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Experienced Balaci on a mission to transform Al Suwaiq

Kuala Lumpur: He is one of the greatest footballers in the history of Romania, but the mention of Ilie Balaci’s name also turns heads across West Asia where he is considered one of the region’s most successful coaches. The current Al Suwaiq boss brings a long a wealth of experience to the Omani side as they look to navigate the 2018 AFC Cup.

A silky midfielder with a wand of a right foot, ‘the Blonde Wonder’ as he was nicknamed, made his bow for Romania aged just 17 in 1974; a national record for youngest debutant that lasted until 2014. 65 caps later, Balaci retired as one of the greatest players his country has ever produced.

After hanging his boots in 1988, the Romanian’s coaching career took him to Tunisia as a 33-year-old. Instant success ensued as he led Club Africain to become African champions in 1991. An impressive spell in Morocco further proved the young manager’s credentials and he was soon the subject of great interest from Asian clubs.

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Balaci arrived into Asian football in 1994 through the gate of United Arab Emirates side Al Shabab and his Midas’ touch delivered the club the league title for just the second time in their history and added the UAE President Cup the following season.

After conquering UAE in two seasons, Balaci moved to Saudi Arabia and had year-long stints in charge of Al Nassr and then Al Hilal, becoming one of the few men to cross the Riyadh divide between the two great rivals. His success as a coach continued as he won a handful of trophies including a Saudi Pro League title with Al Hilal.

A common theme in the Romanian’s managerial style began to emerge as he left Saudi Arabia in 1998. In stark contrast to his loyalty as a player where he spent almost 12 years at Universitatea Craiova in Romania, Balaci averaged just one season at each club as a manager.

Returning to the UAE, Balaci lifted the league title again, this time with Al Ain where he led an Abedi-Pele-inspired side to third place in the 1998-99 Asian Club Championship, losing the semi-final to eventual champions Jubilo Iwata.

The Romanian’s second crack at Asian glory was to prove more fruitful as he led Al Hilal to lift the 2000 Asian Super Cup title, overcoming Japan’s Shimizu S-Pulse in a two-legged match.

His most recent Asian campaign came in 2010 as he took Kazma SC to their best AFC Cup performance. The Kuwaiti side topped a strong group that included the likes of Uzbekistan’s Nasaf and Syria’s Al Jaish to advance to the round of 16.

A penalty-shootout win over Jordan’s Shabab Al Ordon carried Balaci’s men to the quarter-finals where they came up against the challenge of eventual winners Al Ittihad of Syria. A 3-2 defeat in the first leg in Syria was followed by a narrow 1-0 reversal at home as Kazma’s adventure ended at the final eight.

Balaci is back in the AFC Cup challenge this season with Oman’s Al Suwaiq, where fans have been hopeful that a managerial legend can lead their team to glory. The start has not been easy in a group featuring the reigning champions Air Force Club.

Three consecutive defeats leave Al Suwaiq bottom of Group A halfway into the group stage. The Omanis though can find encouraging signs from their team’s performances against Air Force Club and Al Jazeera when they narrowly lost 1-0 and 3-2 respectively.

Since leaving his homeland for an African then Asian adventure, Balaci never looked back and his stay abroad continued for over 25 years, in which he won six league titles in five different countries; Tunisia, Morocco, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. His latest challenge in Oman may just prove one of the hardest in his career, but the Romanian has all the experience needed to make a success of his time at Al Suwaiq.

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