Posts Tagged ‘Ranko Popovic

25
Apr
12

A. Crap. League?

It is often said that the thrill is in the chase. The Asian Champions League may seem attractive but, for Japanese clubs, once the target is achieved it usually turns out to be more of a hindrance than a help…

Qualifying for the ACL always seems to me a bit like getting a full-time job.

A lot of time and energy is spent aiming for it, but once the target has been achieved the realisation kicks in that, actually, it’s going to be a bit of a nuisance and will prevent you from spending time concentrating on things you’d much rather be doing.

Before the season if you ask any player or coach from one of the 10 or so teams not anticipating a push for the title or relegation battle what their target is and they will almost certainly spout something about aiming for an ACL place.

It’s the idea of it, perhaps, and the status it appears to endow. Similar to a man going through a mid-life crisis getting a Porsche, an 18-year-old girlfriend, or Fernando Torres.

Once you’re sat in the driver’s seat, wandering around Disneyland or cringing at another missed open goal reality dawns and you feel a bit uncomfortable.

Oswaldo Oliveira frequently bemoaned the scheduling and amount of travel required for his serially-successful Kashima Antlers side, and at the start of this season two coaches of teams in the 2012 edition were equally as unenthusiastic.

Ranko Popovic of FC Tokyo – who was in no way at fault for the club being in the tournament having only taken over after Kiyoshi Okuma guided them to success in the Emperor’s Cup – spoke of the strain the extra games would have on the physical condition of his players.

“I worry about the fitness, how much of an influence it will have on the players. Tired or not tired? How many are tired? How long for?”

He then added the faintest praise for Asia’s take on UEFA’s global phenomenon, sounding in the process rather like a contestant on a television game-show.

“We must first in our heads be ready for this trip and say, “Ok, this is nice, the Champions League,” we must be happy to be in a competition like the ACL, to enjoy it and do our best and see ultimately what we can do.”

He concluded thusly, “And also we must use these games to make us more ready for the championship.”

These comments were almost completely mirrored by Nagoya Grampus’ head coach Dragan Stojkovic.

Physical strain? Check.

“As I said many times of the ACL, it’s a good competition but the travel, the jetlag, this is the main problem,” Piksi said.

“When you’re back from one zone to Japan and two days later you have to play an away game it’s very hard.

“The other team is waiting for you with high motivation, full of power and it’s very difficult to respond. This is the problem of the ACL.”

Ladies and gentlemen, Dragan from Nagoya!

“We will try this year. First of all to win the J.League and secondly, if we have a chance, a space, a possibility, why not the ACL.”

And the main target?

“Everything is possible. Let’s see. But priority number one for us is the J.League.”

My experiences at ACL games have been just as underwhelming as the (lack of) hype around them.

This season I have been at Reysol v. Guangzhou and FC Tokyo v. Beijing, and on both occasions the overriding impression was that everything was a bit half-hearted.

Everybody seemed to just going through the motions and keeping up appearances. Making sure they did the bare minimum to pay the competition lip-service.

Even making a proper run of their uniform was too much of a nuisance for FC Tokyo, who chose instead to run a lottery for a chosen few supporters to win a shirt that would be worn less than ten times.

There are usually a fraction of the fans that attend league games, players are rested and even the stewards – usually the most officious people in the stadium – appear disinterested.

A Beijing fan clambered onto a low railing to raise his scarf as the teams came out for their game with Tokyo, a clear breach of the rules, and a uniformed guy wandered over and signalled for him to get down. When the fan refused the steward just sighed and ambled back to his position.

To me, that wonderfully summed up the ACL. He just couldn’t be bothered.

08
Mar
12

2012 J.League Preview

The 20th J.League season gets underway on Saturday and my preview is in today’s Daily Yomiuri.

It’s in three parts, the first of which is key info and a prediction for each team. The second is an interview with FC Tokyo’s new coach Ranko Popovic, while the third features comments from Dragan Stojkovic (Nagoya Grampus), Nelsinho (Kashiwa Reysol), Yoshito Okubo (Vissel Kobe), Jorginho (Kashima Antlers), Jose Carlos Serrao (Gamba Osaka), Mihailo Petrovic (Urawa Reds) and Nobuhiro Ishizaki (Consadole Sapporo) on the upcoming season.

12
Oct
11

From Serbia to Zelvia

Machida Zelvia of the JFL have big ambitions and have appointed a heavyweight coach to help them achieve their goals. In football, as in life, the first step is usually the hardest to take though..

The last time most Japanese football fans were aware of Ranko Popovic he was in charge of Akihiro Ienaga, Mu Kanazaki and Shusaku Nishikawa at Oita Trinita.

This season the Serbian has made a low-key return to the Japanese game, taking charge of JFL side Machida Zelvia, after Naoki Soma moved on to take the reins at Kawasaki Frontale.

While the quality of player at his disposal is not quite the same this time around, Popo-san is working towards the same aim though – with a place in J1 the target for his side.

