Image: Smile For Peter
As the Guangzhou R & F players walked out of the tunnel to conduct their pre-game pitch inspection at the modest Jack Edwards Reserve, there is only one man who a small section of observers around the fence wanted to get a hold of. Surprisingly it is not 2017 Chinese Super League (CSL) Golden Boot and Player of the Year winner Eran Zahavi. The Israeli upstaged the likes of Hulk, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Alexandre Pato, Graziano Pelle and Carlos Tevez in netting 27 league strikes last campaign but his $7 million annual salary is unbeknown to most onlookers. Nor are they there to get a glimpse of R & F’s Brazilian midfielders Junior Urso and Renatinho, or the 20-plus Chinese players who represent the club formerly located in Shenyang in China’s north-eastern Liaoning province.
Rather, Dragan ‘Piksi’ Stojkovic, the 52-year-old manager of the Blue Lions, is attracting a rockstar reception from the dozens of local Melburnians of Serbian descent. He is, after all, one of the finest players to come out of the Balkans and was one of the stars of the 1990 World Cup in Italy, where his sublime double against Spain in the Round of 16 was one of the most eye-catching performances of the tournament. These days, he is patrolling the touchline for the club nicknamed the Blue Lions who last year performed above expectations to finish fifth in the CSL standings.
The club and Stojkovic are embarking on their third season together and, just like their previous two, have chosen Australia as their pre-season tour base. Having first visited the country in the late 80s, the man nicknamed Piksi is no stranger to Australian shores and expressed a strong appreciation of the land down under. “I have had wonderful experiences with Australia firstly as a player and now as a coach. I have been here 10-15 times and I like it a lot,” said the former Yugoslav captain.
While such sentiments are routinely expressed whenever a visiting foreign football figure visits Australia, there is little doubt that Stojkovic is sincere about his desires to one day coach in a country whose football has always been heavily influenced by migrants from the Balkans.
“I would love to work in Australia one day. When that will occur and if it occurs is something which I cannot answer but I really love this country,” Stojkovic said. “It is beautiful and provides everything that a person needs, so who knows, maybe one day. If I am wanted here, that is,” he added.
Ex-Premier League goalkeeper turned TV pundit Mark Bosnich listed the Red Star legend as one of the foreign names he wanted the FFA to consider as the next Socceroos boss prior to the appointment of Dutchman Bert van Marwijk almost a fortnight ago. His former teammates in Belgrade, Milan Ivanovic and Milan Jankovic, both currently reside in Australia, with the former becoming a celebrated figure in the old National Soccer League (NSL) while also winning 59 Socceroos caps after arriving in Adelaide in 1989 and becoming a naturalised Aussie two years later.
R & F’s first pre-season hitout resulted in an emphatic 4-0 win over semi-professional NPL opponents Oakleigh, with Stojkovic fielding dozens of selfie requests throughout the night. A well-worked team goal in the second half demonstrated their quality as well as their tendency to play some of the CSL’s most fluid football, something instilled by their manager. “Our priority is to play great football, the most attractive football in the league and we will see what results that brings us. If last year we finished 5th, then that means our aim is to go even better this year. Every year we want to get better and improve, and this year that means securing qualification for the Asian Champions League.”
Piksi’s Guangzhou have a more modest budget than most of their CSL counterparts, and play in the 18,000-seater Yuexiushan Stadium – the smallest venue in the league capacity wise. While the extravagant spending by many clubs has been slightly curbed by state-imposed tax restrictions and a reduction in foreigners from five to four, big-name recruits have once again headed east this off-season. Argentina great Javier Mascherano ended his long association with Barcelona by joining Manuel Pellegrini’s Hebei China Fortune, while his La Albiceleste international teammate Augusto Fernandez has joined the newly promoted capital city side Beijing Renhe from Atletico Madrid.
Stojkovic stressed that the CSL is improving by the year but did not hide the fact that the vast financial riches on offer in East Asia plays a big factor in luring players away from their comforts in Europe and South America respectively. “The league is getting better and more competitive with each season with the increased spending and investment involved. Of course, the money involved is a big incentive for many foreigners but there are plenty of examples of high-profile players coming in and doing well,” perhaps alluding to the fact that, despite Tevez’s disastrous spell at Shanghai Shenhua last year, most of the league’s big-name foreigners are performing to expectation.
