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Updated January 16th, 2024 at 09:06 IST

Ronaldo and Neymar brought global attention to Saudi league. Now the focus turns to national team

Major titles have been won by Roberto Mancini with Italy, Inter Milan, and Manchester City. Now he wants to do it all over again with Saudi Arabia. The attention, however, is on its national squad, which is attempting to win the Asian Cup for the fourth time in a row.

Roberto Mancini
Roberto Mancini, right, poses for a photo with Yasser Al Mishal, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation president, during a press conference, in Riyadh | Image: AP
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Roberto Mancini has won major titles with Italy, Inter Milan and Manchester City. Now he is aiming to do it all again with Saudi Arabia.

The oil-rich nation has announced itself as a new soccer power after signing a host of the world's leading players such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar to its domestic league over the past year. But the focus is on its national team at the Asian Cup as it attempts to win the competition for a record-equaling fourth time.

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"We are here, we know we are a big team, but this is also a very important tournament. We know there are many top national teams in this tournament, and we want to do our best job,” Mancini said on the eve of Saudi Arabia's opening Group F game against Oman on Tuesday.

The Italian coach, who was appointed in August last year, led Italy to triumph at the last European Championship in 2021 and is using that victory as inspiration for this tournament.

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“Saudi Arabia is a very important country, but we know if we want to win the title, we need to be very strong. Football is a strange thing; things can quickly change during the tournament,” he said. "For Italy during the Euros, we were only the sixth favorites, but we won it.”

Saudi Arabia hasn't won the Asian Cup since 1996, but comes into the tournament having produced one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history when beating eventual champion Argentina in Qatar in 2022.

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“The Argentina win served as a motivation for us, it made us realize we can beat any team," said Saleh Al Shehri, who scored in that famous 2-1 win. "Yes, the pressure on us increased, but any player who wears the colors of Saudi Arabia will do their best every time.”

A spectacular recruitment drive has seen a number star players leave Europe's top teams to join the Saudi League.

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Ronaldo joined Al-Nassr in December 2022 after leaving Manchester United and was followed by Real Madrid great Karim Benzema, who moved to Al-Ittihad. Brazil forward Neymar left Paris Saint-Germain for Al-Hilal.

Sadio Mane, Riyad Mahrez and N'Golo Kante are among other star signings recruited as Saudi Arabia looks intent on establishing its league as one of the most high profile in the world, while also facing accusations of sportswashing .

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But an influx of top players has had an impact on Mancini's options.

“We have many players who often don’t play in their clubs, but we had two weeks of work and we worked well," he said. "All the Oman players play regularly, but we are happy with the players that we have. We brought them because we know they are ready to fight for their country, and we will also use the first three matches to improve their situation in terms of match fitness.”

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Published January 16th, 2024 at 09:06 IST

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