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)
Short Url
Updated 06 December 2023
Follow

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.


Cristiano Ronaldo handed one match ban, fine after obscene gesture

Cristiano Ronaldo handed one match ban, fine after obscene gesture
Updated 17 min 10 sec ago
Follow

Cristiano Ronaldo handed one match ban, fine after obscene gesture

Cristiano Ronaldo handed one match ban, fine after obscene gesture
  • The Saudi Arabian Football Federation’s Ethics and Discipline Committee also ordered the Portuguese star to pay an additional SR20,000 to Al-Shabab, as compensation for the Riyadh club’s complaint filing fees

RIYADH: Al-Nassr striker Cristiano Ronaldo has been suspended for one match and fined SR10,000 ($2,666) after making an offensive gesture following his team’s victory over Al-Shabab in the Saudi Pro League on Sunday.

The Saudi Arabian Football Federation’s Ethics and Discipline Committee also ordered the Portuguese star to pay an additional SR20,000 to Al-Shabab, as compensation for the Riyadh club’s complaint filing fees.

Following the game on Sunday, videos posted on social media showed Ronaldo cupping his ear and repeatedly thrusting his hand forward near his pelvis, seemingly aimed at rival Al-Shabab supporters.

In the background, chants of “Messi” could be heard, referring to Ronaldo’s longstanding football rival from Argentina.

The committee called in the five-time Ballon d’Or winner to hear his response to the complaint filed by Al-Shabab, and asked the official broadcaster to provide footage of the incident in question.

The committee said in a statement that the decision is non-appealable.

This is not the first time that the Portuguese legend has been at the heart of fan controversy.

Earlier this month, the star was seen putting a scarf down his shorts before throwing it back at Al-Hilal fans after Al-Nassr loss in the Riyadh Season Cup. In the same game, the striker reacted angrily to Al-Hilal fans chanting the name of Lionel Messi.

Last year, the 39-year-old attacker grabbed his crotch after Al-Hilal fans taunted him by again invoking the name of the Argentine World Cup winner.


Hamdallah proves irreplaceable for Al-Ittihad despite influx of stars

Hamdallah proves irreplaceable for Al-Ittihad despite influx of stars
Updated 28 February 2024
Follow

Hamdallah proves irreplaceable for Al-Ittihad despite influx of stars

Hamdallah proves irreplaceable for Al-Ittihad despite influx of stars
  • The Moroccan international was expected to exit the reigning SPL champions but has ended up being their most consistent forward this season

Al-Ittihad’s defense of the Saudi Pro League title has largely been one to forget.

Despite some early season promise that had them top for the first month, the wheels quickly fell off culminating in a disappointing showing in December’s FIFA Club World Cup and speculation that star signing Karim Benzema wanted out.

As recently as round seven they were still top of the table, but just 14 matches later they are now fifth and a whopping 22 points behind league leaders Al-Hilal. Any notion of going back-to-back has long since disappeared.

Their mission now is to simply try to close the gap on third-placed Al-Ahli, their crosstown Jeddah rivals, in the hope of securing what is still an unlikely spot in next season’s reformed AFC Champions League Elite competition.

Whereas last season they had one of the best defenses in the league — and one of the best on record in Saudi Pro League history — this season they have the equal worst of the top six.

Nuno Espirito Santo, meanwhile, who spearheaded that drought-breaking title triumph, has been moved on for hotshot Argentine manager Marcelo Gallardo.

But as bad as it has been, it could have been so much worse were it not for the goals of Moroccan international Abderrazak Hamdallah, who has 15 from 17 games this season.

The veteran striker has made a name for himself in the Kingdom since joining Al-Nassr after an equally fruitful stint in Qatar with El-Jaish and Al-Rayyan.

Scoring a league record 34 goals in his debut season with Al-Nassr, and 29 in his second season, he transferred to Al-Ittihad during the 2021-2022 season and has registered double digits in each of his five SPL seasons before the current campaign, making him one of the SPL’s all-time leading scorers.

It has also won him the hearts of Ittihad’s large and fervently faithful fanbase.

But after Al-Ittihad’s stunning capture of Benzema, regarded as one of the best strikers of the modern era, questions were naturally asked as to what the future held for the 33-year-old Hamdallah.

It seems inconceivable that the title-winning team would move on their leading striker who had just won the league’s golden boot, but that is what almost eventuated.

It is understood that the plan inside the walls of Al-Ittihad was to move the striker on — after all, they had Benzema now — only relenting after growing fan pressure against the move, giving the Moroccan a reprieve.

While running your recruitment based on the wishes of the fans is perhaps not the smartest strategy, it could be argued it was their best management decision of the summer.

Still only 33 and with plenty of years ahead of him, Hamdallah is what every team craves — a natural and reliable goalscorer. And as Al-Ittihad’s title defense has faltered, it is largely the goals from Hamdallah that is keeping their campaign alive.

His brace in their come-from-behind 2-1 victory over Al-Wehda on the weekend was further proof of his importance to Gallardo’s side.

