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A Spaniard’s love affair with Saudi football

Raul Caneda helped shape the tactical mind of Pep Guardiola before having a huge impact on Saudi football. He talks to Shuaib B Ahmed about his time managing Al Ittihad and Al Nassr.

Few people are aware of the impact Dorados de Sinaloa has had on global football.

In 2006, the young club, based in the north-west Mexican city of Culiacán and currently residing in the country’s second division, was home, be it only for a six-month period, to a player who had arrived from Qatar having previously had a stellar, trophy-laden career at Barcelona; one Pep Guardiola. Dorados was where the curtain fell for the esteemed footballer.

Dorados is also where Guardiola met a Spaniard by the name of Raul Caneda – who assisted head coach Juan Manuel Lillo in his ambitions to take the club to the next level. Both Lillo and Caneda, from a managerial perspective, helped instill tactical know-how in Guardiola.

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“We tried to be a well-organised and disciplined team that would keep the ball,” said Caneda in an interview with Duncan Tucker of the Guardian. “We didn’t leave much down to improvisation, we wanted everyone to sing from the same sheet. We had a well-defined style and we were very competitive despite being a humble team.”

The guidance and lessons learnt at Dorados paved the way for the Guardiola we see today; a coach who wants his players to close down defenders quickly,  play in a structured, organised manner, and above all keep possession of the ball.

In 2007, as Guardiola returned to Barcelona to start glorious career as a manager, so did Caneda, who was called up by Lillo to be his right hand man at Real Sociedad, and later at UD Almeria, their partnership lasting till 2011.

With that experience under his belt, one would have expected Caneda to take on the challenging offers from across Europe yet the unlikely location of Saudi Arabia is where he moved next.

Caneda joined Jeddah-based powerhouse Al Ittihad in February 2012, introducing structure and organisation in a region very often known for everything but. He is among the few across the Middle East who have had the opportunity to manage two major clubs in Saudi Arabia – Al Ittihad and Al Nassr.

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We caught up with Caneda for a chat on his time in Saudi.

FourFourTwo Arabia: How did the opportunity to coach Al Ittihad come about?

Raul Caneda: They were looking for someone with a different approach, different style – for me it was a pleasure to work at such big club.

FFTA: What did you know about football in Saudi Arabia before you arrived?

RC: I knew that history and the passion for the game existed as they had qualified for several World Cups.

FFTA: Was adjusting to life in Saudi Arabia difficult?

RC: For sure, it was a big change and a huge challenge but at the end I had realised that our cultures and personalities are not so different after all.

FFTA: What was the major difference between the environment at Al Ittihad and what you were used to in Europe, during your first training session with the team?

RC: From a football point of view, local players have talent to play at the top level, however, they carry with them low self-esteem. They are better than they think. However, a point of improvement would be the fact that the concept of being a professional has a long way to go.

FFTA: Al Ittihad has gone through a severe financial crises and continues to. You recently were paid what you were owed by the club, but did that impact your love for the club?

RC: I knew I had to deal with the unfortunate circumstance of financial problems. For sure, it is a very nasty situation to fight for your rights in the court but Al Ittihad, the players and supporters will remain in my heart soul forever.

FFTA: Did you ever think you would manage a rival club, like you did at A Nassr?

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RC: Yes, I knew that the job we had done at Al Ittihad was attracting queries from all angles, so it was not strange for me personally, to receive an offer for another big club like Al Nassr.

FFTA: What is your current status?

RC: I am currently an external analyst for Manchester City.

FFTA: Any thoughts of returning to Saudi Arabia?

RC: Saudi Arabia will always be my second home.

FFTA: What was it like working with Pep Guardiola during your time at Dorados?

RC: Guardiola was a player with strong curiosity and an eagerness to learn the fundamentals of what it takes to be a manager.

FFTA: If given the opportunity, would you come back to Saudi Arabia and manage either Al Ittihad, Al Nassr or any other team?

RC: Very few coaches across the world would say no to joining clubs of their stature. Once you have worked in these two clubs, it’s very difficult to feel any passion for their rivals. Both Al Nassr and Al Ittihad are very special clubs.

FFTA: Can you name one Saudi player who could play in Europe?

RC: Several players who I have trained can play without any problems in La Liga – Sahlawy, Yehya, Hussein, Khamis, Ghaleb, Jeebren, Omar, Fahad, Fawaz, Ahmed Assiri, etc.

But for me the best Saudi player as of currently is right back, Hassan Moath.

FFTA: How would you describe Al Ittihad in three words?

RC: Passion, Soul and Atmosphere.

FFTA: How would you describe Al Nassr in three words?

RC: Passion, Soul and Control.

FFTA: If you had to choose a club to return to, would it be Ittihad or Al Nassr?

RC: Please, do not make me choose between a father and a mother. Two massive clubs, with heart and soul of their own.

 

Shuaib B Ahmed can be found talking about Middle Eastern football at @footynions

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