Roberto Mancini and the defection to Saudi Arabia that has left Italy embittered

The Kingdom Tower in Riyadh was lit up in green. Its aesthetic effect resembled the cascading lines of code from The Matrix. Underneath a giant hologram of the national team jersey, flickering in the building’s distinctive parabolic arch, a message appeared. The cars cruising by saw BENVENUTO in block capitals, a welcome intended for Saudi Arabia’s new coach, Roberto Mancini.

A video of the skyscraper posted to his 1.1million followers on Instagram was liked by his friend Salt Bae and soundtracked to Sarà Perché Ti Amo (That’ll be why I love you), a huge 1980s hit in Italy and a terrace favourite by a pop group called Ricchi e Poveri (Rich and Poor).

It’s only social media but, then again, what you post on social media is taken very seriously in the Kingdom.

Only a couple of days after Mancini touched down in Riyadh to be presented to the local press, Amnesty International called for Saudi officials to quash the “ludicrous” conviction and death sentence handed down by the Specialised Criminal Court against 54-year-old retired teacher Mohammad bin Nasser al-Ghamdi solely for his peaceful online activity on Twitter and YouTube. The human rights organisation, which opposes the death penalty, set the case of al-Ghamdi in the context of an escalated crackdown on individuals using social media to voice their opinions in a state that executed 196 people last year.

Whether any of this crossed Mancini’s mind as he picked out the perfect lime green tie for the occasion of his announcement as Saudi Arabia’s new coach is, as yet, unclear. He has shown sensitivity in the past, using his platform to highlight causes outside of football. Mancini called Maurizio Sarri out for abusing him with a homophobic slur in 2016. “The problem,” Mancini said, “isn’t that Sarri offended me. I don’t feel hurt by his insults.

“What he actually did is offend lots of people in Italy and other parts of the world who are laughed at and mocked by people who come out with these belittling words. Every now and then someone takes their own life because they can’t put up with it anymore. How many times have we read stories like that?”

As with Jordan Henderson, by showing empathy and solidarity to the LGBTQ+ community, Mancini has set an expectation and opened himself up to criticism in accepting to work in a state where the rights of that community are criminalised.

Mancini is presented as Saudi Arabia’s national coach by Yasser al-Misehal of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images)

Attention in Italy has predictably narrowed in on the timing and reported 90million reasons Mancini — “Call me Mancio” he said at his unveiling — had for quitting his own national team for that of Saudi Arabia. The fallout has been bitter. Mancini didn’t think he deserved “the slaughtering” he received for his resignation.

“They treated me like the Monster of Florence (an infamous serial killer),” he apparently told veteran journalist Italo Cucchi. That or like someone who had dumped the nation’s sweetheart, Azzurra, in a delicate moment, because he was tired of her interfering father, the FIGC president Gabriele Gravina.

Saudi Arabia and the reported €25million (£21.5m; $26.8m) annual salary he’ll be paid until 2027 supposedly had very little to do with Mancini’s choice to abandon his post. He instead put it down to a rejig of his coaching staff at Gravina’s behest.

According to the affronted Mancini’s version of events, the snowy-haired Gravina had been attempting to meddle with it for a year. Gravina called these justifications “disheartening, inappropriate and offensive” as only one of Mancini’s assistants, Chicco Evani, was discarded. “He was on staff before Roberto joined,” Gravina explained. “And the recent additions of Andrea Barzagli and Antonio Gagliardi were at his recommendation.”

Mancini seemed to approve of them too. The FIGC issued a joint press release communicating the changes and one of the additions followed him and the rest of his staff to Saudi Arabia. Mancini’s claim that his resignation had nothing to do with “what might happen in the future and where I’m off” did not convince.

“Mancini made a mistake,” Fabio Capello said on RadioRai. “He accused the FIGC president of not having confidence in him when, in reality, it would have been far easier for him to say: ‘Look president, I’ve received an offer I can’t refuse’.”

Precisely when the offer arrived has been subject to speculation in Italy. Mancini claimed he only began talks with the Saudi Arabia FA in “mid-August” despite rumours circulating prior to his resignation. “So the Saudis only started thinking about him afterwards? Come on, we’re not here to have the piss taken out of us,” exploded Sky Italia commentator Fabio Caressa who thought Mancini already cut a jaded figure at the Nations League Finals in June and should, in hindsight, have called it a day with Italy there and then.

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Mancini reacts during Italy’s semi-final defeat to Spain at the summer’s Nations League finals (Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Instead Mancini re-committed.

