Green Falcons resume training in Portugal in preparation for 2023 … – Arab News
LAGOS, PORTUGAL: The Saudi national football team resumed their training on Saturday in the southern Portuguese city of Lagos as part of their preparation for the 2023 Asia Cup, which kicks off in January.
The current training camp will run until Oct. 17 and is part of the Green Falcons’ third preparatory program for the tournament, according to a media statement.
Saturday’s training including a 60-minute match against a local team from Albufeira. Coach Roberto Mancini picked a team featuring players who had not participated — or had little playing time — in the friendly against Nigeria on Friday, which ended in a 2-2 draw.
The remainder of the squad took part in recovery exercises at the health club.
Left back Zakariah Hawsawi continued his individual training with medical staff as he recovers from injury.
The Green Falcons will resume training on Sunday behind closed doors.
Have you heard the one about the Saudi Arabian businesswoman and US Mexican expat who built a women’s football club in Saudi Arabia?
No, it is not the punchline to a bad joke, but instead an inspiring story of ambition, sisterhood and family.
Maram Al-Butairi, a successful Saudi businesswoman, and Karina Chapa, a long-time expat from Houston, are officially the president and vice-president, respectively, of Shulat Alsharqia FC, or Eastern Flames, the Dammam-based club in the eight-team Saudi Women’s Premier League.
Unofficially, however, they are so much more.
Name a role within the club and you can bet they have done it; from filling the water bottles and preparing the kits, to holding babies and feeding the players. All the while they were also coaching, organizing tournaments and building the club and its strategy. All in a day’s work for this pioneering duo.
Single-handedly, they have transformed the club from its origins as recreational pursuit to the professional club it is today; with youth and futsal teams, and a fully professional structure.
“We’re not an amateur club anymore,” said licensed coach Al-Butairi, who has a bachelor’s degree in finance and recently completed her MBA in Spain, which included an internship with the Spanish football federation.
“We were able to transform a team that met with random girls playing, to a team that competes internationally. Because back then we didn’t have anything locally, and slowly but surely (we’ve) become the leading team in the Eastern Province.
“It’s a professional club now with around 50 employees, whether they’re players, staff or coaches.”
Their shared passion has built a powerful force, and an even more powerful bond between the two.
Al-Butairi and Chapa may come from worlds apart, but to witness the strength of their bond is to witness the power of football to bring people together. Sisterhood does not feel strong enough. Family is how they describe it.
“Everyone knows her in my family,” Al-Butairi said of Chapa. “And I think I know most of her family. My kids call her auntie and I think she’s more than an auntie.
“You were there when I met my husband,” Chapa added with a laugh. “It really is something a little bit more powerful than sisterhood.
“As an expat, you find all different kinds of expats. I’m the type that I want to know and connect (with) where I am. From learning the language, being part of families … as (Maram) said, her family has adopted me years ago, right at the very beginning.”
It is a relationship that was formed from the moment they both joined Eastern Flames which, as fate would have it, was on exactly the same day way back in September 2013.
“My journey here in Saudi Arabia, I really wanted to connect with the the Arab culture,” Chapa, a former school principal, said.
“I had to find opportunities to (connect) and that was the link through Flames. When we started off in 2013, Maram and I connected (straight away).”
Back then, the landscape for women’s football in Saudi Arabia looked vastly different to what it does 10 years on with a professional league consisting of eight teams — soon to grow to 10 — and a rapidly developing second tier with as many as 30 clubs.
“(Women’s) football in Saudi Arabia was there but very low profile,” Al-Butairi said.
“I’m very happy that the vision came and allowed, or I wouldn’t say allowed because it wasn’t prohibited, it was just not organized. You know, it was simply not organized.
“As soon as the the (Saudi Arabian) Football Federation opened up (applications), immediately they had a league and first division with 30 clubs. No one can make that up. It just means that it was there, it just was not organized. That’s it.”
Al-Butairi is a self-confessed dreamer, which partly explains why she earned the nickname “Little Beast.”
She told Arab News: “I got it because it was never scared of anything, and I’d say I was never scared of my dreams.
