Steven Gerrard aiming to be Al-Ettifaq’s modern-day ‘Nawkhada’

Ettifaq coach Steven Gerrard speaks to Hamed Al-Ghamdi during the Roshn Saudi Pro League match against Al Fayha. (Getty images)
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Updated 20 November 2023

Steven Gerrard aiming to be Al-Ettifaq’s modern-day ‘Nawkhada’

  • The former Liverpool captain is building team he hopes can emulate the club’s 1980s success

RIYADH: The summer of 2023 marked 40 years since the most memorable moment in the history of Al-Ettifaq, the green and red club based in Dammam on the eastern shores of Saudi Arabia.

It was in the 1982-83 season that Al-Ettifaq made Saudi football history, becoming the first team in the nation’s history to win the league without a single defeat. It was the first league triumph for a club that was until that point not considered one of Saudi Arabia’s powerhouses, and it would be followed by only one more league title, four years later.

The success of the 1980s shaped the identity of the club nicknamed “Al-Nawkhada,” a nod to the ancient profession of Nawkhada, captains of the traditional dhow boats that roamed the waters of the Arabian Gulf for centuries, transporting goods between the Arabian Peninsula and places like India, Iran and East Africa as well as carrying experienced pearl divers on whose shoulders the fortunes of the region were built long before the discovery of oil.

Coach Khalil Al-Zayani was the original Nawkhada, leading Al-Ettifaq to their two league titles as well as guiding Saudi Arabia to their maiden AFC Asian Cup trophy in 1984.

Four decades later, Steven Gerrard, a man who established his legendary status in two iconic port cities thousands of miles away, in Liverpool as a player and then in Glasgow as a coach, is hoping to become the new Nawkhada in Saudi Arabia’s main port city of Dammam.

The former Liverpool captain says his journey to the Middle East began six months before putting pen to paper at the Prince Mohammed bin Fahd Stadium, when an icon of his former club’s fiercest rivals, Manchester United, arrived in the Kingdom.

“The arrival of ‘The GOAT’ as we call him, Cristiano (Ronaldo), in January (was) a huge signing. He still had a lot of football to offer,” said Gerrard as he sat in front of the Roshn Saudi League cameras.

“So, from afar, for six months, I was looking in at Ronaldo’s results, at the league, watching results and highlights. I think from that moment, the league around the world had become a popular talking point for everyone. After Ronaldo’s arrival, even more big-name signings, talents and skillsets were joining the league.

“At the time, it coincided with me being out of the game and looking for my next opportunity, so I was fascinated from afar looking in, and when my agents brought a couple of opportunities from the Gulf area at the time, I was fascinated to explore them.”

After a short trip to the Eastern Province where he explored the club facilities, discussed with the board and learned about the history and ambitions of the club hoping to restore their glory days and compete with the established elite of the RSL, Gerrard’s mind was made up.

“The Ettifaq proposal and opportunity was the most exciting for me because I’ve signed up to a club where the board are very passionate. They understand where the club are, they understand it’s something that’s going to need building, and it’s going to take time. That’s the reason why I was very interested to analyze this one because in my job you need time, especially when a club has finished seventh in the league and so many points behind the top four, that’s not an easy fix; it’s not something you fix in a week, a month, or six months. It’s a project to build on the pitch, which is obviously the priority, but also a lot of things needed to change around it to give the first team the support it needs.”

In a summer when the RSL title challengers brought in the likes of Neymar, Karim Benzema, Riyad Mahrez and Sadio Mane, Gerrard had the task of rebuilding his squad, albeit not with the same resources or promise of immediate success that the likes of Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr or Al-Ittihad could offer.

The first port of call for the Scouser was the man who succeeded him in wearing the Liverpool captain’s armband, Jordan Henderson, and for Gerrard, the decision to bring his former teammate was a no-brainer. 

“I think when you’re the coach, the manager, you want players going into games that can be an extended version of the staff. People, who can really help on-pitch coaching, where the team needs to be in terms of distances, to make on-field decisions.

