Cattenacio Palestino

In September, the fans of Ahli al Khalil - the smaller of the two Hebron clubs - didn’t have high hopes from the forthcoming season. The club´s performances in the West Bank Premier League were unstable, and the team was sailing between the lower and middle places of the table, as per usual in recent years.

In January, after a dull half a season, the technical staff of the club was in a state of chaos: the coach left to Jordan and the team’s captain replaced him.

But the club’s Chairman, Mr. Kifah Sharif, had an ace up his sleeve. He had an unorthodox idea: to sign, for the very first time in the history of Palestinian football, an Italian coach as a club manager.

Stefano Cusin’s arrival to the disputed city of Hebron was transformative. “I arrived in January, and immediately won the club’s first ever trophy- the ‘Yasser Arafat Cup’ (the local league cup)”, said Cusin in a phone interview to BabaGol while driving Route 60, the motorway between Bet Lehem and Hebron.  “Last week we were promoted to the Palestinian Cup Final, after a victory against the current holders, Taraji Wad al-Nis, who played at the AFC Cup this season. We won the last Derby against Shabab (the city rival), and at the past month, we were one of the best teams in the league”.

His arrival to Hebron was transformative. Cusin with the Yasser Arafat Cup in January (Stefano Cusin)

Cusin came to Palestine with a professionally rich and geographically diverse football experience. As a player he played in Italy, Switzerland, Guadeloupe and France. As a coach, he literally worked all over the globe. Cameroun, Congo, Bulgaria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, France and Italy are only some of the countries he was active in as a football professional since the mid-nineties.

Accompanied by an Italian fitness coach, Gian Luca Sorini, and a Palestinian goalkeeping trainer, Cusin is laboring in order to change the mentality and habits of his team. For instance, he is facing the unfamiliar reality in which a team practices only once a day, since most of the players of the team have day jobs.

Cusin saw the potential in the team from the start. “I noticed from the beginning that there is a good material to work with here, but the main goal is to build a strong side for next season.”

As a coach who was educated by versions of the Italian Catenaccio style, Cusin is relaying on his country tactics and methods. “For me, Italy is by far, the highest authority in tactics and game management. I am working in two ways: team group-organization and high-fitness conditions. It was new for the players here at the beginning, but it changed everything.”

By all accounts Hebron isn’t simple. The city is divided in two: areas under the control of the Israeli Defense Force, and areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Clashes between Arab, Jews, military and police forces, are part of the city daily life. Despite these circumstances, Cusin didn’t run into tough situations during his short period in Palestine, except of the IDF Check Points, which exist all along the B and C territories of the West Bank, in order to control and supervise the movement of the Palestinian population.

“When we play away, we often get stopped at check points. In one game the referee was late because he got stuck in a check point in Ramallah”.

Surprisingly, going through Check Points cultivated not only devastating incidents, but uplifting ones for Cusin and his players. “We were coming back from a big victory in A-Ram, and a soldier stopped us for a routine check.  He asked us who we are, “We are Ahli football club from Hebron. We are coming back from a game”. The soldier asked what was the result of our game was. When we told him we won 3-1 he said: “Well done. Go home and celebrate”.

And so they did. Cusin doesn’t see football as a part of the region´s politics, and underscored to BabaGol that he is against mixing football with politics. He sees football as a bond that should break the barriers between people. “I am a man of sports. My job is to make the separation between football and politics, for my players. Moreover, I need to ignore it. The football world, in contrary to politics, is very dynamic. Who knows? Maybe one day I will coach in Israel? I am not taking politics in my calculations.”

Cusin testifies that he feels in the City of Abraham. “The people here are great. They are warm and welcoming. They really remind me of Italian people. You know, it’s not Miami, but it’s difficult to find good people like the people here. And I traveled a lot.

The club is like a true family and I never feel alone here”, he said with affection. Ahli’s chairman, Kifah Sharif smoothed Cusin’s adjustment into Hebron, and the latter is thankful.

“The club’s management is very professional. The salary is always on time and the club’ staff organizes everything. Mr. Sharif is a man of sports. He wants to win and be successful, but in addition he wants Ahli to be an example of planning and building. He is a very warm person, and at the same time demanding.”

