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 much-travelled Romanian coach took over at Damac in March and is now preparing to face his old club on Thursday night in Jeddah. (X: @DAMAC_CLUB)
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Updated 06 December 2023
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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.


Al-Hilal’s record 34-match winning run ends at Al-Ain

Al-Hilal’s record 34-match winning run ends at Al-Ain
Updated 18 April 2024
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Al-Hilal’s record 34-match winning run ends at Al-Ain

Al-Hilal’s record 34-match winning run ends at Al-Ain
  • Morocco striker Soufiane Rahimi was the star of the show after he scored a first-half hat-trick in a 4-2 win for Al-Ain in their semifinal first leg
  • Al-Hilal, the four-time Asian champions, last failed to win a game in September last year when they drew a Saudi Pro League match

AL-AIN: Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal saw their record run of 34 successive victories end on Wednesday at the hands of UAE’s Al-Ain in the Asian Champions League.
Morocco striker Soufiane Rahimi was the star of the show after he scored a first-half hat-trick in a 4-2 win for Al-Ain in their semifinal first leg.
Al-Hilal, the four-time Asian champions, last failed to win a game in September last year when they drew a Saudi Pro League match.
Wednesday’s game had been postponed 24 hours after torrential rain swamped the UAE and the record-setting Saudis must have wished it had kept raining.
Rahimi opened the scoring after just six minutes from a pass by Yahia Nader and added a second from the penalty spot 20 minutes later after he was brought down by goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais who was yellow carded for his troubles.
Rahimi completed his hat-trick in the 40th minute, again from a penalty after Ali Al-Bulayhi chopped down Brazilian defender Erik in the area.
Al-Hilal reduced the deficit early in the second period when Malcom scored from a pass by Sergej Milinkovic-Savic.
However, the Saudis conceded yet another penalty just before the hour mark with Kalidou Koulibaly bringing down Rahimi.
This time Paraguayan star Alejandro Romero took over spot-kick duties to make it 4-1 for Al-Ain, the inaugural winners of the Asian Champions League in 2003.
Salem Al-Dawsari kept Al-Hilal in the tie ahead of next Tuesday’s return leg by scoring his team’s second goal of the night in the 78th minute.
Earlier Wednesday, South Korea’s Ulsan claimed a slender lead in their semifinal with a 1-0 first leg win over Japan’s Yokohama F-Marinos.


Saudi beat Tajikistan 4-2 in AFC U-23 Asian Cup group opener

Saudi beat Tajikistan 4-2 in AFC U-23 Asian Cup group opener
Updated 17 April 2024
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Saudi beat Tajikistan 4-2 in AFC U-23 Asian Cup group opener

Saudi beat Tajikistan 4-2 in AFC U-23 Asian Cup group opener
  • The Green Falcons lead Group C on goal difference as Thailand beat Iraq

DOHA: Saudi Arabia kicked off their 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup campaign in style with a 4-2 win over Tajikistan on Tuesday at Khalifa International Stadium in Al-Rayyan.

In the other Group C match, Thailand defeated Iraq 2-0 at Al-Janoub in Al-Wakrah.

The Green Falcons now have three points and lead their group ahead of Thailand on goal difference. Tajikistan and Iraq are third and fourth respectively with zero points.

Saudi Arabia took the lead on seven minutes through Rayane Hamidou, but Tajikistan struck back through Ruslan Khayloev after 23 minutes. Deep into stoppage time at the end of the first period, Saudi regained the advantage thanks to Haitham Asiri.

Saad Al-Shehri’s men looked to have put the game to bed with goals by Ayman Yahya on 55 and 61 minutes, before Rustam Soirov gave Tajikistan a glimmer of hope nine minutes later to make it 4-2.

Earlier in the day, Japan beat China 1-0 in the opening match in Group B at Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium, before South Korea defeated the UAE team at Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium.

Saudi Arabia’s next game is against Thailand on Friday. They will then face Iraq on April 22. 

The 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup, which sees 16 nations split into four groups of four, also acts as a route to the Olympic Games in Paris this summer.

The top two teams from each group progress to the quarterfinals, with the winners of both semifinals automatically qualifying for the Olympics.

The losing semifinalists will contest third place, with the winner also booking a spot in Paris. The fourth-place finishers have one final chance to secure a place at the Games through a play-off against an African qualifier.


Al-Hilal shifts focus to the Asian Champions League semifinals as it continues a four-title bid

Al-Hilal shifts focus to the Asian Champions League semifinals as it continues a four-title bid
Updated 16 April 2024
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Al-Hilal shifts focus to the Asian Champions League semifinals as it continues a four-title bid

Al-Hilal shifts focus to the Asian Champions League semifinals as it continues a four-title bid
  • Al-Hilal are in contention for an unprecedented collection of four titles

DUBAI: The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema haven’t been able to halt Al-Hilal’s dominant run in Saudi Arabia’s domestic football league. Now it’s the turn of Al-Ain of the UAE to come up against this seemingly unstoppable force in the semifinals of the Asian Champions League.

Al-Hilal are in contention for an unprecedented collection of four titles. The first trophy was secured last week when Malcom scored twice for the club in a 4-1 win over Al-Ittihad in the Saudi Super Cup final. With seven games in the Saudi Pro League remaining, the Blues are 12 points clear of Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr.

On April 30, the Riyadh-based club will meet Al-Ittihad of Jeddah in the semifinals of the King’s Cup, a domestic knockout competition.

Al-Hilal also have their sights set on a record fifth continental title, though is expecting a challenge Tuesday against the Hernan Crespo coached Al-Ain, the 2003 champions who ousted Al-Nassr in the Asian Champions League quarterfinals.

