Carlo Nohra: Interest in Saudi Pro League is testament to the quality of players recruited in the summer

Carlo Nohra, the Saudi Pro League’s chief operating officer who since June has been plotting the next steps in the league’s growth, spoke to Arab News. (Supplied/Saudi Pro League)
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Updated 02 December 2023
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Carlo Nohra: Interest in Saudi Pro League is testament to the quality of players recruited in the summer

  • The SPL’s chief operating officer says the ‘Ronaldo factor’ has accelerated the journey

RIYADH: In front of a packed King Fahd Stadium, Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr played out a Riyadh derby that radiated significance well beyond Saudi Arabia’s capital city on Friday night.

The top-of-the-table Saudi Pro League clash brought together two clubs whose profile is now growing well beyond the Kingdom’s borders.

While Al-Hilal claimed a 3-0 victory that extended their lead at the summit to seven points, this was an opportunity to showcase Saudi football to a wider audience.

The media center brimmed with international representatives sampling the Kingdom’s football culture for the first time and though injured Al-Hilal star Neymar was absent, the home fans created a carnival atmosphere at the King Fahd.

Among those watching in Riyadh was Carlo Nohra, the Saudi Pro League’s chief operating officer, who since June has been plotting the next steps in the league’s growth.

What began with Cristiano Ronaldo’s marquee signing by Al-Nassr in January evolved into a summer influx of new talent and a host of global broadcast rights deals.

“We said at the very least we needed to go out and distribute the broadcast rights through the world,” Nohra told Arab News at the King Fahd Stadium.

“We couldn’t predict what the appetite would be so the fact that people have both taken and paid for them is testament to the quality of players we’ve brought into the league.

“Did we expect to be here at this stage? No. But the Ronaldo factor has contributed to the acceleration of our journey.”

More eyes are on the league than ever before and Nohra believes the next steps are vital in creating a sustainable, self-sufficient product that is not perennially reliant on investment.

He said: “Over time we know we have to be revenue-generating and move from where we are today with 100 percent dependence on government money to exactly the opposite end, where we are fully independent financially.

“It’s a historic time and such a rare opportunity and great privilege to be here but we know this is a massive project and undertaking and it will take us a long time to achieve those objectives.

“We’ve taken the first early steps. We’re where the J-League was in 1993 and MLS in 1996. It’s a long journey ahead but we definitely still have major aspirations.”

Among those objectives for Nohra — the former CEO of Emirati clubs Al-Jazira and Al-Ain, as well as the UAE Football League — is a desire to revolutionize the relationship between players and fans.

Nohra’s most recent role before the Saudi Pro League was a seven-year stint as vice president and general manager of WWE Asia Pacific and he feels that football can learn a lot from wrestling.

He said: “Stepping out of football and seeing what happens elsewhere was such a valuable experience. It helps you understand that there is a different, and perhaps better, way of doing things.

“Right now, our athletes are not performers, but they should be. We need to better connect them with the fans because there is that great divide between the player and the fan that adores them. WWE is great at this and I hope we can develop a new environment that fosters this.”

It is just one of Nohra’s lofty ambitions for the Saudi Pro League, but more pressing are a series of fundamental infrastructure challenges. Providing a better fan experience is central to Nohra’s manifesto.

“Almost everywhere you turn, there is something that needs to be improved but it is impossible to do everything at the same time,” he said. “At the moment the customer journey for Saudi football needs to be of a much higher quality.

“We are working on the access to the stadium, getting tickets in a more regulated fashion through new platforms. These are some of the pain points right now because what is the point in having a good product on the pitch if people can’t get to the stadium to watch it?”

Despite the teething problems in the Saudi Pro League’s development, the attention given to Friday’s Riyadh derby is indicative of the potential that the division has to capture the imagination of a wider audience.

“Football will always be the real product and it has existed in this country for a long time,” Nohra says.

“We know we can put on good football matches, that’s not the issue. We just want to put on more of these matches that are meaningful for the rest of the world to watch.

