NAGOYA – The European media may be keen to anoint Dragan Stojkovic as Arsene Wenger’s successor at Arsenal, but the Nagoya Grampus manager’s thoughts currently extend no further than the April 23 return of the J. League.
Having guided the club to its first-ever league title last season, Stojkovic was anticipating a tough year ahead as Grampus went into the new campaign last month as the scalp that every rival craved. A last-minute equalizer to salvage a 1-1 opening-day draw against Yokohama F. Marinos confirmed the Serbian’s suspicions, but less than a week later soccer was the last thing on anyone’s mind.
The March 11 earthquake and tsunami put the J. League into indefinite cold storage, with a return date eventually issued after the league had time to take stock of what had happened. The enforced layoff has taken its toll on Stojkovic’s team, but the 46-year-old makes no attempt to rationalize the situation.
“Everything that has happened is not normal,” he said in Nagoya on Thursday. “It’s a big tragedy and it has affected my team also. I gave them one week off, and then after we started again.
“Like other teams we have lost our pace, but what can we do? We have to adapt to a new situation, continue to work and wait for the J. League to restart. This is something new.”
Not that Nagoya has been entirely idle, however. With the club’s stadium undamaged by the quake, Grampus resumed action in the Asian Champions League with a draw and a win from two games this month, leaving Stojkovic happy that the rust has been shaken off in meaningful competition.
“The Asian Champions League at this period is important for us, not only to participate but to try to reach form,” he said. “(Jungo) Fujimoto is a new player, (Kensuke) Nagai is a new player, (Keiji) Tamada is injured, so it’s a good opportunity for me to see the potential of the players and play competitive games, not only friendly games. It’s a good warmup for the J. League.”
The invitation to coach a J. League select XI against the national team in last month’s charity game has also kept Stojkovic’s coaching skills sharp during the layoff. Having spent seven years as a player in Japan and three as a manager, the offer was gratefully received.
“I felt privileged,” he said. “It was nice news for me, especially in a difficult time. To be part of this project was very, very important. Not the result but the idea, the action and the message for the Japanese people. To be part of that for me was really an honor and a privilege.”
Fundraising efforts were of course not only limited to Japan, and the international community has made an enormous contribution. Stojkovic’s kinsfolk have been no exception.
“In one small city in Serbia, where they are very poor, they collected $10,000,” he said. “That’s amazing. This city is near my hometown and I know how people live there. This $10,000 from them is more important than $1 billion from others, because this is a very strong symbolic gesture.”
The J. League may be only a week away from resuming, but restoring normality is a long way off yet. The July shutdown originally intended to allow the national team to participate in the Copa America will now be used to make up the postponed fixtures, but Stojkovic has mixed feelings about Japan’s decision to send a team to Argentina regardless.
“If they have conditions to participate in this competition, then yes,” he said before it was announced Thursday that Japan would accept its invitation to the South American championship. “But it’s very important that they don’t touch the players from the J. League. Players who play abroad? OK, no problem. But for the J. League, each team needs their players.”
Club vs. country debates have long been the domain of Stojkovic’s mentor Wenger, but the pair have far more in common than a desire to protect their own players. Stojkovic’s commitment to attacking principles has drawn favorable comparisons to the man he played under for 18 months at Grampus in the mid-1990s, and earlier this year led Wenger to reportedly nominate him as his successor when the Frenchman calls time on his tenure in north London.
Stojkovic, however, is playing it cool.
“First of all it’s amazing to hear this kind of thing, but really I have both feet on the ground,” he said. “What happens happens, but we will see. I’m not under pressure.
“To have my name compared with him is already something very important for me, because it means that I have achieved something that people pay attention to. I’m not afraid to say it. I know that at any club I can deliver something special. To compare my name with his is already a big satisfaction for me. It means I am on a good road, so it is more motivation for me to continue.
“But honestly — what have I done? To become champion of the J. League is a big result, but I have a lot of work to prove my capabilities as a manager. But there is no doubt that I can do it, because I strongly believe in what I am doing.”