Steven Gerrard aiming to be Al-Ettifaq’s modern-day ‘Nawkhada’

Steven Gerrard aiming to be Al-Ettifaq’s modern-day ‘Nawkhada’
Ettifaq coach Steven Gerrard speaks to Hamed Al-Ghamdi during the Roshn Saudi Pro League match against Al Fayha. (Getty images)
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Updated 20 November 2023

Steven Gerrard aiming to be Al-Ettifaq’s modern-day ‘Nawkhada’

Steven Gerrard aiming to be Al-Ettifaq’s modern-day ‘Nawkhada’
  • The former Liverpool captain is building team he hopes can emulate the club’s 1980s success

RIYADH: The summer of 2023 marked 40 years since the most memorable moment in the history of Al-Ettifaq, the green and red club based in Dammam on the eastern shores of Saudi Arabia.

It was in the 1982-83 season that Al-Ettifaq made Saudi football history, becoming the first team in the nation’s history to win the league without a single defeat. It was the first league triumph for a club that was until that point not considered one of Saudi Arabia’s powerhouses, and it would be followed by only one more league title, four years later.

The success of the 1980s shaped the identity of the club nicknamed “Al-Nawkhada,” a nod to the ancient profession of Nawkhada, captains of the traditional dhow boats that roamed the waters of the Arabian Gulf for centuries, transporting goods between the Arabian Peninsula and places like India, Iran and East Africa as well as carrying experienced pearl divers on whose shoulders the fortunes of the region were built long before the discovery of oil.

Coach Khalil Al-Zayani was the original Nawkhada, leading Al-Ettifaq to their two league titles as well as guiding Saudi Arabia to their maiden AFC Asian Cup trophy in 1984.

Four decades later, Steven Gerrard, a man who established his legendary status in two iconic port cities thousands of miles away, in Liverpool as a player and then in Glasgow as a coach, is hoping to become the new Nawkhada in Saudi Arabia’s main port city of Dammam.

The former Liverpool captain says his journey to the Middle East began six months before putting pen to paper at the Prince Mohammed bin Fahd Stadium, when an icon of his former club’s fiercest rivals, Manchester United, arrived in the Kingdom.

“The arrival of ‘The GOAT’ as we call him, Cristiano (Ronaldo), in January (was) a huge signing. He still had a lot of football to offer,” said Gerrard as he sat in front of the Roshn Saudi League cameras.

“So, from afar, for six months, I was looking in at Ronaldo’s results, at the league, watching results and highlights. I think from that moment, the league around the world had become a popular talking point for everyone. After Ronaldo’s arrival, even more big-name signings, talents and skillsets were joining the league.

“At the time, it coincided with me being out of the game and looking for my next opportunity, so I was fascinated from afar looking in, and when my agents brought a couple of opportunities from the Gulf area at the time, I was fascinated to explore them.”

After a short trip to the Eastern Province where he explored the club facilities, discussed with the board and learned about the history and ambitions of the club hoping to restore their glory days and compete with the established elite of the RSL, Gerrard’s mind was made up.

“The Ettifaq proposal and opportunity was the most exciting for me because I’ve signed up to a club where the board are very passionate. They understand where the club are, they understand it’s something that’s going to need building, and it’s going to take time. That’s the reason why I was very interested to analyze this one because in my job you need time, especially when a club has finished seventh in the league and so many points behind the top four, that’s not an easy fix; it’s not something you fix in a week, a month, or six months. It’s a project to build on the pitch, which is obviously the priority, but also a lot of things needed to change around it to give the first team the support it needs.”

In a summer when the RSL title challengers brought in the likes of Neymar, Karim Benzema, Riyad Mahrez and Sadio Mane, Gerrard had the task of rebuilding his squad, albeit not with the same resources or promise of immediate success that the likes of Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr or Al-Ittihad could offer.

