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Saudi Pro League: Meet the managers who have made the move

Saudi Pro League: Meet the managers who have made the move
Copyright AP Photo
Copyright AP Photo
By Ben Kelly
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It's not just big name players who are moving to the Pro League.

The Saudi Pro League continues to snowball after spending over €800 million in the transfer window.

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So far this year, we've seen Karim Benzema, Neymar, Sadio Mane and N'Golo Kante, amongst others, make the move to the Middle East. However, it's not just the players who have opted to swap continents. Several managers, household names in Europe, have also made their way to the region.

Moving from Europe to Saudi to coach, at this stage, is a very different challenge. Yes, there has been a massive injection of cash into the league. But compared to other leagues globally, the competitiveness is still in its very early stages.

Matt Monaghan is the head of English content for Gulf sports website Sports360X. He explained to Football Now some of the differences coaches coming from Europe might find when they arrive in Saudi.

"It's a chance, really, to get in on the ground floor of a league that has enormous ambitions. It's self-professed that it has some way to go. We've seen the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Nuno Espirito Santo say themselves that the facilities might not be at the level of a top-five league yet, but the plans are in place."

"So, if you're a manager coming in now, you might play a really influential role in helping to build that. That's the decision; do you can stay in Europe with, maybe, a mediocre team or you can go to Saudi Arabia and try something different with big prospects of growth." Matt continued.

Ronaldo was one of the first players to make their way to Saudi
Ronaldo was one of the first players to make their way to SaudiVahid Salemi/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved

In the summer of 2022, Nuno Espírito Santo took over as Pro League champions Al-Ittihad manager. He brought several big names to Jeddah in the summer, including former Ballon D'or winner Karim Benzema. Rumours of a row between Nuno and Benzema after Ittihad lost 2-0 to Iraqi side Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya in the AFC Champions League were shortly followed by the news that the Portuguese had been sacked.

Reports suggest that Benzema's discontent with Nuno's coaching methods greatly influenced the decision rather than Al-Ittihad's recent lack of form. Do star big players wield significant power at their new clubs, where their employers value their presence so much more highly?

"I think star power is a product of 21st-century football," Monaghan continued.

"It's not necessarily something unique to Saudi Arabia. We've seen the likes of Benzema, and others have that power at clubs the size of Real Madrid. A great example would be when Rafa Benitez was in charge at the Bernabeu. He really struggled to get the dressing room onside. I think it is interesting to note, however, that in the first game following Nuno's departure, Benzema scored a hattrick and produced a glorious assist."

A row between Benzema [left] and Nuno [right] was the catalyst for the manager's dismissal
A row between Benzema [left] and Nuno [right] was the catalyst for the manager's dismissalAP Photo

Former Liverpool captain and Aston Villa manager Steven Gerrard is setting into life in Saudi, having moved to the country in the summer. His time at Villa was less successful than he'd hoped, but Gerrard does have a winning pedigree. He was a European Cup winner when playing for Liverpool, and he started his managerial career by winning the Scottish Premier League with Glasgow Rangers. In July 2023, Gerrard was announced as the head coach at Al-Ettifaq, based in Dammam.

According to Babagol founder Uri Levy, this is a significant appointment.

"It's a win-win situation for both sides. Gerrard needs a fresh start and a place where he can, you know, put his fingerprints on his football. I don't want to say he will have endless resources to do so, but he will have very generous resources to pick his players and his methods."

Alongside those managers who have taken jobs in the Pro League, Italy's Roberto Mancini has taken what many would consider the top position: the Saudi Arabia national team.

Mancini [right] is the new Saudi national team coach
Mancini [right] is the new Saudi national team coachFAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP or licensors

"Mancini is the real big headline. We are talking about a man who is a champion of Europe with Italy. Obviously, it is important from a PR perspective because he's a big name. But what is less known is what they are planning for player development. The opportunity for young players to work with Mancini and his team is a good way to show the progress of Saudi in football." explained Uri.

While Saudi Arabia is clearly becoming a leading hotspot for top footballers, it's obvious why managers are attracted to it. As the quality of players and coaches continues to grow, it's an exciting time to follow football in the Middle East.

Journalist • Ben Kelly

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