Neymar praises Saudi Pro League, says might be better than French Ligue 1

Brazil's forward Neymar during a press conference at the Mangueirao stadium in Belem, Para state, Brazil on Thursday, ahead of the 2026 FIFA World Cup Qualifier football match against Bolivia on Friday. (AFP)
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Updated 08 September 2023
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Neymar praises Saudi Pro League, says might be better than French Ligue 1

  • Neymar says Saudi Pro League could be as good as France’s Ligue 1 — if not better

SAO PAULO: Brazil striker Neymar defended his decision to play with Saudi football club Al-Hilal, saying the Saudi Pro League “might be better” than the French Ligue 1.

Speaking at a press conference with the Brazil national team, Neymar said the string of high-profile players who have recently moved to the Middle East raised the competitiveness of the Saudi league and made it a strong league to compete with.
“I assure you that football there (in Saudi Arabia) is the same. The ball is round, there is a goal. Because of the names that have gone to the Saudi league... I don't know if it is better than the French one,” Neymar was quoted saying in the British news outlet Daily Mail.
Of joining Al-Hilal, Neymar said the training sessions “are pretty intense.”
“I’m thirsty for titles. I want to win with Al-Hilal. For me, it doesn’t change anything, and it doesn’t matter what people say.”
Neymar added, “People say that the championship is not known, that it is weak... everyone said that when I went to the French championship, and it was the place where I suffered the most,” Neymar said, as quoted in Daily Mail.
He assured his fans worldwide that playing in the Saudi league would be an “interesting championship.”
“It’s not going to be easy to win the Saudi championship because there are other teams that have gotten stronger, there are well-known players and I'm sure it's going to be a very interesting league and that you're going to see it.”
Neymar signed a two-year contract with the Al-Hilal football club in August in a $98 million deal after six years with Paris St. Germain, but hasn’t yet played for the new club.

During the press conference, he said he is not fully fit to play in the two opening rounds of World Cup qualifying due to the right ankle injury that has sidelined him since February.
He joined football stars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Riyad Mahrez and Jordan Henderson who recently made the move to the Saudi Pro League.


Al-Hazm stun Al-Nassr to rescue draw in 8-goal thriller

Updated 29 February 2024
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Al-Hazm stun Al-Nassr to rescue draw in 8-goal thriller

  • Al-Nassr took the lead on four occasions, thanks to a hat-trick from Anderson Talisca and a late penalty from Sadio Mane, only for Al-Hazm to respond each time
  • SAFF’s Ethics and Discipline Committee suspended Cristiano Ronaldo for the game after he was found making an offensive gesture following his team’s victory over Al-Shabab

Cristiano Ronaldo was a mere bystander on Thursday, along with 19,000 fans, as Al-Nassr were somehow held to a 4-4 draw by relegation strugglers Al-Hazm.

The Riyadh giants stay second in the Roshn Saudi League but are now six points behind leaders Al-Hilal who have a game in hand.

It was an incredible game as star-studded Al-Nassr took the lead on four occasions, thanks to a hat-trick from Anderson Talisca and a late penalty from Sadio Mane. Yet somehow, the visitors, who arrived in the capital bottom of the table, came back four times to earn a much-needed point.

It added to what had already been a roller-coaster week for Ronaldo, who watched from the stands first in delight, then frustration, then delight again, before disbelief.

In the early hours of Thursday, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation’s Ethics and Discipline Committee suspended the Portuguese star for one game after he was found making an offensive gesture following his team’s victory over Al-Shabab in the Saudi Pro League on Sunday.

The home fans chanted the player’s name before the game started and then they did the same again with seven minutes on the clock, in honor of his shirt number. He acknowledged the support with his fist in the air.

Toze netted for the visitors midway through the first half but the Portuguese forward’s emphatic strike was ruled out for offside.

Al-Nassr took the lead after 31 minutes. Sami Al-Najei was brought down in the area by Paulo Ricardo and after VAR had taken a look, Talisca made no mistake in finding the bottom corner.

