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MENA Sports Wrap: Ronaldo plays in hyped-up Iran-Saudi clash

MENA Sports Wrap: Ronaldo plays in hyped-up Iran-Saudi clash
5 min read
01 December, 2023
MENA Sports Wrap: Arab teams played off in the penultimate round of the AFC group stages.
It's been another action-packed week in the world of MENA sports [Getty/TNA]

The AFC Champions League is hotting up, with just one game to go and teams across Asia hoping to reach the knock-out stages.

One of the hottest games in the penultimate round of group games was Saudi Arabia's Al-Nassr v Iran's Persepolis in Riyadh.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has expanded into the world of tennis, hosting its first-ever international tennis tournament.

Iran's Hossein Vafaei has predicted a snooker revolution in the MENA region, as he reaches the quarter-final stages of the UK Championship.

Saudi v Iran AFC Champions League drama

This week saw the penultimate round of matches in the AFC Champions League group stages, with Al-Nassr hosting Persepolis in Riyadh.

Al-Nassr entered the game as firm favourites, sitting atop Group E with four wins in four, and the Iranian side Persepolis languishing in second place with seven points.

With stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Sadio Mane up front for the Riyadh side, fans expected goals galore from the Al-Nassr side, but there wasn't.

The visitors fought the Saudi side to a gruelling 0-0 draw with Ronaldo hitting just wide of the nets and Persepolis having more of the chances in the game.

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While the game guaranteed Al-Nassr went through, the result meant more for the Tehrani team

"It's surely a very hard game for us. It was important for us to win the game with three teams taking second spot to qualify," defender Giorgi Gvelesiani said, according to Al Jazeera.

"But playing here in Saudi and against Ronaldo, it is very tough. It was an amazing atmosphere. They were down to 10 men, which made it easier for us. We had our chances. We didn’t play badly, but we could have played better."

A win against Qatari side Al-Duhail on Tuesday is essential if Persepolis wants to take one of the three runners-up places needed to proceed to the next round.

Tennis in Saudi

The first-ever international tennis tournament in Saudi Arabia began on Tuesday, as Jeddah hosted the first round of the Next Gen ATP Finals taking place between 28 November 28 and 2 December.

The tournament is a men’s exhibition tour for under-21 professional players, held annually.

The competition’s top seed, Frenchman Arthur Fils, became the first player to win a match on Saudi soil.

The 19-year-old and his opponent, Italian Luca Nardi, made history in the opening session to become the first ATP Tour players to compete in Saudi Arabia.

Other players Flavio Cobolli, Luca Van Assche, and Hamad Medjedovic followed suit with wins in the first day’s play at King Abdullah Sports City.

The tournament comes as the Gulf country continues to position itself as a global leader in hosting entertainment, sports, and other events as a means to diversify its oil-dependent economic revenue, in line with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030.

In an interview Fils said: "I believe it's a prime location, offering a new sport to the country. Consequently, I anticipate a significant turnout of fans who will come to watch and understand this sport."

Jordan "tennis prodigy" Abdullah Shelbayh also competed in the tournament but lost out to Serbia's Hamad Medjedovic in the group stage.

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Shelbayh, who has been described as a protege of Rafael Nadal, is the highest-ranked Arab male tennis player and the first Jordanian to attain ATP world ranking.

Before his match, he urged locals to come out in droves to support him.

"In the tournament, I think I’ll need the support from the Arab world during the week," the 20-year-old said according to Arab News.

"I’ll be depending on them, honestly. It’ll be very special for me to see Arab fans watch me play there.

"In most countries in the Arab world, tennis is not as developed a sport, but for me as a Jordanian, as an Arab as well, to be playing in such a special event is an honor. It's a great way for me to show to the world - the Arab world and the whole world — that we can have talent and special players from our region."

Another player, fellow French national Lucas Van Assche, expressed enthusiasm for playing in Saudi Arabia, saying it was an opportunity to allow him to be introduced to a part of the world he has yet to explore.

The players said that the tournament - which is usually held in the Italian city of Milan - could bring more interest to the sport in Saudi Arabia and the region, much like football recently did with the financial boost for the Saudi Pro League.

Despite the holding of several international events and the signing of high-profile sports stars in recent years, Saudi Arabia has been accused of “sportswashing” in a bid to draw away attention from issues such as human rights abuses.

Snooker 'revolution' in the Middle East?

Meanwhile, Iranian snooker player Hossein Vafaei has hopes the sport will see an explosion in popularity as the world number 18 continues a phenomenal run in the UK Championship.

Vafaei beat Mathew Selt in the last 16 on Thursday 6-1, seeing the win as an opportunity for more people from his native Iran and elsewhere to take an interest in the sport.

"It would be amazing. If I go all the way, it is good for the game, it is good for snooker in the Middle East, it is good for all of the players and the snooker market," he said.

"Something would happen after I won, and you would have the Dubai Open, Saudi Open and Qatar Open. It is going to happen soon I’m sure."

Vafaei faces tough competition in the quarter-finals on Friday as he plays China's Zhang Anda in York, with people across the MENA region hoping for success for the Iranian snooker ace.