Why Al-Shabab’s Ivan Rakitic is ‘the happiest guy in the world playing football’

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Ivan Rakitic says he has embraced his new life in Riyadh since joining Al-Shabab in January. (X/@AlShabab_EN)
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Ivan Rakitic and Al-Shabab teammate Yannick Carrasco. (X/@AlShabab_EN)
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Ivan Rakitic on the ball for Al-Shabab. (X/@AlShabab_EN)
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Ivan Rakitic during Saudi Foundation Day. (X/@AlShabab_EN)
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Updated 05 April 2024
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Why Al-Shabab’s Ivan Rakitic is ‘the happiest guy in the world playing football’

  • Ex-Barcelona midfielder tells Arab News he wants to ‘win everything’ with struggling Saudi Pro League giants Al-Shabab
  • Former Croatia international would love to work with his great admirer Jose Mourinho in the Kingdom

LONDON: Jose Mourinho once called Ivan Rakitic, who joined struggling Saudi Pro League giants Al-Shabab in January, “fantastic” and “one of the most underrated players in the world.”
The rich praise from The Special One underscores what a significant coup Al-Shabab achieved in luring the former Croatia and Barcelona midfielder from La Liga side Sevilla.
Like Mourinho, Rakitic, 36, is a serial winner, having claimed 16 major honors in his illustrious career.
But he arrived in Saudi Arabia to find the six-time Pro League champions in dire need of revitalization, after the dismissal of two managers during a tumultuous campaign.
Despite Al-Shabab’s 11th place in the league, Rakitic, in an exclusive interview with Arab News, expressed supreme optimism about inspiring a resurgence.
“(During) our first training session after the break, the first thing the coach (Vitor Pereira) said to me was: ‘Ivan, you’re so happy all the time’,” a beaming Rakitic said over Zoom. “I told him: ‘Why not? It’s one life. We don’t have another one.’
“I’m the happiest guy in the world playing football.”
Rakitic’s relentless positivity and ferocious competitive spirit, honed alongside luminaries such as Lionel Messi and Luka Modric for club and country, will surely galvanize Al-Shabab.
“The most important part, as I (said) when I arrived, is bringing a winning mentality. I just told the guys: ‘Sorry if sometimes I get angry, but I want to win everything all the time. If you’re traveling and playing something on the iPad, I will try to win. If you play short games in a training session, if I have to kick you, sorry, I have to kick you because I want to win this game’.”
His great admirer, Mourinho, would heartily approve of such pugnacity in the quest for success.
The admiration is mutual. Rakitic revealed he hugged Mourinho at the Anthony Joshua-Francis Ngannou fight in March. He would be delighted to see the Portuguese maestro move to the Kingdom — an increasingly likely prospect.
Mourinho was heavily linked with Al-Shabab’s managerial vacancy in January following his dismissal from AS Roma. He has said he will “definitely” work in Saudi Arabia.
“I’ve been really proud of my career, but if I could have the opportunity to work with Jose Mourinho, it (would be) an amazing step in my career,” Rakitic, who has moved to Saudi Arabia with his wife Raquel and daughters Althea (10) and Adara (8), said. “My respect for him is truly amazing. I think that we are very similar.
“We want to win everything. We want to be at the top in all that we do.
“He’s one of the best coaches in the history of football. Hopefully, in the future, we can have this opportunity to work together or to be closer to each other.”
Rakitic had not anticipated following world-renowned footballers, including his former Barcelona teammate Neymar, in taking the well-trodden path to the Pro League.
After earning legendary status through 323 appearances in two separate stints, he had intended to remain at his second home, Sevilla.
“If somebody (said to) me three or four months ago that I will be here in Riyadh and have an interview with you, I would say you were crazy. This is not possible,” said Rakitic, who won the Europa League twice with Sevilla and 13 trophies — including the 2015 Champions League (he scored in the 3-1 win over Juventus in the final) — in a glittering spell with Barcelona between 2014 and 2020.
“Everything changed when I had my first meeting with (Al-Shabab) President Mohammed (Al-Munajam). To hear about his vision, what he wanted to create with Al-Shabab, where he wanted to reach in this league, was amazing.”
After becoming president in September, Al-Munajam promised a bountiful new era for the third most successful Saudi Pro League team.
Sacking Rakitic’s fellow Croat Igor Biscan as manager in December was certainly not part of his master plan.
Biscan’s wretched reign, yielding only three wins in 11 matches, was at least longer than Dutchman Marcel Keizer’s 40-day tenure between July and September.
Portugal’s Pereira, who won two league titles with Porto in an impressive managerial career that has included successful spells in Greece and China, has the task of reviving Al-Shabab’s fortunes.
Three wins in seven matches (before Saturday’s trip to Al-Tai) after the winter break may not have represented the renaissance he desired.
But Rakitic, who scored with a scorching strike from outside the box on his debut in the 1-0 win at Damac, is convinced that brighter days are ahead.
With him marshaling the midfield, the redoubtable former Wolves player Romain Saiss at center-back, and the ex-Atletico Madrid winger Yannick Carrasco providing attacking guile, that appears eminently possible.
“We would like to be close to the PIF teams (Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli, Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal, who are majority-owned by the Saudi Public Investment Fund), but I think now first of all we have to think about going step by step. Every game is like a final for us.
“We have to be higher in the table. This is really clear.
“(We have) amazing players and an amazing new coach. We have to (achieve) big results together working really hard, and then finish as high as possible.”
Al-Nassr superstar Cristiano Ronaldo said that the Pro League could rival the top leagues globally and was already superior to France’s Ligue 1.
Rakitic, who reached the 2018 World Cup final with Croatia, said it was “maybe too fast” to make such a judgment — but he has witnessed the huge growth potential.
He said that “many talented players” in the Kingdom could benefit from playing for “big teams in big leagues” in Europe.
Rakitic’s Al-Shabab contract runs until only the summer of 2025.
However, he is sure “my president will come soon to me to try to give me a new contract.”
Until then, he is determined to savor every day in the Kingdom.
He is excited about the country’s Vision 2030 project, which he endorsed by choosing Al-Shabab’s squad number 30.
His adviser told Arab News that Rakitic was eager to immerse himself in Saudi Arabia’s culture and values after reading extensively about them when traveling to the Kingdom.
He said that Rakitic, “a very, very cool guy,” preferred to go to traditional restaurants than fancy ones to sample the true flavor of the country. Rakitic, who wore the national dress for Saudi Founding Day on Feb. 22, has also enjoyed visiting the historic town of Diriyah. Born in Switzerland to Croatian parents and with 106 caps for his adopted country before his international retirement in 2020, Rakitic speaks effusively about his new home.
“I really want to recommend to everybody to visit because it’s an amazing country with amazing people. To have this opportunity, hopefully when we get much older, to say: ‘Look, they reached (Vision 2030) but everything started with me. I was there to give a hand and (achieved) something amazing.’
“That’s why I am so happy (here).”