“Sometimes we wonder if we should have focused on infrastructure first before the players but there is no question that the presence of these players has triggered the attention and investment to deal with these other areas.

“Bringing the players was key and it’s wonderful to see the interest that we’ve generated.”


Weigh-in results ahead of PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions crossover event in Riyadh

Updated 7 sec ago
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Weigh-in results ahead of PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions crossover event in Riyadh

  • The card includes 2 champion-versus-champion bouts; PFL Heavyweight Champ Renan ‘Problema’ Ferreira takes on Bellator Heavyweight Champ Ryan ‘Darth’ Bader
  • PFL Light Heavyweight Champ Impa ‘Tshilobo’ Kasanganay drops down to middleweight to take on Bellator Middleweight Champion Johnny Eblen

RIYADH: As the Professional Fighters League 2024 season gets underway on Saturday with what it is billing as the biggest mixed martial arts event of the year, the PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions at the Kingdom Arena in Riyadh, the fighters gathered for the weigh-in on Friday.

The card feature a pair of champion-versus-champion headline bouts, as some of the biggest names in combat sports go head to head inside the PFL SmartCage.

In the main event, 2023 PFL Heavyweight Champion Renan “Problema” Ferreira will take on Bellator Heavyweight Champion Ryan “Darth” Bader.

At the weigh-in, Ferreira, who is coming off his first championship campaign in the PFL, was 263.2 lbs. Bader, who has held the Bellator title since 2019, was 231.1 lbs.

In the other headline event, 2023 PFL Light Heavyweight Champion Impa “Tshilobo” Kasanganay drops down to middleweight to take on Bellator Middleweight Champion Johnny Eblen.

Kasanganay, who captured PFL gold in his first season, weighed in at 185.8 lbs, while Eblen, who aims to maintain his undefeated career record, was 185.5 lbs.

Two of the world’s top welterweights will clash in a catchweight bout, as two-time PFL champion Ray Cooper III meets reigning Bellator Welterweight Champion Jason Jackson. Cooper III weighed in at 182.4 lbs, and Jackson at 182 lbs.

Former PFL Heavyweight Champion Bruno Cappelozza will take on Bellator’s Vadim Nemkov in a heavyweight bout. Cappelozza weighed in at 236.2 lbs, and Nemkov at 238.1 lbs.

Leading PFL contender Thiago “Maretta” Santos faces top Bellator contender Yoel “Soldier of God” Romero. The former weighed in at 205.2 lbs, and the latter at 205 lbs.

A pair of the lightweight division’s elite will also go head-to-head, as 2023 PFL runner-up “Cassius” Clay Collard takes on former Bellator Lightweight Champion A.J. “Mercenary” McKee. Collard weighed in at 155.5 lbs, and McKee at 154.8 lb.

Official PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions weigh-in results:

PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions Card: 3 pm ET

PFL Champion vs. Bellator Champion — Heavyweight

Renan Ferreira 263.2 lbs vs. Ryan Bader 231.1 lbs

PFL Champion vs. Bellator Champion — Middleweight

Impa Kasanganay 185.8 lbs vs. Johnny Eblen 185.5 lbs

Catchweight (182 lbs) Bout

Ray Cooper III 182.4 lbs vs. Jason Jackson 182 lbs

Heavyweight Bout

Bruno Cappelozza 236.2 lbs vs. Vadim Nemkov 238.1 lbs

Light Heavyweight Bout

Thiago Santos 205.2 lbs vs. Yoel Romero 205 lbs

Lightweight Bout

Clay Collard 155.5 lbs vs. AJ McKee 154.8 lbs

Early Card: 12 pm ET

Lightweight Bout

Henry Corrales 155.7 lbs. Vs. Aaron Pico: 155.7 lbs

Lightweight Bout

Biaggio Ali Walsh 155.4 lbs vs. Emmanuel Palacio 152.6 lbs

Women’s Catchweight (165 lbs) Bout

Claressa Shields 164.4 lbs vs. Kelsey DeSantis 164.6 lbs

Featherweight Bout

Abdullah Al-Qahtani 146 lbs vs. Edukondal Rao 145.7 lbs

Amateur Catchweight (129 lbs) Bout

Malik Basahel 124.9 lbs vs. Vinicius Pereira 129.2 lbs

Pereira missed weight. The bout will be contested at 129 lbs catchweight.

