It is said that all good things come to those who wait, and in the case of Saudi Arabia the wait has been a long one — almost 150 days to be exact.
That is how long the Green Falcons have been without a head coach after the sudden and unexpected departure of Herve Renard in March this year, but the wait is finally over. Italian Roberto Mancini was announced as their new head coach in a deal that will see him in place until the next World Cup in 2026.
Landing Mancini, who guided the Azzurri to Euro glory in 2021, is a coup for the Kingdom as they continue their quest to become a leading player in the global game.
While that has mostly centered on investment in the domestic Saudi Pro League which has seen the likes of Karim Benzema, Neymar and Riyad Mahrez join the league in an off-season to remember, it is now the national team’s turn to make a statement.
The 58-year-old’s record speaks for itself, winning the Premier League with Manchester City, a hattrick of Serie A titles with Inter Milan and, of course, the crowning achievement being the European champions with his native Italy in 2021.
His sudden resignation last week as Italy manager saw tongues wagging about a possible move to Riyadh, that has now been confirmed.
While he will not come cheap, Saudi Arabia will see his record as being priceless as they eye their first continental title in almost three decades.
As successful as he has been, however, he has massive shoes to fill replacing Renard, who masterminded that historic come-from-behind victory over Argentina at last year’s FIFA World Cup, a moment that will never be forgotten in Saudi football.
Appointed in 2019, after Saudi Arabia’s disappointing showing at the Asian Cup in the UAE, Renard quickly transformed the Green Falcons into one of Asia’s best, comfortably qualifying for a second straight World Cup, and then shocking the world when they were there.
While they ultimately failed to make it out of the group, the manner in which they played, coupled with the win against Argentina, won the team an army of new fans and made Renard one of the most sought-after coaches in international football.
With a contract through until 2027, when the country is due to host the AFC Asian Cup for the first time in their history, the Saudi Arabia Football Federation could be forgiven for feeling a sense of comfort as they look ahead to the next World Cup cycle.
With long-term plans in place all centered on Renard remaining as national team coach, it is understandable that the authorities were caught off-guard by his announcement that he wanted to leave to take over the French women’s national team ahead of this year’s Women’s World Cup.
His sudden departure, which was confirmed on March 29 this year, forced them to confront the question they were not expecting to answer — where to next?
The SAFF said they would not be rushed into making a decision, choosing to bide their time rather than making the wrong move, something that has plagued Saudi football in the past.
But as days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, the wait continued and beneath the surface questions began to be asked about why the process was taking so long.
Reports a few months back suggested that Portuguese manager Jorge Jesus was in line to take over, but after the PIF-fueled investment in the Saudi domestic league, he instead took the reins at Al-Hilal.
But the patience of the federation has been rewarded with Mancini’s signing, a significant coup as it looks to build on the foundations laid by his predecessor.
The wily tactician has little time to waste, however, with the Asian Cup just a matter of months away and just a handful of games before then to prepare for a tournament at which Saudi Arabia would be expected to challenge for silverware.
The signing of Mancini, who guided the Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City to their first Premier League title, will only heighten the expectations of the Green Falcons, having been drawn in Group F alongside Thailand, Kyrgyzstan and Oman.
His first assignment will come with a series of friendlies in Newcastle next month, against South Korea and Costa Rica, although given those matches are just over a week away he will have had little say over the composition of the squad.
It means the World Cup qualifiers in November, firstly against the winner of the playoff between Pakistan and Cambodia, and then against Jordan, will be his first real chance to make an impression on the squad, coming less than two months before the Asian Cup.
Time may have delivered Mancini to Saudi Arabia, but now there is no time to waste.