“Karina calls me the dreamer, and I always dream big, and it’s always scary. But if it doesn’t scare you, it’s not big enough. That’s what I always say to myself.”
The dreams she and Chapa had for Eastern Flames, and women’s football in Saudi Arabia more broadly, are playing out in front of their very eyes.
“As Maram said, she’s a dreamer and I always said, ‘OK, you dream, you strategize. My part of my profession is to execute’.
“Even though friends or family would say, ‘what are you all doing? Why are you working this hard?’ That vision was always there, and in 2015 Saudi people thought we were crazy. ‘What do you mean, pro? Come on, like, let it go’.”
But they could not let it go. How could they? They had poured their hearts and soul into creating something special. This is a club for women, by women, as Al-Butairi said.
“Being females and understanding what females need, and being a mom, I have a 14-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son, I understand what being a mom means.
“I say if you have a big family, that’s what you get when you join (Shulat). You come with your whole self, your family, if you have a husband, you have kids, whatever you have, you come and we take you, all of you, and we become part of that.
“I think that’s one of the things that is unique about us, because we understand what it is to be a female with the challenges.”
With the second season of the Saudi Women’s Premier League beginning this weekend, Shulat are looking to build on last season when they finished above only relegated Sama, with just two wins from 14 matches.
Spaniard David Cabildo has been tasked with spearheading the new campaign, while there are a host of impressive foreign signings, among them US-born Pakistan captain, Maria Khan, experienced Nigerian goalkeeper, Tochukwu Oluehi, who was part of the Super Falcons squad at the recent Women’s World Cup, former Blackburn defender, Erica Cunningham, and Tanzanian international, Enekia Lunyamila.
First up for Shulat is a huge test at home against an Al-Ittihad side featuring an exciting array of foreign talent, including English-born Ashleigh Plumptre, who was a teammate of Oluehi with Nigeria at the Women’s World Cup, former Liverpool defender Leighanne Robe, and Moroccan Women’s World Cup star Salma Amani.
Whatever the result, Al-Butairi and Chapa will be there, as they always are, wearing multiple hats championing women’s football in Saudi Arabia. It is the only way they know.
Champions Al-Nassr have kicked off their defense of the Saudi Women’s Premier League with a comprehensive 6-0 win over Al-Riyadh on Friday night.
Algeria’s Lina Boussaha was the star of the show as she notched up an opening-day hat-trick with strikes in the 14th and 43rd minutes, before adding the third inside first-half stoppage time.
The other goals came from Dalal Al-Shafii (24), Maysaa Ziad (53) and Mubarkah Al-Sayari (57).
In the day’s other match, last season’s runner-up Al-Hilal played out a 0-0 draw with hosts Al-Qadisiyah in Al-Khobar.
Saturday sees Eastern Flames host Al-Ittihad at Dammam’s Al-Nahda Club Stadium while Al-Ahli welcome Al-Shabab to Jeddah.
PORTIMAO, Portugal: Saudi Arabia ended their six-game losing streak in dramatic fashion on Friday as they secured a 2-2 draw with Nigeria in the 100th minute of their friendly in Portugal.
Mohamed Kanno’s late, late free-kick provided an exciting end to an entertaining game. The Green Falcons had held their own throughout, and kept going to the final seconds before bagging their reward. 
Salman Al-Faraj’s free-kick broke the deadlock on the hour but Victor Boniface equalized with 17 minutes remaining. Kelechi Iheanacho then scored what looked to have been a fine winner, with nine minutes remaining, before Kanno’s timely intervention.
Coach Roberto Mancini, who was appointed in August, will be relieved that he did not have to face the media to explain a seventh successive defeat for Saudi, and a third in three since he took over. 
Nigeria were on top in the first half and Mohammed Al-Owais began a busy evening early on, getting down well to push a shot from Boniface to safety.
The Bayer Leverkusen forward was dangerous once more just before the 20-minute mark but Al-Owais dealt with the low shot comfortably once again, and was also relieved when Victor Osimhen shot over from close range.