Looking back, it seems incredulous that he could have been moved on. He will know how close he was and you get the sense he is playing with that chip on his shoulder, that every time he steps foot on the pitch, he has a point to prove.

And boy is he proving it.

His form this season also serves as a timely reminder that the SPL did not begin with the influx of headline signings in the most recent off-season.

Before the arrival of Benzema, Riyad Mahrez, Neymar and even before Cristiano Ronaldo, the SPL still attracted elite talent.

While Hamdallah may not possess the profile of those recent arrivals, his quality cannot be questioned. The same can be said for Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr teammate, Anderson Talisca.

After Ronaldo’s arrival in Riyadh there was speculation that the Brazilian would be moved on; deemed surplus to requirements at a club that had to shed a foreign player to make way for Ronaldo.

Talisca remained and this season he and Ronaldo have combined for 35 of Al-Nassr’s 60 goals.

Write these guys off at your peril.

As Al-Ittihad prepare for a season-defining fortnight, which will feature three Saudi Clasico’s against the high-flying Al-Hilal — one in the league and home-and-away ties in the AFC Champions League — they will do so grateful to have the Moroccan leading the line.

Having scored in eight consecutive league matches dating back to November, his form is imperious. His five goals in three games since the league resumed from its winter break make him the league’s most in-form striker.

While their title defense may be over, that does not mean they cannot impact where the silverware goes this season. Not to mention there is still silverware of their own to play for in the form of the AFC Champions League, where he has registered a further four goals.

Staring down this Al-Hilal side is a daunting prospect — their winning streak currently stands at 24 across all competitions (26 if you include friendly wins over Inter Miami and Al-Nassr). Their undefeated streak is now at 34 games.

And as good as his scoring record is, Hamdallah has only scored once against Al-Hilal since joining Al-Ittihad two years ago; that coming in their 4-3 loss earlier this season. It is a wrong he will be determined to right over the next fortnight.

In a season to forget for Al-Ittihad, Hamdallah could still deliver moments to remember and that starts with this week’s trip to Riyadh’s Kingdom Arena.


Al-Hilal too strong for Al-Ettifaq, stretch winning run to 24 matches

Al-Hilal too strong for Al-Ettifaq, stretch winning run to 24 matches
Updated 26 February 2024
Follow

Al-Hilal too strong for Al-Ettifaq, stretch winning run to 24 matches

Al-Hilal too strong for Al-Ettifaq, stretch winning run to 24 matches
  • Victory restored Riyadh club’s seven-point lead above Al-Nassr at top of Roshn Saudi League

RIYADH: Al-Hilal won 2-0 at Al-Ettifaq on Monday to restore their seven-point lead above Al-Nassr at the top of the Roshn Saudi League.

It was also the club’s 24th successive victory in all competitions and showed the eighth-placed home team what was required to challenge at the summit of the table.

Al-Ettifaq had the busiest winter transfer window of any team in the top tier and collected a welcome win last week at Al-Khaleej. Al-Hilal are, however, a very different proposition and while the team from Dammam fought hard, the 18-time champions were just too strong.

Al-Hilal should have taken the lead in the 16th minute, but Kalidou Koulibaly’s low shot on the turn inside the area was well-saved by Paulo Victor. Soon after, Renan Lodi made a marauding run forward, though his fierce shot from outside the area just cleared the bar.

With around eight minutes of the half remaining, however, Al-Ettifaq coach Steven Gerrard must have been quietly satisfied. The champions may have made most of the running, but it was goalless, and the hosts had given themselves a platform to build on in the second half.

But then Al-Hilal struck twice before the break. The first goal was from a simple though well-executed corner from the right. It came from the boot of Ruben Neves and while it seemed as if the green shirts massing around the near post would be able to deal with it, in ran Sergej Milinkovic-Savic to send a bullet header into the back of the net for his ninth league goal of the season.

It was only one goal and still possible for the English tactician to get his men back in the dressing room to regroup. But Salem Al-Dawsari had other ideas.

Once again, Al-Ettifaq will be asking questions of themselves defensively, especially Mohammed Abdulrahman. The right-back first gave the ball away and was then beaten too easily by the Asian player of the year who cut in from the left, advanced toward the near post, and slipped the ball past Victor for his 10th league goal of the season.

The half ended on a high of sorts with Gini Wijnaldum testing Yassine Bounou with a shot from outside the area.

Al-Ettifaq tried their utmost after the break but still struggled to create clear chances.

The game was almost settled just after the hour as Milinkovic-Savic whipped in a wicked shot from 20 meters out which beat Victor but came back off the inside of the post and, despite the best efforts of Malcom, eventually out to safety.

With eight minutes remaining, Al-Ettifaq came close to making it a very interesting final stage. Karl Toko-Ekambi advanced toward the Al-Hilal box and, flanked by blue shirts, sent a low shot from the right side that rolled just past the post.

With it went the home team’s chances of getting anything from the game and, in fact, the Blues looked likelier to get a third with Michael coming close in the final seconds.

