Just over a year after he departed his beloved club as a hero, ex-River Plate coach Marcelo Gallardo has accepted an offer worth around US$15-million a year to take charge of Saudi Arabian side Al-Ittihad.
After several days of negotiations, Gallardo has accepted the Saudi club's proposal and is expected to travel this weekend to the Middle East this weekend to complete formalities.
The 47-year-old will sign an 18-month contract until June 2025, with an option to extend for a further 18 months (until June 2027), worth around US$15 million a year, according to reports – a salary that will put him among the world’s top three best-paid coaches.
The move, confirmed by multiple outlets on Wednesday, is something of a surprise. After a trophy-laden spell at River Plate that lasted eight years, Gallardo was hotly tipped to take control of a major European side.
Sources close to the coach told local outlets he has turned down a number of offers from such clubs over the past 12 months.
However, the megabucks on offer from the Saudi Pro league have tempted Gallardo and he will now take charge of Al-Ittihad, who sit fifth in the league and have stars such as Karim Benzema, N'Golo Kanté and Fabinho in their line-up.
It is unclear what staff will join him in Saudi Arabia.
Gallardo, nicknamed ‘El Muñeco’, is one of the most coveted Argentine coaches in the world. To date, he has spent only one season managing abroad – the 2011/2012 campaign at Nacional of Uruguay, who he led to the Campeonato Uruguayo.
He took charge of River in 2014 and stayed for eight-and-a-half years, winning 14 titles in the process, including Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana crowns.
Saudi Arabia… and then?
Gallardo’s appointment is a coup for Al-Ittihad, the oldest sports club in the country and one of four clubs in the Saudi Pro League to be owned by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the state sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia.
The move could also pave the way for Gallardo to join another club with links to PIF further down the line. The Saudi fund is an investor in consortia that holds shares in both English Premier League sides Chelsea and Newcastle United – facts that are a source of controversy in Britain.
Agreeing to join the Jeddah-based side also brings another immediate attraction: participation in this year’s FIFA Club World Cup, which will be staged in the same city. Al-Ittihad, who will host, have qualified as winners of the 2022–23 Saudi Pro League campaign.
Accepting the post will challenge Gallardo’s adaptability – not only will he have to quickly acclimatise to a new country, culture and league, he will also have to deal with an imbalanced squad – Al-Ittihad boasts stars of the calibre of Benzema, Kanté, Fabinho and Brazilian goalkeeper Marcelo Grohe, among others, but the rest of the side is made up of Saudis who are untried and untested at the highest level.
Nevertheless, Gallardo has already had experience of coaching on the continent, – this year he was appointed as coach of a Saudi all-stars team for the Riyadh Season Cup friendly tournament. His side was defeated 5-4 by Paris St Germain.
In recent days, the name of Spaniard coach Julen Lopetegui – who recently left Premier League side Wolverhampton Wanderers – had been rumoured to be in the running for the Al-Ittihad post, but European reporters say the ex-Spain, Sevilla and Real Madrid coach dropped out.