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Saudi Arabia Embraces Western Sports to Rehabilitate Global Image



Big money soon flowed. In July, Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority announced a $650 million investment to develop local athletes and teams and to attract international events. At an investment conference in Riyadh in October, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, the chairman of the General Sports Authority, explained how making Saudi Arabia a hub of global sports could lift economic growth and create thousands of jobs.

“A big part of the change within the kingdom is the sector of sport and growing the sector of sport,” he said.

Wrestling is one sliver of Saudi Arabia’s new appetite for athletics.

This month, Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr. will travel to a custom-built arena in Diriyah, outside Riyadh, for a heavyweight boxing title fight billed as the “Clash on the Dunes.” February brings the debut of the Saudi Cup, a horse race with a $20 million purse — the richest in history. A Ladies European Tour golf tournament is being planned for March.

“We are in a really huge transformation, softening the image,” Majed Al-Sorour, chief executive of the Saudi Golf Federation, said on the sidelines of the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh in October.

The sports expansion is part of Prince Mohammed’s attempt to bring in foreign investment and increase the financial potential of a country whose population skews young. Of the kingdom’s 22 million citizens, about two-thirds are under 30.

Saudi Arabia is a monarchy ruled according to Shariah law. After Prince Mohammed was elevated to crown prince in 2017, he pursued a campaign aimed at convincing the world that Saudi Arabia was changing culturally, with a series of reforms that were methodically rolled out to burnish its image. In the last 18 months, movie theaters opened for the first time in more than 35 years, women gained the right to drive and segregation of the sexes was relaxed in public places.

On a Monday night in late October, Saudi men and women in their 20s swayed to hip-hop music at a fashion boutique that opened for Riyadh’s Design Week. Like international companies, young people in Saudi Arabia are adjusting to new boundaries and calibrating their ambitions.


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Football Is Dying in Ohio. A Coach in This County Made It Thrive.




MARIA STEIN, Ohio — About a mile past St. John the Baptist Church and across the street from a grain elevator stands the heart and soul of this small, western Ohio community: Marion Local High School.

The sons and daughters of farmers, tradesmen, engineers and small-business owners inhabit its hallways and spill onto its playing fields. On Friday nights in autumn they come together, sporting the Blue and Gold to cheer their football team, the Flyers.

What makes Marion Local an outlier here is that the football team has players — lots of them.

Nationally, high school participation in 11-man football has fallen by more than 10 percent since 2009. In Ohio, it has plummeted by 27 percent. Nationally, children who are white now account for 56 percent of high school football players, compared with 76 percent in 2006. Marion Local’s players are overwhelmingly white.

And they don’t need to play football. Nearly all of them will go to college, their football careers in the rearview mirror. The median income for a family in Mercer County is $60,251. Unemployment and crime are below national averages.

In this part of Ohio, however, football remains vital. Its coaches and educators have found a way to use the sport to amplify its values: hard work, accountability, community, God.

The high school’s principal, Tim Goodwin, has a theory. In fact, he has quite a few, and all of them, he says, “are usually wrong.”

“The health of your football program is a reflection on the health of your community,” said Goodwin, who is also the football coach. “Because what is football? It’s hard work and requires sacrifice and mental toughness.”

He is wrong, of course. There are plenty of healthy communities with terrible football teams, and great football teams in struggling communities.

But Goodwin’s theory of football and life is right enough; it is a promise for the denizens of Mercer County. On Saturday, the Flyers will play in the state championship game for the ninth consecutive year and are seeking their 11th state title.

In Goodwin’s two decades as head coach, Marion Local has suited up anywhere from 60 to 80 players each year — or roughly half the boys in the 260 or so student body.

The usual culprits for football’s decline — sport specialization, video games, concern about brain injuries — have not skipped over the western edge of central Ohio. But Goodwin and his staff have built a culture of embracing both old and new approaches to the game. Players work on conditioning year-round, they don’t hit in practice, and seniors are paired with freshmen and serve as their mentors.

“We coach our kids hard,” Goodwin said. “We yell at them. We have high expectations. The community knows it. But they also trust that we are here to take care of them.”

Maria Stein isn’t the only part of western Ohio where football is thriving. Five members of Marion Local’s conference — the Midwest Athletic Conference, or MAC — made the state playoffs. Anna High School is in the title game on Friday in a larger school division. The two schools are trying to become the 31st and 32nd MAC teams to win state titles in the last 25 years.

Don Kemper, the MAC commissioner, said the conference’s communities fully believe football teaches life lessons that will serve the players forever.

“Kids grow up wanting to play on Friday nights and have that success,” Kemper said. “No place is perfect, but we live in the middle of cornfields, and there are a lot of things that go on in the big cities that we don’t see.”