Saudi Arabia were still very much in the game and a few minutes before the break they fashioned the best chance of the half. Fahad Al-Muwallad, brought back into the starting lineup by the Italian boss, burst into the area and, with just the goalkeeper to beat, stretched for the shot and Francis Uzoho saved.
The African team should have taken the lead on the stroke of halftime but Ademola Lookman shot just wide while in a one-on-one situation.
Saudi Arabia looked a little more dangerous after the break and scored on the hour, although it came out of nowhere. Al-Faraj took a free-kick and the looping ball deceived Uzoho who palmed the ball into his own net. Nigeria were stunned.
They were almost two down shortly after. Substitute Saleh Al-Shehri pulled the ball back for Abdullah Al-Hamdan and the forward’s low shot looked destined for the back of the net before it was smartly blocked.
Saudi Arabia felt they should have had a penalty with 20 minutes remaining as Semi Ajayi seemed to handle a Salem Al-Dawsari pass but, despite a check from VAR, the kick was not awarded.
It was 1-1 three minutes later. Boniface had missed a couple of chances but made no mistake after getting to the near post to guide a low left-sided cross from Moses Simon into the net.
Nigeria took the lead with nine minutes left. Al-Hamdan’s misdirected ball fell to Iheanacho and the forward, who has been in fine scoring form for Leicester City, curled home a delightful shot from the edge of the area.
Another legitimate claim for a Saudi penalty was ignored before Kanno’s late free-kick salvaged the draw. The losing streak had finally ended and Mancini will be encouraged.
Attention now turns to Mali on Tuesday, a final warm-up for November’s 2026 World Cup qualifiers.
RIYADH: The Saudi Women’s Premier League Powered by Lay’s makes its highly anticipated return tonight as the 2023/24 season kicks off with the first round of opening fixtures.
Top players, rising talents, and some of Saudi Arabia’s biggest clubs will be trying to make a big impact in what promises to be another groundbreaking year in the history of the Kingdom’s women footballers.
The Saudi Arabian Football Federation’s vice president Lamia Bahaian said: “We’re thrilled that the Women’s Premier League is finally back, and we cannot wait for the action to get underway.
“Last season was just the start of a massive evolution in the professional women’s game here in Saudi Arabia, and this time around the league will be even bigger and better.
“We believe 2023/24 will usher in an exciting new era for the domestic women’s game.”
Eight teams are competing in the Saudi top flight, with two-legged fixtures over 14 game weeks.
Fans will be captivated and new generations of females inspired by the thrilling schedule of matches.
All games will be shown domestically on the Saudi Sports Channel, with large crowds also expected given increasing audience interest and the league’s rising profile and popularity.
The remarkable recent growth of the women’s game across the Kingdom is the direct impact of recent developments at professional level, including a vibrant summer window in which many of the Women’s Premier League clubs strengthened their squads, with regional and international players joining homegrown talent.
Reigning champions Al-Nassr get their title defense underway tonight in a home fixture against Al-Riyadh at Al-Nassr FC Stadium.
It marks Al-Riyadh’s first appearance in the Saudi top flight after earning promotion as First Division champions.
Al-Nassr’s captain Munira Al-Hamdan insists that while the competition will be tough, the players are optimistic about their chances again this time around.
She said: “When you’re champions each fixture is even more difficult because the opposition raise their game and have even more incentive to win. We want to win the league again this year.”
Runners-up Al-Hilal are gearing up for an away clash against Al-Qadsiah in Khobar. Al-Hilal missed out on the title by a mere three points last season and the team hope to go one better this time around.
Their captain Albandry Alhawsawwi said: “We’ve approached this season’s preparation with a fresh perspective by introducing a new coaching staff from abroad.”
Saturday sees Eastern Flames host Al-Ittihad at Dammam’s Al-Nahda Club Stadium while Al-Ahli welcome Al-Shabab to Jeddah.
The SAFF has signed a three-year partnership with PepsiCo. Lay’s has become the Women’s Premier League’s headline sponsors as a result of the deal. The partnership illustrates the federation’s commitment to empowering female footballers to ensure the league is at the forefront of Saudi Arabia’s evolving landscape.
In another groundbreaking development, entertainment platform DAZN has acquired the international rights to broadcast matches across global markets outside the Middle East and North Africa region.