Zelvia General Manager, Tadashi Karai – who has formerly had spells in the top-flight with Shimizu S-Pulse, Tokyo Verdy, and JEF United – is delighted to have attracted such an experienced manager, and is hopeful that they can keep hold of him to achieve the club’s long-term goals.

“Of course our final aim is to go up to J1 in three-to-five years,” he told me before Zelvia’s recent game against Tochigi Uva at Nishigaoka Stadium.

“The J.League has just started the play-off system within the top six places so clubs have a chance to go from J2 to J1. Of course we want to keep Mr. Popovic for at least 5 years. This is the president’s decision.”

As well as being attracted by Popovic’s impressive stint at Trinita – although they got relegated he guided them on an unbeaten 10-game run at the end of the 2009 campaign that almost preserved their J1 place – his previous success in his homeland was also attractive to Karai-san.

“He had experience in Serbia, his club [Zlatibor Voda] got promoted from the third to the first division, so not [just] in Oita, but he already had good experience for us.”

While this achievement does appear to bode well for Machida, Popovic points out a big difference between Voda and Zelvia.

“In Serbia it was different because in that team in the 3rd division I had three or four players who’d played in the 1st division,” Popovic explained to me after the game with Uva ended 0-0.

“[That makes] a big difference. We must have players with more experience, for times like today if the ball doesn’t go in the goal.” 

Attracting them is not easy though, and as well as having to contend with J.League egos (not many are prepared to rough it in the JFL and would prefer to swan around in the comfort of a J.League satellite team) money is, of course, an issue. 

Karai-san believes that the lack of a large corporate investor at Zelvia means that more bums on seats is the best way to bolster the club’s coffers. 

“We think we need bigger attendances because we don’t have a Toyota, Nissan, Hitachi. We are originally a town club so we need bigger attendances to finance our budget.” 

Unfortunately the fickle nature of some fans makes this a tricky thing to achieve. After the draw with Uva, for example, a journalist suggested to Popovic in the press conference that some fans were pleased with the style of their team’s play, but unhappy by the lack of results. 

This led to a lengthy exchange between the reporter in question and Popovic – via his tireless translator Tsukada-san – and after the press conference had concluded the Serbian expressed his frustration at this aspect of Japanese football. 

“In Japan there’s a problem; the result is everything,” he told me. “We must try to learn to watch the football. The result is important in the end, yes, but it’s also important how you make this result, if you want to have [a good] future. 

“Who guarantees if we change something we will go [to J2], who guarantees? To change now, to work for eight months, to play beautiful football like today and then say ‘no, forget that’? 

“I want to make a team who can stay there. To make guys who can play football.” 

This is an admirable target and one which, if successful, could well provide Machida with a chance to establish themselves in the fully professional leagues. 

Finding a balance between aesthetic play and positive results is the main challenge now though, and that is perhaps the trickiest obstacle to overcome.

25
Mar
11

Moral support

Sometimes when it feels like nothing can be done, even the smallest gestures can go a long way.

I would like to dedicate this week’s column to the victims of the tragic earthquake and tsunami of March 11th and offer my deepest condolences to their familes, friends and anybody affected by the catastrophe. Football is entirely irrelevant at times like this.

Who wins and loses, whether the referee was right or wrong, and if a player stays or goes are all put into stark perspective by such horrific events, and it has been incredibly difficult to give the game a moment’s thought over the past 10 days.

The overwhelming popularity of the sport around the world means that it does have the potential to help though, if only in the smallest of ways.

Take, for example, the solidarity shown by Japanese players in Europe who were in action the day after the earthquake and tsunami struck. Although they were unable to assist – like most of us – in physical or practical ways, they were unanimous in their offers of moral support for their country, and had their sentiments echoed by teammates and opponents alike.

Yuto Nagatomo was the first to play and was joined in wearing a black armband in respect of the victims by his Internazionale teammates and the players of Brescia. Samuel Eto’o, upon scoring Inter’s goal, celebrated by poignantly hugging the Japanese fullback.

Nagatomo confessed he found it difficult to focus before the game but said he hoped his participation could, in some way, provide strength to those back home. “It was terrible. I felt totally shocked. Before the game I was totally confused as I kept thinking about what was happening in Japan” he was quoted as saying on Goal.com.

“I managed to set aside all the negative thoughts and I focused on the game (though). I thought that being a good soccer player I could give courage to my people.”

Tomoaki Makino, meanwhile, has been using the medium of Twitter to lend support to his compatriots. “At times like this we need to get together, hand in hand. It’s just a little but I think it can give everyone strength,” he sent on the evening of the tragedy.

Although several Japanese are absent, there are foreigners in Japan who are doing their best to fill in. Machida Zelvia coach Ranko Popovic, for example, has expressed his desire to help the country recover from the situation. “I love the Japanese people, they are incredible.” he said. “I am Japanese now, I am part of this. If you are part of the good times you must also be part of the bad times too. We must give our maximum, mental and physical.”

