Most Chinese fans had never even heard of Ivan Leko before he was appointed Shanghai SIPG’s new head coach. However, what the Croatian lacks in profile, he certainly makes up for in confidence.
“Being better and better. That means today is better than yesterday, and tomorrow is better than today,” the 42-year-old said at a media conference in Shanghai on Monday.
“I promise you, this year, you will see a team that will fight until the last minute, give everything they have on the pitch and has the objective to win. We have a lot of confidence that we will try everything to have a nice season.”
Leko and his coaching team completed their medical quarantine last weekend after arriving in China in the middle of January. He met with SIPG players for the first time at a training session on Saturday.
According to Oriental Sports Daily, Leko asked his new charges to be at the base an hour early. After arriving before 9:30 am for a 10:30 am session, the new head coach then led an energetic, hands-on session, with his enthusiasm apparently rubbing off on the players－many of whom put in extra hours on the pitch over the weekend.
“I’m always talking about three things in football. First thing is the result. This is the most important part, and I’m confident in our result,” said Leko, who made a name for himself by winning Belgium’s top-flight league title with Club Brugge in 2018.
“The second thing is the quality of football. I like football and I believe most of you also do. We all want to see nice football, and this is something we will bring. The third important thing in the club is to make progress and to make everyone better.”
SIPG won its first Chinese Super League title in 2018, however the club has since failed to build on that success, ranking third and fourth in 2019 and 2020 respectively and ultimately resulting in the departure of Vitor Pereira as coach.
Dethroning 2020 champion Jiangsu FC (formerly Jiangsu Suning) looks a daunting task for SIPG, especially with eight-time CSL title winner Guangzhou FC (formerly Guangzhou Evergrande) and rebuilding Beijing Guo’an, under new Croatian coach Slaven Bilic, desperate for more silverware.
Due to the strict salary cap introduced by the Chinese Football Association in December, SIPG lost Brazilian star Hulk in the offseason. And while former Chelsea midfielder Oscar and strikers Marko Arnautovic and Ricardo Lopes remain with the squad for now, investing heavily in new foreign talent appears unlikely for SIPG under the new spending rules.
Leko is adamant he has enough quality at his disposal, stressing team work as the key to title glory.
“Individual ability can help you win one game. But to win big things, you will need a strong team,” said Leko, a former Croatian international. “My main objective here is to win with a strong team. About the way of playing… I like my team to take the initiative, take risks and dictate the tempo of the game. This is how a big club should play, and we will try this way.
“I like young players, I like all players. For me, everybody will have a chance. As long as you are the best you can play, I don’t care about a player’s name, his salary or his CV.My role is to put the best one on the pitch. If the young ones are better, then they will play.”
It’s a philosophy that has clearly impressed SIPG chairman Zhang Min, who is confident the new arrival can do more than just talk a good game.
“We hope to see a coach who has good skills and can lead our club to victory. The coach needs to personally lead the team in each training, and he should be strict with the players with the right methods,” said Zhang.
“The coach should know how to work with big-name stars, while he should also know how to guide young players. His words should be heeded in the dressing room, and he should be able to lead the team to the highest podium. We believe Leko can finish these jobs.”
A dressing-room rift between Pereira and Hulk was credited with derailing SIPG’s season last term, with the burly Brazilian striker even caught on camera ranting at the Portuguese coach after being substituted in an AFC Champions League match.
Leko insists SIPG fans should rest assured they will see no such flashpoints next season.
“I never had problems with any players because they know I will give my heart to them,” Leko said. “And all my big players will give their hearts back. This a human way and this is a professional way. Again, I will not have any problems with any big or small players.”