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At the end of September, 2023, Domingos Soares De Oliveira was announced as the new CEO of Ittihad Club Company, and in February he was named as part of the club’s new three-man Sporting Committee, alongside Sporting Director Ramon Planes and coach Marcelo Gallardo.

The moves look to give the reigning Saudi Pro League champions the best possible structure and governance as they look to a bright future.

De Oliveira spoke to Arab News about his first six months in the role and gave his views on various topics, including the standard of the Saudi Pro League, Al-Ittihad’s scouting and Karim Benzema’s status at the club.

Here are some highlights from the interview.

Taking over the position of Ittihad Club Company CEO…

At the time I was leaving Benfica, I had different opportunities in terms of new roles in different continents. But when the proposal from Ittihad came, I was really surprised by it because I got a lot of exciting information from the transformation the Kingdom was facing, and all the professional clubs.

This club has a fantastic legacy. We are the (current) champions, we won two Champions Leagues. We were the first club in the Kingdom, I think, and I’m sure that we are the club that has the best fan base. I’m not sure if it is the biggest, but in terms of commitment, in terms of passion, they are fantastic. We have 18 or 19 different sports, so the responsibility about being the CEO of Ittihad is a enormous responsibility. But at the same time, it’s a great challenge also because the Kingdom and the Ittihad, they are facing a new reality.

I think we are entering in a new era. We have right now a transformation process coming from a club with a different profile in terms of shareholders, to now a much more structured club. We have a new management in place, we have a new governance in place, we have a new squad in the sense that we were able, with the best programs, to attract different players — much better players.

I think to be honest, it was the best opportunity a professional like myself as CEO from a European club could get.

Role of Saudi football in the Kingdom’s culture…

Well, it’s quite impressive because I think the story of the Kingdom and the story of our club, they mix together. In fact, the club was established in 1927 and the Kingdom in 1932.

So, you can see Saudi people are very proud of their history, like Ittihad fans. I think you have a great, great history, and really every day I am surprised by this country and the opportunities about this country. It’s about unity, it’s about community, all those values that you have in your country. The same way, we have inside Ittihad.

The ambitions of Saudi football…

Well, the Saudi Pro League has an ambition and we share the ambition as a club. But also, I believe we can easily be part of the top five leagues in the world. And I think we can have the ambition to be much more than that, because we have now a strategy in place, strategy that is totally aligned with Vision 2030.

We also have now a new challenge, which is in 2034 the country will organize the World Cup, so we have to develop our players to be ready for 2034. And in this sense, the transformation that the SPL is doing, for example for next season, to have only 25 players, which means 15 Saudi players in the squad, (will mean) that the clubs will have to invest much more in the Saudi players.

And I think we are part of this process because if you see what we have done in the winter, we hired five Saudi young players and we are very happy with the way they are performing here. In fact, we have, as you know, the Olympics team and we will have to take five players from our squad to (Paris 2024). We are proud about that, even if it represents a difficult challenge for our coach.

How technology will impact football…

Technology will have a strong impact in two areas.

First of all, in terms of the digitalization that we have inside the company, all departments, the commercial departments, financial, all of them are embracing digital.

For scouting, it will be extremely relevant to gather as much information as we can from players, to have access to information that happens in the training sessions, to have access to live information that you have during those matches. The SPL is already sending us a lot of information, but we want to go much further and we want to have much more technology in all areas in the club.

Al-Ittihad’s scouting of Saudi talent across the Kingdom…

Scouting is a critical part of our business. Without the right raw materials, you cannot build a good product. This is obvious in any industry, but especially here. So, what we need is, and this is what we are establishing, is, first of all, to have a scouting department with a strong focus in the Kingdom.

So, we will develop a kind of a network of scouts around the Kingdom in order to identify the best talent. In fact, we are not doing that for the first time now. If you see what we did in the winter, and the players we scouted in the winter, we were able to attract those players. Everyone recognized that we did a good job at that time.

But it’s more than that. I think we need to scout at the youngest ages, and not only in Jeddah. We need to be able to identify players that are maybe today eight, nine, 10, 11, 12 years old and to attract them to the club.

We have to take care of them, we have to take care of their families. But we have to have a comprehensive strategy and the comprehensive role model for these young kids and to define a program together with their families, to develop not only the players, but also the young men.

Balancing local and international scouting…

We want players like we have today, which are role models, which are able to play and to work hand-in-hand with the Saudi players.

So, we have a network of of international scouts. In fact, the football department we have today are scouting everywhere (across) the globe. It’s part-international and part-Saudi.

International, (we seek) much more established players; and national, young players that we can be proud of in two or three years from now, and especially in 2034.

Ittihad’s role in helping Saudi Arabia become an international sporting hub…

Saudi has probably the best program I saw so far in terms of becoming a hub for sports. Very often, the investment in other countries is based on investment by the clubs, and the clubs keep themselves in a very, I would say, individual position.

Here, you can understand that the Ministry of Sport has a strategy and they are supporting the clubs in terms of developing the different sports the clubs can have. In our case, we have 19 different sports. We have very individual sports with strong performances. If you look to badminton, to archery, to table tennis, tennis, we have a fantastic group of young players with very good results.

