FIVE years ago, when he won the Europa League with FC Porto at 33, Portuguese coach Andre Villas-Boas drew instant comparisons with his predecessor, mentor and compatriot Jose Mourinho. And Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich too got amused as the Russian magnate handed him the Blues’ reins, like he did following Mourinho’s Champions League success.
Villas-Boas failed to meet the expectations at Stamford Bridge and later at Tottenham Hotspur. Still, there seemed to be takers for his philosophy and style as he was linked to big European clubs. But he left for Russian side Zenit Saint-Petersburg and guided them to league title in the season before last. Villas-Boas had the chance to be back in the thick of things as he had offers from Germany and Italy, but the soft-spoken coach decided to go to East Asia this time, with Chinese club Shanghai SIPG.
The coach’s personality and profile has helped the club attract star players like Oscar, Hulk and Ricardo Carvalho, who is expected to sign a deal soon, but he has to underline his credentials with success. And his big task is to dethrone five-time defending champions Guangzhou Evergrande, who had invested wisely a few years ago and eventually cornered Asian glory.
Villas-Boas, currently in Doha with his new team for a winter training camp, spoke about the boom in Chinese football, his star signing Oscar and the challenges that lie ahead.
What made you join Shanghai?
A professional coach must be open to whatever the market proposes to him. After I left Zenit, I had options to go to Germany and Italy, which I was considering. I had promised my wife to stay one year out of football, but was back as manager after six months and joined Shanghai in November.
Has your family adapted to the life in Shanghai?
They’re adapting. They moved to Shanghai only recently and have stayed back. Thankfully, SIPG helped me get a good school for my children. So that’s settled. Gradually, we’ll get more accustomed to the city.
How do you look at the big money being spent in Chinese league?
This is the power of Chinese football at the moment. It had happened before in other countries, like Russia, Qatar and the US. What’s more important is that the signings and the big money being spent is used as a reference for coaches and youth development. It’s also vital that Chinese players who train and play around the big stars learn from them. This is the key.
For all championships to grow, you need big names too. I think it can pay back.
The financial experts have described the boom in Chinese football as a big bubble? Do you think the players will listen to that? How challenging is it for the coaches to work in such a scenario?
For me, it’s challenging because amid all the differences, we’ve to create a good team. We’ve five foreign-player slots and taken good players. And then, you’ve youngsters who’re there to fulfil their dreams. It’s very difficult for a coach because he has to find a balance due to the huge difference in the salaries they earn. It’s not an easy task. We’re confronted with it. But when we work on a daily basis, it’s for the players to know each other and work for the benefit of the team.
Regarding the bubble, let’s see. You can’t still compare the investments in China to the money being spent in the Premier League, where you see a £1bn in TV rights. If you ask any SIPG player, he’s happy to train alongside the likes of Oscar, Hulk and (Odil) Ahmedov. For him, it’s an experience.
Leading managers like Arsene Wenger and Antonio Conte have been a bit critical of the latest boom in Chinese football as it attracts world-class players at a young age. What’s your reaction?
Everybody will be eager to protect his assets. Chinese market is very strong and players are interested in it as they see the growing number of stars who’re moving in. Both managers are very experienced and they don’t want to lose their players. We’ve to respect that. It’s only normal.
Oscar is one of the biggest stars in Chinese football. What sort of a contribution are you expecting from him?
The fact that Oscar has signed for Shanghai means a lot for Chinese football. He’s a player that joins the Chinese Super League at the age of 25. It means he’s at his full potential and had options to go to big clubs. Of course, he had great financial attraction to move to China. It’s good for us that he has decided to come. We expect a lot from him, but we know that without the help of other players, he can’t achieve success. So our idea is to quickly integrate him into our team.
I don’t need to explain about Oscar. He’s one of the best midfielders in the world. And we hope we can unlock his full potential in China. It’s a difficult move for him because there’s a lot of pressure when such a young player comes from a big club like Chelsea directly to China. The Chinese market normally attracts star players from the age of 27-28. Chinese football should be grateful that we’ve been able to attract him to Shanghai. The club owners have made a great effort to have him.
As coach, I must try to get the best out of him and make sure he’s happy. On the other hand, he has to understand that he can’t do any magic alone.
Ricardo Carvalho has started training with the team and he’s expected to sign the deal. Many people are skeptical as he’s now 38 and has been without a club since leaving Monaco last August...
I’ve a great relationship with Ricardo since long time ago. He has won several titles with some of the biggest clubs in Europe. If anybody has doubts about his CV, it’s very strange and he knows only little bit about football.
Ricardo is one of the best and experienced centre-backs in the world and had won UEFA’s best defender award.