Joy for Jesus as Al-Hilal complete Saudi Pro League campaign unbeaten

Updated 5 min 6 sec ago
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Joy for Jesus as Al-Hilal complete Saudi Pro League campaign unbeaten

  • New champions beat A-Wehda 2-1 on the final day of the 2023-24 season

RIYADH: Al-Hilal’s coach, Jorge Jesus, on Monday night expressed his joy after his title-winning team beat Al-Wehda 2-1 to end the 2023-24 Saudi Pro League season without a loss.

Jesus said he is enjoying the best days of his career with the Riyadh giants.

Mohammed Kanno gave Al-Hilal a 19th-minute lead, with the home team equalizing in the 77th minute through fellow Saudi international Yahya Al-Najei. But Aleksandar Mitrovic scored in stoppage time to ensure a final-day win for the “Invincibles.”

“We were keen to end our last match in the league with a victory to preserve this exceptional league season, during which we broke records after gaining 96 points, achieved the largest victory in a single match, and we also finished the league without a loss,” Jesus said.

“I experienced many happy moments during my career with the clubs I coached, but my happiness with Al-Hilal is more than wonderful, especially in this exceptional season,” he concluded.


Top Saudi clubs expanding into community-building programs

Updated 15 min 52 sec ago
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Top Saudi clubs expanding into community-building programs

  • Al-Hilal FC, Al-Nassr, Ittihad and Ahli are leading the push in corporate social responsibility

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development announced this month the launch of its first Corporate Social Responsibility Awards 2024, marking a new age of sustainable development and community involvement in the Kingdom.

