Nicola Innocentin: Al-Fateh a great project for players to join

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Updated 29 October 2023

Nicola Innocentin: Al-Fateh a great project for players to join

Nicola Innocentin: Al-Fateh a great project for players to join
  • The Italian former sporting director talked to Arab News about his time at Al-Fateh, the SPL’s unprecedented transfer activity and why Saudi players should benefit from playing alongside top players

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.

Bayern thrashed by Eintracht Frankfurt in Bundesliga

Bayern thrashed by Eintracht Frankfurt in Bundesliga
Updated 19 sec ago

Bayern thrashed by Eintracht Frankfurt in Bundesliga

Bayern thrashed by Eintracht Frankfurt in Bundesliga
BERLIN: Bayern Munich suffered a jolt to their title defense, losing their first league game of the season 5-1 in Frankfurt and handing Bayer Leverkusen the chance to open a six-point lead at the top of the Bundesliga.
In a wet and wild contest in Frankfurt, the hosts raced into an extraordinary 3-0 first-half lead, with Omar Marmoush, Junior Dina Ebimbe, and Hugo Larsson scoring the goals as Dino Toppmoeller’s side outmuscled a timid Bayern.
Joshua Kimmich dragged Bayern back into the match just before half-time but French midfielder Ebimbe had other ideas, capping a scintillating counter-attack after a mistake by Dayot Upamecano to make it four.
Ansgar Knauff added a fifth to put the game out of reach for Thomas Tuchel’s side to complete a memorable performance for Frankfurt, who become the first team to score five goals against Bayern in the first 60 minutes of a league game since Frankfurt themselves, in 1975.
Leaders Bayer Leverkusen travel to third-place Stuttgart on Sunday on a weekend when six of the Bundesliga’s top seven face each other.
Union Berlin won their first game since August 26 with a 3-1 victory over Borussia Moenchengladbach ensuring a winning start in the Bundesliga under new coach Nenad Bjelica.
The Croatian coach ran down the touchline to join the celebrations with his players as the team climbed to 15th.
Elsewhere, Werder Bremen arrested a four-game winless slump with a 2-0 win over Augsburg, secured by Niklas Stark’s first-half strike and Marvin Ducksch’s, midway through the second.
Heidenheim edged out Darmstadt with a 3-2 win in a meeting of two of the newly-promoted strugglers. Jan Schoeppner scored twice for Heidenheim, which leaves Darmstadt winless in seven Bundesliga games.
Freiburg sneaked a 1-0 win in Wolfsburg ahead of the day’s headline clash between Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig.

’Great feeling’ for Salah after landmark Liverpool goal

’Great feeling’ for Salah after landmark Liverpool goal
Updated 19 min 24 sec ago

’Great feeling’ for Salah after landmark Liverpool goal

’Great feeling’ for Salah after landmark Liverpool goal
  • Salah’s landmark strike inspired Liverpool’s fightback from a goal down to win 2-1 at 10-man Crystal Palace
  • Salah’s 14th goal this term made him the fifth player to score 200 for Liverpool in all competitions

LONDON: Mohamed Salah admitted his 200th Liverpool goal was a “great feeling” as the Egypt star urged his side to do “something special” in the Premier League title race.
Salah’s landmark strike inspired Liverpool’s fightback from a goal down to win 2-1 at 10-man Crystal Palace on Saturday.
Jurgen Klopp’s side stole the points thanks to Harvey Elliott’s stoppage-time winner.
But it was Salah’s deflected equalizer following Jordan Ayew’s dismissal that sparked Liverpool’s escape act.
Salah’s 14th goal this term made him the fifth player to score 200 for Liverpool in all competitions after Ian Rush (346), Roger Hunt (285), Gordon Hodgson (241) and Billy Liddell (228).
“The most important thing was that we won the game. It’s a great feeling. I’m happy for the record and that we won the game,” Salah said.
Liverpool left Selhurst Park on top of the table, although second-placed Arsenal would reclaim pole position with a win at Aston Villa later on Saturday.
Regardless of Liverpool’s position by the end of the weekend, Salah sees signs they can win the club’s first title since 2020.
“I see the mentality to keep fighting until the end. We keep doing that. We have a new team now because there’s six or seven players,” he said.
“We need to give them advice. They’re learning a lot and they’re really nice. We can do something special this year.”
Saluting the crucial contribution of substitute Elliott, Salah added: “He’s a good kid. he’s learning. I like to push him in the gym.
“He will have a good career. If he wants to speak then just come to me.”
The young midfielder insisted he has already learned plenty from Salah.
“My finish today just sums up what I’ve learned off him,” he said.
“If I spoke about the influence he’s had on me then everyone would get bored!“
On Liverpool’s title chances, Elliott added: “We’re going in the right direction. If we’re contenders at the end of the season then let’s go for it.
“The aim is to win the Premier League.”

