Saudi Arabia is not just looking to attract top players like Karim Benzema and N’Golo Kante to its Saudi Pro League. It’s also looking to bring in top-class coaches.
Al-Ittihad are led by former Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur head coach Nuno Espirito Santo, and Al-Ettifaq reportedly tried to bring in Steven Gerrard.
Other big names are likely to move to Saudi Arabia this summer, but as well as managerial ability, their ability to adapt to the country could make the difference between success and failure.
Jose Morais knows this well. He won the Saudi Pro League as head coach of Al-Hilal in 2021 and the Saudi Super Cup with Al-Shabab in 2014.
His globe-trotting career has led to him coaching in more than a dozen countries in Europe, Africa and Asia as well as being assistant manager to Jose Mourinho when Inter Milan won the Champions League in 2010.
But he says one of the biggest coaching lessons he learned was not in Saudi Arabia, but South Yorkshire. In 2018, Morais managed then-EFL Championship side Barnsley. He says that unlike other clubs he had worked at, Barnsley would have a day off in the middle of the week and when he changed the players’ schedule, it “started to create a barrier” between him and the players. If he were in the same situation now, he said he would’ve been a bit more understanding and flexible.
Such a flexible approach is needed for coaches heading to Saudi Arabia. Luckily, Morais says the quality of the pitches in Saudi Arabia is very good, allowing teams to play a high quality of soccer.
Coaches will need to be careful that their instructions don’t get lost in translation though. Morais says that some of the translators he came across didn’t have a high enough level of English so sometimes told the players something that was different from his actual instructions. He says, at the start of his career, he was reacting to all these kinds of things, but has since worked on improving his communication, saying “it’s not only knowing about football, it’s knowing about people that makes the difference.”
One of the biggest challenges a coach in Saudi Arabia could face is finding the best time to train. Morais, who has managed at four Saudi clubs across his career, says it is too hot to train after 10 a.m., but Saudi players go to bed late and wake up at around 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. to pray at sunrise so training often either happens indoors or toward the end of the day so players are fully motivated.
After a difficult time at Barnsley, Morais coached in Ukraine before moving to South Korean side Jeonbuk Motors, where he won the league two years in a row. He describes his time with Jeonbuk as the turning point when all his knowledge from his many years of coaching came together and he was able to create something special. After success in South Korea, he won the Saudi Pro League with Al-Hilal and finished second in Iran’s Persian Gulf Pro League with Sepahan, pushing leaders Persepolis all the way.
Pointing to Benfica head coach Roger Schmidt, who coached in China, and Tottenham Hotspur’s new coach Ange Postecoglou, who coached in Japan, Morais says coaches can learn a lot in Asia about how to succeed in different environments, which could help them later in their career.