With the wind skipping over surrounding soybean fields and the light fading, the Flyers ran through agility drills to fight off nearly freezing temperatures one day last month. Cody Kunkler scissored between traffic cones like the sure-footed senior he is. He knew his football career might end that weekend, in an elimination game against Mississinawa Valley in the opening round of the Ohio High School Athletic Association tournament.

The Blackhawks (7-3) were an unlikely success story this fall, making the playoffs for only the second time in school history. The team was also an example of what’s ailing Ohio high school football. It had only 23 players.

Two years ago, with participation dwindling, there was talk of dumping football altogether, an unthinkable notion from a school that produced Curtis Enis, who was Ohio’s Mr. Football in 1993 and an all-American at Penn State.

Instead, Mississinawa Valley named a young assistant, Steve Trobridge, as head coach. Only nine players came out for football in his first year. He rustled up seven more by convincing parents that he would put their sons’ health first.

Somehow the Blackhawks won four games.

“The parents were afraid of concussions and brain injuries, and I don’t blame them,” he said. “It didn’t help that we weren’t winning games and that I was the fourth varsity coach in six years. We didn’t give them anything to believe in.”

Trobridge, 31, played at Fort Recovery High School, another Marion Local rival. Now, he is trying to develop players who know how hard winning football is and how pursuing it can help them off the field.

One example of such a player is Kunkler, who plays for Marion Local. He takes college-level courses at a Wright State satellite campus and intends to study architectural engineering at the University of Cincinnati. For him, school is far easier than football.

He began his career as a Flyer in the July before his freshman season with a 10-day camp. In August, Marion Local began two-a-day practices at 7:30 a.m. Players started the day in wet grass and often ended sessions in 95-degree heat. Over four years, he rarely missed an off-season weight lifting session. During the season, he and his teammates lifted some mornings before school, at 6:45.

Kunkler is not a natural talent or star. He played sparingly in his three previous seasons and is now a part of the offensive and defensive line rotation.

Win or lose another state title, he said he would have no regrets. He was not oblivious to the risk of injuries — a friend blew out his knee before the season — but unlike so many who have fled the gridiron for the baseball field and the basketball court, he is not worried about future health problems.

“I’m going to leave here knowing what hard work is and what it gets you,” he said.

It is a close call whether churches outnumber grain elevators here. Both stand sentinel over the browns, greens and golds of the soybean fields and cornfields rolled out on the flatlands like a handcrafted rug.

Catholics from Germany settled this part of Ohio in the early 1800s, and generations have stayed here, as businesses like Schwieterman Pharmacy and Leugers Insurance can attest. St. John the Baptist draws a crowd each morning for 7:30 a.m. Mass, especially on football Fridays, when the Flyers fill a dozen rows.

When Mass is over, the boys file into the basement of the rectory, where boxes of doughnuts and the Rev. Eugene Schnipke awaits. It is a ritual that was begun more than 20 years ago by the pastor’s predecessor.

“He asked them why he never saw them in church,” Father Schnipke said. “They asked why they never saw him at any of their games. It is a good way to stay in touch with our young people. Now we do it for volleyball, cross-country — every team from the high school. We know each other are here.”

Becky Bruns, a football mom, likes knowing that her son Connor, a freshman, is in church a couple of times a week. She also likes another Flyers ritual — pairing a freshman with a senior who is responsible for getting him home from practices and games.

Bruns went to Marion Local, as did her husband, John, a pig farmer. John played for the Flyers in the 1990s before Goodwin helped transform them into a dynasty.

The Bruns know football is a rough game and injuries are as close as the next hard tackle. But there is some consolation in knowing the Flyers practice in full pads only twice a week and are not allowed to hit beyond a “controlled thud.” One of Goodwin’s rules is not putting a player in a position where he will hit the ground in practice.

Becky Bruns, who teaches math at the high school, saw how much the team and the game meant to her son this season when Connor got to play in a blowout.

“He couldn’t wait to come home and tell us that he heard his name called by that announcer,” she said. “He said it with a true smile.”

As kickoff against Mississinawa Valley neared, Goodwin stood near midfield, next to his father, Bill, a member of the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame. In 2001, Bill retired from teaching and coaching. He has been on his son’s staff ever since.

Trobridge, the young Mississinawa Valley coach, looked across the field and saw a grandstand overflowing with the Flyers’ Blue and Gold faithful. It reminded him of what he wanted his program to become.

When Trobridge was named coach, he gave the program a makeover — new decals on the helmets, upgraded equipment and mandatory pregame meals served by parents and supporters. “If you are going to ask a lot of these kids, you better give them a lot,” he said.

After a group of 16 players came up with four Mississinawa Valley victories last season, a team of two dozen took it to the playoffs this year for the first time in decades. The Blackhawks, however, were overmatched by Marion Local in the tournament opener, 56-6.