In the end, Al-Hilal had to settle for 2-0 while Al-Ettifaq, who stay in eighth, and coach Gerrard know that there should be easier tasks ahead.

Right now, it would seem no team can stop Al-Hilal.


Furor erupts over Ronaldo’s apparent obscene taunt in Saudi league match

Furor erupts over Ronaldo’s apparent obscene taunt in Saudi league match
Updated 26 February 2024
Follow

Furor erupts over Ronaldo’s apparent obscene taunt in Saudi league match

Furor erupts over Ronaldo’s apparent obscene taunt in Saudi league match
  • Critcism of the 39-year-old Portuguese has been swift and media reports say that the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) has opened an investigation
  • Portuguese star scored a first half penalty, before Brazilian Talisca’s late brace, including a goal four minutes from time, secured the win for Al-Nassr

RIYADH: Cristiano Ronaldo has come under heavy criticism after seemingly making an offensive gesture following Al-Nassr’s 3-2 victory over Al-Shabab in a Saudi Pro League match on Sunday.
The Portuguese star scored a first half penalty, before Brazilian Talisca’s late brace, including a goal four minutes from time, secured the win for Al-Nassr.
After the final whistle, videos posted on social media showed the five-time Ballon d’Or winner cupping his ear and repeatedly thrusting his hand forward near his pelvis, seemingly aimed at rival Al-Shabab supporters.
In the background, chants of “Messi” could be heard, referring to Ronaldo’s longstanding football rival from Argentina.
While the incident was not captured by television cameras, critcism of the 39-year-old Portuguese has been swift and media reports say that the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) has opened an investigation.
Ronaldo, who completed a lucrative move to the Riyadh-based club in December 2022, has a league-leading 22 goals this season. Al-Nassr trail fellow big-spending rivals Al-Hilal by four points, having played a game more.
Al-Nassr is also in contention for the Asian Champions League — a tournament it has never won — and will play Al-Ain of the United Arab Emirates in the quarterfinals next month.


Ronaldo and Talisca give Al-Nassr a narrow win at Al-Shabab

Ronaldo and Talisca give Al-Nassr a narrow win at Al-Shabab
Updated 26 February 2024
Follow

Ronaldo and Talisca give Al-Nassr a narrow win at Al-Shabab

Ronaldo and Talisca give Al-Nassr a narrow win at Al-Shabab

RIYADH: It was the Ronaldo and Talisca show on Sunday as Al-Nassr moved to within four points of Al-Hilal at the top of the Roshn Saudi League with a hard-fought 3-2 victory over Riyadh rivals Al-Shabab.

Three times Al-Nassr took the lead, once through Cristiano Ronaldo and twice through Anderson Talisca. Twice Al-Shabab — who will feel they did enough to earn at least a point — equalized, but they were unable to do so for a third time.

Al-Nassr started brightly with Al-Shabab goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Absi, in for the injured Kim Seung-gyu, having to push a Marcelo Brozovic shot over the bar in the sixth minute.

Al-Shabab’s new star signing Ivan Rakitic tried his luck from outside the area after 10 minutes, but Waleed Abdullah was equal to the attempt from the former Barcelona star.

Sadio Mane then netted before being adjudged to have been offside when making his run.

Abdullah then had to make a more difficult save, getting down quickly to stop a Yannick Carrasco effort that was creeping in at the near post.

Al-Nassr were then awarded a penalty. A corner resulted in Mane shooting from the edge of the area and it struck the hand of Romain Saiss. Up stepped Ronaldo and he made no mistake. The visiting fans paid tribute to their hero and the chant of “Cristiano Ronaldo” could be heard ringing around for some time.

Al-Shabab equalized with a penalty of their own after Carlos Junior was brought down in the area. Just as Ronaldo did, Carrasco converted and the two teams went in at the break on equal terms.

Al-Nassr were back in front within two minutes of the restart. Otavio found Talisca on the edge of the area and, despite the close attention of defenders, the Brazilian made room for himself to find the bottom corner, though Al-Absi did manage to get a hand on it.

His opposite number Abdullah then had to get down to save an awkward shot from Nader Al-Sharari.

Just after the hour Brozovic should have given the visitors a welcome cushion. Freed by Otavio, the Croatian bore down on goal from a central position but, on the edge of the area, he shot tamely into the arms of Al-Absi with Talisca to his right screaming for the ball.

Al-Shabab then equalized for the second time. The goal had been coming and was deserved as Habib Diallo found space on the right of the area and sent over a perfect pass to the opposite post where Carlos Junior was on hand to score from close range.

Al-Shabab were on top and looked dangerous, but with three minutes remaining, Talisca won it for the visitors. A beautiful through ball from Abdullah Al-Khaibari released the Brazilian who slotted home from just inside the area to maintain Al-Nassr’s title challenge.

There was still time for Shabab’s Abdullah Radif to pick up two yellow cards and receive his marching orders to complete a frustrating afternoon for the hosts.

Earlier in the day, Al-Feiha defeated relegation strugglers Abha 3-2 to move above Al-Shabab into 10th.