status as emerging stars of interest to richer clubs across Europe.
Yamal signed his first professional contract in October 2023, which lasts until 2026 and also includes the 1 billion release clause. Barcelona sources have told The Athletic that a longer extension is already agreed for when he turns 18 in July 2025.
Cubarsi recently agreed on a new deal that ties him to the club until June 2027. That was seen as vital as his academy contract includes a 10 million release clause and the player named in Spain's provisional Euro 2024 squad has a current market value already many multiples of that figure.

Recent weeks also saw full-back Fort, still 17, renew his contract, although only up until June 2026.
Given all the pressures on the salary limit and the uncertainty of the Gavi legal case, Barcelona is relying on these home-produced kids showing loyalty and ignoring potentially huge offers from elsewhere.
Formally registering them all as senior as senior players with La Liga would bring the protection of their huge release clauses and sighs of relief throughout the Barcelona family.