Igor Rossi being tested after swapping Gorgie for the Gulf
Igor Rossi's powers of adaptability are being tested once more after swapping Gorgie for the Gulf in January.
In summer 2015, the Brazilian joined Hearts from Portuguese club Maritimo and hit the ground running. The defender helped Hearts to five consecutive league wins in his first five games, earned himself a contract extension within four months of arriving and completed his first season in Edinburgh by collecting the Hearts players’ player of the year award.
Now the 27-year-old is acclimatising to life in Saudi Arabia after his surprise mid-season move from Hearts to Al Faisaly two months ago. “Life is very different here because they have very different customs,” he said in an exclusive interview with the Evening News. “For example, here we train at night. People leave home to do things much more at night than in the morning. In the morning many shops are closed, and I have to be always attentive to their prayer times, because all the shops close for prayer. I have often tried to do something in some store and I could not do it, but we have to respect it, I am in their country.
“I like the food, but they love to eat rice with mutton, and usually this is eaten with the hand without using cutlery. The first time it was very complicated, but now I am used to it a little. When going in restaurants you can eat normal with no problems. The temperature is not as hot as I expected although it is warmer than Scotland. It was actually quite cool for me when I arrived because it was only 14 degrees and as low as 5 degrees at night. It is getting warmer now, though, and I am told it can go up to 40 degrees.
“My English is not so good now because I’m not speaking it every day. In Scotland, it was a lot better because I was speaking it every day. Here it is very difficult because people don’t speak English – most people only speak Arabic. There are only three or four players in my team who can speak a little English.”
As was the case when he arrived at Hearts, Rossi has swiftly established himself in the heart of his new team’s defence. He has started six games in a row for Al Faisaly since making his debut in late January. They are currently placed 11th, precariously above the relegation zone in the 14-team Pro League, but have been on a four-game unbeaten run. “Our league position is not so good but we have had some better results recently,” he said. “I have played every game since I came here, which is good. The football is better tactically in Scotland, but here it is very fast.
“My team only get around 3000 fans for home games because we are from a little city [Al Majmaah], but some of the other teams have bigger crowds. The people here love football, just like in Brazil. It’s very big here, but I think too many people here find it easier to watch the games on TV than to go to the stadiums.”
That wasn’t the case at Hearts, where Rossi played every home game in front of sell-out crowds of 16,000-plus. Although he was content in Edinburgh, the lure of a lucrative move to Saudi Arabia was too strong to resist for a man entering the business end of his career. “I came here because it was a good offer for me,” he explained. “Hearts never offered me a new contract. I only had another five months left at Hearts but there was never any talk about a new contract for me. I looked at the offer from Saudi Arabia and felt it would be good for my life [financially].
“I spoke to Craig [Levein, director of football] and Ian [Cathro, head coach] about it and they understood my situation. They saw me as an important player but they knew it was a good offer for me. I want to thank everyone at Hearts for understanding my situation. I don’t know if they wanted to extend my contract or not. There was no talk about that.
“I am disappointed that my last game for Hearts was the loss to Aberdeen [in December]. I didn’t know that was going to be my last game at the time. The offer from Saudi Arabia came afterwards. It all happened quite quickly.”
Rossi made 58 appearances in his 18 months with Hearts and was an integral member of the side that finished third and had the second-best defensive record in the Premiership under Robbie Neilson last season. “I had a very good time at Hearts,” he said. “I enjoyed playing for the team and the fans and I had a good time living in Edinburgh. My best moment at Hearts was getting the player of the year award. My best game was the one when I scored two goals in a very important Europa League game [away to Infonet last July]. That was a big game, not just for me, but also for the club. The biggest disappointment was losing to the Hibees [in the Scottish Cup] last season.”
Rossi credits Neilson, who left to take over at MK Dons a month before his own departure from Tynecastle, for helping him make such a positive impact at Hearts. “I adapted very quickly in Scotland,” he said. “It can be very difficult because the football in Scotland is very strong and sometimes you’d like more time on the ball but it was good for me that when I went to Hearts, I played in the first game and I just kept playing every week. It helped me and all the other players that we won all of our first five games last season. That was important for us.
“Robbie Neilson was very good for me. He put a lot of confidence in me. He spoke to me all the time and told me had confidence in me. Not only was I playing regularly, but I also knew I had the confidence of the coach. That is important for any player. Robbie is a very good coach. He is in England now and I think he can go to the Premier League. He is very young for a coach, so he has a lot of time.”
Rossi played five matches under Cathro, Neilson’s successor, before his move to Saudi Arabia. He believes that the 30-year-old head coach has enough qualities to emerge from the difficult period he is currently enduring to prove himself a shrewd appointment in the long term. “I am very fond of Hearts so I always look at their results and I see they have lost to the Hibees, Partick and Ross County,” he said. “Now is not a good moment for them. But I think Ian is a good coach and he needs more time. I only had five weeks under Ian but he was a good coach and he was very good for me – he spoke Portuguese with me. I think he will have success for Hearts but he needs a little more time because he brought lots of new players in January. They need time to adapt to the tactics and the team.”
Rossi believes the level of transition at the back end of the Hearts team in particular was always likely to bring problems in the short term. “At the start of the season, it was me and Alim [Ozturk] or me and [John] Souttar. Now me and Alim have gone and Souttar is injured. Callum Paterson is also injured. It is a difficult situation because you need to have confidence in your defence. For me, Jack Hamilton is a very, very good keeper. But he is still a young boy and he needs to have confident players in front of him. The two centre-backs and the two full-backs have changed. The midfield has also changed. It’s complicated and it will take time.”
Rossi’s contract at Al Faisaly expires at the end of the season. His next move is likely to be influenced by the fact his wife Marina, who lived with him in Edinburgh, has had to return to Brazil, with laws restricting what women are able to do in Saudi Arabia. “I don’t know what will happen next because I only have another three months here,” he said. “Here is good for my life after I finish playing football [in a financial sense]. But the football is also important to me and I like being in big stadiums with lots of fans.
“I like it here but I need to speak to my wife as well. It is hard because she is not here with me. It would be very difficult for her to be here because she would not be able to drive, go to the gym, go to the shops, walk on the streets or go to the stadium. In Scotland, my wife could have a good life and she had friends in Edinburgh but here there is only one Brazilian player and he does not have a wife. I don’t know if I will stay here or go back to Europe. After the season finishes, I will talk to my agent and look at my options.”