Pitso Mosimane ready for next adventure at Saudi Pro League strugglers Abha

South African coach has moved to kingdom tasked with rescuing side currently second bottom of table

South African coach Pitso Mosimane made himself a cult hero during his time at Egyptian giants Al Ahly, winning two CAF Champions League titles. EPA
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From his hotel room in Abha, south-western Saudi Arabia, Pitso Mosimane has been entitled to feel some reflected glory these past few days. In his evenings, with practice and planning for his new job in the Saudi Pro League complete for the day, he’s caught up with the captivating international tournaments that have ushered in the new year.

Both the Africa Cup of Nations and the Asian Cup resonated uniquely with Mosimane. Over in Ivory Coast, he saw players in whose development he played a key role thriving beyond expectation. In Qatar, he watched the changing landscape of Gulf football played out, hierarchies upended, underdogs snapping at the heels of giants.

Mosimane would like a little of that upstart energy in what he calls his “new adventure”, a rescue mission at Abha, a club stuck one place off the foot of the Saudi Pro League, whose calendar resumes after its winter break on Thursday.

Besides the compelling watch Afcon and the Asian Cup provided, there were individual performances that the South African was pleased to observe. The 59-year-old, a CAF Champions League winner three times, twice with Egypt’s Al Ahly, has been a pioneer for African coaching, a conqueror of territories previously out of the reach of men in his profession from south of the Sahara.

Last Sunday night, he watched an African coach celebrate victory at Afcon, Ivory Coast’s Emerse Fae, the caretaker de luxe, maintaining a line of local success in a tournament where a prevailing instinct, over decades, had been to entrust the guidance of national teams to imported managers, mostly from Europe. Fae is a former Ivory Coast player, just as Aliou Cisse, Afcon-winning coach of Senegal two years ago, is an ex Senegal player.

Ditto Djamel Belmadi, guide to Algeria’s 2019 Cup of Nations victors. In between those triumphs, Walid Regragui has overseen Morocco’s historic run to a World Cup semi-final in Qatar, where, at the weekend, his Moroccan compatriot, Hussein Ammouta, collected a silver medal at the Asian Cup, manager of surprise finalists, Jordan.

“We have all had to fight; Aliou Cisse has, Walid Regragui has, being up against European coaches with big CVs,” reflected Mosimane, speaking to The National ahead of his coaching debut in Saudi Arabia’s monied top division, a new frontier in his storied career.

“The world is what is. I don’t think there’s yet many technical directors who look far outside the traditional window. But thanks to the Middle East, I have another opportunity.”

It is not Mosimane’s first job in Saudi Arabia, where his previous success as a rescuer was among the many recommendations for Abha’s directors. Through last season, he was coach of Al Ahli, a heavyweight who had fallen spectacularly, relegated from the top tier in 2021/22. Mosimane was hired to oversee an instant rebound. Al Ahli won promotion back to the Pro League with four matches to spare.

Target achieved, Mosimane moved on – just before a huge financial boost came to the resurrected Al Ahli, one of the four Saudi clubs designated for unprecedented backing from the country’s Public Investment Fund, cornerstone of the ambitious uplift of elite professional sport across the kingdom.

“I didn’t know the transformation was coming,” Mosimane recalls, “although there were rumours. And it’s the biggest transformation: nearly €1 billion spent on transfers across the league. I see players I coached at Al Ahli now in a team with Riyad Mahrez, Roberto Firmino and Edu Mendy. I saw them taking selfies with these guys.

“I think ‘What an opportunity for them to be learning from and sitting in the dressing-room alongside players they only knew from watching them on television’. It’s a good transformation, a good thing for the club.”

How much of a good thing it may be for Saudi clubs with less privileged access to star-magnet capital is a different question. While Abha, a third division club as recently as 2019, have a backstory of upwards mobility, they look upwards at the Al Nassr of Cristiano Ronaldo, at an Al Hilal who lead the table even without the active service of the injured Neymar, at Al Ahli and at Karim Benzema’s Al Ittihad and cannot help but feel the vast gap in resources.

