It wouldn’t be the Saudi Professional League if there wasn’t a Romanian coach somewhere on the sidelines, and on Sunday, Al-Ittihad appointed Cosmin Contra.
The 45-year-old replaces Fabio Carille, who was fired after losing the final of the Arab Club Champions Cup on Aug. 21. The Brazilian has since said that he should not have been fired and does not understand why the decision was made. Many fans would probably agree but, as is the case in football, they are already looking to the future.
Contra is not the kind of big-name coach that rivals Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr have with Leonardo Jardim and Mano Menezes respectively, but there is still plenty of experience there. His two years in charge of the Romanian national team ended in 2019 after he failed to reach Euro 2020, finishing behind Spain, Sweden and Norway in the qualifying group.
What he will bring to Jeddah is a hunger for success and desire to put recent events — more of that later — behind him. The appointment gives the former Getafe boss, and his Spanish staff, a chance to test his coaching wits in the competitive environment that is Saudi Arabia. Known as an offensive-minded tactician who takes care of his players and demands much of them, the coach has impressed those in charge of the two-time Asian champions.
Al-Ittihad CEO Hamed Al-Balawi told local radio on Sunday that the club have done plenty of research on the new boss, who has been a free agent since leaving Dinamo Bucharest in December.
“We have met with Cosmin more than 10 times, and he is familiar with the team,” Al-Balawi said. “Former coach [Anghel] Iordanescu also participated in his selection.”
The contact with Iordanescu is fitting as he remains one of the best coaches the Jeddah club have ever had, the silver-haired mastermind delivering the most dominant Asian Champions League win in the competition’s history in 2005. There was an 8-3 aggregate win over Shandong Luneng of China, then a 7-0 thrashing of South Korea’s Busan I’Park and a 5-3 final triumph over UAE powerhouse Al Ain.
Al-Ittihad had also won the continental title in 2004 but had to come back from a 3-1 home defeat in the first leg of the final. There were no such dramas in 2005, and the Tigers looked set to dominate Asian football for some time to come. That it did not happen is another story, and now the focus is on whether Contra can get the team back to something approaching former glories.
The former Milan and Atletico Madrid player arrives in Jeddah at what is probably a good time. With just three games of the season gone, Al-Ittihad are in fourth with two wins, just a point off the top. With the international break starting, there is some time to get to know the players as he arrives on Tuesday and crucially, Igor Coronado, the big signing of the summer, is now cleared to play and already looking impressive. Contra’s first game comes against Abha on Sep.11, but there will be many already thinking of a huge clash against Al-Nassr a week later.
It will be a return to club management after leaving Dinamo Bucharest in December. His second spell at the club was a short one, and he left after four months due to financial problems.
“Dear Dinamo fans, I am leaving Romania with great pain in my soul. I never imagined that the project I believed in the most in my life is a big lie. Please forgive my naivete,” he wrote on social media. “I vouched for some people I didn’t know and I was wrong. It was the hardest 4 months of my coaching career, because of problems, lies, promises…
“I am not a coward! Those who really know me know how many sacrifices and compromises I made for Dinamo. In 4 months, I saw my family once. I was body and soul for Dinamo. Because of the stress, I had medical problems that affected my family a lot,” he added.
“I am a fighter and I would have found the strength to continue, but it is no longer about me, but about the peace and balance of my family. I would have remained for you, the Dinamo fans, the only ones who were next to the team at this moment. With you, Dinamo can never die!”
Such passionate words will go down well with fans of Al-Ittihad, a club that are no strangers to financial issues of their own. There are lots of questions that will be answered over the coming months, but if Contra can adapt to Saudi Arabian football, then the future could be bright for Al-Ittihad and their latest coach from Romania.