JEDDAH: In November 2021, Nuno Espirito Santo lost his job as head coach of Tottenham Hotspur following defeat to Manchester United.
Eighteen months later, with the London club struggling and without a coach, he lifted the Roshn Saudi League trophy after Al-Ittihad won 3-0 at Al-Fayha on Saturday.
It has been a long and hard season for the Jeddah giants who have waited 14 years to get their hands on this particular prize, but hiring the Portuguese boss last summer was a turning point in that journey.
Rivals such as Al-Nassr, who will have to settle for second after a 1-1 draw with Ettifaq, have signed world-class stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo, but having a coach who has worked at the top levels of the global game proved to be exactly what Al-Ittihad needed.
“The players have worked very hard,” said Santo after the final whistle as the celebrations started.
“Al-Ittihad has suffered from many problems since last season, and we faced important absences, and the effort had to be collective in order to be able to win the title.”
The biggest problem was getting over last season itself. Fans will never forget how, in February, Al-Ittihad were 16 points clear of Al-Hilal, but still managed to slip up and had to watch in horror disbelief as their bitter rivals from Riyadh took the title.
After missing out more than once since 2009, there was a feeling that while Hilal were a winning machine, Ittihad had forgotten what was necessary to stay the course over a league season.
Enter the former Porto, Valencia and Wolverhampton Wanderers boss.
“I am happy when I see the team organized and balanced on the pitch,” the 49-year-old said. “For me, work, organization and commitment are the basic pillars of any team and are not up for negotiation.”
That is obvious to anyone who has watched the Tigers, who have lived up to the spirit of their name this season.
In 29 games, they have conceded just 13 goals. The defense has been rock solid. Goalkeeper Marcelo Grohe has been one of the unsung heroes and the Brazilian has already managed a record 18 clean sheets this season.
It helps that in front of him is one of the best central defenders in Asia, as well as his home continent of Africa. Ahmed Hegazi has been a revelation since arriving from West Bromwich Albion in October 2020. The Egyptian is a leader and inspiration to his team-mates and, like his defensive partner Ahmed Sharahili, who scored an early opener on Saturday to calm any nerves, chips in with vital goals.
Hegazi’s fellow Egyptian Tarek Hamed is a more recent addition, and the defensive midfielder has added bite, weight and experience to the middle since arriving in pre-season. Not only does he protect the backline, but the 34-year-old is always available to receive the ball, relieve pressure and keep possession.
It is not just about a rock-solid defense, either. Al-Ittihad still score plenty, with attackers knowing that a goal or two will almost certainly be enough to win. The Brazilians are always a threat. Bruno Henrique has been as steady as always, with Igor Coronado one of the more creative presences in the entire league and along with his six goals, having provided two assists in the vital 3-0 win at the weekend to take his season total to 13.
Romarinho has had another excellent season. He may not get the plaudits he deserves, but is almost sure to score on the rare occasions that Abderrazak Hamdallah fails. The Moroccan is an exceptional goalscorer and, with 20 so far this season, is on course for a third golden boot in Saudi Arabia which would be a major achievement.
It is, of course, not just about the foreign players. Haroune Camara has been a willing assistant in attack, Ahmed Bamsaud has improved at left-back under Santo, and on the right side of defense, Madallah Al-Olayan has also been a steady presence.
Santo has brought all this together with his watchwords of organization, hard work and balance. There is also mentality. When Al-Shabab were impressing early in the season, Ittihad just plugged away and did the same when Al-Nassr were top. At the halfway point, they were third, but like the best long-distance runner were dangerously on the shoulder of the leaders and ready to make their move.
And this is what happened. As Al-Shabab dropped off, and Al-Nassr blew a little hot and cold up in Riyadh, down in Jeddah Al-Ittihad just kept going. They lost only two games all season, and a big difference between this campaign and last was how they bounced back from unfortunate results. An early season loss against Al-Hilal and then a draw with Al-Shahab were setbacks that could have raised concerns, but the Jeddah club then picked up 34 points from the next 36 games — a run that the other teams were unable to live with.
The second loss was 2-1 to Al-Taawoun with five games to go. Last season’s Ittihad may well have crumbled, but any hope rivals may have had that this version was faltering were dashed with the subsequent 4-0 win at home to Abha. Even when the performances were not great, they found a way to win and that, as Al-Hilal fans know, is what champions do.
And, after 14 years, Al-Ittihad fans know it, too. They have waited a long time for this success, as has Nuno. They all deserve it.