 

 


Newcastle United double injury boost for Arsenal as Eddie Howe snubs Man United chief’s comments

Updated 5 min 49 sec ago
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Newcastle United double injury boost for Arsenal as Eddie Howe snubs Man United chief’s comments

NEWCASTLE: Alexander Isak and Joe Willock have handed Newcastle United a huge boost ahead of their trip to Premier League title challengers Arsenal.

The Magpies head to the Emirates Stadium in the late kick-off on Saturday hoping to net their first win at the venue for more than a decade. You have to go back to 2010, for an Andy Carroll header in a 1-0 smash-and-grab to find the last time Newcastle left the red half of North London with three points.

Coach Eddie Howe has confirmed his injury-ravaged squad will be boosted by the return of top-scorer Isak and former Gunners’ midfielder Willock, who has barely kicked a ball for Newcastle in the last 10 months.

“They’ve trained this week, it’s been good to see them back on the grass,” said Howe.

“It’s been a long time for Joe but he’s a huge player for us. It’s been great to see him back among the group, he’s a very popular member of the squad. Really pleased for him.

“He was battling so hard to come back and then he had a couple of setbacks along the way, they’re difficult moments because a player just wants to play, be fit and express themselves in a positive way.

“Joe has had that limitation placed upon him with his body and it’s been very difficult for him. I think he has handled himself really well. I think we’ve seen him mature in the last few months where he’s had to show a different side of his character to come through this period and I think as long as he comes back full pelt, we’ll see a better Joe Willock for that experience.”

On Isak, Howe says he will be careful, especially with the player repeatedly missing so much football this campaign due to a groin problem.

“With Alex again, a really important player, he’s trained well so we’re happy with both players. We’ll have to wait and see, we’ve got one more training session but I’ve been pleased with their progress.

“We’ll only play him if we feel he is fit to play. We won’t take any risks. We’re in the hands, really, of Alex and the medical team and we’ll make the right decision for both the short and long term.

“I hope the best is yet to come (from Isak). It’s a difficult one. People will talk about his injuries but he’s still contributed massively. He’s an incredible player, there’s nobody else like him in the Premier League in my opinion. He has talents that can transform our team and I’d love to see him stay fit and get the goals he’d love to score for us.”

Meanwhile, Howe was asked about the situation in relation to the club’s soon-to-depart sporting director, Dan Ashworth.

This week, newly rubber-stamped Manchester United shareholder Sir Jim Ratcliffe described any talk of Newcastle not allowing Ashworth to switch to Old Trafford in a timely manner as “silly” and batted away suggestions he would sanction the Red Devils paying a huge fee to cut short any waiting period.

Ashworth was this week placed on gardening leave by the Magpies after an official approach by Manchester United. However, it is understood that period of leave extends to 2026, as well as his contract containing a substantial compensation fee. Newcastle could be tempted to cut that short, if Ratcliffe coughs up yet more cash to free Ashworth up — although, that is very much at the Magpies’ discretion.

When asked if the Ashworth talk has been unsettling or disruptive this week, Howe said: “The day-to-day running of the football club, not at all. It’s something that has happened away from the players and training ground. It’s been business as usual for us. A normal week.

“Certainly the events this week have given that certainty. I said in my press conference last week is what we needed as a football club. We’ve got that now and look forward to the future.”

When asked about Ratcliffe’s comments on Newcastle’s demands being “silly” and “absurd,” Howe responded: “I don’t think I can respond to that. I don’t think that’s for me. I’m not involved in those discussions and I’ll stay well away.

“In these situations it’s about Newcastle from our perspective. But that is for other people to make those decisions, I’m not involved in that in any way, shape or form. I’m preparing the team to play Arsenal.”