Al-Nassr continued to push forward in an attempt to give themselves a cushion and immediately after the restart Al-Najei netted but the goal was ruled out for offside.

The Yellows were left to rue that decision after 55 minutes as Ahmad Al-Mhemaid headed home at the far post after Al-Nassr had failed to clear a corner.

Just after the hour, Talisca put Al-Nassr back in front, but the lead lasted only four minutes, Toze sprinting free of the defense to slot home for 2-2, despite some offside doubts.

Both teams were struggling at the back and it was no surprise when Talisca completed his hat-trick after 71 minutes, heading home an Alex Telles cross in majestic fashion.

There was more terrible defending with six minutes of regulation time remaining as Al-Hazm equalized again. The ball was allowed to bounce in the area, despite the presence of multiple yellow shirts, and there was Faiz Selemani on hand to stroke home to make it 3-3.

It looked as if Al-Nassr had thrown it away, and Ronaldo was not the only one with his head in his hands.

But then, in the 91st minute, the hosts were thrown a victory lifeline as Al-Hazm goalkeeper Aymen Dahmen punched Meshari Al-Nemer after missing the ball. Sadio Mane stepped up to score what was surely the winning goal from the penalty spot.

But it proved not to be. With 100 minutes played, Al-Nassr failed to deal with another ball into the box and there was Ricardo to fire home from close range.

There was general disbelief in the stadium as the final whistle sounded. Ronaldo was shaking his head, Talisca was on his haunches, the atmosphere desolate.

Surely, amid the silence, the sound of Al-Hilal fans celebrating could have been heard. The leaders can go nine points clear if they defeat Al-Ittihad on Friday.


Al-Shabab crowned inaugural Saudi Women’s U-17 football champs after defeating Al-Hilal in final

Updated 29 February 2024
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Al-Shabab crowned inaugural Saudi Women’s U-17 football champs after defeating Al-Hilal in final

  • Their success in the knockout phase follows a group stage in which they were unbeaten, racking up 9 wins and a draw while scoring 116 goals and conceding just 2
  • Event serves as showcase for talent and potential of young female players and the rapid development of women’s football in the Kingdom, officials say

JEDDAH: Deem Saud scored the decisive goal as Al-Shabab defeated Al-Hilal 1-0 in the final of the inaugural Saudi Arabian Football Federation Women’s U-17 tournament.
The road to the final, which was played on Wednesday at Noon Academy in Jeddah, began in November with the group stages of the tournament, in which 18 teams from the Women’s Premier League, the First Division and SAFF regional training centers were split into four groups.
Al-Shabab were unbeaten in Group 1, topping the table with 28 points from nine wins and a draw, scoring 116 goals along the way and conceding just two.
In the knockout phase, they defeated Jeddah 2-1 in the quarter-finals, and Eastern Flames 2-0 in the semis.
Adwa Al-Arifi, the assistant minister for sport affairs at the Ministry of Sport, Lamia Bahian, the vice president of SAFF, and Aalia Al-Rasheed, the head of the women’s football department at SAFF, watched the final.
Officials said the competition offered a showcase for the talent and potential of young female players in the Kingdom, illustrating the rapid recent development of women’s football across the country. The players and clubs were praised for their skill, team spirit and passion for the sport.
SAFF congratulated Al-Shabab for their success, commended all of the clubs that took part, and thanked the players, coaches and fans for their enthusiastic support, which they said had helped make the championship a great success.


First La Liga Futures competition in Saudi Arabia kicks off March 1

Updated 29 February 2024
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First La Liga Futures competition in Saudi Arabia kicks off March 1

  • The U-14 tournament, hosted at Mahd Sports Academy in Riyadh, will feature 8 La Liga and 4 international teams

MADRID: La Liga FC Futures U-14, a flagship tournament featuring the youth academies of top-tier Spanish clubs, and being held in Saudi Arabia for the first time, kicks off on March 1.