Saudi Games medalists awarded

Saudi Games medalists awarded
Updated 09 December 2023

Saudi Games medalists awarded

Saudi Games medalists awarded
  • Athletes from across the Kingdom clinched medals in chess, rowing and judo at the Saudi Games
  • The award ceremony was held at Prince Faisal bin Fahad Olympic Complex Swimming Hall

RIYADH: Vice President of the Saudi Arabian Olympic and Paralympic Committee and Director of the Saudi Games Prince Fahad bin Jalawi has crowned the champions of the chess competitions.
The award ceremony was held at Prince Faisal bin Fahad Olympic Complex Swimming Hall in the presence of Dr. Abdullah Al-Wahshy, president of the Saudi Chess Federation.
In the men’s classic category, Ahmed Al-Rehaili secured the gold, Mohammed Salahat claimed the silver medal and Ahmed Al-Thebaiti clinched the bronze. In the women’s classic category, Dalia Al-Semairi earned the gold, followed by Hala Shahein with silver and Asma Al-Jabri with bronze.
Prince Fahad also awarded the winners of the judo competitions held yesterday at King Saud University’s Multipurpose Hall, in the presence of Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Bassam, president of the Saudi Judo Federation, and Matthew Favier, CEO of the Saudi Olympic Training Center.

Three gold medals for AlUla in judo
Men’s judo saw AlUla sweep the 60 kg podium yesterday, with club members Mohammed Firaq securing the gold medal, Mutaz Khawjah claiming silver, and Mohammed Falatah and Ali Menwayi clinching the bronze medals.
Abdullaziz Al-Bishi, representing AlUla, secured the gold medal in the men’s under 66 kg weight category, while Al-Qadisiyah’s Nader Hazazi took silver, and Al-Ittihad’s Abdullah Al-Barkati and Al-Ula’s Mounis Hawsawi shared the bronze.
In the men’s under 73 kg category, Abdullah Hammad from AlUla claimed gold. At the same time, Jawad Srdidi from Al-Shabab won silver, and Sulaiman Hamad from AlUla and Yassir Ayyad from Al-Ittihad earned bronze.
Additionally, Nayef Mazio from AlUla secured gold in the men’s over 90 kg weight category, with Rakan Zidan from Al-Tai winning silver, and Abdulkarim Al-Bishi from Al-Qadisiyah and Amjad Fallatah from Al-Qilwah claiming bronze.

Al-Qadisiyah cycling team clinches gold
Following yesterday’s events, Al-Qadisiyah cycling team was awarded the men’s team time trial gold with a race time of two hours, 16 minutes and 16 seconds. The team consisted of Faisal Suleiman Al-Shaya, Ahmed Abdulaziz Al-Omrani, Youssef Bilal Bdadou and Badr Abdulaziz Al-Muhanna.
Al-Salam team secured a second-place finish with a time of two hours, four minutes and 23 seconds, followed by Al-Fateh in third place with a time of two hours, four minutes and 54 seconds.
The winners were awarded by Abdullah Al-Wathlan, president of the Saudi Cycling Federation, and Asmaa bint Jasser Al-Jasser, the federation’s vice president.

Indoor rowing culminates
Ali Hussein Reza, president of the Saudi Rowing Federation, awarded Hassan Qadri the gold medal in the men’s 2000-meter rowing competition held yesterday at the Mahd Academy in the Prince Faisal bin Fahad Olympic Complex.
In the men’s 2000-meter event, Hassan Qadri took the gold with a final time of six minutes, 15 seconds, Rakan Alireza secured silver with six minutes, 15 seconds, and nine millizeconds, and Daniel Rover clinched bronze with six minutes, 19 seconds.
In the women’s 2000-meter competition, Emma Merrick secured the gold medal with a final time of seven minutes, 23 seconds, Haya Al-Mamy earned silver with a time of seven minutes, 29 seconds, and Kariman Abuljadayel took bronze with a time of seven minutes, 33 seconds.
In the mixed team indoor rowing competition, Team One, represented by Paula Rodrigues, Alanood Al-Solahim, Khaled Al-Dawood and Abdulrahman Mahmoud, secured the gold medal with a time of five minutes, 45 seconds. Team Seven, represented by Bassim Al-Amer, Jude Al-Talhi, Muteb Burayk and Ghady Ahmed, secured silver with a final time of five minutes, 51 seconds.

Rugby Sevens concludes
The Saudi Wolves clinched the gold medal in the Rugby Sevens competition, which concluded yesterday at Al-Riyadh Club. The Riyadh Falcons earned the silver medal, while Jeddah RFC secured the bronze. Ali Al-Dajani, president of the Saudi Rugby Federation, awarded the winners.

Ub Huishan NE dominate day one of FIBA 3x3 World Tour Jeddah Final

Ub Huishan NE dominate day one of FIBA 3x3 World Tour Jeddah Final
Updated 09 December 2023

Ub Huishan NE dominate day one of FIBA 3x3 World Tour Jeddah Final

Ub Huishan NE dominate day one of FIBA 3x3 World Tour Jeddah Final
  • Reigning champions from Serbia face Lausanne of Switzerland in the quarterfinals

JEDDAH: Serbian club Ub Huishan NE kicked off the FIBA 3x3 World Tour Jeddah Final 2023 with a pair of impressive victories to steal the show on Day 1 in front of a packed crowd at Jeddah Corniche on Friday night.

