The date palm tree is a perennial part of life in the Kingdom and truly emblematic of Arabian hospitality, the showpiece occasion for the traditional, sweet fruit is the annual Buraidah Date Festival, the largest of its kind in the world.
Based in the Al Qassim region around three-and-a-half hours from Riyadh, Buraidah has recently been attracting international media attention for a very different reason – the success of Roshn Saudi League surprise package Al Taawoun Football Club.
Fifth in the table last season, Al Taawoun have continued their incredible form and sit third this campaign, ahead of Karim Benzema’s Al Ittihad and Riyad Mahrez’s Al Ahli and behind only Riyadh duo Al Hilal and Al Nassr.
Keep in mind Al Taawoun have only been in Saudi Arabia’s topflight since 2010/11 following a long absence and were within a whisker of being relegated – saved by a last gasp, final day goal – as recently as 2019/20.
Growth, vitality, and prosperity would all be apt descriptions of The Wolves then, who have been lauded not just for their results against more exalted opponents but their style of play.
Indeed, ask Brazilian manager Pericles Chamusca the sweet secret of their success and he instantly draws upon work on the training ground being brought to fruition on matchday.
“There is alignment between me, the coaching staff and the players,” says Chamusca, who is in his second season with Al Taawoun. “We have a very high intensity in training and when we look for players, we look for quality, ability to adapt, and playing style.”
Among those players is Musa Barrow, a Gambian wide forward signed from Italian Serie A side Bologna in the summer who has scored four goals from nine Al Taawoun appearances. Brazilian centre-forward Joao Pedro has also notched four, while Al Taawoun’s creative midfield includes former Real Madrid and Valencia playmaker Alvaro Medran. Fellow midfielder Saad Al Nasser’s displays have earned international recognition with Saudi Arabia.
“We are very satisfied this term with the results and style of play,” says Chamusca. “The fans are enjoying the quality of our play and we are pleased to be making them very happy.”
Just ask the fans themselves who flock to the modern 6,000 capacity Al Taawoun Club Stadium in Buraidah. “They understand each other,” replies 18-year-old fan Hassan Muree Salem when asked what makes Al Tawooun tick. “The players are doing very well, and you can tell the coach analyses and coaches the team very well. I’m a big fan of Taawoun, I love them, and we’ve enjoyed the season a lot,” adds Muree Salem, who names “fast and strong” Joao Pedro as his favourite player.
While Muree Salem and other Al Taawoun fans are dreaming of league glory – “I think so, why not?” he says – their manager Chamusca is more realistic despite the incredible start to the season.
“Our aim was top six, but I think we can improve this target in the middle of the season,” says Chamusca. “The competition is at a high level. I’ll need to see what happens at the (January transfer) window and after that I make plans for our new target.”
Among Al Taawoun’s scalps this season are Al Nassr – Cristiano Ronaldo and all – whom Chamusca’s team defeated 2-0 at Alawaal Park in August. It was one of seven wins and four draws earned from The Wolves’ 12 Roshn Saudi League 2023/24 fixtures thus far.
Al Taawoun’s next date in Riyadh, however, is one that presents a significant moment in their season – a trip to the King Fahd International Stadium on Friday November 10 to face table toppers Al Hilal.
Unbeaten and seven points above them, how do Al Taawoun succeed where nobody else has this season in the Roshn Saudi League against Al Hilal?
“We will work on our tactical details in training this week,” says Chamusca. “Our mentality is always to win any game.”
And despite the zero in Al Hilal’s ‘L’ column this season, perhaps the better question is how do the Riyadh giants ensure that remains intact?
Damac manager Cosmin Contra, 73 times capped for Romania and who played for AC Milan, Atletico Madrid and West Bromwich Albion during a distinguished career, slightly halted the Al Taawoun juggernaut last weekend with a 0-0 draw in Buraidah.
“They play very good football and have a very good dynamic,” said Contra, who admitted the goalless draw with Al Taawoun was “a good result” for Damac. “We tried to close the spaces so they could not play inside, mostly to Barrow and Joao Pedro because they are very dangerous, and especially to stop crosses because Joao Pedro is very dangerous inside the area.”
Another great demonstration from this group. Very hard match, local Derby, but we knew we could do a great job alongside our fans. Three more points and we keep going with full strength! pic.twitter.com/SFWxdSXwhX— Péricles Chamusca (بيركليس شاموسكا) (@ChamuscaCoach) September 21, 2023
Fifty-eight-year-old Chamusca began managing in Saudi Arabia in 2018, having previously coached in his native Brazil, Japan, Qatar, and the UAE. He had a brief spell managing Al Hilal at the end of the 2018/19 season, which sandwiched managing Al Fasaily twice, and a year in charge of Al Shabab before taking the Al Taawoun role.
As well as delighting Al Taawoun supporters, being in Buraidah has handily given him ample opportunity to sample the dates that make the area famous.
“Actually, it’s a coincidence, a very good coincidence, because I like the dates from Buraidah and then I came to work in Al Taawoun and get to enjoy the dates that I like the most,” reveals Chamusca.
“But I’ll tell you another coincidence – I won the King’s Cup with Al Faisaly against Al Taawoun two years ago,” he adds. “Now I’m working here with Al Taawoun, I want to return the King’s Cup back to Al Taawoun.”
To achieve Chamusca’s date with destiny would first require a quarter-final victory over Al Hilal in Riyadh in December. The immediate priority, however, is doing the exact same thing on Friday. There is no doubt that victories in both fixtures would taste delightfully sweet for both him and the Al Taawoun supporters.