The matches, to be played at Mahd Sports Academy in Riyadh, has been organized in collaboration with Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Sports. For the first time, the players making up the competing sides will be in the under-14 category and will play 11-a-side matches.

The tournament will feature 12 clubs, eight EA Sports La Liga teams, plus AS Roma (Italy), SL Benfica (Portugal), Olympique de Marseille (France) and Mahd Academy (Saudi Arabia).

La Liga’s leadership chose Saudi Arabia as the host because of the country’s emergence as a hub for sporting and cultural activities in recent years. The most popular sport in the Kingdom is football, with the highest level of participation among those under the age of 30.

For the past 15 years, La Liga matches have been followed by millions of football fans across the Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia now has six official supporter clubs.

The 12 teams will be divided into three groups: Mahd Academy, FC Barcelona, AS Roma and Cadiz CF (Group A); Atletico de Madrid, Olympique de Marseille, Sevilla FC and Villarreal CF (Group B); and Real Betis, Valencia CF, SL Benfica and CA Osasuna (Group C).

Matches will kick off on March 1 at 9:30 a.m. (Saudi Arabia time) and March 2 at 10 a.m., with the quarterfinals being played on Saturday at 5 p.m. The semifinals will kick off at 10 a.m. on Sunday, with the final at 5 p.m.


Cristiano Ronaldo handed one match ban, fine after obscene gesture

Updated 29 February 2024
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Cristiano Ronaldo handed one match ban, fine after obscene gesture

  • The Saudi Arabian Football Federation’s Ethics and Discipline Committee also ordered the Portuguese star to pay an additional SR20,000 to Al-Shabab, as compensation for the Riyadh club’s complaint filing fees

RIYADH: Al-Nassr striker Cristiano Ronaldo has been suspended for one match and fined SR10,000 ($2,666) after making an offensive gesture following his team’s victory over Al-Shabab in the Saudi Pro League on Sunday.

The Saudi Arabian Football Federation’s Ethics and Discipline Committee also ordered the Portuguese star to pay an additional SR20,000 to Al-Shabab, as compensation for the Riyadh club’s complaint filing fees.

Following the game on Sunday, videos posted on social media showed Ronaldo cupping his ear and repeatedly thrusting his hand forward near his pelvis, seemingly aimed at rival Al-Shabab supporters.

In the background, chants of “Messi” could be heard, referring to Ronaldo’s longstanding football rival from Argentina.

The committee called in the five-time Ballon d’Or winner to hear his response to the complaint filed by Al-Shabab, and asked the official broadcaster to provide footage of the incident in question.

The committee said in a statement that the decision is non-appealable.

This is not the first time that the Portuguese legend has been at the heart of fan controversy.

Earlier this month, the star was seen putting a scarf down his shorts before throwing it back at Al-Hilal fans after Al-Nassr loss in the Riyadh Season Cup. In the same game, the striker reacted angrily to Al-Hilal fans chanting the name of Lionel Messi.

Last year, the 39-year-old attacker grabbed his crotch after Al-Hilal fans taunted him by again invoking the name of the Argentine World Cup winner.


Hamdallah proves irreplaceable for Al-Ittihad despite influx of stars

Updated 28 February 2024
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Hamdallah proves irreplaceable for Al-Ittihad despite influx of stars

  • The Moroccan international was expected to exit the reigning SPL champions but has ended up being their most consistent forward this season

Al-Ittihad’s defense of the Saudi Pro League title has largely been one to forget.

Despite some early season promise that had them top for the first month, the wheels quickly fell off culminating in a disappointing showing in December’s FIFA Club World Cup and speculation that star signing Karim Benzema wanted out.

As recently as round seven they were still top of the table, but just 14 matches later they are now fifth and a whopping 22 points behind league leaders Al-Hilal. Any notion of going back-to-back has long since disappeared.

Their mission now is to simply try to close the gap on third-placed Al-Ahli, their crosstown Jeddah rivals, in the hope of securing what is still an unlikely spot in next season’s reformed AFC Champions League Elite competition.

