Silver(ware) collectors

It took Urawa Reds coach Mihailo Petrovic a decade to win his first top flight title in Japan, but now he’s finally got his hands on a trophy it may become something of a habit…  (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, Friday 28th October, 2016

It had been a long time coming – 3,258 days, to be precise – but Urawa Reds’ triumph in the Levain Cup on 15th October ended their barren spell without a title and could mark the start of a new period of success for Japan’s biggest club.

The last time Reds got their hands on a trophy – a real one, let’s not pretend last year’s first stage crown counts – was when they won the ACL in 2007, and although winning a competition they joined at the quarter final stage is a little different to being crowned Asia’s best club, the impact the penalty shoot-out win over Gamba Osaka could have should not be underestimated.

Tadanari Lee, whose goal with his first touch levelled things up at 1-1 and took the final to extra time and then penalties, certainly cut a relieved figure in the mixed zone after helping his side to a first domestic title in 10 years, and suggested that a weight had been lifted from the shoulders of everyone at the club, including coach Mihailo Petrovic.

“I don’t know what the cause was before [for Reds’ inability to cross the line in first place], but I feel like today it changed,” he said. “Misha was known as the ‘silver collector’, but now he’s won a title and once you’ve taken that first step forward there’s no need to look back.”

Indeed, it seemed as though Petrovic was already looking ahead to the next challenge – and possibly even the next, next challenge – as he fulfilled his media duties after the final, barely breaking into a smile and instead focusing on the intricate details of the game and wondering aloud if the press thought his team deserved to win.

“You can talk about luck, and of course it plays a part, with today, for instance, the opponent hitting the post but the ball not going in and then us winning on penalties,” he said with reference to Hiroto Goya’s 120nd-minute effort that just stayed out for Gamba.

“When it comes to penalties I personally think that luck plays a big part, but then last year in the Championship semi final Gamba almost scored an own goal but it hit the post and then they countered and scored. Over that game as a whole I think we were unlucky, but then maybe some people felt that they deserved to have won the game. For today’s game, how does everyone take our win: did we deserve it or were we lucky?”

An obsession with the process rather than the result is typical of a manager who has now spent a decade fine-tuning his philosophy in the J.League.

“This is the kind of coach I am,” he said when asked about his apparent lack of joy at finally picking up a winner’s medal. “I don’t know if I become a better coach by winning a title. Personally I don’t think anything has changed.

Football Channel, Friday 28th October, 2016 (Getty Images)

“If I wasn’t able to win a title here and left Urawa I have confidence that I would be able to get another job – maybe in Tottori or Fukuoka – I have confidence that I can build a good team capable of playing good football wherever I go. I have a deep love for my style of football. For me if there is no love of the game, no enjoyment of the game, then it is not football.”

One week after the Levain Cup final I spoke to Sanfrecce Hiroshima coach Hajime Moriyasu about his mentor’s success, and he also emphasized Petrovic’s desire to have his team play football in a certain way.

“Misha came to Japan and coached at Sanfrecce, laying the base for the club, and then moved on to a big club like Urawa where titles are expected, and he’s continued to work at playing the same football even when under that pressure,” he said.

“He hadn’t won a title previously, but they’d always been challenging and I think that’s important. You’ll move up and down but if you play good football, high level football, and are able to keep doing so then it will naturally lead to titles.

“If you win one title then it increases the possibility of winning more. But the most important thing is to play good football and remain in and around the top of the table. To keep doing the same things as you’ve done and tie that up with positive results.”

The stats back that up, with Reds finishing third, sixth, second, and third (second in the overall table) in J1 in Petrovic’s four full seasons in charge, compared with seventh, sixth, tenth, and fifteenth in the previous four years. This season they are guaranteed to finish at least second overall.

The Levain Cup triumph should have added a newfound sense of belief though, and now they have finally tasted success there will be an extra drive to go all the way in the league too.

“He was happy in the instant that it was decided, but he’s looking ahead and thinking about what’s next,” Lee said when asked about his coach’s reaction to the win over Gamba. “The cup is the cup, what we’re aiming for is to win the league and appear in international competition (the Club World Cup). I’m really excited to see how far Urawa Reds’ football can go.”

Now that Petrovic has helped them break through the barrier from silver to silverware it looks highly unlikely that Reds will be waiting another decade for their next trophy.

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