R & F’s city rivals Guangzhou Evergrande will no doubt commence the campaign as title favourites, having won their seventh consecutive title last term, with Italy World Cup-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro replacing World Cup winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari in the hotseat. Stojkovic echoed such sentiments but believes this season will be more competitive than past editions with a number of clubs eyeing off a successful title charge following some strong off-season recruitment drives. “Evergrande will once again be the title favourites due to the fact they have been champions for seven successive seasons. Not only that but they have the best team and have all the credentials to be champions once more.”
“Having said that, both the Shanghai clubs will be strong, as will Hebai and Beijing, who have all heavily invested, so this year we will probably see six-seven clubs fighting for the main prize. Evergrande will be favourites like they are each season, but who knows, maybe we will see a surprise,” added the 84-time Yugoslav international.
Once touted by his former Nagoya Grampus manager Arsene Wenger as his potential Arsenal successor, the Serbian is hoping to continue enhancing his reputation in the Far East, having led his former employers Nagoya to the J-League title in 2010, a feat which helped him win J-League Manager of the Year. His achievements with R & F helped him claim the 2016 Serbian Coach of the Year award and reflected on his first two campaigns in China as successful endeavours.
“I’ve had the privilege of working in Asia, firstly as a player in Japan and then as a coach there, and now in China, and recognise this part of the world well. I cannot speak of others, but I always endeavour to work hard and for my teams to play the best football,” he reiterated. “That is my base philosophy and two and a half years ago I was given the opportunity to work in China and I’m very satisfied with how things have worked out here.”
With his stocks rising, Piksi was keen to point out his contractual commitment to the R & F project ruled him out of the coaching jobs for the recently vacant Serbia and Australia national team positions. “I have a contract with Guangzhou and I am satisfied with it and that is all there is to it,” he said.
Part of the second wave of imports who followed the likes of Careca, Gary Lineker and Zico in the land of the rising sun over two decades ago, Stojkovic made 184 league appearances for Nagoya over eight seasons, winning the league MVP in 1995, and is the only foreigner in the J-League’s 20th anniversary all-time XI. Those accolades put him in an expert position to compare the recent rise and boom of Chinese football with his experiences of Japan, a country which has qualified for their sixth successive World Cup finals and are a quarter of the way into their 100-year plan, which aims to make the Blue Samurai world champions within the century.
“It is hard for a country like Japan to win the World Cup, and while everything is possible, I am not so sure they are capable of achieving that anytime soon. However, their standing as Asia’s best team is largely as a result of the fact that they implemented professionalism on that a lot earlier than other countries with the inception of the J-League in 1993,” said the former Grampus Eight captain. “That has been a major advantage for them, which has provided them with the added edge of other nations in their region. They play the most attractive brand of football in Asia and qualify for each World Cup, which shows that they have quality and good organisation.”
Over in China, the national team failed to build on a respectable showing at the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia by failing to reach Russia despite a late charge for the final play-off position under the tutelage of new coach and World Cup winner Marcelo Lippi. Team Dragon’s only appearance at the game’s ultimate stage came in 2002 when Stojkovic’s compatriot Bora Milutinovic took advantage of Japan and Korea’s automatic qualification for the tournament as hosts to lead China to their maiden World Cup. While Japanese football is still recognised as the pinnacle of Asian football, Stojkovic sees no reason as to why the world’s most populous nation cannot reach such a standing. “China has a good opportunity to replicate this success but needs to be patient with its investment, infrastructure and academies, but I expect to see Chinese football to progress considerably in the next 5-10 years.”
For the time being, Piksi is content with his position at R & F and his role in nurturing Chinese talent while playing some of the most attractive football in the CSL. With their pre-season preparations intensifying in Melbourne over the coming week, he also holds out hope that one day his services will be sought after in a country which he looks upon fondly, and one which could no doubt use his vast football experience and knowledge to their advantage.
R & F will play two open-doors friendlies against NPL Victoria pair South Melbourne and Dandenong Thunder this coming and Thursday and Sunday respectively with the games being played out at Lakeside Stadium and George Andrews Reserve respectively.