The CSR initiative recognizes and inspires private-sector firms corresponding to Saudi Vision 2030’s social responsibility objectives. It promotes local initiatives to implement international standards, encourage competition, and set exemplary corporate practices.
Saudi Arabia’s sports clubs, traditionally focused on sports, entertainment, and culture, are now expanding to include community-building programs. The CSR Awards 2024 will focus on these efforts, recognizing initiatives that promote social development and local progress outside of sports.
Teams including Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr, Ittihad and Ahli are leading the push in CSR. They are making significant progress in youth development, health promotion, and environmental sustainability. From grassroots football programs for poor children to scholarships for promising young players from disadvantaged backgrounds, these efforts are consistent with Vision 2030’s emphasis on economic diversification and social transformation.
Furthermore, European and Asian examples demonstrate how sports clubs advocate sustainability programs with broad reach and impact. Forest Green Rovers of England is the world’s first UN-certified carbon-neutral football team. Their environmentally friendly methods, such as an organic pitch and solar-powered facilities, have spurred others to pursue greener strategies.

FC Bayern Munich in Germany exemplifies how clubs may incorporate sustainability into their operations, with efforts such as the Allianz Arena’s energy-efficient architecture and recycling programs setting a high bar for environmental care.
Japan’s Kashima Antlers have introduced innovative sustainability techniques, such as rainwater harvesting and LED lighting systems, to reduce their environmental imprint in Asia.

Also, China’s Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao FC has conducted large tree-planting projects to help with reforestation and ecological conservation.
The ministry hopes to develop a culture in which social impact is synonymous with financial success, resulting in a more socially responsible economic landscape in Saudi Arabia.
The award criteria include community engagement, environmental sustainability, and ethical governance, emphasizing the organizational benefit of CSR activities. Sports clubs, as role models for other businesses, have a unique power to promote social ideals and effect constructive change.
Furthermore, communication and social media are essential in promoting CSR efforts, raising awareness, and mobilizing support. Platforms such as X, Instagram, and Facebook let clubs promote their sustainability efforts, communicate with followers, and increase their impact, resulting in a more inclusive and sustainable future.
With good communication, CSR programs in sports teams can indirectly enhance profitability by improving brand recognition, increasing fan engagement, attracting sponsorship, and lowering costs through energy efficiency and regulatory compliance.

All while offering access to funds and grants, these additional financial resources can help the club’s operations and allow for more investment in CSR efforts, promoting long-term sustainability.
Embracing Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia’s sports clubs are helping to reshape the country and pave the road for a more socially responsible and sustainable society.

These clubs demonstrate sports’ transformative ability to generate positive social change through their persistent dedication to CSR activities. As they continue on this journey, they will inspire others and set new standards for CSR excellence, paving the way for future generations.


‘Happy’ Ronaldo confirms SPL top scorer award as he looks ahead to King’s Cup final

Updated 17 min 43 sec ago
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‘Happy’ Ronaldo confirms SPL top scorer award as he looks ahead to King’s Cup final

  • Two goals in 4-2 win over Ittihad takes Al-Nassr captain to 35 league goals for the season
  • It is the sixth time in Ronaldo’s career that he has finished a league campaign as top scorer

RIYADH: Al-Nassr captain Cristiano Ronaldo on Monday night notched a brace in the 4-2 win over Al-Ittihad in Riyadh to close out the 2023-24 Saudi Pro League season with 35 goals and clinch the top scorer award.

Ronaldo opened the scoring is stoppage time of the first half and doubled the lead in the 69th minute. Al-Nassr’s other goals came from Abdulrahman Ghareeb (penalty, 79) and Meshari Al-Nemer (95), while Al-Ittihad’s goals came from Farhah Al-Shamrani (88) and Fabinho (92).

 

 

Ronaldo’s final tally broke the previous record held by Abderrazak Hamdallah, who scored 34 for Al-Nassr in 2018-19, and was also the sixth time in the Portuguese legend’s career that he has finished a domestic league season as top scorer.

Before joining the Yellows in January 2023, Ronaldo had finished top scorer in league campaigns for Sporting Lisbon in his native Portugal, Manchester United in the English Premier League, three times for Real Madrid in Spain and once with Juventus in Italy.

“I am very happy to end the season with a victory, as well as with my record, which I was not expecting, but it is very important in my career,” Ronaldo said after the win over the Tigers.

“We finished the league well, and now our goal is to win the King’s Cup, and I expect the team to give its best to achieve the title.”


