Roberto Mancini will this week start his bid to make Saudi Arabia’s national team as much of an international discussion topic as its big-spending professional league.
Just two years after leading Italy to the European title, Mancini left Rome for Riyadh in August.
His first game in charge of the Saudi team is Friday against Costa Rica at the home of Newcastle United, the English Premier League club owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.
That organization is also funding the arrival of top-class talents such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Neymar to Saudi clubs in Riyadh and Jeddah.
“I believe this is a great opportunity for me to experience football in a new country, especially with the growing popularity of football in Asia,” Mancini, who has signed a four-year contract, said. "The presence of top players in the Saudi Pro League indicates the potential for growth in the national football scene.”
While the headlines have been on the famous imports, there is homegrown talent in the country. Saudi Arabia's shocking win over eventual champion Argentina last year was one of the biggest upsets ever at the World Cup. But the team has not played since coach Herve Renard left in March to take over the women’s national team of France.
As well as the start of preparations for January’s Asian Cup, which Saudi Arabia hasn't won since 1996, Mancini also has the start of qualification for the 2026 World Cup in November.
The same is true of another Inter Milan alumni on Thursday as Jurgen Klinsmann’s South Korea takes on Wales in Cardiff, five days before the Koreans meet Saudi Arabia in Newcastle.
Klinsmann, the former coach of the German and the U.S. teams, has failed to win any of the four games South Korea has played, all at home since he took over in February.
There has also been criticism expressed in the Korean media with reports that the 1990 World Cup winner has spent just 67 days in the country in the six months since his appointment.
In August, he held a news conference via Zoom from his Los Angeles home.
"Maybe it’s something new to people that are used to doing it differently. I don’t blame anybody when they say, ‘Where is he?’” Klinsmann told reporters, adding that the work of a national team coach is international. “I am a workaholic. I love to work like Koreans love to work. If I’m not maybe 24/7 in the country, I still work 24/7.”
Japan is Asia’s highest-ranked team at No. 20 and takes on Germany in Wolfsburg on Saturday, less than eight months after defeating the European team at the World Cup. There is also a game against Turkey in Belgium on Tuesday, with English Premier League stars Kaoru Mitoma of Brighton and Hove Albion and Liverpool’s Wataru Endo featuring.
“We’ll be out to figure out where we stand now by playing these teams with strength,” Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu said. “We hope to share and broaden our tactics ahead of the second round of World Cup qualifiers and the Asian Cup."