Facing the media in Riyadh for the first time since taking over as Saudi Arabia national team manager, Roberto Mancini was clear in what constitutes his primary aim in the new role.
“Our target is to try to win the Asian Cup after 27 years,” the Italian said on Monday, in reference to the rescheduled 2023 edition in Qatar early next year and a nod, also, to Saudi Arabia’s remarkable drought in the continent’s premier competition.
It served as a stark reminder as to how long the country has waited to once more be crowned champions of Asia. As three-time winners, Saudi Arabia sit level with Iran and second only to Japan (four) in terms of championship titles, but their most recent arrived some time ago, in 1996.
Back then, Mancini was entering the final stages of a trophy-laden decade and a half as an accomplished forward with Serie A’s Sampdoria, and he would go on to play for four more years.
From there, he forged a career as a manager of significant standing and distinguished success, coaching at Fiorentina, Lazio, Inter Milan, Manchester City, Galatasaray and Zenit St Petersburg before spending five, admittedly mixed, years at the helm of the Italian national team.
His latest post, though, represents a sizeable step into the unknown. Even at 58 and boasting a gilded CV – it is headlined by a 2020 European Championship title with Italy, three Scudettos at Inter, City’s first Premier League crown – Mancini is yet to manage on the international scene outside his homeland (something that patently served his predecessor, Herve Renard, well).
Indeed, if Mancini is to deliver on his initial objective, he must get to know quickly his squad and his new surroundings; only four and a half months separate his appointment and the Asian Cup kick-off, on January 12.
And, before that, Mancini needs to navigate the start of qualification for the 2026 World Cup. In November, Saudi Arabia begin their second-round campaign at home to either Cambodia or Pakistan – the duo contest a play-off in October to reach Group G – before taking on Jordan away five days later.
No doubt, the two training camps, next month and in October, will aid the transition, especially since Saudi Arabia will play two friendlies during each. The World Cup qualifiers, also, will allow the new coach to assess his side across two competitive matches.
Mancini is fortunate, as well, that he is building from a position of strength. Saudi Arabia are already considered comfortably among the top five teams in Asia, and showcased at last year’s World Cup what talent they possess.
To get to Qatar, where they shocked eventual champions Argentina and earned appreciable plaudits despite failing to progress from the groups, Saudi impressed by finishing top of a qualification group featuring Japan and Australia.
Undeniably, they had come a long way since the crushing disappointment of a last-16 exit at the 2019 Asian Cup.
Of course, Renard’s departure in March was a shock – the Frenchman, hugely popular, was contracted to 2027 but left to manage France women’s team – and he was always going to prove a powerful personality to replace. However, for sure Mancini has the confidence, and the credentials, to fill the void.
To their credit, the SAFF took time in settling on Mancini, perhaps prompted by lead candidate Jorge Jesus’ hiring at Al Hilal, when careful planning has in the past been lacking. Previously, it has led to poor decision-making and, ultimately, regrettable managerial appointments.
Conversely, it means time is somewhat against Mancini. Vastly experienced, he will recognise the challenge ahead: on Monday, as he was introduced to the Saudi media, Mancini repeatedly preached the importance of hard work if he is to make good on his principal aim.
The Asian Cup, where Saudi are drawn in Group F alongside Thailand, Oman and Kyrgyzstan, looms large on the horizon. Now in situ, and albeit something of a coup capture, Mancini has to settle fast, swiftly forge close bonds with a new set of players and almost immediately implement his philosophy upon the team. Even given his reputation and CV, it amounts to no mean task.