The first port of call for the Scouser was the man who succeeded him in wearing the Liverpool captain’s armband, Jordan Henderson, and for Gerrard, the decision to bring his former teammate was a no-brainer. 

“I think when you’re the coach, the manager, you want players going into games that can be an extended version of the staff. People, who can really help on-pitch coaching, where the team needs to be in terms of distances, to make on-field decisions.

“Myself and Jordan (Henderson), we have that trust. We played together and he’s a fantastic player still, a fantastic human being. For us, to execute that signing was key and very important and I think a lot of the other signings we made came on the back of Jordan agreeing to come here. I think he wanted to still play, I think that was the key.

“He was at Liverpool at the time. He’s had a fantastic career, he’s achieved everything at that club, he’s been a fantastic servant to Liverpool Football Club, but I think in the previous months, maybe him not being a regular starter in the team, when you get to that age.

“I’ve been there myself under Brendan Rodgers. When you’re the captain, you play all the games, then all of a sudden you’re on the bench or you’re not getting as many minutes as you’d like, and that’s when you analyze and think about the different challenges, and when we knew it was a possibility, I wanted to be aggressive and wanted that to be my first signing, because for me it was a no-brainer.

“Still a fantastic player, he’s a leader, an on-pitch coach,” Gerrard added. “His standards on how he lives his daily life on and off the pitch is good for our young players to see, watch and learn. Jordan understands the size of the project, that it’s not a quick fix. He wants to be part of the journey and building it with us, but he was a very important signing at a key time.”

With one former Liverpool player signed, attention turned to another member of the 2019 UEFA Champions League winning side’s midfield. Dutchman Giorgino Wijnaldum had just returned to Paris Saint-Germain following a disappointing loan spell at AS Roma where his single season under Jose Mourinho was plagued by an injury that kept him out of the side for over half of the 2022-23 campaign.

“Gini (Wijnaldum) recently hasn’t played as much football as he would have liked,” said Gerrard. “He had an injury where he broke his leg, and his last couple of experiences haven’t brought him football happiness, so he was looking to play regular football, he wanted to smile again, to feel an important part of the team and we could give him that platform.

“He’s got many similarities to Jordan in terms of leadership, professionalism. He’s a winner, a different type to Jordan in terms of style, but they complement each other very well and I’ve seen that firsthand being a Liverpool fan for many years. We’re looking for that combination, we’re looking for that leadership and we’re looking for them to play those key roles in terms of presence and contribution on the pitch.

Looking for further additions to enable his squad to compete at the top, Gerrard was in pursuit of an established goalscorer and he looked no further than a man with connections to his former Old Firm rivals Celtic.

“I watched Moussa Dembele for many years up in Scotland when he played for Celtic and competed against him, so I’ve seen him live and up close a lot of times. He’s a goalscorer, he scores important goals. He’s a box player, he gives you profile, he gives you strength, structure and I think it’s important to have a focal point in your team as your forward and Moussa gives us that.

“Bringing the likes of Jordan Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum, Moussa Dembele and Jack Hendry, it was important they were the right characters. The right people to also support us and give us a good core strength in the dressing room.” 

Al-Shabab manager Igor Biscan all business as former Liverpool teammate comes to town

Al-Shabab manager Igor Biscan all business as former Liverpool teammate comes to town
Updated 06 December 2023

Al-Shabab manager Igor Biscan all business as former Liverpool teammate comes to town

Al-Shabab manager Igor Biscan all business as former Liverpool teammate comes to town
  • The Roshn Saudi League battle of the former Reds takes place on Dec. 7
  • Igor Biscan: We’re not really in a position to think about anything else apart from getting as many points as we can as soon as we can

RIYADH: Igor Biscan says it will be strictly business when he faces former Liverpool teammate Steven Gerrard in a fascinating clash in the Roshn Saudi League.

Biscan, appointed Al-Shabab manager in mid-October, goes head-to-head in a home game against Gerrard’s Al-Ettifaq on Thursday night. The two played together at Anfield for five years, helping the English club to a memorable Champions League triumph in 2005.

