It may end up being the defining moment of Roberto Mancini’s managerial career. At least of his time in charge of Saudi Arabia.
The symbolism of his behavior was hard to miss.
When the Italian coach walked down the tunnel at Education City Stadium before the penalty shootout loss to South Korea had even been confirmed, Mancini had not only turned his back on his players, the supporters and the nation, but very likely his job as well.
Condemnation in the wake of Saudi Arabia’s exit from the AFC Asian Cup was immediate and came from many quarters.
One fan on X summed up many angry supporters’ sentiments.
“A cowardly coach who does not take responsibility and does not stand with his players. He started the tournament with a strange statement that affected the team and the fans and ended it with an ugly escape that only a coward can do!”
Saudi Arabia’s football association President Yasser Al-Meshal was less scathing but made his displeasure clear: “Mancini’s early departure is unacceptable, however, the coach met with the players and thanked them.”
It could have been so different for the Green Falcons and their coach.
If 90 minutes is a long time in football then 90 seconds was an age on Tuesday. That was the difference between Saudi Arabia securing a famous win over South Korea and moving to the quarterfinals, and conceding a 99th minute equalizer before losing on penalties. That was the difference between delight and despair; between praise for a winning coach and the backlash that is raging online.
The last-minute equalizer and shootout loss were hard enough for the thousands of Saudi Arabia fans who raised the roof at the Education City Stadium and the millions watching at home.
But the sight of Mancini leaving the pitch — where he had minutes earlier linked arms with his coaching staff — to head down the tunnel before the final penalty had been taken, would have been hard to stomach.
The image will be a lasting one whether he stays in charge or not.
At the post-match press conference, the Italian apologized, saying that he did not know the shootout had finished. True or not — and it seems a strange claim — it is hard to say which looks worse; leaving early or thinking a game had finished when it had not. One Korean commentator assumed Mancini had been sent off as he could think of no other explanation.
The damage had already been done. The immediate reaction online in Saudi Arabia was bitter. “The match was handed to the Koreans from the 75th minute with the wrong changes,” one fan commented on X. “There is no need for his departure. The least he can do is to appreciate the players, and console them and encourage them.”
Anger was mixed with disappointment and heartbreak.
“I challenge him to do this in Italy … arrogant arrogant,” said another poster. “He accused national team players of desertion and stripped them of their chance to represent their country. He was the first to escape.”
The comment refers to an explosive press conference at the start of the tournament. After Mancini had controversially left out Salman Al-Faraj, Sultan Al-Ghannam and Nawaf Al-Aqidi, he claimed that these established international stars, who play for the big Riyadh clubs Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr, wanted to pick and choose their games.
Such actions could only be forgotten or forgiven if success follows, and for a time that looked possible. Two late goals produced a dramatic 2-1 win over Oman in the opening game. Then there was a comfortable 2-0 win over Kyrgyzstan, but not much more could be read into that as the Central Asians had two men sent off. The group stage ended with a 0-0 draw against Thailand, but then both teams were already through.
It was not bad, but neither was it inspiring. Saudi Arabia had at least topped their Group F.
Last night’s round of 16 clash with South Korea could have been a turning point. For much of the game, the star-studded East Asians created nothing, but as Saudi Arabia, ahead 1-0 thanks to Abdullah Radif, sat deeper and deeper, the Red attacks started with about 10 minutes remaining and they never really stopped.
Mancini’s conservative substitutes would have looked wise had the team held out but Cho Gue-song’s 99th minute header put paid to that. And in the end, it was a deserved goal. The Green Falcons had no answer and Mancini’s much-vaunted tactical acumen, which had taken Italy to the European Championship glory in 2021, failed him. Or rather, it fell short by about 90 seconds.
Then came his shocking stage exit, and the fierce backlash it sparked is unlikely to abate any time soon.
Said one person online: “There is no commander of a battle who escapes while his soldiers are on its ground … For many years in the sports community, we have never seen a coach leave the field while his team was playing … When Mancini felt the loss, he ran away!”
Whether he returns remains to be seen.