JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia’s coastal city of Jeddah was buzzing with excitement yet again on Saturday ahead of one of the biggest boxing rematches in sporting history, between Ukrainian Oleksandr Usyk and British fighter Anthony Joshua.
Such scenes of anticipation are increasingly familiar in Saudi Arabia, as more and more international sporting events are hosted by the Kingdom — a product of the country’s wide-ranging social and economic transformation plan, Vision 2030.
Last September, Usyk shocked the boxing world when he outclassed Joshua in the first bout, claiming his fourth heavyweight title. Owing to the war in Ukraine, their planned rematch could not take place in the champion’s home country.
Instead the bout, titled “Rage on the Red Sea,” came to Jeddah.
One of the goals of Vision 2030, launched in 2016, was to establish the Kingdom as a regional hub for world-class professional sporting events that would generate jobs for Saudi citizens and enhance overall quality of life.
Today, sports are taking center stage in the Kingdom’s diversification drive to move the economy away from hydrocarbons and to embrace a whole host of flourishing cultural, entrepreneurial and high-tech industries.
In just a few short years, Saudi Arabia has moved to the forefront, hosting some of the biggest sporting events in the world, providing an additional boost for tourism, hospitality, leisure, and employment, while also strengthening national identity.
Tourism is one area Saudi Arabia is especially eager to promote with the launch of its Saudi e-visa in 2018. The Kingdom expects to have hosted 100 million tourists by 2030, drawn by a mixture of new luxury resorts and a packed entertainment calendar.
Hosting major sporting events has created new opportunities for partnerships, investments, and sponsorships at every stage in the value chain, while also demonstrating Saudi Arabia’s diversity, inclusivity, and economic potential to a broader international audience.
From the silky smooth tarmac of the Formula E track to the epic routes of the Dakar desert race, and the Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City to the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah, the Kingdom’s sports entertainment infrastructure has improved leaps and bounds.
Saudi Arabia’s successful bid to host the 2034 Asian Games is further proof of the sector’s long-term strategic trajectory — one that is bound up in its overall national development.
In 2018, the Kingdom witnessed a flurry of major sporting events, tournaments, and championships. That year, Britain’s Callum Smith beat compatriot George Groves in Jeddah to win the WBA super-middleweight title and the World Boxing Super Series crown.
The 2018 Ad Diriyah E-Prix was also one for the books, as the championship was staged in the historic town of Diriyah, the capital of the first Saudi state.
Since then, Saudi Arabia has hosted the Supercoppa Italiana, the expanded Supercopa de Espana, golf’s Saudi International and the $20 million Saudi Cup — the world’s richest horse race.
It has also hosted the Saudi International Championship for Parachuting, the “Clash on the Dunes” between Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr., the Diriyah Tennis Cup, and the Battle of the Champions BMX and skateboarding tournament, to name just a few.
Although Saudi Arabia’s entertainment revolution suffered setbacks in 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, with events suspended, venues closed, and international travel barred for several months, the entertainment calendar soon returned with a bang.
In 2021, the Kingdom inaugurated its crowning glory — the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix — firmly establishing itself as a leading venue for international sports events.
Built in just eight months, the high-speed circuit on Jeddah’s seafront became the fastest F1 track to have ever been constructed.
The Kingdom has now set its sights on hosting the AFC Women’s Asian Cup in 2026 and the Asian Winter Games in Saudi Arabia’s planned megacity of NEOM in 2029.
A recent Ernst & Young report found that the value of the sporting events industry in Saudi Arabia is growing 8 percent annually, rising from $2.1 billion in 2018 to an estimated $3.3 billion by 2024.
The contribution of sport to national GDP grew from $2.4 billion in 2016 to $6.9 billion in 2019 as the number of international events in Saudi Arabia doubled from nine in 2018 to 19 in 2019.
Of course, the economic dividends are not the only signals of success. The Kingdom’s young athletes have clocked up significant victories, which the whole nation can rightly feel proud of.
Last year, Saudi Arabia’s Tarek Hamdi won silver in karate at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Then, earlier this year, Fayik Abdi became the first Saudi to participate in the Winter Olympics, held in Beijing.