Al-Shabab, currently 12th in the table, go into Thursday’s game after three matches without a win. Al-Ettifaq, five places above them, are four league games without victory.

Biscan said: “It’s a big, important game for us because of the points, first and foremost. The other things are always interesting — seeing a former teammate, somebody like Steven — but we will not have too much time to enjoy ourselves.

“We’re not really in a position to think about anything else apart from getting as many points as we can as soon as we can. They have many more points than us in the table, but they are also not in a great period — in the last few games they have lost or didn’t win.”

Biscan was critical of his team following a 2-1 home loss to Al-Taawoun last weekend. Al-Shabab led 1-0 at the interval through a cheeky Panenka penalty by Yannick Carrasco that clipped the underside of the bar. But “a different team came out of the dressing room for the second half,” and Al-Taawoun came back strongly to run out deserved winners.

Speaking about Al-Ettifaq, Biscan added: “They’re a tough team to play against and we need to prepare ourselves not only for one half, but for 90-plus minutes. That’s the only way we can win any game in the future.”

Gerrard also criticized his side after their recent loss. Al-Ettifaq went down 1-0 at Al-Okhdood, who climbed to 15th in the 18-team league.

Gerrard said: “I apologize to our fans. The performance was far from what we intended.”

Al-Shabab versus Al-Ettifaq kicks off on Thursday at 9 p.m. Saudi time at Al-Shabab’s stadium in Riyadh.

E-visas available for 2023 FIFA Club World Cup ticket holders

E-visas available for 2023 FIFA Club World Cup ticket holders
Updated 06 December 2023

E-visas available for 2023 FIFA Club World Cup ticket holders

E-visas available for 2023 FIFA Club World Cup ticket holders

Riyadh: The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs revealed on Wednesday that electronic visas would be available to ticket holders for the 2023 FIFA Club World Cup in Jeddah.

The move has been made in cooperation with the Ministry of Sport.

“The step aims to facilitate travel procedures to the Kingdom for football fans to attend the 2023 Club World Cup matches, and also aims to provide the best possible experience for fans to visit the Kingdom and support their clubs during the tournament in an enthusiastic atmosphere,” a ministry statement said.

Ticket holders can apply online for an e-visa to attend the tournament’s games.

The Kingdom will host the competition from Dec. 12 to 22, with the participation of Al-Ittihad, the Roshn Saudi League champions for the 2022 to 2023 season.

Cosmin Contra: I guaranteed Al-Ittihad would win the league based on my work there

Cosmin Contra: I guaranteed Al-Ittihad would win the league based on my work there
Updated 06 December 2023

Cosmin Contra: I guaranteed Al-Ittihad would win the league based on my work there

Cosmin Contra: I guaranteed Al-Ittihad would win the league based on my work there
  • The Romanian coach spoke about his stint with the reigning champions ahead of their SPL clash with new club Damac on Thursday

KHAMIS MUSHAYT: Cosmin Contra has opened up about his departure from Al-Ittihad after missing out on the Saudi Pro League title in 2022, and how he always believed the club would become champions thanks to his efforts.

The much-travelled Romanian coach took over at Damac in March and is now preparing to face his old club on Thursday night in Jeddah. 

Damac are currently eighth in the standings, while Al-Ittihad have risen to fourth in recent weeks under new coach Marcelo Gallardo. 

Talking to Arab News, Contra revealed what motivates him while coaching a club not in the hunt for trophies and explained how local players have been inspired by playing alongside the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema.

How are you experiencing the Saudi football revolution in charge of Damac, a club outside the main focus of the SPL right now?

As a coach, you try to do your job as well as you can. I must make the team better, have better players and deliver decent results. This is why I’m working every day. There’s a football revolution taking place in the Saudi league right now, it’s harder and harder against each opponent. All of them are better all of a sudden. It is a big challenge. 

