Kashiwa Reysol pulled off the unprecedented feat of winning the J. League only a year after claiming the second-division title last season, but FC Tokyo manager Ranko Popovic is hoping history will repeat itself with his newly promoted team.
Tokyo bounced back from relegation in 2010 to cruise to the J2 title last season, and wrapped up a successful year by capturing the Emperor’s Cup for the first time with a 4-2 victory over Kyoto Sanga.
Promotion-winning manager Kiyoshi Okuma took the Jan. 1 final as his cue to step aside, but Popovic has no intention of letting the momentum tail off now that he has taken over and believes Tokyo has the potential to emulate Kashiwa’s championship achievement.
“Why not?” he said ahead of Tokyo’s season-opener against Omiya Ardija on Saturday. “This is how we think, but not to make pressure for the guys. How many times has this happened in the world? Only a few.
“For me the thing it is to establish the team in the top and play every year for the title. If we have a chance to be champion, then why not? But we have to do our best from game to game and enjoy it.”
Popovic will certainly be hoping his new team can improve on its previous performance in the top flight. Tokyo began the 2010 season with realistic ambitions of winning the title only to end in the ignominy of relegation, but Popovic believes the first division is the natural home for a team bearing the capital city’s name.
“FC Tokyo is a big name and a big club,” he said. “Expectations are always bigger than normal, and sometimes this is not realistic. We have to make a base for the club to play every year for the title. Not just for one year and then a long period with nothing — we must try to establish the club because it is the capital.
“You have to make a brand like in England — Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal. Many people come to visit Tokyo, and we have to try to make it so that they think that when there is a game, they go to watch football.”
Tokyo’s chances of making an impression this season have, however, been dented by the departure of star player Yasuyuki Konno to Gamba Osaka. The national team defender marshalled a back line that conceded only 22 goals in J2 last season, and Popovic knows he will be difficult to replace.
“It’s a very big loss,” he said. “He was the only national team player, and for the way I like to play he was perfect. But we have to make a new Konno.
“The guys have the opportunity and the most important thing is the team. I like everyone to play, and the players who are not on the pitch have to know at any moment what to do if they come in. Everyone has a place on this team.”
But while Tokyo’s players may feel they have unfinished business with the first division, Popovic also returns to the top flight with a score to settle. The Serbian was unable to save Oita Trinita from relegation when he was parachuted in midway through the 2009 season, and after leading Machida Zelvia from the Japan Football League into J2 last season, his latest posting finally gives him a crack at the big time.
“Anywhere where you are a coach, you have a challenge,” he said. “In a small league you have a challenge, and in a big league it is bigger.
“You always have to try to do your best, and OK, you have to try to do everything in one month. I want to play football that dominates possession and this is not easy, but I am enjoying it and the guys accept it. If you see how they have improved from the first day, then you have to be happy, and you take more power to say we are on the right way and we have to continue to do better and better.”