“Myself and Jordan (Henderson), we have that trust. We played together and he’s a fantastic player still, a fantastic human being. For us, to execute that signing was key and very important and I think a lot of the other signings we made came on the back of Jordan agreeing to come here. I think he wanted to still play, I think that was the key.

“He was at Liverpool at the time. He’s had a fantastic career, he’s achieved everything at that club, he’s been a fantastic servant to Liverpool Football Club, but I think in the previous months, maybe him not being a regular starter in the team, when you get to that age.

“I’ve been there myself under Brendan Rodgers. When you’re the captain, you play all the games, then all of a sudden you’re on the bench or you’re not getting as many minutes as you’d like, and that’s when you analyze and think about the different challenges, and when we knew it was a possibility, I wanted to be aggressive and wanted that to be my first signing, because for me it was a no-brainer.

“Still a fantastic player, he’s a leader, an on-pitch coach,” Gerrard added. “His standards on how he lives his daily life on and off the pitch is good for our young players to see, watch and learn. Jordan understands the size of the project, that it’s not a quick fix. He wants to be part of the journey and building it with us, but he was a very important signing at a key time.”

With one former Liverpool player signed, attention turned to another member of the 2019 UEFA Champions League winning side’s midfield. Dutchman Giorgino Wijnaldum had just returned to Paris Saint-Germain following a disappointing loan spell at AS Roma where his single season under Jose Mourinho was plagued by an injury that kept him out of the side for over half of the 2022-23 campaign.

“Gini (Wijnaldum) recently hasn’t played as much football as he would have liked,” said Gerrard. “He had an injury where he broke his leg, and his last couple of experiences haven’t brought him football happiness, so he was looking to play regular football, he wanted to smile again, to feel an important part of the team and we could give him that platform.

“He’s got many similarities to Jordan in terms of leadership, professionalism. He’s a winner, a different type to Jordan in terms of style, but they complement each other very well and I’ve seen that firsthand being a Liverpool fan for many years. We’re looking for that combination, we’re looking for that leadership and we’re looking for them to play those key roles in terms of presence and contribution on the pitch.

Looking for further additions to enable his squad to compete at the top, Gerrard was in pursuit of an established goalscorer and he looked no further than a man with connections to his former Old Firm rivals Celtic.

“I watched Moussa Dembele for many years up in Scotland when he played for Celtic and competed against him, so I’ve seen him live and up close a lot of times. He’s a goalscorer, he scores important goals. He’s a box player, he gives you profile, he gives you strength, structure and I think it’s important to have a focal point in your team as your forward and Moussa gives us that.

“Bringing the likes of Jordan Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum, Moussa Dembele and Jack Hendry, it was important they were the right characters. The right people to also support us and give us a good core strength in the dressing room.” 

Al-Hilal too good for Al-Ittihad, too good for everyone

Updated 01 March 2024

Al-Hilal too good for Al-Ittihad, too good for everyone

  • Goals from Saleh Al-Shehri, Malcom, and Saud Abdulhamid made sure 18-time champions now nine points clear of Riyadh rivals in second

RIYADH: Cristiano Ronaldo watched from the stands in disbelief on Thursday as Al-Nassr were held to a 4-4 draw at home against bottom team Al-Hazm. Neymar on Friday watched in delight as Al-Hilal came from behind to defeat Al-Ittihad 3-1 to take a giant step toward a 19th Saudi Pro League trophy.

Thanks to goals from Saleh Al-Shehri, Malcom, and Saud Abdulhamid, the 18-time champions are now nine points clear of their Riyadh rivals in second, and as Al-Hilal have now won their last 25 games in all competitions and a record 15 in the league, few would now bet against the Blues.

It was an entertaining Saudi Classico, but once Al-Hilal took the lead in the second half, there was always likely to be just one outcome and it was a deserved win.

Al-Ittihad, the defending champions, had opportunities but against the runaway leaders more than one needed to be taken.

But the visitors, who were missing star striker Karim Benzema through injury, started strongly and took the lead in the 12th minute. With all the attacking talent on the pitch, it was a little surprising that N’Golo Kante opened the scoring with his first goal for almost six months. It was a cracker too.