“We have only won one trophy and there are three more to go for,” defender Ali Al-Bulaihi told Saudi Arabian TV ahead of the continental semifinals. “Al-Hilal is a system and everyone at the club from the bottom to the top works hard and this is the reason for success. We are not afraid of any team and we are ready for any challenge.”

Despite being without injured striker Aleksandar Mitrovic, the joint leading scorer in this season’s Asian Champions League, and Brazilian superstar Neymar, Al-Hilal are still in great form. The Super Cup victory over Ittihad extended their world record winning streak for top tier teams to 34 games.

While Al-Hilal is strongly favored to overcome Al-Ain and progress to next month’s final, the meeting in the eastern zone — Asia’s top continental club tournament is divided into two geographic halves until the final — appears closer to call.

The eastern zone playoff is between last season’s champion of South Korea and Japan’s runner-up as Ulsan HD, Asian champions in 2012 and 2022, welcomes Yokohama F. Marinos.

Five-time Japanese champion Yokohama has never reached this stage in Asia before, even under successful coaches Ange Postecoglou and Kevin Muscat.

Harry Kewell is the third successive Australian coach at the club and is hoping to take Yokohama all the way.

“It’s important to understand when I first came into the job it was always going to be a quick turnaround for us because of the AFC Champions League games that were coming up,” Kewell, appointed in December, said. “The attitude of the players has been excellent — the willingness from them to learn a slightly new style.”

“It’s been quite easy to implement my ideas,” added Kewell, who won the UEFA Champions League as a player with Liverpool in 2005. “They’ve accepted it and they’ve worked very hard in perfecting them throughout the games.”

Yokohama will host Ulsan in the return leg of the semifinals on April 24, a day after Al-Hilal takes on Al-Ain in Saudi Arabia.


Saudi FA to review fan code of conduct after supporter appears to whip player

Saudi FA to review fan code of conduct after supporter appears to whip player
Updated 15 April 2024
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Saudi FA to review fan code of conduct after supporter appears to whip player

Saudi FA to review fan code of conduct after supporter appears to whip player
  • Incident took place at the end of Al-Ittihad’s defeat by Al-Hilal in the Saudi Super Cup in Abu Dhabi
  • Footage shows Al-Ittihad striker Abderrazak Hamdallah throw water at a fan, who then strikes the player twice with what looks like a whip

RIYADH: The Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) is to review its spectator code of conduct after a supporter appeared to whip an Al-Ittihad player.

The incident took place at the end of Al-Ittihad’s defeat by Al-Hilal in the Saudi Super Cup in Abu Dhabi.

Footage that circulated on social media showed Al-Ittihad striker Abderrazak Hamdallah throw water at a fan, who then struck the player twice with what looked like a whip.

Moroccan Hamdallah scored for his side as they lost 4-1.

The SAFF said it was “shocked with the disgraceful scenes.”

A statement released by SAFF said: “Football in Saudi Arabia is a family game and, thankfully, fan disorder is extremely rare.”

It continued: “It’s why the actions of this ‘so called’ fan go against all that Saudi football represents and we completely condemn the incident.

“There will be a thorough review of the spectator code of conduct. The review will ensure updated rules and regulations are put in place to swiftly and effectively impose suitable penalties to help avoid any repeat of such incidents.”


Al-Hilal beats Al-Ittihad 4-1 in final of the Saudi Super Cup

Al-Hilal beats Al-Ittihad 4-1 in final of the Saudi Super Cup
Updated 12 April 2024
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Al-Hilal beats Al-Ittihad 4-1 in final of the Saudi Super Cup

Al-Hilal beats Al-Ittihad 4-1 in final of the Saudi Super Cup
  • “It was a difficult game and I am very happy to score two goals,” Malcom told Saudi television

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates: Al-Hilal beat Al-Ittihad 4-1 in the final of the Saudi Super Cup on Thursday to stay on course for an unprecedented quadruple.
The trophy, lifted in Abu Dhabi’s Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium, is the first of the season for the Riyadh giant but is unlikely to be the last as the team is also 12 points clear of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr at the top of the Saudi Pro League with just seven games remaining.
Al-Hilal, also in the semifinal of the Asian Champions League and the Saudi King’s Cup, has also expanded its world record winning streak for top-tier teams to 34 consecutive games in all competitions.
Three days after defeating Al-Nassr in the semifinal, during which Ronaldo was sent off for elbowing Ali Al-Bulaihi, two goals from Brazilian winger Malcom did the damage for Al-Hilal. Salem Al-Dawsari and Nasser Al-Dawsari sealed the win with late goals.
“It was a difficult game and I am very happy to score two goals,” Malcom told Saudi television. “We are also happy to collect our first title of the season but we are chasing more trophies.”
Ittihad striker Karim Benzema, signed from Real Madrid last summer, was unable to find the target while colleague Abderrazak Hamdallah made up for missing a penalty by getting on the scoresheet.
The Moroccan forward featured in a controversial incident at the end of the match, however, as he seemed to get involved in an altercation with a fan standing close to the field. The supporter was led away by security personnel.
In 2023, the Super Cup was expanded from a single game between the league champion and King’s Cup winner to include the runners-up from both competitions. It was also moved to Abu Dhabi.
Al-Hilal returns to the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday to take on Al-Ain in the first leg of the Asian Champions League semifinals as it seeks a record fifth continental title.
The club’s potentially record-breaking season comes after it spent about 350 million euros ($380 million) on player transfers after being taken over by the Saudi sovereign wealth operation, the Public Investment Fund which is controlled by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.