European experience will benefit Saudi’s Future Falcons, say Valencia bosses

Valencia's famed academy has over the years produced the likes of Raul Albiol, David Silva, Isco, Jordi Alba, Paco Alcacer and Ferran Torres. (AN Photo)
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Updated 14 June 2024

European experience will benefit Saudi’s Future Falcons, say Valencia bosses

  • La Liga club’s Technical Director Miguel Angel Corona and academy Director Luis Martinez spoke to Arab News about the Spanish Super Cup in Riyadh, developing Saudi talent and Valencia’s football methodology

VALENCIA: In January 2023, La Liga club Valencia, as the previous season’s Copa del Rey runner-up, participated in the Spanish Super Cup in Riyadh.

A fine performance against Real Madrid in the first semifinal at King Fahd International Stadium saw them earn a 1-1 draw in normal time before exiting after a 4-3 penalty shootout.

It was a chance for Saudi Arabia audiences to watch up close one of Spain’s more successful clubs of the 21st century.

“It was a great experience, of course,” Valencia Technical Director Miguel Angel Corona said, during Arab News’ visit to the club’s academy. “No doubt, the environment was amazing and exciting. Of course our opponent was Real Madrid, so that had an effect. But yes, I appreciated the (support) of the Saudi people.”

Valencia’s mission goes deeper than the annual cup competition, however, and aligns with La Liga’s ambitions to grow its brand in the Middle East and beyond.

Corona says the club is in the middle of a long-term rebuilding process.

“We have passed a very difficult situation in terms of finances, and we have an amazing young team,” said Corona. “We have a coach (former Valencia player Ruben Barja) that understands perfectly the environment, the club. And bit by bit, we are rebuilding this amazing club, because for the last two, three years it was very difficult.”

La Liga fans of a certain age in the Middle East will remember the club’s glorious period at the start of the century, when Valencia, first under Hector Cuper and then Rafael Benitez, reached two Champions League finals, won two league titles (2001/2002 and 2003/2004) and a UEFA Cup (2003/2004).

Corona is now hoping to attract a new generation of supporters.

“In the Premier League, they have Mohamed Salah, they used to have Riyad Mahrez, many players from Algeria, from Morocco, from Tunisia,” he said. “But they (also) love La Liga and we are well aware of that.

“Our social media indicators are very interesting,” said Corona. “We (have) fans in MENA (Middle East and North Africa), Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and also in Saudi, with the Valencia CF fan group we have there. We feel the love and we want to attract more fans, to bring the club even closer to these fans.”

A few months on from last year’s Spanish Super Cup adventure in Riyadh, Valencia were involved in a lesser-known tournament back home that is perhaps no less important for the long-term ties with — and development of — Saudi Arabia football.

Organized in partnership with Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Sport, the Al-Abtal International Cup, an international under-19 tournament, had two teams from the Kingdom compete against clubs from England, France, Portugal, Greece, Belgium, Austria and Croatia at several Spanish venues.

Valencia reached the final and lost to Real Madrid, but earlier in the group stages they had faced the two teams that Saudi Arabia had entered, the “Green” and “White” Future Falcons teams.

The head of the VCF Academy, Luis Martinez, describes the Future Falcons initiative — which has resulted in the Saudi Arabian Football Federation also host under-14 tournaments — as a “great idea.”

“I think that will help to increase their level for sure,” he said, referencing the development of young Saudi Arabia talent. “Because at the end, you increase the level of competitiveness.”

“We have played three years in the tournament,” Martinez added. “The first year (2021), we won the tournament. Second year (2022), we were beaten in semifinals. And last year, we played the final in Prague (against Real Madrid). This year, logistically, we couldn’t participate.”

“The level is good,” he added, but cautioned that Saudi Arabia players may need more experience to compete against established teams from Europe.

“It’s true that the level of the competition that they wanted to create is very high, (but) sometimes you see that they are maybe still not ready to compete at that level.

“Because in the end, they are inviting Valencia, Real Madrid, Villarreal, Zagreb, Liverpool, Benfica, or Lisbon. Those teams are top in Europe. To reach that level is complicated for anyone. For us, for anyone. (But) I think, if they (Saudi Arabia teams) continue like this, the level will go up.”