The former Chelsea midfielder started the move and after laying the ball off, sprinted for the penalty area. He was there just in time to meet the left-sided cross from Zakaria Al-Hawsawi and no one was prepared for the sight of Kante flying through the air to send a header past Yassine Bounou and into the net. It stunned fans in the Kingdom Arena and probably those watching around the world. 

A few minutes later it was almost 2-0 as Faisal Al-Ghamdi shot just wide from outside the area with Bounou scrambling to get across. Al-Ittihad have been in good form and were seemingly growing in confidence.

But slowly Al-Hilal began to wake up and six minutes before the break were level. Abdullah Al-Mayouf punched a Salem Al-Dawsari corner clear but it fell to Ruben Neves just outside the area and while the Portuguese star’s shot was blocked, there was Al-Shehri, in the starting lineup to replace the suspended Aleksandar Mitrovic, to pounce and fire home.

Almost immediately, the visitors thought they had a penalty as Kalidou Koulibaly was judged by the referee to have been tugging the shirt of Ahmed Hegazy. VAR thought differently, however.

Both teams continued to push forward and just before the hour the hosts took the lead. It came shortly after Al-Ittihad had claims for a penalty waved away, and Al-Hilal broke. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic chipped over a perfect cross from the left for Malcom — who was given far too much space on the edge of the six-yard box — to head home.

Kante almost equalized within minutes, firing a low shot just wide of the post. It was a great chance and, had it been taken, the game could have turned out very differently.

As it was, midway through the second half, Abdulhamid netted a third. Milinkovic-Savic slipped a pass into the right side of the area for the full-back to twist and turn past two defenders before shooting home at the near post. Not for the first time in the evening, Neymar, still recovering from his serious injury, was on his feet.

Unlike Al-Nassr, who four times threw the lead away against Al-Hazm, Al-Hilal were not going to be denied and the celebrations at the end reflected an unstoppable winning machine.

There is a quick chance for revenge for Al-Ittihad as the two giants meet in the first leg of the Asian Champions League quarter-final next week, but Al-Hilal surely know that with the domestic title almost sewn up, they can now turn their full attention to continental concerns.

For Al-Ittihad, now 25 points below the leaders in fifth, their season now depends on the clash.

SAFF launches formal FIFA World Cup 2034 host campaign

Updated 01 March 2024

SAFF launches formal FIFA World Cup 2034 host campaign

  • Logo, website and short film released under slogan ‘Growing Together’
  • Federation chief Yasser Al-Misehal: ‘Our bid is an open invitation to the world to join us on this exciting journey’

JEDDAH: The Saudi Arabian Football Federation on Friday launched its formal bid to host the FIFA World Cup 2034 under the slogan “Growing Together.”
In October last year, the Kingdom said it intended to bid to host the tournament, before the SAFF submitted an official letter of intent and declaration to FIFA.
The campaign proved a formality when the Kingdom became the only country to enter the contest to host the tournament.
The federation, as part of its formal bid, has unveiled a bid logo, website, as well as a short film that celebrates the passion, spirit and diversity of football in the Kingdom.
SAFF President Yasser Al-Misehal said: “Telling our football story to the world is of massive importance. And we believe ‘Growing Together’ is the perfect, yet simple description of our approach to hopefully hosting the tournament in 10 years’ time.”
Bidding to host a FIFA World Cup has been made possible by the rapid transformation taking place in the Kingdom, the SAFF chief said.
“We’ve made unprecedented progress in both the men’s and women’s game and our bid is an open invitation to the world to join us on this exciting journey. As we proved when we welcomed over 100 nationalities to the FIFA Club World Cup Saudi Arabia 2023 in Jeddah, the future is bright when we grow together,” Al-Misehal added.
As one of the fastest and most exciting growth stories in world football, Saudi Arabia, through its bid, seeks to capture the parallel between the Kingdom’s rapid transformation and the positive impacts of hosting FIFA’s flagship event.
Aspiring to become the first single host nation of a 48-team FIFA World Cup, the three pillars underpinning the bid are “Growing People Together,” “Growing Football Together” and “Growing Connections Together.”
Over the last six years, Saudi Arabia has hosted more than 100 international events across almost 40 sports, and is in active football partnerships with more than 100 countries.
The campaign slogan aims to capture the spirit of bonds between the Kingdom and football communities in countries around the world.
The bid logo — made up of intertwined rows of multi-colored ribbons displaying iconic football and cultural symbols — aims to promote Saudi Arabia’s status as a young nation with rich heritage.
It also features five colors reflecting natural diversity across the Kingdom: Desert amber, oasis green, radiance red, rich lavender and sunrise yellow.
The short film released for the bid was filmed across the country, exploring the passion for football in all sections of Saudi society.
It features players from the Saudi under-17 women’s national team and 22-year-old Saudi women’s national team midfielder Layan Jouhari. Background music was composed by powerhouse Saudi platform MDLBEAST.
SAFF recently launched a dedicated bid unit, in line with FIFA regulations, to lead the charge for the Saudi 2034 bid, which will last up until the end of the year.
The unit’s chief, Hammad Al-Balawi, said: “This campaign is powered by the hopes and dreams of 32 million people in Saudi Arabia. Our responsibility is to submit the best possible bid to FIFA, make our country proud and fulfill the trust placed upon us by more than 130 member associations across the world who supported our bid.”
The bid’s website is Fans can celebrate the launch of the campaign using the hashtags #Saudi2034bid and #GrowingTogether.

