RIYADH: The Saudi Pro League is no stranger to big-name foreign coaches, with a host of high-profile names washing through the league over the past decade or more.
But arguably this season’s best coach is, with the greatest of respect, the very definition of a no-name coach — he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.
Croatian Kresimir Rezic was appointed coach of historically unheralded Damac, from Khamis Mushait in south-west Saudi Arabia; a club that have spent the better part of the past three decades in the lower reaches of the Saudi football ecosystem.
So inconsequential have the club been over the years that their home city doesn’t even have a stadium — Damac play their home games in nearby Abha, roughly a 35-minute drive from Khamis Mushait.
“We can’t compare ourselves to other clubs,” Rezic told Arab News. “In Khamis Mushait, we don’t even have a stadium. We don’t have a big army of supporters. This is something we are trying to build, to create something (special) for the club and this is just the beginning of our path.
“Is it going to be easy? Absolutely not, but we like to be a little bit of a different club to the others,” he continued.
Only 20 years ago Damac were in the fourth tier of Saudi football, a long way from the bright lights of the Pro League, while as recently as the 2014/15 season they were in the Saudi Second Division — the third tier of the Kingdom’s football pyramid.
Damac won promotion to the SPL for the 2019/20 season, in which they finished a respectable 10th — ahead of giants Al-Ittihad. But it looked as though their two-year stint in the top flight was set to come to an end when Rezic was appointed in January 2021 with the club sitting firmly in the relegation zone.
But under the Croatian tactician, who came to Damac as their under-19 coach after a career predominantly spent working as youth coach for famed Croatian club Hajduk Split, they finished the season strongly, going undefeated in their final nine games to avoid relegation by a single point.
Rezic recalled the doubt that existed externally and how that was used as motivation within the club in the closing stages of the season.
“Everybody was saying ‘This is a team for the first division, they will not be in the pro league again,’” Rezic said. “We used that in the locker room. We said ‘OK, maybe we will go to the first division, but from this moment we will earn respect from everybody and show them that we have quality.’And from that day we started winning games and reached 36 points and stayed in the (Pro) league.”
Having scraped to safety last season, many would have had Damac among the favorites to be in the relegation scrap again this season, but, against all the odds, Rezic has his team flying at the opposite end of the table.
With half the season gone, Damac are fifth in the table, just one point behind last year’s AFC Champions League winners Al-Hilal and within three points of an unlikely spot in the 2023 AFC Champions League.
Just a few weeks ago, Damac were top of the table, occupying that position for three of the four weeks from Rounds Nine to Twelve. But a recent dip in form — they are winless in their past four, which included a crazy 5-5 draw with Al-Fateh — has seen them cede ground and they now sit nine points behind league-leaders Al-Ittihad.
While an historic AFC Champions League berth is tantalizingly close, Rezic stressed that talk of what might be could prove a distraction for his side.
“We will try to fight for every point,” he said. “But to speak about the Asian Champions League — something that was never (in our thinking) — to put that as our mission could be very, very dangerous for us and create pressure. So we don’t speak about it.
“Our main targets are to stay in the league, be in a comfortable position in the middle of the table, (and) if we have an opportunity for something a little bit more, we will try to do it,” he continued.
While Rezic conceded it is difficult to compete against the financially superior and resource-rich super clubs like Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr and Al-Ittihad, he has shown in his 12 months in charge at Damac that his methods can overcome many of those obstacles.
If he continues to overachieve with the club, he might even get his own Wikipedia page. But for now, you’ll just have to remember the name.