“I can’t make head nor tail of the rumours making me out to be unhappy,” he said in Enschede. “If you’re coach of the (Italian) national team, you’re happy no matter what.” He even joked: “Thank goodness Napoli have appointed a (new) manager” as it saved him the hassle of being linked with the job.

In the end the old Napoli coach, Luciano Spalletti, cut short the briefest of sabbaticals in order to replace Mancini. His availability, as well as that of Antonio Conte, should in theory have softened the blow. But Mancini continued to come under fire.

Spalletti’s first game is tonight against North Macedonia, the team that shocked Mancini’s Italy in a play-off semi-final and denied them qualification for the World Cup in Qatar. Many Italians felt Mancini should have quit after that defeat instead of spending the next year dejected about missing out on it.

Looking at how aggressively the Saudi Pro League has gone about its recruitment this summer, it should not come as a surprise that Mancini came into their sights. After all, he wasn’t the only high profile Italy-based coach to be courted either. Jose Mourinho informed Roma of a meeting about the jobs at Al-Hilal and Al-Ahli. He turned both of them down. For now.

“It’s not definitive,” Mourinho said, leaving the door ajar. As a coach he feels “as good as ever” and, at the moment, believes the best place for that is one of Europe’s top five leagues (despite Roma’s dreadful recent results). Massimiliano Allegri drew the same conclusion. “I’ve no regrets,” he said. The Al-Hilal job apparently came at the wrong time.

Meanwhile, one of his players, the Juventus goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny was celebrated for showing humility in braggadocio by saying he was already rich enough and did not need a move to Saudi Arabia.

“I know that some players have gone over there and I’m not surprised,” he said. “I understand that someone can make a decision like that to earn more money but I think having priorities other than looking for money is worthwhile. I’ve already made a load of money in my life. I prefer fun challenges and keeping goal for Juventus is the best challenge I can have.”

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Szczesny ruled out a move to Saudi (Timothy Rogers/Getty Images)

Ciro Immobile, the four-time Serie A top scorer, rejected a move out of fear he would no longer be considered for the national team. Romelu Lukaku’s desire to return to Italy did not waver despite Chelsea receiving interest from Al-Hilal. Piotr Zielinski listened to his wife and stayed with champions Napoli.

These refusals cast Mancini’s acceptance in a dim light, as did the overall impact of Saudi spending in Serie A. While few fans will miss centre-backs like Roger Ibanez and Merih Demiral, Al-Ahli’s new defensive duo, the loss of Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Marcelo Brozovic, both former Serie A Midfielders of the Year, hit hard.

Unlike the Premier League which has done a disproportionate amount of pearl-clutching over cashing in on peripheral, deadwood players, Serie A has lost two of its best.

“It’s a trend that, even for directors like us, emerged suddenly,” Inter chief executive Beppe Marotta said. “We weren’t expecting it. There is one fact, however, and that is they have taken 22 talented players out of Europe while bringing around €700million (£601m; $749.1m) into the coffers of European clubs.

“In doing so, however, they have impoverished the standard of our leagues and our economic competitiveness.”

Serie A can’t be too critical without appearing hypocritical. It has reportedly been offered a €138million (£118.5m; $147.7m) deal to reformat the Italian Super Cup and extend its agreement to play the new final four tournament in Saudi Arabia.

Marotta’s club, Inter, were arguably the first to flood the transfer market with oil money back in the 1960s when Angelo Moratti invested the wealth he accumulated from his Sardinian refineries into the team. Currently owned by Chinese company Suning who have pumped, by Marotta’s estimates, €700million into the team since 2016, Inter also figured as part of the last state-endorsed supercharged drive to fast-track a nation into a football super power.

Italy’s last World Cup winning coach, Marcello Lippi, and Ballon d’Or winning captain Fabio Cannavaro were part of that drive, too, taking on roles with China’s national team as well as one with the recently folded Guangzhou Evergrande.

Quite incongruously, Graziano Pelle was for years the highest paid Italian player on account of his move to Shandong Luneng, rivalled not so closely by Marco Verratti at Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain and the trailblazing Sebastian Giovinco, who spent a couple of seasons at Al Hilal (the 2019-21 hipster years) before they became the world’s biggest spending club after Chelsea. Capello’s last job was coaching Suning’s Chinese Super League team, the now shuttered Jiangsu, after his time with Russia’s national team came to an end.

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Pelle was the highest paid Italian player on the planet while representing Shandong Luneng in China (Xinhua/Xu Chang via Getty Images)

Mancini, having already worked in Erdogan’s Turkey (Galatasaray) and Putin’s Russia (Zenit St Petersburg) for clubs rather than the countries themselves, has merely followed in their gold rushing footsteps at a time when Italy itself is cozying up to Saudi Arabia.