You joined Damac before the big investments started in the summer. Did you foresee this influx of foreign players?

No, I didn’t think they’d spend so much. Top players from around the world are coming to Saudi Arabia, I didn’t expect that to happen so fast. We (Damac) are working on a small budget, we are a small club. We want to keep growing year after year, to always aim higher than the year before. I hope we manage to achieve our goals.

You were in charge at Al-Ittihad two years ago. In March, you joined Damac. How much better is the league following all these big-money moves?

It’s a much stronger league than a few years ago. I’m not just talking about Hilal, Nassr, Ittihad and Ahli — almost every team is better. It’s hard to win against every opponent in Saudi Arabia, that has made the league so much better. 

How do you prepare for games against the big teams?

You can’t treat Ronaldo, Benzema and the other stars like normal opponents, because they aren’t. They are huge champions and players who can make a difference at any point during the match.

When you play the big teams, your job is easier from a certain point of view. Your players are already ultra-motivated, they want to do something remarkable and get a result. You don’t need to create ambition; they already have it. You have to move tactically, to try and surprise even those who seem hard to be surprised. Each team has a weakness, you need to find it and to try and exploit it in your favor. That’s the fun of it.

Are players ever overwhelmed by the quality of their opponents?

No. The players know what to expect. We must be ready each week, that’s our duty. We must leave everything we have on the pitch. If we do that, we stand a chance of winning. The league is better and my players need to embrace progress.

Is this revolution good or bad for local players?

Everything takes time, but it is clear local players have a lot to win. They are training and playing alongside champions who wrote the history of this game. The mentality of the big players is fantastic. All those around them have something to earn. But the development doesn’t need to end here. The infrastructure should be better, training facilities too. And more attention should be given to the youth. I know the people in Saudi Arabia and I’m sure they will focus on these aspects very soon.

There is a lot of pressure on the keepers as well — they are facing some of the best forwards in world football.

It depends on the team as well. There are 10 players in front of you if you’re a keeper. As far as I can tell, keepers are coping well. Mine are training hard. You need to talk to them, to permanently encourage them. There are a lot of great local keepers in Saudi Arabia, the quality is there, and they have talent. I’m happy with my goalkeepers.

Do you feel the local players’ approach towards the game has changed over the past six months?

Our role is to make them aware of what it means to be a player. It’s a job you are paid to do. We are trying to change some existing mentalities. Maybe some players didn’t have enough motivation before. Things have changed, yes. Players are more professional, and they are adapting to change. They want to be better. For me, when I see this in my team, the satisfaction is immense. It’s extraordinary to feel you’re contributing and improving local players.

Your previous experience in Saudi Arabia was at the helm of Al-Ittihad, one of the country’s giants. How was that different to now?

You can’t compare Al-Ittihad and Damac. Ittihad is one of the biggest clubs in Asia and the pressure is immense. We have pressure here too but of a different kind. I want us to stay in a safe place, to be in the middle of the pack, a bit higher if possible. That’s our goal at Damac, as well as improving the players we have.

We don’t want the stress of a relegation battle. Ittihad and Damac are two very different clubs, it’s hard to compare them. Basically, at Al-Ittihad, you must win every game. Here, in Damac, it’s the pressure we put ourselves under. Staff and players want to win as much as possible and never give up. Different perspectives, different types of work.

In 2022, you lost the SPL title to Al-Hilal on the last day of the season. Do you think your career would have been different had you won the title with Ittihad?

Probably. You never know these things. I had a deal to stay on as Ittihad’s coach no matter what happened, but the club changed their mind. I know the work I did there. I told the bosses: “Look, if we don’t win the title this season, I guarantee 100 percent the team is ready to do it next year.” That’s what happened, but under another manager.

Are you happy with your work there?