Having performed well in its fifth FIFA World Cup appearance in Russia in 2018, the Saudi national team qualified for the this winter’s finals in March this year.
Another positive knock-on effect of the growth of sports entertainment has been a general uptake in health and fitness activities among the Saudi population.
A new survey by Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Statistics has revealed that 48.2 percent of people across the country now practice physical and sporting activities for at least 30 minutes a week.
This demonstrates a key milestone in creating a healthy, vibrant society in line with Vision 2030’s Quality of Life Objectives.
Another pillar of the Vision 2030 reform agenda has been to transform the role of women. Saudi Arabia has developed several strategies to include women in sports, including the establishment of a 24-team Women’s Football League in 2020 and the launch of the first Women’s Regional Football League the following year.
Indeed, according to the Saudi Ministry of Sports, female participation in sports has increased by almost 150 percent since 2015.
“By participating in athletic events, women achieve so much more,” Hala Al-Hamrani, founder of the first female boxing gym in Saudi Arabia, told Arab News. “Tonight’s boxing event is a big deal, but I’m going mainly to watch the first two female undercards in Saudi Arabia.”
On said undercard, a major moment for women’s boxing will see Somali-British prospect Ramla Ali become the first female boxer to feature in an official international event in Saudi Arabia, clashing with Crystal Garcia Nova over an eight-round super-bantamweight contest.
“I think that is a huge step forward because it’s sending a message to the public that the government supports women competing in combat sports, which will in return allow families that were once reluctant to allow their girls to join in classes or different martial arts competitions to reconsider their position,” said Al-Hamrani.
Such events “help dissipate the idea that women shouldn’t box,” she added.
“The undercard and the government’s support is a big deal, showing that women’s involvement in the sport in any way is no longer taboo.”
PARIS: Erling Haaland scored an acrobatic late winner against his old club as Manchester City beat Borussia Dortmund 2-1 in the Champions League on Wednesday, while there were hard-earned victories for Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain.
Meanwhile, Chelsea were held by Red Bull Salzburg in their first match under new head coach Graham Potter, as Rangers lost heavily again and Celtic drew with Shakhtar Donetsk.
In Manchester, Haaland took on the club he left in the close season for €60 million ($60m, £52m) after two and a half prolific years in the Bundesliga.
Yet it looked like Dortmund might spring a surprise as they went ahead just before the hour mark at the Etihad Stadium when England midfielder Jude Bellingham headed in.
City’s equalizer did not come until Kevin De Bruyne set up John Stones to smash in with 10 minutes left, and Haaland got the winner in the 84th minute with an outrageous finish from Joao Cancelo’s magnificent cross.
Haaland now has 13 goals in nine games for City, who have two wins from two in Group G.
“In the end we showed what we are,” Haaland told BT Sport. “Dortmund were really good today (but) three points is what matters.”
City’s next two games will be against FC Copenhagen, who drew 0-0 with Sevilla in Denmark.
In London, Potter took charge of Chelsea for the first time but had to settle for a 1-1 draw against Salzburg in Group E, with Raheem Sterling’s opener early in the second half being canceled out by Noah Okafor.
“It has not been easy for the boys, they have responded to us really well over the last few days and it’s a point we will have to take and get better,” Potter told BT Sport.
Earlier, group rivals AC Milan beat Dinamo Zagreb 3-1 at San Siro, with Olivier Giroud scoring a penalty before Alexis Saelemaekers and Tommaso Pobega added further goals either side of a Mislav Orsic strike for Dinamo.
Reigning European champions Madrid needed two late goals to beat RB Leipzig 2-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu and maintain their perfect start in Group F.
Federico Valverde opened the scoring 10 minutes from time after being set up by Vinicius Junior, and substitute Marco Asensio sealed the victory with a tremendous first-time finish in injury time.
Carlo Ancelotti’s side are clear at the top of the section from Shakhtar, who rode their luck to claim a 1-1 draw with Celtic.
The Scottish champions went ahead early on when Reo Hatate’s ball into the six-yard box went into the net off Artem Bondarenko.