Taking part in the Said Super Cup in Abu Dhabi…

For us to play in the most important competitions, it’s very important. We want to be part of the international competitions, of the Super Cup, of the King’s Cup, of the SPL. We are a club that likes to be challenged, that likes to accept defiance, that likes to fight, because we have this spirit, a fighting spirit.

So, going for the Super Cup, even if it is in Abu Dhabi, even if it will be a little bit more difficult for our fans to be there, even if we have some players that are playing (with the Olympic team), and we are proud of that, we are facing that with strong confidence. We believe that we can deliver a very good result and our ambition, and our president’s ambition, and our coach’s ambition, is to succeed.

Al-Ittihad’s new sporting committee…

The sporting committee is something that the board decided to create. So, it’s a decision coming from the board and in the sporting committee there are three persons: Myself, the sports director, Ramon Planes, but also the coach (Marcelo Gallardo). The sporting committee is mainly in charge of the decisions related with the market. So, with players that we want to hire, with analyzing the squads, where do we have positions that we need to reinforce, which players are now maybe at the stage that we would eventually prefer them to to be sold? Because, of course, the clubs also need these revenues coming from player-trading.

So, it’s about the sporting decisions, not, of course, the decisions from the coach. We do not decide who is going to play or not, but in terms of especially around the market and around the players. I think it was a very brave decision from the board because very often the board members like to be involved in these kinds of operations, but they understand that it’s critical that such decisions are taken by professional people that are used to take those decisions.

The five players we hired in the winter transfer window are a result of this sporting committee’s decisions and the support we got from the board to take those decisions.

The professional standards of the Saudi Pro League…

The Saudi Pro League is a very interesting competition. We have very good players in the Saudi Pro League and we have very good organization inside the SPL with experts that I met for the first time here, but are people that know a lot about the industry. I was myself part of the Portuguese league for a very specific topic, which is the TV rights.

But what I found here is extremely professional. Now, for the product to be very attractive, we need that the competition is strong, so all clubs have to try to fight for the same results. Of course, there are clubs that are bigger than others. In this sense, I think that the work which started maybe one year ago, one year and a half ago, about attracting very important players, it has to continue.

We need to attract more players and to have those players in the different clubs, for the matches to be much more attractive. We don’t want that it’s easy to win against a small team. It should be the same concept as, for example, the Premier League, where a small team can beat a big team because the TV rights revenues are spread in a very democratic way.

The Saudi players that have impressed the most..

My players, to be very honest. So, those are the players that I like. I don’t want to emphasize one specific player because then it would be unfair for the rest of the players.

But I think we have a group of Saudi players, some of them quite senior, others quite young. They all deserve my respect — I think they are very good professionals.

Growing the Al-Ittihad brand globally…

Al-Ittihad is already a well-known club outside Saudi because it’s part of the Kingdom’s historical brand, but also because we were able to attract some young players and players like Benzema, like Kante, like Fabinho, Luis Felipe, Jota. They bring a lot of attention to the club.

But I think we need to move forward. That’s the reason, for example, this preseason will be different from the preseason we had last season. So, we will be in Europe. We will have part of the work we will do during the preseason (be) between Spain and Portugal. We will play European matches not only in Portugal and Spain, but also probably in Central Europe.

This is what we want to do. We want, first of all, to prepare our players for new challenges. We want them to play against very important teams in Europe, but we want also the international community to be aware about the quality we have in this club. And I think it is a good opportunity to showcase some of the Saudi players that we have today, as they are very, very good.

I don’t think they are well known in the market, but they will be known if we take those players and we put them in the best stadiums, playing against the best teams.

The impact of signing Karim Benzema…

Well, let’s start with off the pitch. It’s obvious, Karim is a player that is, I would say, a global player. There are very few global players. I would call it a global brand, but it’s a global player. Everyone in the world knows Karim Benzema. So, the impact from Karim Benzema followers in our club was impressive.

I think that the fact just to see Karim with the black and yellow shirt, it’s a fantastic demonstration for the world about our club and the way we can attract these kind of players.

But the second, on the pitch, it’s much more important than the first one. Karim is the Ballon d’Or winner. Karim played in probably one of the best leagues in the world. He was part of the French national team. So, the quality of Karim — no one can have any doubt about that. Karim, as you know, was injured for a certain period and probably the last two months. Now, in the last training sessions we had this week, Karim is already in very good shape and I think he will be extremely important for the rest of the season.

I’m glad to see that he’s smiling, I’m glad to see that he’s committed and I will be glad to see him on the pitch.

Addressing the supporters’ frustrations this season…

My experience about the role we have in the club cannot only be in this very short term. I understand their frustration, and their frustration is my frustration. We would love to have delivered better results during this season. But, from my experience, the right thing to do is to prepare the foundations for the future.

If we have the right foundations, we will be able to deliver the best results in the future and the right foundations, right now, is, among others, to have an academy. We have already the new land, and we will start building the academy in a very short period. The foundations are also about having a very good management team, a very good professional team. We have already a professional team in place.

The foundations are also about taking smart decisions in building the squad between international players and between Saudi players. We are taking those decisions.

Those foundations, once they are in place, the success, the sporting success, will be obvious. We need to go faster, we need to go deeper than our competitors, and we will do that. So, for our fans, that I totally respect, I understand them, but please believe that we are doing the right job right now, which is to prepare the future.

The future will be a brilliant future.

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