SAFF: 2024 WAFF Women’s Championship ‘will be the first of many’ tournaments held in Kingdom

Updated 01 March 2024

SAFF: 2024 WAFF Women’s Championship ‘will be the first of many’ tournaments held in Kingdom

  • Jordan defeat Nepal in penalty shoot-out to claim victory in 1st official 11-a-side women’s tournament held in Kingdom
  • Saudi officials hail ‘exciting new era for professional women’s football’ after milestone event draws nationwide interest

RIYADH: The latest chapter in Saudi Arabia’s football evolution came to a close last weekend as the 2024 West Asian Football Federation Women’s Championship — the first official 11-a-side women’s tournament held in the Kingdom — reached its conclusion. 

A milestone occasion that attracted nationwide interest and engagement, the eighth edition of the championship was staged in Jeddah throughout its 11-day duration from Feb. 19 to Feb. 29 as seven countries competed alongside the host nation.

Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Nepal, Palestine, Syria and Guam joined Saudi Arabia with fixtures played at the King Abdullah Sports City and Prince Abdullah Al-Faisal Sport City stadiums. A total of 15 matches were played across the group and knock-out stages.

The final was played in front of over 4,000 fans at the Prince Abdullah Al-Faisal Sport City Stadium and ended 2-2 after full time, with Jordan winning the tournament via a penalty shoot-out against Nepal in Thursday’s final.

The Saudi Arabian Football Federation’s message following the 2024 WAFF Women’s Championship was clear — this debut official 11-a-side women’s tournament on home soil “will be the first of many.”

“We promise that the 2024 WAFF Women’s Championship is the start of an exciting new era for professional women’s football in Saudi Arabia,” Lamia Bahaian, vice president of the federation, said in a statement.

“Besides showcasing our hosting credentials to the region and wider world, it has paved the way for more competitions to make their way to our shores in the years ahead. For sure, this will be the first of many.”

Bahaian said that the women’s game is inspiring audiences as a driving force for positive change, with the Saudi Arabia women’s national team “instrumental” to the direction of travel.

“Reaction to the tournament and the way it was received by fans and the wider community was incredible — witnessing fans embrace the competition, get behind our women’s national team, and attend matches was a genuine joy,” she said.

“Our national team has been instrumental here. The players are pursuing their dreams and representing their country for everyone to see. This has helped introduce women’s football to audiences new and old, laying new foundations for sustained growth and development while contributing to a positive shift in wider society.”

Underpinned by a strategy to help elevate Saudi Arabia to elite status in world football by 2034, huge strides have been taken in the last few years, with growth witnessed across a series of key metrics. 

Since 2021, the number of female clubs nationwide has increased by 112 percent, with the number of local players up 150 percent and national teams up 300 percent.

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

Updated 29 February 2024

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

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.