“With the differences between those four clubs and rest, it can seem like we’re their sparring partners,” smiles Mosimane. “But for me it’s about the challenge and, I guess, I’m trying to finish a story. If I personalise it, I won promotion to this league with Al Ahli, so I should be in the Pro League. Of course the conditions are different. It’s now the biggest league in the Gulf, maybe in Asia.”

Mosimane, charismatic, forthright, and a builder of fluent, easy-on-the-eye teams is a fresh asset to a league advertising its global reach, its breadth of expertise.

He brings his sackful of African club titles to a table where there sit coaches who have won South America’s Champions League, the Copa Libertadores – Jorge Jesus of Al Hilal and Marcelo Gallardo of Al Ittihad – and others with assorted Asian and European medals.

As to the global standing of the Pro League, Mosimane would rather evaluate that after a few games with Abha, whose touchline he will patrol for the first time against Al Taawoun on Thursday. “It’s a question I am asking myself. Ronaldo says it’s better than Ligue 1 and maybe he’s justified. He’s been here a year after all.”

Equally, Saudi Arabian football has lately taken some dents to its self-esteem. The national team exited the Asian Cup at the first knockout round. In December, Al Ittihad, the reigning domestic champions, were comfortably beaten by Mosimane’s former club, Egypt’s Al Ahly, at the Club World Cup.

In that elite Fifa tournament, Mosimane had previously guided Al Ahly to the medal podium twice, peaks of a managerial journey that has been gathering silverware for 20 years.

He won his first trophy as a coach, a domestic cup with a middleweight South African club, Supersport United, in 2004. He guided Mamelodi Sundowns, where he had been skilful centre-forward in his playing days, to a first CAF Champions League title while advancing the careers of players, such as Themba Zwane and Percy Tau, he was gratified to see storming to an unexpected bronze medal, with South Africa, at Afcon.

“I’m an inquisitive guy,” he says. “I’ve always asked myself questions. When I was coaching in South Africa, clubs from Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria dominated at Champions League level.

“I thought: ‘What is it they do that we can’t do in sub-Saharan football?’ The players’ wages were a difference, I knew that. But I wanted to know ‘Can I be in that space, ruffle some feathers?’ With Sundowns I had a team that could compete and maybe change the mentality.”

Lured to Cairo by Al Ahly, he broke a mould. “It’s the highest pressure job I have had,” he reflects. “This is a club with 60 to 70 million followers. That’s bigger than my country’s entire population. And they had won their league, so the question was: What can you add here? They wanted to be back on the international stage. I had one mandate, to win the Champions League, which we did successfully, two years in a row.”

There have been unfulfilling episodes, with South Africa’s national team well over a decade ago, and a brief stop-off at Al Wahda in Abu Dhabi at the outset of this season: seven games, more wins than defeats but a swift departure in November. “We didn’t agree on the route to winning the league. Things didn’t mesh,” he says.

“When principles are compromised in my space, in my way of doing things, it starts to be an environment that’s not good.” Of the parting of ways, he says: “It was all done nicely, no fights!”

He joined Abha, their third different manager this season, too late to be involved in the winter transfer window, where the experienced Cameroonian striker Karl Toko Ekambi left, making space for defensive reinforcements.

Mosimane can see the sense in that: No club have conceded more Pro League goals than Abha, beaten 7-0 at Al Hilal just before the winter pause, and 6-0 at home to Al Ahli in November.

“It’s going to be a bumpy ride,” acknowledges Mosimane, whose initial deal runs for four months, until the season’s end. “Abha is one of the league’s ‘small’ teams. But there’s ambition, there’s a bit of experience. We need to try to do things a little differently.

“If we can save them from relegation, there’s an opportunity to then make them much, much better. It’s an adventure, and I like adventures.”

Updated: February 14, 2024, 2:53 AM