Newcastle’s move to recruit Ashworth’s successor is already underway, with talk of the likes of Monaco’s Paul Mitchell in the frame.

Howe does not expect to be consulted on the process, even if he does have a clear opinion about what should happen next.

He said: “I don’t think I’ll be involved in the decision-making process but I think we will have discussions on the role and how I see that. But again I don’t think that will be definitive, it’ll be the club’s decision and rightly so. But of course it won’t just be my opinion that they will listen to, they’ll be listening to lots of different opinions from lots of different people.

“Hopefully at the end we just come to the right solution for the football club because hopefully the next person that comes in will be at the club for many years and will be able to take the club in the direction everyone wants it to.”

 

 


Maryline Eon wins International Jockey Challenge on opening night of Saudi Cup

Updated 38 min 13 sec ago
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Maryline Eon wins International Jockey Challenge on opening night of Saudi Cup

  • The world’s most valuable race meet, with total prize money of $37m, got underway with eight races at King Abdulaziz Racecourse

RIYADH: The Saudi Cup, the world’s most valuable race meet, got underway on Friday at Riyadh's King Abdulaziz Racecourse, with total prize money of more than $37 million up for grabs over the weekend.

Fourteen jockeys, seven women and seven men, competed in the Invest Saudi International Jockey Challenge across four of the opening day’s eight races, with French rider Maryline Eon emerging victorious with 25 points.

Reigning champion Camilo Ospina, a Colombian jockey who races out of Saudi Arabia, was runner-up on 17 points, with Victoria Mota of Brazil in third.

“It was very emotional to win this … and I can only thank the Saudi Cup for having invited me here today. Obviously it was going to be an emotional moment,” Eon told Arab News.

“I am really impressed with the track here in Saudi Arabia. It was my first time riding on the dirt and I wasn’t used to getting dirt in my face and everything. Everything is in really good condition.

“I was told when I was coming that the horses that I am going to ride would need a bit of work and that they would be outpaced in the early stages of the race. The handicappers showed me the races of the horse that I was riding and that was really helpful.”

Despite the unfamiliar ground conditions, Eon said she did not alter her approach to the races or her technique.

“I didn’t really change anything in the style of my riding and I just followed instructions,” she said.

“I would like to thank the country for making such an effort to bring women here and obviously I’m very lucky to win this championship, which is something I would have never imagined.”

In the other events, 16 riders competed in the 1,600-meter Mosef First Fillies Mile, the first race of the day, in which Ospina, riding Istita’aeh, took the lead with 300 meters to go and romped home for the win. First across the line in the 1,200-meter Saudia Sarawat Cup was Aezm Al-Riyadh, ridden by Tariq Almansour. Adel Alfarid, on Badr, was the winner of the 1,800-meter Lucid Tuwaiq Cup.

In the final race of the night, the Group 1 $1.5 million Ministry of Culture Al-Mneefah Cup, Tilal Al-Khalediah, the 2023 Obaiya Arabian Classic winner, was victorious.

Day 2 of the fifth Saudi Cup on Saturday will again feature eight races: the Ministry of Culture Jockey Club Local Handicap, the Group 1 Diriyah Gate Development Authority Obaiya Arabian Classic, the NHC Saudi International Handicap, the G3 Boutique Group Saudi Derby, the G3 Sports Boulevard Riyadh Dirt Sprint, the G2 Saudi National Bank 1351 Turf Sprint, the $2 million G2 Howden Neom Turf Cup, and the $2.5 million G3 Longines Red Sea Turf Handicap.


Italy, bad weather hand Saudi Arabia’s cricketers first defeat of 2024 in CWC Challenge League playoff

Updated 24 February 2024
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Italy, bad weather hand Saudi Arabia’s cricketers first defeat of 2024 in CWC Challenge League playoff

  • A top-three finish and qualification for the Super Sixes stage of the tournament is still within Saudi Arabia’s grasp

LONDON: Saudi Arabia suffered their first defeat of 2024 on Friday as they fell to Italy in a weather-affected match in the ICC Cricket World Cup Challenge League playoff in Kuala Lumpur.

