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.