Al-Taawoun have been punching above their weight this season. With a significantly lower budget and fewer stars than their rivals, the club from Buraidah sit in third place in the Saudi Pro League, having suffered just one defeat so far.
On Friday night, Pericles Chamusca’s side face their sternest test of the 2023-24 campaign as they visit unbeaten league leaders Al-Hilal. The match is an opportunity for Al-Taawoun to show that they can mix it with the Kingdom’s heavyweights and be considered among the genuine contenders for the Saudi Pro League title.
It is the sort of challenge that Al-Taawoun assistant manager Claudio Prates relishes and though he is disappointed that fellow Brazilian Neymar will not be in Al-Hilal’s starting XI, he says the team is ready to show their title credentials.
“Facing Al-Hilal always gives a feeling of great motivation but at the same time, we know that we have to give something more to face this type of team,” Prates told Arab News in an exclusive interview.
“We are sad that we won’t have Neymar in front of us and we hope for his quick recovery from surgery, but even so, big names will be on the field and we will try to do our best and pursue our goals of staying at the top of the table.”
While their rivals at the Saudi Pro League summit can call on the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Aleksandar Mitrovic, Al-Taawoun have a less star-studded line-up. Still, there is quality running through the team, with Gambia forward Musa Barrow a proven Serie A goalscorer with Bologna, and Alvaro Medran a Real Madrid academy graduate.
The team also boasts a strong Brazilian core, with goalkeeper Mailson, defender Andrei Girotto, midfielders Mateus Castro and Flavio Medeiros, and forward Joao Pedro. Among the Saudi players, midfielder Saad Al-Nasser made his debut for the Green Falcons this year, and 21-year-old left-back Muath Faqeehi, on loan from Al-Hilal, has been a revelation this season.
“The big names who arrived in Saudi Arabia have undoubtedly upgraded the league in every way,” Prates said. “It means the motivation of local players has increased, and the level of the games improved greatly due to the quality of these players.
“I personally always had doubts as to whether this would help benefit the development of the Saudi players as many would have less time on the field as the number of foreigners increased, but what I have seen is a definite improvement in the technical evolution and understanding of the game in training.”
Prates says the support of the board in assembling the squad has been vital, while he points to the voracious work ethic among the players as the key factor that has propelled Al-Taawoun toward the upper echelons of the Saudi Pro League.
“The key to success in football is always a blend of serious work and having players and management who fully buy into the idea of what you are doing,” Prates said.
“I have several years of experience in this region, and I have never seen a group that trains as intensely as this one.
“The trust that the board gave us is also an important detail as this is not always possible in the Arab world. It meant we could bring players we already knew. I had already worked in clubs in Brazil together with Girotto, Mateus and Flavio, and I knew their characteristics both as athletes and as people.
“Luckily, they have settled quickly into a different culture and are performing very well in a highly competitive league, helping us implement a playing style that has been ideal for Al-Taawoun.”
Prates knows the region well. During his playing career, Claudinho — as he was better known — turned out for Al-Arabi and Al-Shamal in Qatar, Al-Arabi in Kuwait and Al-Shoulla in Saudi Arabia, before eventually hanging up his boots aged 39 after a spell with Al-Khaleej.
His coaching career began in his homeland, but in 2021 he left Brazilian giants Palmeiras to return to the Kingdom as Chamusca’s assistant at Al-Shabab, before moving with his compatriot to Al-Taawoun.
“I didn’t think twice when I was invited to come to work with Chamusca,” said Prates. “I knew I could help with my experience in this world because I already spoke a little Arabic in training and understood the football culture here.
“Chamusca is a great manager tactically but above all is a great people manager. He is a person who does things the right way and shows with his actions that he cares; he always tries to help the players and staff so that they can always give their best.
“It means that for everyone who works with him, it is a pleasure to dedicate ourselves and to try to achieve the best results.”
This season is not the first time Al-Taawoun have competed toward the top end of the Saudi Pro League. Under the guidance of Portuguese coach Pedro Emanuel in 2019, Al-Taawoun secured a best-ever Saudi Pro League finish of third and won the King’s Cup for the first time, defeating Al-Hilal 5-0 in the semifinal and Al-Ittihad 2-1 in the final.
However, their success was short-lived, and the next season was a major struggle because of the dual demands of the Saudi Pro League and AFC Champions League, with Al-Taawoun narrowly avoiding relegation. The club rebounded the following year and reached another King’s Cup final; this time they were denied by an Al-Faisaly side led by Chamusca.
Now the Brazilian coach is at the Al-Taawoun helm and his focus on a collective approach appears to be working wonders again. But can the team from the Al-Qassim province really topple Al-Hilal and win the Saudi Pro League title for the first time?
“In football, everything is possible, but of course, we know that those who have the biggest investments and the best players are always the favorites,” Prates said.
“What we have always done is try to reduce these differences by working together, always thinking about the collective before the individual, that no one is bigger than the club and that we can only be here because of the work we did together every day in training.
“Our plan is to always be at the top of the table and continue fighting with the big clubs, without forgetting that several teams at our level are also rising as the level of the Saudi league does.”