But Shakhtar, playing European home games in Warsaw due to the war in Ukraine, equalized before the half-hour mark via an emphatic finish by Mykhailo Mudryk.
Celtic had chances to win the game, none better than a late strike by Giorgos Giakoumakis that flashed agonizingly wide.
“We’ll get our rewards if we keep playing that kind of football and showing that kind of commitment,” said Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou.
At least they have a point, in stark contrast to rivals Rangers who lost 3-0 at home to Napoli in Group A.
In a dramatic second half, Rangers had American defender James Sands sent off for conceding a penalty which Piotr Zielinski had saved, only for Matteo Politano to score the rebound.
However, the referee ordered a retake, and Allan McGregor saved from Zielinski again.
Yet Napoli won another penalty midway through the second half, and this time Politano scored from the spot, before Giacomo Raspadori and Tanguy Ndombele added further goals.
The game had been postponed by 24 hours due to policing issues related to the death of Queen Elizabeth II, and Rangers ignored a decision by UEFA to reject their request to play the British national anthem before kick-off.
Paris Saint-Germain came from behind to beat Maccabi Haifa 3-1 in Israel as their superstar front three all scored.
Suriname international Tjaronn Chery put the home side ahead only for Lionel Messi to equalize before the break.
Messi then set up Kylian Mbappe to make it 2-1 midway through the second half, and Neymar sealed a second win in as many Group H games for PSG.
Juventus suffered a second straight defeat, though, as they lost 2-1 at home to Benfica.
Arkadiusz Milik’s opener for Juve was canceled out by Joao Mario’s penalty, before David Neres struck Benfica’s winner.
PARIS: French officials said Wednesday that soccer star Paul Pogba’s brother was in police custody along with four other people as part of an investigation into alleged efforts to extort millions of euros from the World Cup winner and Juventus midfielder.
Mathias Pogba came to see Paris police about the probe Wednesday afternoon and was held for questioning, according to an official close to the investigation.
He is among four people put under police custody Tuesday and Wednesday as part of the investigation, the official said. The official was not authorized to be publicly named discussing the ongoing investigation.
Mathias Pogba has denied taking part in extortion attempts against his brother. Mathias Pogba’s lawyer Richard Arbib said in a statement last week that his client wants “more than anything else” to ease the situation with his brother.
The Paris prosecutor’s office opened an investigation last month into allegations that Paul Pogba — who scored one of France’s goals in the 2018 World Cup final — was the target of an extortion plot by his brother and childhood friends demanding 13 million euros ($13 million) from him.
The case became public after Mathias Pogba threatened to share “explosive revelations” about his brother and France star Kylian Mbappe.
Mathias Pogba had a modest soccer career as a forward with lower-tier teams in England and other European countries.
MILAN: AC Milan moved top of Champions League Group E on Wednesday after a routine 3-1 win over Dinamo Zagreb.
Olivier Giroud’s penalty on the stroke of half-time and further goals from Alexis Saelemaekers and Tommaso Pobega were enough for Milan to leapfrog Dinamo into first place on four points.
Stefano Pioli’s side are three points ahead of Salzburg in third, before their match at bottom side Chelsea later on Wednesday, following their first home win in Europe’s top competition in nine years.
Milan are seven-time European champions but have only returned to the top table in recent seasons after years in the doldrums.
Mario Balotelli was playing up front and Massimiliano Allegri was coach when Milan beat Celtic in September 2013 but now the ‘Rossoneri’ appear firmly back in the big time.
Dinamo tried to frustrate Milan in a similar way to how they dealt with Chelsea in their opening day win in Croatia and Ante Cacic’s side did a good job in holding off the Italian champions until Josip Sutalo brought down Rafael Leao in the 43rd minute.
Giroud stepped up to the penalty spot and netted his fourth goal of the season, giving Milan the lead and opening up what had been a tight match.
Saelemaekers appeared to have broken Dinamo’s resistance two minutes after the restart by heading home Leao’s cross.
But nine minutes later the away side gave the match new life through Mislav Orsic, who rifled in a powerful finish from Bruno Petkovic’s delightful flicked assist.
