Aussie ace Matt Jurman says Slaven Bilic will get Al-Ittihad ‘back where they belong’

Al-Ittihad defender Matt Jurman (L) has backed Slaven Bilic to turn things around for the club after their disastrous start in the Saudi Pro League (AFP)
Updated 20 October 2018
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Aussie ace Matt Jurman says Slaven Bilic will get Al-Ittihad ‘back where they belong’

  • Al-Ittihad defender Matt Jurman has backed Slaven Bilic to turn things around for the club
  • A disastrous start to the season has left Al-Ittihad rock bottom of the Saudi Pro League table

KUWAIT CITY: Al-Ittihad defender Matt Jurman has backed Slaven Bilic to turn things around for the club, predicting his new coach can inject some much-needed confidence into the team.
A disastrous start to the season has left Al-Ittihad rock bottom of the Saudi Pro League table with one draw and four losses from their opening five games.
Ramon Diaz was sacked as coach after just two matches, with Bilic (below) parachuted in three weeks ago to replace the Argentine.
The first game of his reign ended in defeat away to Al-Fateh and on Friday they drew 1-1 at home with Ohod, but Australian Jurman, who moved to Al-Ittihad from Suwon Bluewings in the summer, believes it is only a matter of time before Bilic transforms the club’s fortunes.
“It’s not a situation I’ve seen before, a coach being sacked after only two games,” Jurman told Arab News. “It shows that it is cut-throat here but the players and coaches have to respond positively to that pressure.
“A club the size of Al-Ittihad has to be winning games and I think that Bilic and his coaching staff will take us in the right direction. It’s mentally tough when you keep losing, but we have great players in the team and we know we should be higher than where we are.
“We just need more belief and I certainly feel the new coach will give us that. Then I’m sure we’ll shoot up the table.”
On a personal level, Jurman now has the opportunity to work with a coach who enjoyed a distinguished career playing in his position. An uncompromising center-back, Bilic reached the World Cup semifinals with Croatia in 1998 and also played in the Premier League with Everton and West Ham.
“He’s right up there with the best coaches in the league and of course was a great player,” Jurman said. “Obviously he played in my position so I’m excited to learn from him and I’m sure he can help make me a better player.
“It’s been a difficult start to the season but now we can look forward and I’m sure that the new coach and his staff are going to get us back on track.”
Jurman made a bold career move by deciding to swap Suwon Bluewings for Al-Ittihad in July after a successful 18-month stint in South Korea.
But despite the tough introduction to life in Saudi football, the Australia international insisted he has no regrets.
“It’s been a big change coming to Saudi Arabia. Training at night, the temperatures we’re playing in every week — these things take time to get used to. But it’s a great opportunity to experience a culture I’ve never seen before.
“It would have been easy to stay in Korea but when you get a call saying one of the biggest clubs in the Middle East are interested in you, it’s a no-brainer. I was told about the Pro League expansion, how they wanted more foreigners on each team.
“I knew I was going to play against quality players, quality strikers — I wanted to come and test myself.”
As well as enjoying the challenge on the pitch, Jurman has been particularly impressed by the fans off it, playing in front of some huge crowds at King Abdullah Sports City.
“Al-Ittihad is such a big club and even at our away games, our fans usually outnumber the home team. Seeing that type of support is fantastic. The fans are crazy, the best supporters I’ve seen.
“It seems you can’t go anywhere in Jeddah without finding an Al-Ittihad fan and that’s been eye-opening, to see just how much they love football in Saudi Arabia.”
Jurman was not the only Australian to arrive in Saudi Arabia this summer, with Socceroos goalkeeper Brad Jones moving to Al-Nassr from Feyenoord.
And after fellow Aussie Mark Milligan’s summer departure from Al-Ahli, Jurman has been grateful to have another compatriot to speak to.
“I chatted to Mark after our last game in Russia at the World Cup and he helped me make up my mind to move here. He was living in Jeddah too so it was a real shame that he left soon after. The new coach came in there and that’s how it works sometimes in football.
“Now Brad is here too and that’s been great. We’re always chatting on WhatsApp, talking about life and how we’re settling in. It’s always good to have that kind of support.
“Unfortunately for me, Brad’s team is flying at the moment. But I’m sure that before long we’ll turn things round at Al-Ittihad and then we can both be up there.”


Bert Van Marwijk only has one thing on his mind: getting the UAE to the 2022 World Cup

Updated 21 March 2019
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Bert Van Marwijk only has one thing on his mind: getting the UAE to the 2022 World Cup

  • Former Saudi Arabia coach wants to guide the Whites to their first World Cup since 1990.
  • "If I didn’t see the potential, I wouldn’t sit here," Dutchman says of his new job.

LONDON: Bert van Marwijk has told the UAE he only has one thing on his mind: Getting the side to the 2022 World Cup. 

The former Saudi Arabia boss was unveiled as the new coach of the Whites before watching his new team beat his former team 2-1 in a friendly in Dubai (see right). While he was in the stand rather than the dugout — interim boss Saleem Abdelrahman took charge — he would have liked what he saw as he set himself the challenge of leading the UAE to their first showpiece since 1990. 

“I’m here for only one thing, and that’s to qualify for the World Cup,” the Dutchman said.  

“It takes a long time and the first thing we have to deal with is the first qualification round. That’s why I’m here.”

Van Marwijk was celebrated after he led the Green Falcons to last year's World Cup before calling it quits. (AFP) 

Van Marwijk guided Saudi Arabia to last year’s World Cup — the Green Falcons’ first appearance at the showpiece for 12 years — during a two-year stint which ended in September 2017.

That was one of the key reasons the UAE fought hard for the 66-year-old and while it is never easy getting through Asian qualifying — 46 teams going for just four direct slots at Qatar 2022 — the Dutchman claimed his experience, combined with his knowledge of the UAE, will stand him in good stead. 

“The Saudis and the UAE are about the same level. With the Saudis we qualified for Russia, so we will do really everything to go to Qatar in 2022,” Van Marwijk said. 

While he is fondly remembered in the Kingdom — only a contractual dispute regarding backroom staff meant he did not stay on as Green Falcons coach for the Russia tournament — it is his time as the Netherlands coach that really stands out on his managerial resume. Van Marwijk coached the Oranje to within minutes of the World Cup trophy, with only an Andres Iniesta extra-time winner preventing him from tasting ultimate glory against Spain in 2010. 

So why did he return to the Gulf for another crack at World Cup qualification in a tough, crowded race? 

“One of the reasons is the feeling. I have to have the right feeling when I sign a contract,” Van Marwijk said. “We analyzed the UAE, we played four times against each other with Saudi, so I can see the potential.

“I have had the experience to go to the World Cup twice. The first time we were second in the world, the second time was with Australia (which he coached last summer) and we were a little bit unlucky — we played very well. 

“So to go to the World Cup for the third time is the goal.”

Van Marwijk is all too aware his task will be difficult. The “Golden Generation” of Emirati footballers, spearheaded by Omar Abdulrahman, tried and failed to make it to football’s biggest tournament, and a lot of the next three years’ work will likely depend on a new generation.

“I heard there were some young talents, so I’m anxious to know how good they are,” the Dutchman said. “I know the team has a few very good players — the UAE has a few weapons. 

“That’s the most important thing. If I didn’t see the potential, I wouldn’t sit here.”