LONDON: Myles Smith, Al-Ittihad Ladies’ irrepressible assistant manager, has always harbored grand dreams.
“My grandma used to ask us when we were young what we wanted to do when we were older, as grandmas often do,” he told Arab News. “I used to say, ‘Listen, grandma, I don’t mind what I do. I just want to work for Manchester United’.
“‘I don’t mind if I make the cups of tea or do any type of role, (such as) clean the bathrooms, I’ll do anything at the club’.”
Smith realized his dream at the club he supports — and it did not involve cups, saucers, or mops — when he became the women and girls’ scout for the Red Devils from October 2022 to June.
He had previously spent more than six years at West Ham in various roles such as women’s academy director.
Now Smith faces his most formidable challenge yet: Conquering the world of women’s football in Saudi Arabia with a fledgling club.
“We want to write history here,” Smith, 29, said of his master plan in the Saudi port city of Jeddah. “We want to win the league. We want to win the cup.
“We want to be in the Asian Champions League. We want to win that as well.
“You don’t take any job in sports to finish second.”
Such bullishness is typical of any self-respecting football coach.

But it could also be regarded as overly ambitious given that Al-Ittihad finished fifth in the eight-team Saudi Women’s Premier League in its inaugural season in 2022-23.
Furthermore, Smith has only been in the Kingdom since July — his first visit to the country and only his second trip to the Middle East after visiting Dubai.
The moment he arrived, the heat was palpable, both literally and figuratively.
The Englishman was “dripping with sweat” as he exited the airport to confront Saudi’s furnace-like summer.
A dizzying few months, in which Smith had to adapt to a new country and footballing environment, ensued.
Talk about a baptism of fire and a stark departure from Smith’s hometown of Grimsby in northeast England.
Regrets? Smith, who has worked with famous men’s and women’s footballers such as England’s Declan Rice and Rachel Daly, has had absolutely none.
While admitting that he had taken “a leap of faith,” exhilaration propelled his words as he reflected on his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Following a call “completely out of the blue” from an agent from the Jobs4Football recruitment platform, Al-Ittihad officials courted him and his partner Natalie through a series of Zoom meetings.
“Rightly or wrongly, I put a lot of faith in people that I’d never met before over a few calls and I’m glad I did that,” Smith said. “They were so welcoming from the very first phone call and you could see their passion and ambition. Any question that we had, they answered, and it just didn’t feel necessary to have to jump on a plane and go and visit.
“To be honest, I never would have thought of living in Saudi Arabia. But it’s been an extremely good decision and I’m extremely happy here.”
Thankfully for Smith, joining him on his journey into the unknown is a manager of rich pedigree, Kelly Lindsey. She is a former US international and ex-head coach of the Afghanistan and Morocco women’s national teams.
“She’s done some amazing things in her career and is a born winner like me,” Smith said.
Do Al-Ittihad have players of comparable ilk, though?
If you consider their eye-catching recent recruitment, then ostensibly, the answer is a resounding “yes.”
Their most high-profile summer signing is one of the world’s best players, Ashleigh Plumptre, who joined the club in September from Women’s Super League side Leicester City.
The defender excelled for Nigeria at the recent World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, with the African side losing to England on penalties to agonizingly miss out on the quarterfinals.
Plumptre had reportedly been coveted by a host of top European clubs before joining Al-Ittihad.
“Is it a huge boost to have her here? Definitely,” Smith said. “First of all, she’s an unbelievable person and an unbelievable footballer as well.
“She was somebody that we identified quite early on and the club did an amazing job in getting the deal done.”
Al-Ittihad’s other foreign recruits are the English defender Leighanne Robe, from Liverpool, and the Morocco midfielder Salma Amani, from Metz in France. Amani helped the Atlas Lionesses not only become the first Arab team to play at the Women’s World Cup in the summer, but also to reach the knockout stage.
Former Swedish youth international Nor Mustafa, who arrived by the Red Sea from Scottish club Hibernian, completes the new overseas contingent.
Smith suggested Al-Ittihad Ladies were on the cusp of a star-studded era.
