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.”


Murray buzzer-beater lifts Nuggets over Lakers, Knicks stun Sixers

Updated 8 sec ago
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Murray buzzer-beater lifts Nuggets over Lakers, Knicks stun Sixers

  • The drama in Denver followed a scintillating comeback by the New York Knicks, who scored eight points in the final half-minute to stun the Philadelphia 76ers
  • Embiid was dejected but defiant, telling reporters: “We should be 2-0“

LOS ANGELES: Jamal Murray fired the game-winner at the buzzer as the NBA champion Denver Nuggets erased a 20-point deficit to beat the Los Angeles Lakers 101-99 on Monday and take a 2-0 lead in their Western Conference playoff series.

The drama in Denver followed a scintillating comeback by the New York Knicks, who scored eight points in the final half-minute to stun the Philadelphia 76ers 104-101 for a 2-0 lead in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference set.

Nikola Jokic delivered a triple-double of 27 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists for Denver and Murray broke out of his shooting doldrums, with 14 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter.

The Nuggets notched their 10th straight win over LeBron James and the Lakers, a run of dominance that includes Denver’s sweep in last season’s Western Conference finals.

The Lakers, led by the 32 points and 11 rebounds of Anthony Davis, were in control for most of the night, pushing a 59-44 halftime lead to 20 points early in the third quarter.

James scored 26 points and handed out 12 assists, but the Nuggets kept chipping away and tied it at 95-95 on Michael Porter Jr’s basket with 1:15 remaining.

James put the Lakers up 99-97 with a driving layup but Murray tied it again with a step-back jumper with 30 seconds remaining.

After James missed a three-point attempt, Murray rose over Davis and connected on a fall-away jumper with four-tenths of a second left.

“I told my teammates when I was struggling, I’m gonna look for y’all,” Murray told broadcaster TNT. “And every single one of them told me to keep shooting, keep shooting.

“They just told me to stay aggressive and keep looking for it, keep hunting it. I had the ball with a few seconds left and I knew once I made a couple, the next one should go down as well.

“I just beat him to my spot and elevated, went through my shot,” he said. “I’m thankful enough that that was one of the few that went down for me.

It was a similar story in New York, where the Knicks took the lead over the Sixers for the first time in the third quarter.

Philadelphia’s NBA Most Valuable Player Joel Embiid was clearly hindered late by pain in his surgically repaired left knee, but the Sixers appeared to have regained control when Tyrese Maxey, fed by Embiid, made a three-pointer with 1:09 to play that put the Sixers up 100-96.

But Jalen Brunson’s three-pointer with 27.4 seconds left pulled the Knicks within two points and after Josh Hart came up with a steal, Donte DiVincenzo capped a chaotic possession with a three-pointer — after missing his first attempt — to put the Knicks up 102-101.

OG Anunoby sealed it at an ecstatic Madison Square Garden with a pair of free throws.

It was a crushing defeat for Philadelphia, who were up by five with less than a minute to play.

The 76ers were furious that officials failed to respond to their calls for a time-out in the critical seconds, Embiid adding a jab over missed foul calls.

“That’s unacceptable to put us in that situation,” Embiid said. “Everybody on the floor was trying to call time-out... but they didn’t give it to us.

“But forget about the time-out, there’s a bunch of fouls .... that’s unacceptable.

“We’re going to win this series,” he added. “We’re the better team and we’re going to keep fighting.”

Brunson finished with 24 points despite connecting on just eight of 29 shots from the field. He added eight rebounds and six assists and Hart added 21 points and 15 rebounds for New York.

The series shifts to Philadelphia on Thursday.

Maxey, who skipped the Sixers’ morning shoot-around because of illness, finished with 35 points, nine rebounds and 10 assists. Embiid added 34 points and 10 rebounds but missed a three-pointer at the final buzzer.

In Cleveland, the Cavaliers cruised to a 96-86 victory over the Orlando Magic, their second straight wire-to-wire victory giving them a 2-0 series lead.

Donovan Mitchell scored 23 points and Jarrett Allen added 16 points and 20 rebounds for the Cavs.

