RIYADH: Al-Fateh’s 2-1 win at Al-Raed on Friday saw them climb to firth place in the Roshn Saudi League after 11 rounds of matches.
Nicola Innocentin, the former sporting director at Al-Fateh, helped build the team that is now aspiring to break the dominance of the big boys.
After a professional playing career that took him from his native Italy to Germany and the US, Innocentin qualified as a football agent and club consultant, before taking the sporting director’s role at Al-Fateh.
During an exclusive interview with Arab News, Innocentin revealed what the unprecedented transfer window in the Saudi League looked like from a club insider’s perspective, why old habits caused his departure after less than three months in charge and how the league will continue setting records and standards for the years to come.
Arab News: You recently left your position after less than three months at the club. What happened?
Nicola Innocentin: I didn’t want to leave because I liked to work with everyone at the club, especially with (coach) Slaven Bilic and his staff. I had a probation period in my contract and that created the possibility on both sides to terminate the deal during that time frame. Probably someone in the club wanted to be in my position and the only way to get there was to get it from me. And this could only have been done inside that probation period.
How do you look back at your time there? Do you feel you left anything behind?
I look back at everything with a big smile because I have received lots of love and appreciation from many people at the club. I managed to strengthen the team with two good signings without even spending half of the budget I was given.
Did you manage to feel any connection with the place?
I definitely feel a strong connection with Saudi Arabia and the Saudi people. I am already evaluating the possibility of joining another team in Saudi in order to stay in Saudi Arabia for as long as possible. I want to contribute to the growth of football in this fascinating and evolving country.
Are you surprised by what’s happening now in Saudi Arabia? It seems like the world of football was literally taken by storm.
It’s very exciting to work here, it’s evolving every day. There is a lot of excitement in the country and in the league. Everything started when they decided to sign Cristiano Ronaldo.
But the idea to have a better league, a more competitive league was something they were already looking to do even two or three years ago.
When they took Ronaldo, I felt: This is it. This is going to be the start. And after Ronaldo, you saw what followed.
Why did this football revolution start now?
You need to do things at the right moment. Qatar had the World Cup last year. I use a metaphor: if you want to be noticed in a room and someone else is playing the guitar, you wait for the other person to stop before you play your instrument. Otherwise, people will not hear you clearly. Now Saudi Arabia is being heard loud and clear, I think.
Is Saudi football following the right steps to grow as a whole and build something sustainable?
When I first spoke to the Saudi Pro League, we had a talk about how the clubs can get more professionalized. I believed and I still believe that’s the best way to create something sustainable for the whole league. But I understand that for them the main purpose is to catch the attention and the respect of the world. By signing Cristiano Ronaldo and all the other superstars, for sure you get the attention. But there’s still the unsolved problem of not having a professional environment for those big names coming to the league. This is why I think it was right to focus on the four big clubs at first, two from Riyadh and two from Jeddah.
What is the next step?
I believe a pause on acquisition is needed and to work a bit to build a professional league. For sure, (Saudi Pro League Director of Football) Michael Emenalo, (Chief Operating Officer) Carlo Nohra and the other people from abroad who came to work here brought in the expertise and experience to build. They always get back to you, guide you, they make suggestions. They are professionals, but clubs must have people who speak the same language as them.
What do you think is different in working for a club like Al-Fateh and one of the “Big Four” in Saudi now?
When I tried to present myself in Saudi Arabia, I wanted to have a humble approach. I had the feeling that if I ended up in those four clubs, the dynamics would have been different to what I was looking for. If I had started immediately in Hilal, Nassr, Ittihad or Ahli, the main focus wouldn’t have been to grow organically. We'd have been under pressure to bring in as many and as big a profile players as possible. Fateh did something different, even many years ago. Instead of buying players, they invested in their infrastructure and club organization.
How did you convince players to sign for Al-Fateh? What did you tell them?