He said the club had been talking to “five, eight-times Champions League winners, World Cup winners, some of the best players that have kicked a ball in women’s football.”
It is a strategy akin to that of the men’s Saudi Pro League, of which Al-Ittihad are the reigning champions.
The Tigers signed global superstars such as Karim Benzema and N’Golo Kante in a stunning summer of SPL transfers, fueled largely by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund’s takeover of them, Al-Nassr, Al-Hilal and Al-Ahli.
Yet Smith emphasized that the club’s recruitment policy is far more than some mindless, Football Manager-esque splurge.
Nurturing local talent is central to his approach. He tells Saudi players that recruits such as Plumptre are there to help them develop, not to “steal the show.”
Of the club’s efforts to create role models on and off the pitch, Smith said: “Every person has different areas to improve and strengths. Then it is a case of seeing the bigger picture and trying to improve these areas.
“Is a player lacking in social skills? How can we help with that?
“Some individuals may need some work on leadership, so let’s do some workshops to help them. What do they like doing away from football? What might their careers look like if football has to stop? What are their interests?
“Many players are still in education, so can we support them using the skills we have? We allow injured players to come and help us coach to see if it’s something they may be interested in life after football.”
Given his background, his “multidisciplinary approach” is unsurprising.
After obtaining a degree in sport and exercise science from Leeds Beckett University, he started his sporting career in rugby league.
This involved strength and conditioning coaching work at Leeds Rhinos and Castleford Tigers. His “extremely rewarding” women’s football coaching odyssey began at Notre Dame Catholic Sixth Form College in Leeds.
How does he assess his current work?

Smith said he had been “pleasantly surprised” by the standard of Saudi players.
“They’re so hungry to learn and their desire to get better is something I’ve not really witnessed before at many of the places that I’ve been to,” he said.
Al-Ittihad boasts seven Saudi women’s national team players and four members of the country’s U-17 side.
The club’s Saudi internationalists such as Bayan Sadagah could easily have let their new-found fame go to their heads, too.
A new FIFA+ film, “Destined to Play: The Untold Story of Saudi Women’s Football,” charts the remarkable rise of Sadagh and her fellow trailblazers.
It follows the women’s national team journey from playing their first international match (a 2-0 win over the Seychelles) in February 2022, to recent summer friendlies in Spain against Andorra.
“I think everybody shed a tear watching that documentary. It was extremely inspiring to see,” Smith said.
Can Al-Ittihad fulfill his bold promises, with their first league match away to Eastern Flames in Dammam on Saturday?
Smith predicted the league would be “extremely competitive as every club is making some unbelievable developments, whether it’s with recruitment or bringing in new staff.”
A preseason tournament in Jordan, in which Al-Ittihad played rivals such as “extremely strong” Al-Hilal, gave him some insight into what to expect.
“Obviously, Al-Nassr won the league last season and I’m sure their ambition is to win it again, but let’s hope we can stop that from happening,” Smith said.
He firmly believes the SPL will be one of the top women’s football leagues in years to come as part of Vision 2030 — and that the national team could enjoy a similar trajectory.
“I think football here is the number one sport and it’s the number two sport and number three sport as well. We’re here (to play) a much bigger part than winning football matches.
“Helping to grow participation (is vital). The national team has only been around since 2019 and I think they had 700-odd women try out for that.

“Fast forward to now and they’ve now got over 50 players that have represented them and the Saudi Premier League and the Saudi Division One, which has over 30 teams in it. They’ve got over 50,000 girls signing up to schools’ leagues, an under-17 national team and league in the process (of being set up).
“The growth that’s happening is unbelievable to see. And I think that one of the main reasons I wanted to come here is because I played a very small part in England helping to grow the game.
“And if you look at the level now, (the WSL is) one of the best leagues in the world. Coming here and getting to do that all again is great fun.”
Given his tremendous passion and vigor, it would be no surprise if Smith realized his latest grand dream.
And, just as he did after his first match working for his boyhood heroes, his immediate thought would be to FaceTime his biggest, “extremely proud” fan and say: “I’ve done it, grandma.”


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