Cusin arrived in Palestine after years of working in the Arab Gulf, mainly alongside another Italian manager, Walter Zenga.

“Walter is one of my best friends. I learned a lot from him.While working with him, I learned the job. It was a fantastic experience as young coach.”

The Italian couple worked together successfully, for the Saudi side Al Nassr and Emirati clubs Al Nasr and Al Jazira. Before his years in Arabic football clubs, Cusin worked in Africa, and was in charge on the national youth teams of Cameroon and Congo. In addition, he guided young coaches and players in various workshops and courses. His memories from the Black Continent had a significant impact on him.

“The years I spent in Africa were the hardest in my career, but also the most satisfying years. Guiding coaches and young players was one of my best experiences in football, because I was influencing young men’s dreams. For few of them, it was literally a game changer.”

When asked to reflect on the idiosyncratic differences between football cultures in the various parts of the globe - Cusin highlighted Palestine as a unique and rapidly developing football nation. “In Africa there’s big potential, in terms of athletics, fitness and technic, but there are many problems in the organization of the football scenarios. The Gulf countries have the organization level  I was accustomed to from Europe and the quality of the facilities were great, just like in Italy and France. The problem is that the local players don’t have enough motivation to work hard.  Here’ it’s a different story. The Palestinian players and coaches want to learn, improve and progress. That’s the key for success. This is exactly what coach like me is looking for.”

"With him, I learned the job." Cusin with Zenga, at Al Jazira (Stefano Cusin)

Football is becoming a major part of the Palestinian national culture and identity. The National Team is making progress, and the local clubs are starting to participate in the international competitions. Cusin believes that with the right financial support Palestinian football will reach new peaks in the upcoming years.

“Right now, the Palestinian league’s play level is similar to the Emirati 2nd division. With more investments and hard work, in ten years Palestine will qualify to the World Cup and will win the Asian Cup. I am sure about it.”

The many years in the Arab world prepared Cusin well and his transition to Hebron was smooth. People and friends have warned him from going to Palestine, but he enjoys the city and loves the Arab culture and life.  Nonetheless, considering the future, Cusin is unwilling to commit. Mr. Sharif already offered him a ten years contract, but Cusin insists: “I am focused on the final games of the League and the Cup final, which can give us a ticket to the AFC Cup next season. Next season? Who knows...”

On the meantime, he will keep preaching Ahli Al Khalil’s players Italian tactics; will try to win the Palestinian Cup and to make history with the modest club of Mr. Sharif.

As in every BabaGol interview, Stefano answered the ‘Personal Football Questions’ questionnaire.

What is your favorite formation of a football team?
I don’t think there is such thing as a ‘favorite formation’. You must understand the club you train, the players you have, and to find the right formation for them. I change my formation every game.

Who is the best player you have coached?
That’s a difficult one. Mark Bresciano, he played for me at the Emirates. He is an example of professionalism. He is the first to come, the last to leave. He is a humble family guy who loves football. I also coached Luca Toni, Diané (former Paris Saint Germain player), Barada (now at Marseille). All of them are great players, and great persons. That’s a rule for me. A great player must be a great person; otherwise, he is not a great player. 

What would you do if not football?
I would be an explorer, a traveler, a culture observer, a translator, a pilot maybe. For sure it would be something dynamic. It will be a profession that will connect me with people from all over the world.

Who is your favorite team?
Inter Milan.

Who is your Favorite player?
Cristiano Ronaldo. I visited Real Madrid’s training once, and watched a session of José Mourinho. Ronaldo arrived two hours before the practice to prepare himself for the training. He was asking questions on every part of the coaching. He is the quintessential professional.

What is your greatest football moment of all times?
My greatest moment is tomorrow. For me,the best is yet to come.

What is your dream when it comes to football?
My target is to lead a big African National Team and a big club, in the continental and international level. And of course, to win titles.

Describe Stefano Cusin.
A person who likes to know new countries and cultures, and a professional coach who wants to improve his players anywhere he works.