I have been hugely impressed and moved by the reaction and behaviour of the Japanese people during this difficult time and commend the great flexibility and adaptation that everybody has shown. This extends to the J.League and JFA who have acted swiftly and sensibly to postpone all domestic league football for the foreseeable future as well as the scheduled national team friendly against Montenegro in Shizuoka on Friday.

I also wholeheartedly agree with the decision to keep the March 29th fixture in place, and believe this will be an excellent chance to show solidarity and pay respect to the victims. It will also provide an opportunity to raise huge funds for the recovery effort, although this would have been even truer if New Zealand were making the journey to Osaka having recently experienced a similar tragedy of their own.

Popovic agrees, and draws upon his own playing days during the war in former Yugoslavia to demonstrate the healing power football can have, even in the toughest of times. “All of our hearts and souls are with the Japanese people and I know they have more important things to think about but it is important to get back to normal as quickly as possible, and football can help to do that,” he explains.

“Everybody is different, but I experienced the same in Serbia in the war – I lost my house – but playing gave me the power. “Now we have to be a unit and all of the world is with Japan. People where I am from especially understand. We know disaster and catastrophe and how it feels to lose lives and houses. Now we must work for the people who have lost their lives and those that are left behind. This is our message.”

21
Mar
11

New Zealand leaves Japan on its own

New Zealand pulling out of their friendly with Japan at the end of the month because of media reports surrounding the current situation at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was incredibly disappointing.

The move means that rather than the two countries being able to share a moment of solidarity in the wake of their recent tragedies, Japan will now be moving forward alone, something I discussed for When Saturday Comes.

09
Jan
11

Ienaga gets his chance

The number of Japanese players earning themselves moves to Europe is steadily on the rise so for last week’s Soccer Magazine column I focused on the chances of one of them, Akihiro Ienaga, making the grade at Mallorca in Spain. 

Twelve months after getting relegated from J1 with Oita Trinita, Akihiro Ienaga has completed a remarkable turnaround and, having secured a move to R.C.D Mallorca, will look to become the first Japanese player to really make his mark in Spain’s Primera Liga.

I have a sneaking suspicion he may just do it, although I am certainly not alone in that opinion.

Since 2008 he has helped Oita to a Nabisco Cup triumph and been instrumental in Cerezo Osaka’s spectacular surge into the AFC Champions League, but there was always the fear that he would never fulfil his full potential.

While Ienaga’s talent has never been in doubt, his attitude has sometimes held him back and as the likes of Keisuke Honda – with whom he played for Gamba Osaka junior youth – began to earn reputations for themselves on the pitch, Ienaga found himself out on loan in each of the last three seasons – largely because he didn’t see eye-to-eye with Akira Nishino.

It looked as if a move abroad may be the best solution for him to really make the step up, and last January I visited Plymouth Argyle in England, where Ienaga had spent some time on trial.

Chief Operating Officer of the club, Tony Campbell, remarked on the player’s standout ability amongst the various Japanese players who had visited the club, and suggested that his mentality was perhaps more suited to a European style of play.

“When Ienaga came over he said he really enjoyed training in England because it was different. On one of our training sessions we turned the goals round, so they had to get the ball in behind and score. He’d never done it, but he loved it, because it was different.”

Endo Yasuhito is also a big Ienaga fan, and back in August selected him as his favourite current J.League player.

“Now I like Ienaga, he is a great player with huge potential. I feel he could make it into the national team and also abroad as well.”

Ienaga will now have the opportunity to prove his former teammate right, and at the same time will have the chance to lay to rest the ghosts of previous Japanese players who have tried and failed in Spain.

Shunsuke Nakamura is the most recent to have come up short in the country during his period at Espanyol, where he struggled to adapt with the Spanish style after too long in the inferior SPL. Before him went the likes of Shoji Jo and Yoshito Okubo who were also given chances in the country – the latter interestingly also at Mallorca – but failed to make the grade.

Ienaga is perhaps a different breed of player to his predecessors though, and his openness to new ideas will certainly stand him in good stead in La Liga. His former coach at Oita, Ranko Popovic, is delighted that ‘Aki’ has received this opportunity, referring to the progress he has made since he started working with him two seasons ago.

“Aki had some difficulties at the start with changing some things and I was very strict with him. He learned though and he is a very good player.”

Popovic recalls one instance in particular that underlined the player’s ability.

“I played him volante in one game and he had never played there before. People said I was crazy to force him into this position but he was the Man of the Match.

“I saw big potential in him and now we are seeing the fruits of that. I told him at Oita, ‘You must be the best. I don’t want you in the middle, if you are in the middle you don’t exist to me. You must be the best.’”

Such harsh treatment can go one of two ways, with the player either choosing to rise to the task or give up entirely. Ienaga’s quality is shown in the fact that he did the former, and his decision to take on this latest challenge in Spain could see him grow even more in the next few years.

03
Oct
10

The Back Post – Poisoned chalice?

On Wednesday my column, ‘The Back Post’, started in the Daily Yomiuri.

It will appear once a month and be supplemented by match reports and other articles. The first edition, which focused on the problems currently being experienced by FC Tokyo, can be accessed here




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