Meet the other Cristiano: Juventus Academy’s head coach in Saudi Arabia

Before Ronaldo landed in the Kingdom, there was another Portuguese Cristiano in Saudi Arabia. By the time the former Real Madrid and Manchester United No. 7 arrived at Al-Nassr this January, Cristiano Goncalves had already been in the Gulf country for six months.

As head coach of the Juventus Academy in Al Khobar, 33-year-old Goncalves has been bringing the legendary Italian club’s approach to coaching into the lives of children and teenagers of Saudi Arabia.

His goal is to spot and develop young talent, and the Portuguese coach is working with several professional Saudi clubs to create pathways for those who may have what it takes to reach a higher level.

Cristiano Goncalves head coach of the Juventus Academy in Saudi Arabia. (Supplied)
Cristiano Goncalves head coach of the Juventus Academy in Saudi Arabia.

“My vision as a coach is always to develop players for the next level,” Goncalves tells Al Arabiya English. “Right now, the level of young players in Saudi Arabia is not as competitive as in Italy or England, for example, but our aim is to bring them up to that level.”

Within close proximity to the Juventus Academy in Al Khobar are Saudi Pro League clubs Al-Khaleej and Al-Ettifaq, managed by Liverpool and England legend Steven Gerrard, as well as Saudi First Division outfit Al-Qadsiah.

Goncalves, who had previously worked for Juventus Academy in England and coached in Portugal, Spain and Italy, is building new relationships with those clubs. Al Qadsiah has already signed two of Juventus Academy’s Under-15 players – one from Poland and one from Saudi Arabia.

“This is a great feeling when a professional club wants our players and it shows that we are doing a good job in developing them,” says Goncalves, who played in the Portuguese second division before moving into coaching.

“Of course, we also want to use the Juventus model to grow people, not just players. Most of the kids who play with us won’t make it as professional footballers, but we can improve their technical skills and can positively impact their character. Coaching is not just about business; it is about education.”

In the past two years, Goncalves has taken the Juventus Academy players from Saudi Arabia to Turin, where they have visited the Juventus Stadium and heard from legends of the Italian club – the most successful in Serie A history with 36 titles.

General view of empty seats inside the Juventus Stadium stadium before a match is played behind closed doors. (Reuters)
General view of empty seats inside the Juventus Stadium stadium before a match is played behind closed doors.

This year, 2003 Ballon d’Or winner Pavel Nedved addressed the academy players, while other Juve icons, including Andre Pirlo and Alessandro Del Piero, have also been involved with the visits.

“Nedved stood in front of the players at the stadium and was telling them to believe in themselves and follow their dreams,” Goncalves recalls. “This is very inspirational – not many young players get this kind of opportunity.”

He further said: “He told them about his own career, his development when he was young and things like nutrition. It is funny because you saw some of the players come back to Saudi Arabia and say, ‘I have to stop eating doughnuts now because Nedved said so.’”

A different football landscape

The football landscape in Saudi Arabia is very different from the one Goncalves arrived at in the summer of 2022. Al-Nassr’s historic signing in January of Ronaldo, himself a former Juventus player, has shifted the sands. He says it is an exciting time to be working at the grassroots level and the professional platform in the Kingdom.

Al Nassr’s Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates scoring the first goal. (Reuters)
Al Nassr’s Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates scoring the first goal.

“When I came here, I didn’t know that football in Saudi Arabia would go in the direction it has,” Goncalves reflects. “Now you see the superstars who have come over here and it’s a different world.”

Goncalves adds: “At the start, we had around 90 kids at the Juventus Academy. Then the World Cup happened, Ronaldo came to Saudi Arabia, and everyone seemed to wake up. Now, we have more than 400 players with us. I think they heard that a Portuguese guy called Cristiano will be coaching them!”

He further says: “For the kids at the academy, it is amazing that they can now see these big players close up and we see a lot more of our players now wearing the shirts of Saudi Pro League clubs. So, it is clearly making a difference.”

In terms of Portuguese coaching role models, Goncalves has many to choose from. In Saudi Arabia alone, there is a significant contingent.

Jorge Jesus, Luis Castro, Pedro Emanuel and Jorge Mendonca are at Al Hilal, Al-Nassr, Al-Khaleej and Al-Okhdood, respectively, while Nuno Espirito Santo was in the hot seat at Al-Ittihad until his sacking last week.

However, it is former Chelsea, Real Madrid and Manchester United coach Jose Mourinho who Goncalves highlights as a leading influence.

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho before the match. (Reuters)
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho before the match.

“Jose Mourinho is, for me, the master,” says Goncalves, who, like ‘The Special One’ speaks Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and English. “He is a fantastic coach in terms of technical tactics, and he always achieves success. I hope one day I will meet him, maybe one day in Saudi Arabia if he comes here.”

He says: “It is true that there are a lot of successful Portuguese coaches these days, and I also like Sergio Conceicao at Porto and at Sporting, there is Rúben Amorim – a great young coach who is winning the league in Portugal right now despite not having the same resources as some of the other clubs.”

Goncalves hopes he will one day see Juventus Academy players competing in Portugal but, for now, is focused on developing grassroots opportunities in Saudi Arabia.

“This is as much about infrastructure as anything,” Goncalves says. “We need more youth leagues and more competitions. Girls’ football is also a huge area of growth and the next step will be to create more teams and leagues in this space, too. We are seeing positive changes at every level.”

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