LONDON: The English FA Cup is the oldest and most famous domestic knockout competition in the world but for one English coach, it is surpassed in importance and excitement by Saudi Arabia’s King Cup.
Nestor El-Maestro has been savoring the build-up to Thursday’s final against Al-Faisaly ever since he led Al-Taawoun to a 3-2 win over Al-Batin on April 4.
It has been a long eight weeks.
“We have been waiting for what seems to be an eternity ever since we won the semi-final,” El-Maestro, born in Serbia and raised in England, told Arab News.
“There has always been a focus on the final at the back of everyone’s mind.”
Fortunately, despite the distraction, league form has been good with Al-Taawoun currently in fourth with one game of the season remaining and assured of at least a fifth-place finish.
“I think we did a decent job of the league games in between but it wasn’t easy to keep the team 100 percent motivated as our season, by and large, depends on the result on Thursday. It’s finally here.”
Born in Serbia and growing up in England, the 38-year-old is enjoying this taste of Saudi cup fever as he plans to take Al-Taawoun to their second major piece of silverware.
“The club sees this trophy as very special as it carries the King’s name,” El-Maestro, appointed in March, said. It’s not just the club.
“From what I have seen during my time in Saudi Arabia, I do not know of any other country where the cup is as highly regarded as here.”
England used to be gripped by cup fever but the luster of the oldest trophy in football has dimmed in recent years.
The same has not happened with Saudi Arabia’s premier knockout tournament.
“The excitement is comparable to the FA Cup of yesteryear, so it is a big and important competition.”
Al-Taawoun, who won the 2019 cup, are at full-strength apart from one exception.
“Our captain Ibrahim Al-Zubaidi is suspended but we have a very good back-up in Hassan Kadesh who has played in two of the last three league games so we have no big concerns.”
Now the focus of the former Sturm Graz and CSKA Sofia boss is on Al-Faisaly, a team that has flirted with relegation for much of the season though seems to be almost out of trouble.
Despite the difference in league position, there will be no underestimation from El-Maestro.
“I think I know every detail, I know how they breathe. This is nothing special as I prepare for every game in the same way,” he said.
“I am sure they have analyzed us in detail too. There won’t be any secrets between the two teams. I have watched a lot of their games and my focus is not to overburden my players, and not to overthink it. Sometimes you have to let the players win the game.”
How the players approach the game will be crucial, El-Maestro says.
“It is a final and so from my point of view, one of the most important things is that the team which can play it like any other game, shows confidence on the pitch and plays in their usual style will have an advantage,” El-Maestro, who was born Nestor Jevtic before changing his name, said.
“Faisaly have an identity, they have a clear plan of what they do with and without the ball. I think we are slightly the better team and have better momentum and form at the moment but we know it will be tough.”
And to add to the big game atmosphere will be the fans. Sunday’s 1-0 home loss to Al-Hilal, who celebrated the clinching of the league title, was witnessed by thousands in Buraidah. The coach was impressed.
“It is fantastic to have the fans back. All of us had almost forgotten what it is like to play a real football match. It was my first experience with Saudi fans who are a little different than those in Europe. They are a lot more melodic with some fantastic songs and drums. They were shouting to me and most of the shouts have the word ‘final’ in them.”
For El-Maestro, who signed a new contract recently keeping him on until the end of next season, lifting the trophy and earning a place in the 2022 AFC Champions League will be another step forward in what is becoming a promising career.
“Winning the cup is huge personally and will make my name in the Arab world and I think it will keep me here for a few years more. It is a prestigious thing,” he said. “Trophies in football are scarce especially if you are not at a giant club that wins trophies every season. It is huge for the players as well. For the club, together with our very decent league season, it raises ambitions.
“If you finish fourth or fifth in the league and not too far away from the champions in terms of points, win a cup and qualify for Asia then ambitions rise and it will be interesting to see how the club reacts to that and maybe the club can grow,” he added.