Paolo Banchero led Orlando’s scoring with 21 points and Franz Wagner added 18. The youthful Magic will be hoping to turn things around when the series shifts to Orlando.


Saudi Arabia lose to Iraq as both teams progress to quarterfinals of 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup

Updated 36 min 34 sec ago
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Saudi Arabia lose to Iraq as both teams progress to quarterfinals of 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup

  • The 2-1 reverse sees the Green Falcons finish second in Group C of tournament that is also a qualifying competition for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris

DOHA: Iraq defeated Saudi Arabia 2-1 on Monday night at Khalifa International Stadium in Al-Rayyan as both teams secured their spots in the last eight of the 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup.

Saudi Arabia entered the match as leaders of Group C with a maximum of six points from two matches. But the reverse sees them drop to second in the final standings, with Iraq — also on six points — taking top spot with a superior head-to-head record.

With three points apiece, Tajikistan and Thailand finished third and fourth respectively and were eliminated from the competition.

The tournament, which runs until May 3, provides a pathway to the men’s football competition at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.

Iraq took the lead one minute into first-half stoppage time through an Ali Jasim penalty but there was still time for Saudi Arabia to equalize nine minutes later with a spot kick converted by Ahmed Al-Ghamdi.

Iraq secured the win thanks to Mustafa Saadoun’s winner on 63 minutes.

Monday also saw the conclusion of Group B with South Korea beating Japan 1-0 and China overcoming the UAE 2-1.

South Korea and Japan had qualified from the group ahead of the final round of matches.

Tuesday will see the final round of Group D matches, with Uzbekistan and Vietnam already guaranteeing their progress to the last eight as they sit on six points apiece.

The tournament has 16 nations split into four groups, with the top two from each progressing to the quarterfinals. The winners of the two semifinals secure automatic qualification to the Olympic Games.

The two losing semifinalists will contest third place, with the winners also booking a place in Paris, while the fourth-place finishers have a final chance with a playoff against an African qualifier.


Stacked fight card set for PFL Europe Newcastle

Updated 23 April 2024
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Stacked fight card set for PFL Europe Newcastle

  • Path to Greatness’ event by Saudi Arabia-backed brand takes place June 8 at Utilita Arena with bantamweight and flyweights competing
  • Boxing world champion Savannah Marshall makes her PFL SmartCage debut in her hometown of Newcastle against Brazil’s Mirela Vargas

NEW YORK: The Professional Fighters League has announced a stacked card for its PFL Europe Newcastle event on June 8, featuring bantamweights and flyweights looking to secure spots in the playoffs this September.

 

The “Path to Greatness” event has prize money of $100,000.

 

Local hero Savannah Marshall makes her cage debut against Brazil’s Mirela Vargas.

 

Dan Hardy, head of fighter operations for PFL Europe, said: “We can’t wait to come back to Newcastle on June 8th, where PFL Europe officially launched in 2023. Our bantamweight and women’s flyweight rosters are packed with quality and represent the best that the elite European MMA scene has to offer. And with the Regular Season format all of these fighters know what’s at the end of the line — the European title, $100k and a pathway to our Global Season.

 

“But it wouldn’t be a PFL Europe event without a stacked evening of showcase bouts, and we have a great selection of future stars, simmering tensions and a local hero in Savannah Marshall making her MMA debut.”

 

Marshall has 10 victories by knockout as a boxer. She joins the deepest female combat sports roster in the world, which includes a familiar foe in Claressa Shields. Her first test in the cage comes in the form of Vargas, a three-fight professional.

 

With the winners progressing and the losers going home, the stakes could not be higher for the bantamweights. England’s highly regarded Scouser Dean Garnett (12-2-1), who is on a four-fight win streak, faces Belgium’s Ayton De Paepe (12-4) as both step into the PFL SmartCage for the first time.

 

Also at bantamweight, last year’s finalist, Ireland’s Frans Mlambo (15-6) looks to return to winning ways against Scotland’s “The Apocalypse” Luke Shanks (10-4). Meanwhile, returning champion Khurshed Kakhorov (12-1) defends his PFL Europe title against Georgian Kikadze Bondo (8-3-1) who dominated striking expert Dom Wooding last time out.