The work I did was good. The team continued on the same note and the title was finally celebrated. Had I stayed, I’m sure I’d have won the league with Ittihad, I have no doubt in my mind. I know the work I did and how I prepared the team. I don’t know what would have happened had I won the league at the first attempt. Strange things happen. I could have won and still be shown the door as my contract was expiring. 

Do you think smaller clubs in the SPL will benefit from big investment in the years to come?

I believe so, yes. Clubs will get enough money to make sure the league is competitive as a whole. I don’t know if investment will ever be at the same extent as in the top four, but budgets will go higher and we’ll be able to sign better players ourselves.

Are more players offering their services now?

There are a lot of players who want to come here. But at this point it’s really difficult to negotiate with them because agents hear about huge amounts of money and think all clubs in Saudi Arabia can pay the same. That’s not the case but some don’t understand only a few clubs can pay stratospheric amounts. 

Do you face any daily struggles as Damac coach?

I don’t have many problems. We have a respect-based relationship with everyone — club officials, players and fans. It wasn’t easy in the beginning, maybe a bit hard to motivate some of them at first, but now we are all pulling in the same direction. All the boys are professional, it’s much easier for me to do my job.

Do you feel you are part of one of football’s biggest revolutions?

Certainly, 100 percent. Imagine, they transformed a league not many outside the country cared about. That wasn’t easy. More and more money will be invested. We are on the sidelines and try to support in any way we can, so the product and the football here get better and better.

Ronaldo-less Al-Nassr draw as Al-Fayha win on perfect AFC Champions League night for Saudi Arabia

Ronaldo-less Al-Nassr draw as Al-Fayha win on perfect AFC Champions League night for Saudi Arabia
Updated 06 December 2023

Ronaldo-less Al-Nassr draw as Al-Fayha win on perfect AFC Champions League night for Saudi Arabia

Ronaldo-less Al-Nassr draw as Al-Fayha win on perfect AFC Champions League night for Saudi Arabia
  • With Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad already qualified, the Kingdom will have 4 clubs in the round of 16

Al-Nassr rested their overseas stars, including Cristiano Ronaldo, but still ended top of Group E in the AFC Champions League, and unbeaten, after a 1-1 draw at Istiklol of Tajikistan on Tuesday night.

The real story however was Al-Fayha which pulled off a stunning 4-1 win at Pakhtakor of Uzbekistan to progress to the round of 16, where Saudi Arabia will have four teams out of four, after Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad progressed on Monday.

Al-Nassr, coming off a 3-0 loss in the Riyadh derby against bitter rivals Al-Hilal on Friday, had already secured top spot before the clash against the already-eliminated team from Dushanbe. It meant that coach Luis Castro fielded an all-Saudi Arabian starting 11 with Sadio Mane, Anderson Talisca, Aymeric Laporte and Seko Fofana on the bench, and Ronaldo rested and back in Riyadh.

With the hosts already out and the visitors through, there was a lack of intensity and cohesion from Al-Nassr in the first half, unsurprising perhaps given the changes made. It was not a surprise when Alisher Dzhalilov opened the scoring just after the half hour to delight a large home crowd, some of whom could be seen wearing the Riyadh team’s yellow shirt.

Abdulrahman Ghareeb, who was to later make amends, gave the ball away in a dangerous position and Dzhalilov took possession, advanced toward the area and then fired a low shot that rolled past the diving Raghed Najjar who perhaps should have done a little better.

It was a poor first half from Al-Nassr but there was an immediate improvement after the break. Four minutes into the second half, the team from Riyadh were level thanks to Ghareeb.

Goalkeeper Rustam Yatimov palmed out a cross from the right into the crowded box and there was the forward, whose first shot came back off a defender and he then fired home the rebound. Soon after, Ghareeb, visibly growing in confidence, shot from the edge of the area to draw a fine save from Yatimov. Just after the hour, the goalkeeper was beaten but Sami Al-Najei’s shot from the left side of the area rolled just past the post.

