LONDON: After an unhappy stay in England, Filip Kiss has no regrets at all about moving to Saudi Arabia. The midfielder arrived at Al-Ettifaq in 2017 and after three years in Dammam believes that, if he stays three more, he can help the team to a first league title since 1987.
Not many foreign players last that long but the Slovakian international has no intention of leaving yet. “In order to beat teams like Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr then you have to work really hard with a certain philosophy and need more than one season,” Kiss told Arab News. “In two or three years, winning the title is possible but we have to stay patient and get the right players. Let’s see what the future will bring but I hope we can win while I am still here.”
Fans shouldn’t get too excited this season as the 30 year-old points out that the team that finished eighth in the last campaign have been too inconsistent in the past and only now, under head coach Khaled Al-Atwi is the right man in place for the right length of time.
“We needed stability,” Kiss said. “We have changed so many coaches since I came here. I think that finally we are on the right path. We kept our coach for the whole season and he is working with us now in his second season and this is really positive.” He believes a top four or five finish is possible. “We will need some luck with all the players staying fit as much as possible. We are on the right path.”
Kiss seems to be on the right path now after his move from Europe. “I was playing in Norway and the offer came but we were still playing in the Europa League.” A loss to Poland’s Lech Poznan helped to make up his mind. “Then I felt it was the right time to move but I had a long contract and I was captain so there had to be a transfer fee and Ettifaq was willing to pay.”
It has been far from easy. “Many good players who came here from top leagues in Europe find it harder than they expected.” The weather is the big difference especially in the summer. “The first and last four or five games of the season are really hot and humid especially here in Dammam and this affects the tempo of the game and training is also really difficult. In winter it is perfect and the quality of the games is getting better.”
All in all, it is going rather better than his time with Cardiff City. It started well as the loan period in 2011 turned into a full transfer the following year. There was an appearance against Liverpool and Steven Gerrard in front of 89,000 fans at Wembley in the 2012 League Cup final but soon, Kiss was on the sidelines.
“My dream was to play in England since I was young. I was not always a starter but was always involved and then they signed me and paid a fee and I signed the contract. It was like living the dream.” Then things changed. “The Malaysian owner [Vincent Tan] was spending lots of money and bringing in big stars as he wanted direct promotion. So the philosophy changed but I didn't want to leave as I thought we could go to the Premier League.”
Despite not playing, Kiss was still determined to fight for minutes on the pitch. “I really wanted to play in England and didn’t want to leave even though I had options. Then, when I decided it was time to go, the coach said he wanted all his players to be there and he wanted a big squad.”
Then, in 2014, there was another loan move, this time to Ross County in Scotland. “I enjoyed it – in my first two games I scored four goals as I was so hungry! I am not a striker but a defensive midfielder.” He has not forgotten the lessons of a tough time at Cardiff however. “That's football. It was not easy but I learned a lot. I was young and only 21 and maybe didn’t have the best advice about what to do from my agent.”
That experience has helped in Saudi Arabia and means he has plenty of wisdom to pass on. “The players here ask me about Europe. We go there for training camps and friendly games and they see the difference in how physical and fast it is. It is important to play teams from Europe and compare ourselves and know how we can improve.”
One day he is sure that Saudi players will go to the big leagues just as Slovakian players do. “There is no question they have the talent but in even the leagues that are not at the top, you have to work really hard because there is so much competition to become a professional player. If they want to keep improving and don’t feel that signing a first contract is enough then they can go far, achieve something with the national team and get a contract in Europe.”
While team-mates may leave, Kiss is happy where he is. “The most important thing was that my family could live with me here and they can. Life is perfect for my family in Saudi Arabia.” And a league title at some point means it would be perfect for Filip Kiss.