Whereas last season they had one of the best defenses in the league — and one of the best on record in Saudi Pro League history — this season they have the equal worst of the top six.

Nuno Espirito Santo, meanwhile, who spearheaded that drought-breaking title triumph, has been moved on for hotshot Argentine manager Marcelo Gallardo.

But as bad as it has been, it could have been so much worse were it not for the goals of Moroccan international Abderrazak Hamdallah, who has 15 from 17 games this season.

The veteran striker has made a name for himself in the Kingdom since joining Al-Nassr after an equally fruitful stint in Qatar with El-Jaish and Al-Rayyan.

Scoring a league record 34 goals in his debut season with Al-Nassr, and 29 in his second season, he transferred to Al-Ittihad during the 2021-2022 season and has registered double digits in each of his five SPL seasons before the current campaign, making him one of the SPL’s all-time leading scorers.

It has also won him the hearts of Ittihad’s large and fervently faithful fanbase.

But after Al-Ittihad’s stunning capture of Benzema, regarded as one of the best strikers of the modern era, questions were naturally asked as to what the future held for the 33-year-old Hamdallah.

It seems inconceivable that the title-winning team would move on their leading striker who had just won the league’s golden boot, but that is what almost eventuated.

It is understood that the plan inside the walls of Al-Ittihad was to move the striker on — after all, they had Benzema now — only relenting after growing fan pressure against the move, giving the Moroccan a reprieve.

While running your recruitment based on the wishes of the fans is perhaps not the smartest strategy, it could be argued it was their best management decision of the summer.

Still only 33 and with plenty of years ahead of him, Hamdallah is what every team craves — a natural and reliable goalscorer. And as Al-Ittihad’s title defense has faltered, it is largely the goals from Hamdallah that is keeping their campaign alive.

His brace in their come-from-behind 2-1 victory over Al-Wehda on the weekend was further proof of his importance to Gallardo’s side.

Looking back, it seems incredulous that he could have been moved on. He will know how close he was and you get the sense he is playing with that chip on his shoulder, that every time he steps foot on the pitch, he has a point to prove.

And boy is he proving it.

His form this season also serves as a timely reminder that the SPL did not begin with the influx of headline signings in the most recent off-season.

Before the arrival of Benzema, Riyad Mahrez, Neymar and even before Cristiano Ronaldo, the SPL still attracted elite talent.

While Hamdallah may not possess the profile of those recent arrivals, his quality cannot be questioned. The same can be said for Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr teammate, Anderson Talisca.

After Ronaldo’s arrival in Riyadh there was speculation that the Brazilian would be moved on; deemed surplus to requirements at a club that had to shed a foreign player to make way for Ronaldo.

Talisca remained and this season he and Ronaldo have combined for 35 of Al-Nassr’s 60 goals.

Write these guys off at your peril.

As Al-Ittihad prepare for a season-defining fortnight, which will feature three Saudi Clasico’s against the high-flying Al-Hilal — one in the league and home-and-away ties in the AFC Champions League — they will do so grateful to have the Moroccan leading the line.

Having scored in eight consecutive league matches dating back to November, his form is imperious. His five goals in three games since the league resumed from its winter break make him the league’s most in-form striker.

While their title defense may be over, that does not mean they cannot impact where the silverware goes this season. Not to mention there is still silverware of their own to play for in the form of the AFC Champions League, where he has registered a further four goals.

Staring down this Al-Hilal side is a daunting prospect — their winning streak currently stands at 24 across all competitions (26 if you include friendly wins over Inter Miami and Al-Nassr). Their undefeated streak is now at 34 games.

And as good as his scoring record is, Hamdallah has only scored once against Al-Hilal since joining Al-Ittihad two years ago; that coming in their 4-3 loss earlier this season. It is a wrong he will be determined to right over the next fortnight.

In a season to forget for Al-Ittihad, Hamdallah could still deliver moments to remember and that starts with this week’s trip to Riyadh’s Kingdom Arena.