There are signs that at lower age-group levels, Saudi Arabia’s players are increasingly more competitive. In 2022, a team from the Mahd Academy played against Valencia and Villarreal during a trip to Spain.

And Martinez’s age-group teams have also come up against young Saudi Arabia teams on visits to the Kingdom. In March this year, Valencia took part in the first La Liga FC Futures U-14 tournament held at the Mahd Sports Academy in Riyadh, which was won by Villarreal.

“We played the team from the Mahd Academy and at that age, 14 years old, the level was great,” said Martinez. “They were competing and they were performing well.

“So I think the level is going up, I think in Saudi in general they are investing in football. Of course they are investing a lot in professional football with the big stars, but if they keep investing as well in football development with good professionals, with good structures, methodology, the level must go higher.”

Martinez believes that many players from the Middle East and North Africa region are blessed with natural skills that are gained from being allowed to play with freedom at a young age. Street football, he calls it.

“A lot of players from maybe Morocco and Middle East and Africa, they have the skills, but maybe not the tactical awareness,” he said. “The funny thing is, maybe we, in Spain or south Europe, historically were the source of this kind of talent, players who play in the street, and I think we are destroying this a bit.”

“Right now players in Spain, the kids they don’t play in the streets. So maybe we are losing these type of players that are very technical because they are very anarchic. That’s why we have to go and find them in those countries.”

For Martinez, it is all about finding the right balance between technical skill and tactical awareness. To achieve this, he points to the methodology used at the Valencia CF Academy, which was voted the fourth best in Europe in 2023.

Raul Albiol, David Silva, Isco, Jordi Alba, Paco Alcacer and Ferran Torres are just a few players who have risen through the Valencia ranks to become global superstars.

“The main objective is written at the main door of the academy,” said Martinez.

“It’s developing players for the first team, or if they are not able to play for the first team, at least to place them in professional football. It seems easy, or it seems like something everybody would understand. You are an academy, you develop players for the first team. But it’s not that easy.”

A tactical methodology is implemented throughout the club, from the youngest age group to the first team, ensuring players rising through the ranks will fit into the various teams as they progress.

However, the main challenge for Martinez is how to balance individual talent with maintaining a competitive, winning culture for the team.

“You need to put the focus on developing players, and not as much in just developing teams and making winning teams,” Martinez said. “So that’s, for us, is the key focus. Finding the right people, coaches and rest of the staff, who understand that we are here to develop players.”

“The goal is always developing players (first). The teams that we use are, let’s say, tools to develop those players. This is in opposition to professional football, because at the end, in professional football, your goal is the team, to bring success, to win trophies, to win the league, to go to the Champions League.”

One of the academy’s main targets is to ensure players continue their education as a part of a holistic approach to developing individuals off the pitch.

The club has only one team in each of the under 16, 17 and 19 age groups, as well as the B team. The academy is also home to a 40-bed dormitory for the players, where they are provided with all their needs.

“If you have good players, you have good facilities, good coaches, normally the consequence of all this would be winning. But it shouldn’t be the focus of the situation. The focus of the situation should be developing players.”

Amr Zedan clinches Royal Charity Polo Cup 2024 at Windsor

Updated 13 July 2024

Amr Zedan clinches Royal Charity Polo Cup 2024 at Windsor

  • Saudi Polo Federation’s President Amr Zedan wins for second time in row
  • Zedan participated in the US Polo Assn team, which was led by Prince William

LONDON: The US Polo Assn team, led by the Prince of Wales, Prince William, and with the participation of the Saudi Polo Federation’s President Amr Zedan, have won the Royal Charity Polo Cup 2024.
It was Zedan’s second triumph in a row in the competition, which was held at the Guards Polo Club fields in Windsor, London, with the Japanese company Out-Sourcing Inc sponsoring the tournament.
The US Polo Assn team were crowned after drawing with the Malaysian team BP 4-4 and surpassing them on goal difference in the championship rounds.
Alongside Prince William and Zedan in the attack were Ayawat Srivaddhanaprabha, the CEO of King Power, representing Thailand, and Mark Tomlinson, representing the UK. Khaled Al-Ajmi, a board member of the SPF, and Faisal bin Dwaid, the federation’s CEO, were also present.
Zedan’s participation helped in furthering the SPF’s role in local and international social responsibility, while helping it toward its goals through participation and support in social events.
British media reports said that Prince William had taken part in the polo match to help raise more than $1.5 million for his charities. According to the UK’s royal family website, the funds raised by the match will be distributed across 11 charities and causes supported by Prince William and the Princess of Wales.