Ronaldo sets Saudi Pro League season scoring record while Al-Hilal finishes unbeaten

Updated 28 May 2024
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Ronaldo sets Saudi Pro League season scoring record while Al-Hilal finishes unbeaten

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia: Cristiano Ronaldo finished the Saudi Pro League by setting the season goal-scoring record on Monday.
Ronaldo scored twice in Riyadh as Al-Nassr defeated Al-Ittihad 4-2 and lifted his league tally to 35, one more than the record in 2019 by Abderrazak Hamdallah.
In the final seconds of the first half, Ronaldo, who had already had two goals ruled out for offside, chested down a long pass from Mohammed Al-Fatil and opened the scoring with a low shot from the left side of the area.
With 21 minutes remaining, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner celebrated wildly after heading home a corner from Marcelo Brozovic. He was substituted off the field five minutes later to a standing ovation from the home fans.
It ended an action-packed season for Ronaldo, who scored four hat tricks and collected one red card. He was also suspended for an obscene gesture in February at Al-Shabab fans who had been chanting the name of Lionel Messi, Ronaldo’s longstanding soccer rival.
Al-Nassr finished second in the league, 14 points behind local rival Al-Hilal, which won the championship more than two weeks ago and completed the 34-round league unbeaten on Monday.
Al-Hilal was too strong even without Neymar, who joined the club in August from Paris Saint-Germain but suffered a season-ending ACL injury in October.
Aleksandar Mitrovic stepped in and ended the season with a goal in the final seconds to clinch a 2-1 win over Al-Wehda. The Serbian striker, signed from London club Fulham last summer, reached 27 league goals, second only to Ronaldo.
On its way to the title, Al-Hilal went on a 34-game winning streak in all competitions, a new world record for a top tier team.
“This season has been truly exceptional for the team, arguably our best ever,” coach Jorge Jesus said. “The credit goes to the immense talent within the squad and the incredible sense of unity that transcends both on and off-field interactions.”
Al-Ittihad’s defeat at Al-Nassr ended a disappointing season for the defending champion. Karim Benzema, signed from Real Madrid, struggled with injuries and even with N’Golo Kante and Fabinho in midfield, signed from Chelsea and Liverpool respectively, the team from Jeddah could manage only fifth place.
Poor results cost Nuno Santo his job as coach in November, and the Portuguese tactician returned to the English Premier League a month later to take over Nottingham Forest.
Al-Ahli, the fourth of the ‘Big Four’ clubs taken over by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund last June, finished third, 17 points behind Al-Nassr. Al-Ahli beat Al-Fayha 1-0 thanks to a late goal — his ninth of the season — from former Liverpool forward Roberto Firmino.
Ronaldo took the headlines, however, and the 39-year-old still had one more chance to end the season with a trophy when Al-Nassr meets Al-Hilal in the King’s Cup final on Friday.


‘Truly exceptional’: Jorge Jesus hails Al-Hilal players as champions lift Roshn Saudi League trophy in glitzy ceremony

Updated 26 May 2024
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‘Truly exceptional’: Jorge Jesus hails Al-Hilal players as champions lift Roshn Saudi League trophy in glitzy ceremony

  • Club can secure an invincible league season if they avoid defeat at Al-Wehda on Monday
  • Al-Hilal beat Al-Tai 3-1 on Thursday through Salem Al-Dawsari, Michael and Malcom goals

RIYADH: After newly crowned Roshn Saudi League champions Al-Hilal lifted the league trophy in a stunning ceremony at Kingdom Arena on Friday night, manager Jorge Jesus says the season may be the best ever in the 66-year history of the club.

Unbeaten domestically this season, Al-Hilal — who created world history by winning 34 matches in succession between September and April across all competitions — clinched the title with three games to spare. The champions are 14 points ahead of second-placed Al-Nassr.

An invincible league season will be secured for the Saudi Super Cup winners if they avoid defeat in their final match at Al-Wehda on Monday. The King’s Cup final against Al-Nassr concludes Al-Hilal’s campaign.

Jesus said: “This season has been truly exceptional for the team — arguably our best ever. The credit goes to the immense talent within the squad and the incredible sense of unity that transcends both on and off-field interactions. We’re currently vying for three local trophies this season. We’ve already secured two and are determined to win the last one.”

Al-Hilal’s latest victory saw them beat Al-Tai 3-1 on Thursday thanks to first-half goals from Salem Al-Dawsari and Michael, and a goal on the hour mark from Malcom. Andrei Cordea netted a consolation strike for Al-Tai.