Ghareeb and Talisca, who came off the bench, went close before the final whistle. All in all, it ended a fine group stage for Al-Nassr.

It was even better for Saudi Arabia as a whole as earlier Al-Fayha recorded the shock result of the day, coming from behind in Uzbekistan to defeat Pakhtakor 4-1.

The Central Asian powerhouse needed a win to progress to the second round and took a 16th minute lead through Khojimat Erkinov.

The goal fired Al-Fayha into action. Fashion Sakala has been in fine form this season since arriving from Scotland and equalized five minutes before the break. Immediately after, Sultan Mandash put the visitors in the lead and Henry Onyekuru sealed the win near the end. There was still time for Sakala to grab his second and Al-Fayha’s fourth.

The win put coach Vuk Rasovic and his men into second in Group A but they had to wait to find out if they were to advance as one of three of five best runners-up in the western zone.

They needed Persepolis of Iran to fail to defeat Qatar’s Al-Duhail.

It started badly as Persepolis took a seventh minute lead through Shahab Zahedi though the visitors soon levelled thanks to Mohammed Muntari.

With nine minutes remaining, the Tehran titans were awarded a penalty but Giorgi Gvelesiani missed and the Georgian and the home fans were left to rue that spurned opportunity just two minutes later as Michael Olunga gave the Qataris the lead.

Persepolis could not get the two goals needed, meaning that Al-Fahya, which lost three of the first four games of the group, will go through to make it four out of four for Saudi Arabia in the knockout stages.

Jota seals top spot for Al-Ittihad in AFC Champions League’s Group C

Jota seals top spot for Al-Ittihad in AFC Champions League’s Group C
Updated 05 December 2023

Jota seals top spot for Al-Ittihad in AFC Champions League’s Group C

Jota seals top spot for Al-Ittihad in AFC Champions League’s Group C
  • Jota's contribution means Tigers finish group with five wins and one defeat and can look forward to knockout stages

JEDDAH: Al-Ittihad took top spot in Group C in the Asian Champions League on Monday following a 2-1 win over Sepahan in Jeddah.

It marked a third straight victory for new coach Marcelo Gallardo and, more importantly, the return to action after a lengthy injury for center-back Ahmed Hegazi, although Karim Benzema and N’Golo Kante are still struggling with injuries.

It proved a rewarding night for the 2004 and 2005 champions, although the game was far from easy against a strong Sepahan side.

The early stages went according to plan for the hosts, though, and in the 14th minute Saleh Al-Amri scored in spectacular fashion. He lined up a free-kick just outside the penalty area before curling the ball home into the corner of the net.

Fabinho then had the chance to extend the lead but his header was off target.

There was nothing wrong with the header from Sepahan’s Ramin Rezaeian three minutes after the restart, though. Mohammad Daneshgar’s long ball from the left side found the forward free at the back post and his header bounced once before ending up high in the top corner of the net beyond Abdullah Al-Mayouf, who was in goal in place of usual No. 1 Marcelo Grohe.

The experienced goalkeeper had an impressive game and made a number of vital saves against opponents who enjoyed more possession and had more attempts on goal than the hosts.

It was left to Jota to settle the tie midway through the second half with his first goal in the Asian competition. After a slow and patient buildup from the back, Abderrazak Hamdallah picked up possession just outside the Iranians’ area and slipped the ball through for the Portuguese winger to stab home the winner.

Rezaeian almost earned the visitors a share of the spoils with a late free-kick but Al-Mayouf saved to give Ittihad and their new Argentine coach another win.

It means that the Tigers finish the group with five wins and one defeat and can look forward to the knockout stages, which start in 2024, with confidence.

It also means that, following a league game against Damac on Thursday, Ittihad can focus on the FIFA Club World Cup in Jeddah and an opening game against Oceania champions Auckland City. Gallardo will be hoping that the likes of Benzema and Kante can return to fitness in time for the tournament.

But, for now, Ittihad are on the winning track.