MENA Sports Wrap: Saudi clubs splurge on more big names
Saudi teams have mostly enticed experienced and out-of-contract football legends, with Cristiano Ronaldo, 38, and Karim Benzema, 35 two of the biggest names so far.
Al-Ittihad have gone against the grain with the signing of Jota from Celtic. At 24, he is a comparative minnow, compared to most foreign signings so far, while the Jeddah side broke with convention by coughing up a transfer fee for the Portuguese forward who is still contracted at Celtic.
Saudi Arabia has also made further advances in tennis, opening up the possibility of an ATP tour in the kingdom, while in Zimbabwe, Oman and UAE cricketers have battled for a place in the ODI World Cup to be held in India later this year.
Steven Gerrard sails into the Saudi Pro League
Gerrard had previously rejected interest from the Dammam-based club, before a surprise announcement was made on Monday of the Liverpool legend's return to coaching.
Gerrard addressed Al-Ettifaq fans in less than impeccable Arabic: "Marhaba, ana Steven Gerrard. Ana Ettifaqy. See you soon."
The hashtag #GerrardEttifaqi began to trend shortly after. Some cracked jokes at Gerrard's "Scouse Arabic", while Saudi football fans largely welcomed the gesture.
Building on the legendary status of Gerrard, Al-Ettifaq's social media team parodied the intimidating "This is Liverpool" sign that hangs above the players' entrance to Anfield - the home of Liverpool FC - with an animated video.
In it, a hand - intended to be Gerrard's - is raised to touch the Al-Ettifaq crest in the players' tunnel, a gesture Liverpool players do before stepping onto the pitch. There is no word if Al-Ettifaq plan to mimic this at the Prince Mohamed bin Fahd Stadium in Dammam.
الهوى شرقي 😌 pic.twitter.com/jiBvBKvEaZ— نادي الاتفاق (@Ettifaq) July 3, 2023
Like other big signings in Saudi Arabia, Al-Ettifaq's PR team has been keen to harness on the status of Gerrard and Liverpool with a series of videos and graphics on their socials.
In another video posted by Al-Ettifaq, the club played on the Merseybeat culture of Liverpool, which like Dammam is a proud port city.
Gerrard might also use his Liverpool connections to woo former teammates to Al-Ettifaq with Reds captain Jordan Henderson linked to the club and who, at 33, would be a prime target for the Saudi Pro League which is awash with European players in the winters of their careers.
Already Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, and Roberto Firmino have made the move to the kingdom with many more linked to Saudi clubs.
Murray's backed-handed compliment for Saudi Arabia
While football has dominated sports headlines in Saudi Arabia, Riyadh is also making in-roads into tennis. The Public Investment Fund (PIF) - the entity financing Riyadh's entry into sports - is reportedly in talks with tennis authorities about hosting an ATP tour.
Arguably the greatest tennis player of all-time, Novak Djokovic, addressed the issue of the sport in Saudi Arabia following criticism of the kingdom’s human rights record.
"I think personally was just question of time when they were to start some kind of negotiations or conversations in tennis to try to enter tennis," he told journalists.
"They've done that with pretty much all other global sports, except maybe basketball. We see what's happening in football for the last few years, the stars that are going there for tremendous amounts of money."
The issue of sports stars playing in the kingdom has become a huge political hot potato in Europe with former Wimbledon winner Andy Murray hot and cold about playing in the kingdom.
He had previously rejected a multi-million dollar offer to play in Saudi Arabia, but last week he appeared to warm to the idea.
"In the past when we were asked to go and play there, we were asked to go and play exhibition tournaments," said Murray.
"If they become major tournaments on the tour, it becomes a slightly different question and it's a difficult one. It would be based on how the tour and the rankings work, how important they are to get into other events. When you start missing them, you obviously get penalised for that."
An ATP tour in Saudi Arabia would be a major coup for Riyadh, which is looking to build its brand in the world of sports. With Wimbledon attracting around 81 million viewers, it would be another way to promote the kingdom internationally, as seen with the slick Visit Saudi commercials that dominate prime time Sky Sports slots.
Saudi Arabia has also been keen to promote the sport at home with teenager Yara Al-Hogbani among the kingdom's biggest hopes in tennis.
Oman falls at the last wicket
Oman made cricketing history last week with their first win against a test team, defeating Ireland in the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe. Despite a defeat to Scotland in the last match of the group stage, Oman progressed to the knock-outs with earlier wins against Ireland and the UAE.
From there, Oman struggled, coming bottom of the Super Six but competing against cricket heavyweights - such as Sri Lanka, the Netherlands, and the West Indies - reaching this stage was no mean feat and the sultanate was commended for their dogged performance in the tournament.
Emerging Cricket, a blog dedicated to promoting global cricket, praised Oman in their narrow defeat to the Netherlands.
"There have been few easy games in this tournament, and this was certainly not one of them, as the Omanis for quite a while made a very good fist of chasing an imposing target of 364 after another outstanding batting display from the Dutch," the blog wrote.
Oman’s ranking of 24th in the world will likely get a boost from their coup in Zimbabwe and help promote the sport in the sultanate, where the majority of the national team - such as captain Zeeshan Maqsood - are foreign born.
MENA Sports Wrap is a round-up of the week's sporting action in the Middle East published every Friday.
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