Saudi’s Hattan Alsaif fights for women’s place in Mideast MMA, continues winning start

Updated 12 July 2024

Saudi’s Hattan Alsaif fights for women’s place in Mideast MMA, continues winning start

  • At PFL MENA 2 on Friday night, 22-year-old beat Egypt’s Iman Baraka at Riyadh’s Green Halls
  • Alsaif made winning debut in the Professional Fighters League against Egypt’s Nada Faheem in May

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Hattan Alsaif is fighting to prove that women deserve their place in the world of combat sports.

The 22-year-old Muay Thai striker recently made history by becoming the first female from the Kingdom to be recruited by a major mixed martial arts organization when she joined the Professional Fighters League.

In May, Alsaif made her highly-anticipated debut during the inaugural season of PFL MENA. She knocked out Egypt’s Nada Faheem by head kick in the second round, much to the delight of fans in Riyadh.

On Friday, she continued her winning start to her MMA career by beating Egypt’s Iman Baraka at Riyadh’s Green Halls.

Alsaif hopes to inspire other Saudi Arabia women to take up the sport.

“Combat sports isn’t exclusive to men anymore,” Alsaif said. “It’s open to both sexes.”

Alsaif has some big names in her corner, namely fellow Saudi Arabian fighter Abdullah Al-Qahtani, who is currently the Kingdom’s biggest MMA star.

“He supports me, he helps me develop my game, and he gave me a lot of motivation after my first PFL win,” Alsaif said of Al-Qahtani.

Alsaif said she does not feel pressure when fighting, but rather a determination to succeed.

“Winning my last fight wasn’t pressure, it was validation,” she explained. At PFL MENA 2 this weekend, she steps back into the cage to take on another Egyptian fighter.

“It showed my preparation was perfect, and now I’m even more confident facing Iman Baraka,” she said.

Alsaif said she enjoyed fighting in her hometown. “The energy of the Saudi fans after my first win was incredible. It fueled my training and showed me I was on the right track.”

“I saw the love and support from the fans after my victory, and it made me even hungrier to win again. I’m ready to step into the cage and prove myself,” she added.

“The last fight was a great victory, but now my focus is on Iman Baraka. I’m not dwelling on the past, I’m training for the challenge ahead.”

Team Falcons soar to victory, claim Call of Duty crown at Esports World Cup

Saudi Team Falcons crowned at Esports World Cup's week 1. supplied
Updated 07 July 2024

Team Falcons soar to victory, claim Call of Duty crown at Esports World Cup

  • Their triumph marked the inaugural win of the tournament, setting a high bar for the competition
  • The Esports World Cup, running from July 3-Aug. 25, features 22 tournaments across 21 game titles

Riyadh: Saudi Arabia’s Team Falcons soared to victory in a historic moment for the nation’s esports scene, claiming the Call of Duty: Warzone championship at the Esports World Cup held in Boulevard Riyadh City.

The local favorites, comprising Shifty, Soka and Biffle, clinched the grand final with a commanding performance, securing a prize of $200,000. Their triumph marked the inaugural win of the tournament, setting a high bar for the competition.

The SEF Arena witnessed intense battles among 10 top-tier teams, culminating in Team Falcons’ decisive victory. Reflecting on their victory, Soka expressed gratitude to the passionate Saudi fans whose unwavering support fueled their success. The electrifying atmosphere and vocal encouragement from the crowd played a pivotal role, boosting the team’s morale throughout the competition.

Biffle echoed these sentiments, highlighting the energy of the home crowd that propelled them to greatness. The team’s dominance was evident from the early stages, having swept through the group stages with flawless victories.

Their success was a culmination of rigorous preparation and strong team chemistry, as acknowledged by Shifty. He stressed their commitment to excellence and the unparalleled bond among the trio, attributing their confidence and resilience to the fervent support of Saudi fans.