There is no doubt that Fateh is one of the best clubs in terms of infrastructure and organization. The city is nice, there is nothing people would miss here in terms of restaurants and shops. It’s not Jeddah, it’s not by the sea, and it’s not Riyadh either, that’s true. But you ask yourself: what do I need to be happy? A nice club, with some nice infrastructure. For me, it’s important not to get stuck in traffic for two hours each day. It takes 10 minutes to the training ground and back home. Do I need to go to the best restaurants? OK, five minutes away. The city has around one million inhabitants, it’s not small.
Over the past year, Al-Fateh signed Cristian Tello, a former Barcelona player, and Jason Denayer, who grew up at Man City. What matters more to them?
Tello came in the middle of last season, he’s a great player. He brought great quality and great professionalism to the club. He showed many the way to grow. You can learn a lot thanks to these kinds of players. He is also a great guy. Then, in the summer we signed Denayer and Zelarayan from Columbus Crew in the MLS. Convincing them was not easy. But this is where having a sporting director from Europe plays a big role. I know what kind of argument to speak about in order to make them feel that this was not just a club in Saudi Arabia but “the” club. Fateh has a dream, a plan to grow.
Slaven Bilic, the coach Al-Fateh signed this summer, did not have any success at Al-Ittihad. What made you choose him?
I spoke to some coaches who have never been here. That was a dangerous aspect. You can make a mistake with player recruitment, but if you make mistakes with the coach, then that’s a big problem. He handles all things. It’s very important to find a coach who went out of his comfort zone. This helps people adapt quickly. We didn’t need a coach who would come and complain from the start that things are not how he wished.
Last season, Al-Fateh finished sixth. What were your expectations for this season?
To be honest, when the Saudi Pro League sent us a file to fill out, asking what we expected from our club, I wrote: “Win or at least finish inside the top four.” People could have said I was (unreasonable), right? Considering the names of the players signed by Hilal, Nassr, Ittihad or Ahli, one could say that. But my mindset is to win. I can’t do my job thinking I can’t have the possibility to do something big.
What could make Al-Fateh get to the level of the big four spenders in the league? Just the money?
If I had the chance to sign four or five international players and a few good locals, I think the objective I’ve set would be really feasible. There are very good players who are not very famous or highly-priced. I mean, the difference between some of them is not worth €30-40 million (SR118-158 million) as the transfer fees show. Our transfer window activity can’t be similar to the four big clubs.
You are good friends with now Saudi National Team manager Roberto Mancini. Did you speak before he made the decision to work in Riyadh?
He knew I was here, he called and asked a few things about life here, about the level of the local players. He wanted to know a few personal and technical details. In the end, he decided to join the Saudi National Team. I’m very happy, it’s a matter of prestige for an Italian to lead the Saudi Arabian national team during these times of fantastic development.
Is this league revolution going to raise the Saudi players’ playing level?
I think local players will become better and better. If you play with the best, you will be better yourself. If you want to play tennis at the highest level, you should not play tennis with the ball boy. You know what I mean? You should compete against the best. Of course, you’ll lose the first match 6-0, then you’ll lose 6-2 or 6-3. Then, as you start to learn, you can compete. You learn how to train, how to play, how to live professionally. You don't just see what it means to be Cristiano Ronaldo for 90 minutes. But you see the process of becoming Cristiano Ronaldo as well. You see how he’s made, you see how he got to the level he is at. And it's the same with the other great players in the league, it's going to be very inspiring for local players. I was following the league last year as well, the level of play we witness today is completely different.
Did you feel the hype around you and how are teams outside Riyadh and Jeddah embracing this change?
The hype is linked to curiosity. Fans want to see the top players live for the first time. The priority is not to get the match to be lived in the same way it’s lived in Europe. But the infrastructure is getting better. Fateh’s new stadium has the perfect size, it’s a very good stadium. It’s way better to have 10,000 fans in an 11,000-seat stadium than 10,000 fans in a 50,000-seat venue. The feeling is much different, the atmosphere, everything. The focus was not on side activities, but on what happened on the pitch.