Trobridge waved thanks to the hundred or so parents, students and townspeople who made the trip to support the Blackhawks.

When they shook hands after the game last month, Goodwin recognized a younger version of himself in Trobridge. Goodwin knew how much his players, their families and the community had to buy in for his Marion Local program to stay on top of the Ohio high school football universe and get back to another state title game on Saturday.

He knew that people rolled their eyes when he said the success of Flyers football is merely a byproduct of a community that values love, patience and labor.

“It’s putting the work in, doing the off-season preparation and competing like crazy when you are out on the field,” Goodwin said. “As long as they live up to that, I’m good.”


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Did FIFA Accidentally Confirm a World Cup Bribery Scandal?




The accusation of a rigged vote is not without substantial circumstantial evidence: More than half of the 22 men who cast ballots in the vote for Qatar in late 2010 were later accused of, or charged with, corruption, including Teixeira, Leoz and Grondona. The entire bidding process remains under investigation by Swiss authorities.

Qatar, the tiny but hugely wealthy Gulf state that beat the United States and others to win the hosting vote, continues to strongly deny any misconduct by any member of its victorious bidding team. “We maintain that we conducted our bid ethically and with integrity, strictly adhering to all rules and regulations for the 2018/2022 FIFA World Cup bidding process,” Qatar’s World Cup organizing committee said in a statement. It has spent years trying to overcome suspicions over how it achieved its stunning victory. FIFA has spent almost as long trying to avoid discussing them.

In outlining its case against Teixeira — one of the more than 40 individuals and companies named in a sweeping 2015 United States indictment that described corruption at soccer’s highest levels — FIFA detailed his participation in a number of corruption schemes. Included in that, though not directly a part of FIFA’s reasoning for issuing its life ban, was witness testimony from a 2018 trial in New York against three former South American soccer executives. In that case, an Argentine media executive, Alejandro Burzaco, provided evidence against the officials as part of his plea agreement.

While not identifying Burzaco by name, the FIFA document describes his questioning by American prosecutors. In it, he said Teixeira, along with two other South American officials who have since died, Argentina’s Grondona and Paraguay’s Leoz — agreed to vote for Qatar in exchange for $1 million.

When the legal team for Teixeira, who cited ill health for not attending a hearing with FIFA ethics officials, questioned the validity of the testimony because the Brazilian had yet to be successfully prosecuted in court, FIFA pushed back, painstakingly defending the quality of its evidence and the witness as “credible.”

FIFA, in its statement, said Teixeira was barred for bribery connected to a number of South American and Brazilian soccer tournaments, and not for any actions related to the vote for the 2022 World Cup. It said it had extensively commented on an investigation by Michael Garcia, a former United States attorney, that had looked into the corruption surrounding the vote. That investigation, however, was hampered by a lack of subpoena power and no power to compel witnesses outside the soccer world to cooperate.

As part of its continuing effort to promote greater transparency, FIFA in October announced the creation of its new legal portal, in which documentation underlying decisions like the one barring Teixeira would be made public for the first time. In doing so, it pulled back the veil on a judicial process that for decades — and to the consternation of those inside FIFA and out — had been cloaked in secrecy.


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Virginia upset by Purdue in blowout in ACC/Big Ten Challenge




The defending national champions have lost their first game since cutting down the nets last April. 

It took the eighth game of the season to unhinge a Virginia team that looked like an even better defensive team than last year’s title group made up of three NBA players. Purdue built a lead of over 20 points midway through the game and kept it going on its home floor to blow out the cold-shooting Cavaliers 69-40 Wednesday night in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.  

The result gave Purdue some revenge from last year’s thrilling Elite Eight game that saw Mamadi Diakite make a buzzer-beating bucket to force overtime and helping Virginia to the Final Four – where the Cavs won it all. 

Virginia (7-1) entered Wednesday night’s contest allowing opponents a nation-leading 40.3 points a game, but the Boilermakers (5-3) turned UVA’s 16 turnovers into offense while forcing 12 steals and shooting 52% from beyond the arc. Sophomore guard Sasha Stefanovic cashed in six 3-pointers to finish with a game-high 20 points. 

More: No. 1 Louisville and No. 8 Duke both show why they’re national title contenders

Jay Huff and Diakite paced Virginia with 11 and 10 points, respectively, in the loss. UVA, which shot 16.7% from three, has been playing without second-leading scorer Braxton Key, who has been out with a wrist injury. 

“When you go against a team that’s that well-coached and that intense and that physical, it kind of takes your breath away,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said, per the Associated Press. “We played on our heels all game and I had a feeling there was going to be extra motivation with that setting.” 


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