In his first press conference as the new head coach of Saudi Arabia, Roberto Mancini was unambiguous in outlining his goals for the national team.
“Our target is to try and win the Asian Cup after 27 years,” Mancini said last week. “We know there are many top teams, like Japan, South Korea and Australia, but I’m sure if we prepare, we can achieve this.”
Mancini’s words don’t seem like an empty promise. He is a born winner whose seven head coach jobs have yielded 13 trophies. Only at the Russian side Zenit St Petersburg did he fail to secure silverware, and his success rate means that Saudi Arabian fans have genuine reason to be optimistic.
His three successive Serie A title wins with Inter Milan and leading his native Italy to European Championship glory in 2021 speak highly of his credentials as a coach.
However, it is Mancini’s role in the meteoric ascent of Manchester City that will likely be his enduring legacy.
Sergio Aguero’s dramatic last-second Premier League title-winning salvo remains etched in the memory of football fans worldwide. Millions watched open-mouthed as City pipped neighbors Manchester United on goal difference on the final day of the 2011-12 season to secure the most dramatic of triumphs.
Eleven years later, Mancini has an opportunity to make history again, this time with Saudi Arabia.
The seeds of possibility for the Green Falcons were sown with last December’s stunning win in a World Cup group match against eventual winners Argentina. That win is ample evidence that Mancini now has a group of players capable of competing with, quite literally, the world’s best.
The dramatic shift in the Saudi football landscape in recent months, with several world-class players joining the Roshn Saudi League, further raises expectations. With Saudi players regularly sharing pitches with many global superstars, greater opportunity for technical development exists at this moment than at any stage in the Kingdom’s football history.
“The presence of top players in the Saudi Pro League indicates the potential for growth in the national football scene,” Mancini himself explained at last week’s unveiling. “I firmly believe that the passionate footballing culture of Saudi Arabia and the intrinsic quality of Saudi players are crucial ingredients for success.”
The Italian coach’s new assignment officially begins this week with a pair of friendlies at Newcastle United’s St James’ Park in England. First up is Costa Rica on Friday, while fellow Asian heavyweight South Korea is the opponent next Tuesday.
Further friendlies are planned against Mali in October and Malaysia in January, sandwiching a pair of 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifiers against either Cambodia or Pakistan, and then Jordan in November.
This means Mancini has six matches to get into grips with his players before the tournament he is targeting – the AFC Asian Cup – begins in Qatar in January. Saudi Arabia faces Oman, Kyrgyzstan and Thailand in what appears on paper to be a very winnable group.
Mancini’s first squad has a somewhat familiar feel, with many of Saudi Arabia’s World Cup heroes included.
However, there are also call-ups for 11 players who didn’t make it to Qatar, including a first selection for Al-Taawoun goalkeeper Raghed al-Najjar.
The others welcomed back into the fold are Ahmed Bamsaud (Al-Ittihad), Ahmed Sharahili (Al-Ittihad), Fahad Al-Muwallad (Al-Shabab), Abdulaziz Al-Bishi (Damac), Abdulrahman Ghareeb (Al-Nassr), Abdullah Al-Khaibari (Al-Nassr), Sumayhan Al-Nabit (Al-Ahli), Ali Hazai (Al-Ettifaq), Fahad Al-Rashidi (Al Ahli) and Abdullah Al-Hamdan, who is included after two goals in four games for league leaders Al-Hilal this season.
“The squad is strong with talented players,” Mancini said. “I believe we have what it takes to elevate our game if we work hard.”
There is no question that Mancini has big boots to fill. Not only did former coach Herve Renard lead Saudi Arabia to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, but he also masterminded the biggest result in the Green Falcons’ history – silencing Lionel Messi’s Argentina with a shock 2-1 victory in Lusail.
Renard was charismatic and well-loved by his players, with a viral video famously giving insight into how his impassioned team-talks inspired the victory over Argentina.
However, Mancini himself is also renowned for being a great man-motivator who can get the best out of his players – a fact demonstrated by his Euro 2020 victory with an Italy side that contained no obvious stars.
Saudi Football Federation President Yasser al-Misehal certainly appeared happy at landing Mancini, who became the second Italian to coach a national team in the Gulf after Alberto Zaccheroni took UAE to the Asia Cup semi-finals in 2019.
“Roberto believes in Saudi football and our desire to develop top competitive players and take them to new heights on the world stage,” Al-Misehal said. “We’re a footballing nation and we [are] continuing to invest at every level in our journey to compete with the best in the world – on and off the pitch,” he added.
Mancini will need to use every ounce of his coaching prowess to propel his new national team to Asian Cup success. Still, with a glittering coaching career behind him and a wave of positive feeling currently running through Saudi football, he could well be the man to bring home the trophy that Green Falcons fans crave the most.