New Urawa Reds manager Zeljko Petrovic aims to emulate his friend and former international teammate Dragan Stojkovic by winning the J. League with the team he once played for — as long as the trigger-happy Saitama club has the patience to back him every step of the way.
Montenegrin Petrovic becomes the fourth manager to take charge of Reds since their sole league title win in 2006, returning to the club he represented as a player from 1997 to 2000 after making the transition to management with teams in Portugal, the Netherlands and England.
A 10th-place finish was enough to spell the end for predecessor Volker Finke last season, but while Petrovic acknowledges the road ahead is a treacherous one, he can at least draw inspiration from a source close to home.
Stojkovic won the league in his third year as manager of Nagoya Grampus last season after eight years as a player with the club, and his former Yugoslavia teammate and J. League rival would be more than happy to follow in his footsteps.
“We played together in the national team and we played here in Japan at the same time, and he is a good friend,” Petrovic said. “I am very proud of Stojkovic because he is from my country and he won the championship in Japan.
“You see clubs with coaches with vision making progress. It’s not for nothing that Gamba Osaka, Kashima Antlers and Nagoya Grampus are up there, because their philosophy is good, they believe in the philosophy and everyone is behind it. This is what I want at Urawa — not changing all the time. At Manchester United it’s the same, and at Arsenal with Arsene Wenger. All these coaches have success because they believe in what they are doing.”
Much has changed since Petrovic’s previous stint in Saitama, with growing interest from overseas highlighting the strides the Japanese game has made over the past 10 years. Petrovic believes the development is as much mental as it is physical, and points to Japan’s recent Asian Cup success as proof.
“You can see how the Japanese team have changed their mentality,” the 45-year-old said. “Four, five or 10 years ago, if they were losing 1-0 it would have been over for Japan. In the Asian Cup they were losing two or three games and they came back in the last minute because of their mentality.
“They are stronger, more serious. If you see the Japanese team now and compare it with 10 years ago it is like comparing a car and a bicycle. You can see how many clubs from Europe are interested in Japanese players. You need to be strong. If you play in the Premier League and you are not mentally strong they eat you for breakfast.”
The squad Petrovic inherits has certainly had its moments of mental weakness in recent years, but the quality at his disposal is undeniable. Chief among the talents is 20-year-old midfielder Naoki Yamada, but Petrovic warns he will need steel and as well as skill if he is to make it at the top level.
“Naoki Yamada is a big talent, but you don’t achieve your targets only with talent,” he said. “There are many players with big talent, but you also need a good mentality and to be serious.
“I tell him that if I see in a newspaper that Bayern Munich or Barcelona are interested in young players in Japan, if I am him I eat the newspaper and I say ‘I want to be there.’ This is how you have to think. He is a nice guy with a baby face, but he is also very hard. I like him.”
As a player when Urawa suffered its one and only relegation in 1999, Petrovic knows better than most that the rough must be taken with the smooth. As he prepares to take his first steps in charge of the club, it is a message he feels is worth repeating.
“If you have success with this club it’s unbelievably good to part of it, but also you have to be a strong person to progress in the bad times,” he said. “Everybody knows that we finished 10th and our ambition is to be champion. But if you say you want to be champion everyone thinks you have to do it tomorrow. We have to make progress for sure, because I didn’t come here to be ninth or eighth. I came here to be the best.”