 

Rounding off the bantamweights, Alexander Luster (7-1), who has lit up the German MMA scene with all seven of his professional wins coming inside the first two rounds, faces Alperen Karabulut (10-3-0, 1 no-contest), the first Turkiye fighter to compete inside the PFL SmartCage.

 

In the women’s flyweight division, one of the most highly regarded female prospects in the world, Shanelle “The Nightmare” Dyer (4-0), will make her PFL Europe Season debut against Georgian submission specialist Mariam Torchinava (9-2). Also on the card Dyer’s bitter rival and viral sensation, Sammy-Jo Luxton (2-0), makes her long awaited PFL Europe debut versus the returning Dutch talent Lizzy Gevers (3-1).

 

Also competing in the flyweight division, 2023 finalist Valentina Scatizzi (2-2) from Italy will face France’s experienced 43-year-old Marie Loiseau (6-4), and Ireland’s Dee Begley (4-5) faces Poland’s Paulina Wisniewska (2-0).

 

There will be one additional welterweight fight, with Jack Grant (19-8) facing Charlie Leary (17-13-1), with a chance to proceed to the playoffs and join the semifinalists who were victorious in Paris.

 

The 2024 PFL Europe Season began last month with a sold-out show in Paris. After Newcastle, the action moves to Glasgow’s OVO Hydro on Sept. 28. The season will conclude at a venue to be announced later.

 

PFL Europe Newcastle Main Card:

 

Main Event: Savannah Marshall (debut) vs Mirela Vargas (1-2)

 

Lightweight Showcase Bout: Kane Mousah (14-6) vs Dylan Tuke (7-4)

 

Welterweight Season Bout: Jack Grant (19-8) vs Charlie Leary (17-13-1)

 

Bantamweight Season Bout: Dean Garnett (12-2-1) vs Ayton De Paepe (12-4)

 

Women’s Flyweight Season Bout: Shanelle Dyer (4-0) vs Mariam Torchinava (9-2)

Featherweight Showcase Bout: Ibragim Ibragimov (6-0) vs Josh Reed (13-8)

 

Bantamweight Season Bout: Frans Mlambo (15-6) vs Luke Shanks (10-4)

 

Women’s Flyweight Season Bout: Lizzy Gevers (3-1) vs Sammy-Jo Luxton (2-0)

 

Lightweight Showcase Bout: Mark Ewen (5-0) vs Mathias Poiron (7-1)

 

Bantamweight Season Bout: Khurshed Kakhorov (12-1) vs Bondo Kikadze (8-3-1)

 

Women’s Flyweight Season Bout: Valentina Scatizzi (2-2) vs Marie Loiseau (6-4)

 

Featherweight Showcase Bout: Ben Woolliss (2-0) vs Maher Belkhadir (1-1)

 

Bantamweight Bout: Alexander Luster (7-1) vs Alperen Karabulut (10-3-0, 1 NC)

 

Women’s Flyweight Bout: Dee Begley (4-5) vs Paulina Wisniewska (2-0)


New Al-Tai boss Ramos believes dream debut win could boost SPL relegation fight

Updated 23 April 2024
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New Al-Tai boss Ramos believes dream debut win could boost SPL relegation fight

  • Uruguayan coach, whose side travel to Al-Fayha on Thursday, achieved dramatic last-gasp win over fellow relegation battlers Al-Riyadh at the weekend

RIYADH: Leonardo Ramos, the new Al-Tai manager, believes the club’s victory in his debut match could be vital to secure Roshn Saudi League football next season.

Ramos oversaw a dramatic 2-1 win for the Hail club at 10-man Al-Riyadh on Friday in the capital courtesy of a Khalid Al-Shuwayyi own goal 12 minutes into injury time.

The win lifted Al-Tai, who had gone four games without victory prior to the Uruguayan’s arrival, out of the relegation zone and into 14th place in the 18-team league.

“I know that every player in the team needs to bring his best abilities on the field, so the reason for my presence is my experience in ensuring this happens,” Ramos said. “Certainly, the ultimate goal is to play with greater performances and to improve the level and position of the club in the table. The win benefits this.