The Esports World Cup, running from July 3-Aug. 25, features 22 tournaments across 21 game titles. As the first week concludes with thrilling matchups in Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, League of Legends and Dota 2, Team Falcons’ triumph stands as a testament to Saudi Arabia’s growing influence in the global esports arena.

Saudi national football team to face UAE at West Asian Youth Championship final

Updated 04 July 2024

Saudi national football team to face UAE at West Asian Youth Championship final

RIYADH: The Saudi national football team has qualified for the final match of the Arab Diar Championship for West Asian U-19 teams, organized by the West Asian Football Federation and hosted by the Taif Governorate, Saudi Arabia, state news agency SPA reported on Thursday.

The semifinal matches were held on Wednesday, where the Saudi national team defeated its Syrian opposition with a score of 2-0, while the UAE defeated Jordan 2-1.

The final match is scheduled to be held next Friday at the King Fahd Sports City Stadium in the Taif Governorate at 9 p.m.

‘Exponentially larger’ World Cup in Riyadh to elevate Esports to new heights, says tournament CEO

Ralf Reichert, CEO of the Esports World Cup Foundation. AN video
Updated 27 June 2024

‘Exponentially larger’ World Cup in Riyadh to elevate Esports to new heights, says tournament CEO

  • 8-week tournament a ‘leap forward’ for global gaming, organizers say
  • ‘Unprecedented’ broadcasting network will ensure expanded global coverage

Riyadh: In a significant leap for the global gaming industry, Riyadh is set to host the Esports World Cup, which promises new levels of competition and cultural exchange.

Building on the success of previous events such as Gamers8, the new tournament aims to elevate esports to new heights.

Arab News interviewed Ralf Reichert, CEO of the Esports World Cup Foundation, ahead of the event to explore the global impact of the tournament on the gaming industry and beyond.

“We don’t want to be just another competition. Our goal is to leapfrog the industry and bring it together on a scale never seen before,” he said.

“With 22 competitions and 21 games, this is not just twice as big as anything before — it’s exponentially larger.”

Reichert highlighted Riyadh’s strategic location as a bridge between the West and the Middle East, creating a unique opportunity to unite gamers from both regions.

The eight-week event will celebrate the sport and its culture, pushing the entire industry forward, he said.

The CEO said there is a clear vision for the tournament, but executing it on this scale was daunting.

“Time was our biggest enemy,” he said. Despite this, strong support from publishers, a comprehensive qualification strategy, and numerous broadcasting partnerships have been secured.

“If you haven’t heard about it yet, our job is to make sure you do,” he added, emphasizing their commitment to broadening the event’s reach.

The response to the tournament has been overwhelmingly positive, with significant interest from broadcasting and media partners.

“We initially aimed for 15 games, but we’re starting with 21, featuring the best games in the world,” Reichert said.

Global esports supporters have rallied behind the event, resulting in more than 50 broadcasting partners worldwide.

“We’ve built an unprecedented broadcasting network, ensuring true global coverage from companies across the US, India, Africa, South America, Korea, and China.”

Reichert also discussed the thriving gaming culture in Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East.

“About 67 percent of the Saudi population identifies as gamers. Gaming is a core cultural pillar here,” though the world may not fully realize this yet, he said.

The region’s young population and leadership are highly supportive of gaming, backed by initiatives such as Vision 2030, and the national gaming and esports strategy. 

Saudi Arabia has already produced several gaming champions, and the CEO sees the Esports World Cup as a catalyst for nurturing more local talent.

“This tournament is a chance for fans to see the best gamers live and for aspiring players to envision themselves on these stages,” he said.

The event aims to inspire young gamers to pursue their dreams of becoming national and even global stars, helping to further popularize esports worldwide.

In a message to gaming fans, the CEO encouraged everyone in the region to attend the event. 

“You’ll witness the best sport in the world played live and experience fantastic gaming, esports, and cultural entertainment. This is more than just a tournament— it’s a fanfest. We call it the Esports World Cup Festival, a historic moment you don’t want to miss. If you can’t be there in person, make sure to tune in online.”