The reigning champions showcased their determination to retain the championship and remain unbeaten ahead of facing Lausanne of Switzerland in the quarterfinals.

The 14 teams from around the world who took part on the opening day of the FIBA 3x3 World Tour Final were: Ub Huishan NE, Miami, Liman Huishan NE, Vienna, Antwerp TOPdesk, Amsterdam HiPRO, Partizan Mozzart, Raudondvaris Hoptrans, Beijing, Ulaanbaatar MMC Energy, Lausanne Sport LS, San Juan, Paris, and Jeddah.

Before the basketball action kicked off, the audience was treated to a spectacular show marking the opening ceremony of the tournament.

The organizing committee also set up a cultural zone near the court to provide players, officials and spectators an opportunity to engage with others between games.

During the opening ceremony, No. 1 ranked Strahinja Stojacic received the Most Valuable Player award for the FIBA 3x3 World Tour 2023 regular season, voted on by a panel of fans and players.

The so-called Serbian “Dr. Strange” has claimed back-to-back MVP awards after the top-seeded Ub Huishan NE made one of the most dominant starts in World Tour history, winning six Masters in a row. Stojacic now has three MVPs in total this season.

The 31-year-old Serbian has made waves for his country as well, winning the FIBA 3x3 World Cup 2023 in Vienna, as well as the Europe Cup 2023.

The quarterfinal matchups are as follows:

Ub Huishan NE (SRB) — Lausanne Sport LS (SUI)

Antwerp TOPdesk (BEL) — Miami (USA)

Partizan Mozzart (SRB) — San Juan (PUR)

Amsterdam HiPRO (NED) — Raudondvaris Hoptrans (LTU)

SailGP returns to Dubai as season nears halfway point

SailGP returns to Dubai as season nears halfway point
Updated 09 December 2023

SailGP returns to Dubai as season nears halfway point

SailGP returns to Dubai as season nears halfway point
  • A whole season of change in less than two months sets up highly anticipated UAE round

DUBAI: As the season approaches the halfway point, SailGP is set for a highly anticipated weekend when the league returns to the UAE for the Emirates Dubai Sail Grand Prix presented by P&O Marinas, taking place Dec. 9-10 at Mina Rashid.

The buildup to the sixth event of Season 4 reads like a script from one of the Hollywood stars involved in the purchase of the US SailGP Team.

Jimmy Spithill is out as a driver, less than two months after delivering the US’ first win of the season in Cadiz-Andalucia, and in his place comes Taylor Canfield for the team now owned by a consortium of entertainment, sports and tech leaders.

However, Spithill has since announced his intention to set up an Italian team in Season 5 and is remarkably still driving in Dubai, representing his home country Australia for the first time since 2001 as replacement for Tom Slingsby, who is on paternity leave. Slingsby’s Australian team increased its championship lead to seven points after third in Cadiz-Andalucia but have now gone five straight finals without a win.

While Australia has benefited from Spithill’s temporary free agency for Dubai, Canada has also swooped in amid the changes to the US team. After Chris Draper stepped down as wing trimmer for Canada, they pounced to get Paul Campbell-James, who has been involved in SailGP since its inception.

Phil Robertson’s Canada will show off another US recruit in Philippe Presti, Canada’s new coach, replacing Joe Glanfield who is focusing on his role with the British Olympic team.

The Dubai event marks SailGP’s first of many Race for the Future takeovers, highlighting the league’s ongoing commitment and passion to climate action with COP28 currently ongoing in the iconic city. The takeover will showcase how the league is racing for impact, innovation, inclusivity and clean energy solutions.

The event has made history already in racing for inclusivity with a first-ever all-female F50 training session taking place in the buildup to racing after the Switzerland team provided their boat. On the ground, there will be a host of innovative activations delivered for the first time, showing how events can be run more sustainably.

This includes a reduction of 36 percent to the on-water fleet, such as racing management and coaches, and the largest temporary solar array Aggreko has ever installed at an event. The event is also powered by 100 percent clean energy.

Sir Ben Ainslie of Emirates Great Britain SailGP, meanwhile, has been among a number of athletes to speak at the global climate conference.

“It’s great to be here in Dubai. To have this opportunity to race as the home team with our Emirates partnerships and to get to the grassroots and get more youngsters out on the water is a proud moment,” he said.

“You couldn’t ask for a more prestigious brand than Emirates and they have invested a lot into our team and in this event. If you look at their involvement with so many other sports, you have to say that they invest in sports and teams for the long run, and this is just the start for a long run in Dubai and hopefully having more youngsters out on the water here in Dubai and who knows, maybe a local team in the future.”