“The league is definitely approaching the end faster than I would have liked, but I think we can help the players a lot,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of games before I came here, and game by game we’ll have more vision. We were so happy because this was our first game together — and we are happy to have improved our position in the table. We have gone up in the table and that’s important.”

Al-Tai’s opener on Friday night at the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium in Riyadh came from Bernard Mensah in first-half injury time. Al-Riyadh saw Abdullah Al-Khairbari red-carded just after the interval but equalized through Abdulhadi Al-Harajin. This came before Al-Shuwayyi watched in horror as a cross ball trundled into the net off his shoulder deep into stoppage time.

Ramos, 54, who earned eight caps for his country as a player, previously managed Al-Ettifaq in Saudi Arabian football in 2018 and was most recently in charge of Montevideo City Torque in his home country. He replaced Romanian national Laurentiu Reghecampf as Al-Tai manager.

Next up for Ramos and Al-Tai is a trip to Al-Fayha on Thursday, with kickoff at 6 p.m. The club then conclude their campaign with matches versus Al-Khaleej, Al-Raed, Al-Fateh, Al-Hilal and a final-day-of-the-season clash with fellow relegation battlers Al-Okhdood.

The Roshn Saudi League bottom five spots has Al-Hazem last on 16 points, followed by Al-Okhdood on 24, Abha and Al-Riyadh on 25 — with the former in the drop zone due to a considerably inferior goal difference — and then Al-Tai on 26 points. With the standings so tight, Ramos knows exactly what is needed now.

“For sure we need to continue working on improving performances,” the Uruguayan said. “I believe we played an outstanding match (against Al-Riyadh), although there were times that we lacked the rhythm, team spirit, and overall performance. Most of the time, we played on the sides and at the back, and we did not move progressively enough towards the opponent’s goal.

“However, we showed determination and desire to win, and we made some changes in the second half of the match to improve the result and achieve the victory, which we succeeded in at the end. I am very happy to work with the players, and the club overall, and achieving the victory was a great result.”

 


Spanish women among top Laureus winners and Djokovic is world sportsman of the year

Updated 23 April 2024
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Spanish women among top Laureus winners and Djokovic is world sportsman of the year

  • Laureus rewarded Spain as the first all-female team to win the team award
  • American gymnast Simone Biles was given the comeback of the year award

MADRID: Spain’s first Women’s World Cup triumph last year earned two more major plaudits at the Laureus World Sports Awards on Monday.

Spain were chosen world team of the year for 2023 and midfielder Aitana Bonmatí was picked as the best sportswoman.

Novak Djokovic received the sportsman of the year at the ceremony in Madrid, and American gymnast Simone Biles was given the comeback of the year award.

Real Madrid forward Jude Bellingham earned the breakthrough prize, and Rafael Nadal won the sport for good award thanks to his foundation.

The Spanish women’s World Cup breakthrough last August in New Zealand and Australia was tarnished in the following weeks because of an unwanted kiss of forward Jenni Hermoso by then-federation president Luis Rubiales after the final.

Laureus rewarded Spain as the first all-female team to win the team award.

Before the World Cup, Bonmati also helped Barcelona win a second Women’s Champions League. She’s the first female soccer player to win the Laureus, after also receiving the Ballon d’Or and FIFA best player award.

“I want to thank all my teammates and the staff of my club and national team who have helped me a lot, and because of them I am here today,” Bonmati said.

Djokovic won his record-equalling fifth Laureus sportsman award — tying Roger Federer — after titles at the Australian Open, French Open and US Open to reach a record 24 Grand Slam singles triumphs. NFL great Tom Brady presented Djokovic the award.

Biles made a record-breaking return to competition last year when she won four gold medals at the world championships, including a record sixth all-around title.

Nadal’s foundation was rewarded for helping more than “1,000 vulnerable young people in Spain and India,” according to Laureus.

Teenager Arisa Trew won the action sportsperson award after becoming the first female skateboarder to land a 720 in competition.

Dutch wheelchair player Diede de Groot was selected as the sportsperson of the year with a disability after winning her third straight calendar tennis Grand Slam.