Milan were not rattled though and sealed the points with a nicely-worked goal with 13 minutes remaining.
Theo Hernandez got to the byline before pulling back an inviting pass from which Italy international Pobega crashed in his first Milan goal off the underside of the bar.
It was a first ever goal in the Champions League for Pobega, who came through Milan’s youth system and is now back with his boyhood club after four years on loan at a series of Italian clubs.
PARIS: Eintracht Frankfurt have been charged with several offenses including “racist behavior” by UEFA after the German club’s Champions League win away to Marseille on Tuesday was marred by incidents.
The charges come after Marseille’s police prefecture said it had informed UEFA that some visiting fans “performed Nazi salutes in the away section” during the game.
Frankfurt were also charged for the “throwing of objects” by their supporters, who were accused of setting off fireworks as well as other “acts of damage” around the game at Marseille’s Velodrome stadium.
The home side were charged with a series of similar offenses including crowd disturbances as the French club lost the Group D encounter 1-0.
“Disciplinary proceedings have been instigated in accordance with Article 55 of the UEFA Disciplinary Regulations,” a UEFA statement said.
“The UEFA disciplinary bodies will decide on the matter in due course.”
One German supporter was injured and 17 people were arrested on the sidelines of the game, according to authorities in the Bouches-du-Rhone department of southern France which includes Marseille.
Around one thousand police officers had been mobilized for the game which came just five days after a Europa Conference League match between Nice and German side Cologne was marred by trouble which left four people hospitalized.
During Tuesday’s match, one German supporter was hurt by a flare thrown from the stands and taken to hospital, police said.
BARCELONA: Barcelona showed against Bayern Munich on Tuesday that the worst may be behind for them but have not yet managed to pull level with football’s elite in the quest for the Champions League glory.
Julian Nagelsmann’s Bundesliga champions rode their luck at the Allianz Arena in the first half but improved after the break to dispatch a spirited, but ultimately frustrated, Barcelona 2-0 with goals from Lucas Hernandez and Leroy Sane.
The Catalans last won the Champions League in 2015, beating Bayern in the semifinals on the way to their triumph in Berlin, but have now suffered five consecutive defeats against the Bavarians.
Last season Barca, reeling from the departure of Lionel Messi, were twice defeated comprehensively by Bayern, contributing to a humiliating group stage exit.
The previous season they suffered a brutal 8-2 dissection at the hands of the Bavarians which demonstrated how far they had fallen from the game’s summit.
In Munich on Tuesday Barcelona had the better of the first half, with former Bayern striker Robert Lewandowski spurning a handful of opportunities on his return to Germany, but two goals in a five-minute second-half salvo whisked the game away from them.
“We will take the positives and even though it was a negative result, we can learn from the errors,” said Barcelona coach Xavi Hernández.
“It’s a step back. We did enough to draw, if not to win. A defeat is not deserved, but we made mistakes in the two boxes.”
Lewandowski blasted over and had a close-range header parried away by Manuel Neuer in the first half, before dallying on the ball in the box when he might have squeezed off a shot first-time.
La Liga’s top scorer seemed unusually indecisive in front of goal on his return to the Allianz Arena, the scene of so many of his successes over the past eight seasons before his summer switch to Camp Nou.
“When we talk about competing, we’re talking about doing it at a corner, or in a transition,” said Xavi, referring to defensive errors for Bayern’s two goals.
“It’s also about efficiency. You get in front of the goalkeeper and you should score.
“We did not score despite having seven clear chances, we have to put them away. I am angry but proud.”
Barcelona midfielder Pedri was also denied by the impeccable Neuer when well placed and hit the post with another good opportunity.
“In the first half we had a lot of chances but if you don’t take them against teams like this, you end up paying,” he added.
At the other end, Marcos Alonso failed to track Hernandez at a corner for the opening goal, while Sane glided away from him and the rest of Barcelona’s defense for the second goal without facing a robust challenge at any point.
“We can say that we were better, but it’s about winning,” Xavi. “The first came from a corner and the second from not stopping a counter-attack, we have to do that.
“They are a fully-fledged team, while we are at the beginning. We have to improve in both boxes.”