Matteo Renzi, the former prime minister, declared he made €1.1million from consulting in Saudi Arabia. Giorgia Meloni’s government has lifted an embargo on arms sales, which was imposed to prevent their use in the conflict in Yemen. Earlier this week talks were held about potential Saudi investment in the new Made in Italy fund which has been set up to support Italian manufacturing. A memorandum of understanding was signed to boost economic ties. It comes after Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund bought a 33 per cent stake in Azimut Benetti, Italy’s mega-yacht maker.

During the Covid pandemic, PIF were repeatedly linked with a takeover of Inter without investment ever materialising. “We talked to Inter Milan, AC, but the problem was the structure of the league was a mess,” PCP Capital Partners’ founder Amanda Staveley said.

PIF acquired Newcastle United instead which, in part, explains why Mancini’s first games in charge of Saudi Arabia, a couple of friendlies against Costa Rica on Friday night and Jurgen Klinsmann’s South Korea on Tuesday, were earmarked for St James’ Park. Introduced as “a born winner and “a legend of the game” by the president of the Saudi FA Yasser Almisehal, the road to the 2023 Asia Cup began on local pitches in the Lemington neighbourhood of the city as Saudi Arabia did not get to use Newcastle’s training ground.

“Our objective is to win it for the first time in…,” Mancini looked at Almisehal, guessed and corrected himself “26 years”. The tournament will be held in January in neighbouring Qatar, the defending champions, in the latest instalment of a geopolitical rivalry that will be visited upon the Champions League when Newcastle play PSG.

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Mancini watches on as Saudi Arabia lose 3-1 to Costa Rica (Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

For Mancini it is the chance to sample what he missed last winter.

He thanked his predecessor Herve Renard and the Saudi players for shocking Argentina at the World Cup as the upset ensured the 37-game unbeaten record he set with Italy was not beaten. That game served as a reminder of some of the talent within the team Mancini is taking over and the support it commands. The game was played out in a raucous atmosphere in Lusail as more Saudis travelled to Qatar than any other nation, a function of proximity but also the passion and rich history of football in Saudi Arabia.

While a growth market in a phase of aggressive expansion, Mancini has a lot more to work with than in his other lesser spotted experiences in the Middle East. The job is different from the consultancy agreement he struck with Al Jazira in Abu Dhabi in 2009 which, as the Football Leaks cache showed, paid him more, in basic salary, for a minimum of four days work a year than his simultaneous employment with Manchester City.

At St James’ in front of a largely empty stadium (only a few hundred fans gathered in the East Stand), Mancini emerged in a suit and tie, elegant as always but for the unbuttoned cuffs, and observed as Attilio Lombardo and Fausto Salsano, his trusted lieutenants and former Samp teammates, put the Saudi players through their paces while songs by Rashed Al Majid came over the PA system.

After leading Italy to triumph in the European Championships for the first time in 53 years, Mancini’s next job was expected to be in a place like St James’, back in the Premier League. Instead here he was watching Saudi Arabia concede an early set-play to Costa Rica’s Francisco Calvo and then another to Manfred Ugalde, his translator’s instructions not enough to stop the slide against a team ranked eight places above them in the FIFA rankings.

Saudi got back into it in the second half and perhaps deserved a draw, a fierce shot from Salem Aldawsari, the hero against Argentina, leading to the corner from which Ali Albulayi scored. Keylor Navas, to Saudi chagrin, showed once again why he is one of the best goalkeepers of his generation and, in the end, Costa Rica prevailed 3-1 thanks to him and substitute Randall Leal firing in a late clincher.

It was far from a dream start for Mancio.

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Saudi’s team pose for photographs at St James’ Park (Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

“I am confident that (Mancini’s) vision of football, his vast experience and his commitment to hard work will bring success and joy to the millions of Saudi football fans,” Almisehal claimed on his appointment. Still, there are no guarantees Mancini can deliver Saudi Arabia the continental silverware he bequeathed on Italy — a triumph which will, in time, still eclipse the rancour caused by the manner of his resignation.

Japan, South Korea, Iran and Australia are all ahead of Saudi in the FIFA rankings. “I’m not a magician,” Mancini insisted despite his disappearing act from his own national team. On this early showing, Saudi Arabia can be under no illusion that paying him more than Pep Guardiola is no guarantee of turning the ‘Benvenuto’ message on the Kingdom Tower to ‘Champions’.

(Top photo: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

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