Every league around the world has its famous training ground “bust-ups,” and the latest entry into the pantheon that includes such stars as Neymar, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho comes from Al-Hilal. If new coach Leonardo Jardim had any doubts as to the passion in his squad then events in Austria at the weekend should put those to rest. The Saudi champions are not going to give up their league crown without a fight.
In Asian football it is rare to see what goes on behind the scenes, doubly so when there is controversy. Al-Hilal was streaming a live training session on social media when it became apparent that Ali Al-Bulaihi and Argentinian midfielder Luciano Vietto were having words. Star striker Bafetimbi Gomis strolled over to give Al-Bulaihi a firm shove in the chest. The very unofficial word from the club was that it was much ado about nothing and just showed the desire among the squad to keep standards high. Any disciplinary proceedings will take place internally with apologies all round.
Such scenes have been common around the world at clubs big and small and such determination is necessary. Clubs need to have the right players, coaches and facilities in place to have success but the passion to win is the fuel that drives the machine forward. Big teams need big personalities and an even bigger desire to win.
This is why Al-Hilal won title number 17 earlier this year and are the most successful team in the history of Saudi football. The Riyadh giants did not get to the top of the Asian tree by being nice. They did it by exhibiting a certain ruthlessness.
Jardim can be ruthless too. When he arrived at Monaco back in 2014, he thought little of dropping the club’s star striker Radamel Falcao. With bigger prizes at stake such as the UEFA Champions League and Ligue 1 at stake in 2017, he rested his players for a cup semi-final at Paris Saint-Germain, lost 5-0 and took the criticism that he was devaluing the competition on the chin. Soon after Monaco were celebrating a first league title in 17 years.
The Portuguese boss will surely relish the sight of players getting worked up so early in pre-season. At Tottenham Hotspur his compatriot Jose Mourinho, as captured by the Amazon documentary “All or Nothing,” deliberately introduced aggression and energy in training sessions in order to get his players — who he felt were too nice — riled up. It remains to be seen how Jardim deals with the situation as high spirits are to be welcomed but any bad feeling is to be nipped in the bud.
“A manager is permanently dealing with contradictions between the individual and the collective,” Jardim said in 2017 after leading Monaco to the French league title, just a season after PSG had finished 31 points clear at the top. “Sometimes, an approach that is too collective stops the quality of the individual from emerging.”
Perhaps the Hilal players were frustrated at the news that the first of their five friendly games — against local team FC Pinzgau — during their Austrian training camp had been canceled due to adverse weather conditions. Thursday’s meeting with Zeleznicar Pancevo is still set to go ahead. Two more opponents have yet to be confirmed but the Saudi champions will face Spanish club Eibar on July 30. Al-Hilal will return to Riyadh on Aug. 2 ready for the opening game of the season which will take place against the newly-promoted Al-Tai 12 days later.
For Jardim, it is vital that Al-Hilal’s players continue to display a burning desire as their rivals are strengthening ahead of the new season. Al-Nassr has been as busy as you would expect from an ambitious team that had a disappointing domestic season last time around. Brazilian star Talisca has arrived in Riyadh after being unable to enter China to play for two-time Asian champions Guangzhou. He joins Cameroonian star Vincent Aboubakar, who signed from Turkish giants Besiktas.
And then there is Al-Ittihad, the most improved team over last season. Perhaps the best signing the team has made has been keeping the boss. It did look like Fabio Carille was leaving Jeddah but the Brazilian is staying put. With the addition of Igor Coronado from Sharjah, Al-Ittihad will have extra firepower to go along with a full season from star defender Ahmed Hegazi.
Compared to their rivals, Al-Hilal have been relatively quiet in the transfer market so far: Mali marksman Moussa Marega has arrived from FC Porto, and, as always, there have been plenty of rumours with stars such as Tottenham’s Lucas Moura and Gylfi Sigurdsson of Everton linked with the club over the summer.
Activity may be stepped up in the coming days, as Jardim told club bosses that he wanted to take a look at the squad during the training camp to ascertain what changes were needed.
The 46 year-old will not be afraid to rebuild if needed. In 2015 Monaco sold talented players Layvin Kurzawa, Yannick Carrasco, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Aymen Abdennour. Jardim rebuilt the team and made it one of the most entertaining outfits in Europe. Al-Hilal fans will not mind something similar. They also know that once the season starts, nobody will remember the pre-season training camp, but it could be an early sign that Al-Hilal will not give up their crown without a fight.