The 50-over competition is a step on the qualification route for the World Cup, which is to be held in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia in 2027.

The Greens, who recently won the 20-over ACC Challenger Cup in Thailand as well as a quadrangular T20 series in Bangkok against the hosts, had notched up a win in their first match against Kuwait on Thursday.

Saudi Arabia were chasing a total of 285 for victory after the Italians had notched up 284 runs for the loss of seven wickets from their 50 overs.

South African-born Wayne Madsen high-scored with the bat for Italy, bringing up 103 runs from 92 deliveries.

The Saudi bowling attack shared the load and six players grabbed wickets, while Usman Najeeb ended up with the best figures with two wickets for 40 runs.

Saudi Arabia were hampered by inclement weather, which cut short their innings with just over 12 overs left to bowl.

Despite the best efforts of captain Hisham Shaikh, who scored an unbeaten 60, and lower-order batsman Waji-ul-Hassan, who contributed 43 runs from 38 balls, the Greens were well behind the run-rate when the match fell victim to the weather, and lost the match by 52 runs under the Duckworth-Lewis-Stern method.

A top-three finish and qualification for the Super Sixes stage of the tournament is still within Saudi Arabia’s grasp, especially if they can get a positive result in their final group match against Bermuda on Sunday.


Amateur Attieh creates history for Saudi Arabia in professional golf

Updated 24 February 2024
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Amateur Attieh creates history for Saudi Arabia in professional golf

MUSCAT: Khalid Walid Attieh made history for Saudi Arabia on Friday when he became the first amateur player from the country to make the cut in an elite professional tournament.

The 28-year-old from Riyadh shot a commendable round of one-under par 71 in the second round of the $2 million International Series Oman after an opening 73, and his two-day effort of even-par 144 was enough to qualify for the weekend in the Asian Tour event.

Playing in the last group of the day, Attieh finished with a bogey in near darkness, but that could not dampen his spirit.

“It is a very proud moment for me and a very proud moment for my country,” said Attieh, who qualified for the tournament that features 21 LIV Golf stars by winning last week’s Oman Masters.

“Saudi Arabia has done so much in golf over the past few years and we players have benefitted immensely from it. The best way I can acknowledge and thank Golf Saudi for all the support is by performing well for my country. And that’s why this is extremely satisfying.”

Attieh started the day from the 10th tee and quickly picked up a shot on the par-five 12th hole. However, he gave up that advantage on the other par-five on the back nine, the 16th. That hole was playing one of the toughest throughout the day.

On his back nine, the Saudi National Team member made a birdie on the par-five third and then made a stunning 25-footer downhill putt for his third birdie on the par-three eighth hole. On the ninth, Attieh was slightly distracted by his playing partner taking a long time after a wayward drive, and in failing daylight, he three-putted for a bogey from a long range.

The University of South California graduate, who has his own software business in Saudi Arabia, said: “I’ve been playing well over the last few months. And finally, I got some things rolling my way today and put in a good round, which honestly could have been even lower.

“But I am very happy with my score today. To be able to qualify for the event last week by winning the Oman Masters was very satisfying, but this is even better. I hope to keep the momentum and hopefully, more good rounds are coming on the weekend.”

Attieh, who made a comeback to golf after taking nearly two years off to complete his studies and then focus on setting up his business, said he plans to turn professional soon.

“I also had a small back injury, and I wanted to complete my studies. I started playing again about eight or nine months ago, and I found that I was playing just as good, if not better after my big break. So, I decided to get serious and worked hard on my game. Started working with a mental coach to get stronger mentally, and all of it seems to be paying dividends,” said Attieh.

“I’m very much looking forward to keep on raising the bar for myself and the flag for Saudi. I plan to turn pro soon, maybe by the end of summer this year. I want to try out the Qualifying Schools in both (the) Asian (Tour) and the DP World Tour. It should be (an) exciting few months ahead.”