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The Stevica Ristić Interview

(image via dragons.co.kr)
Former Macedonian International, Golden Boot winner, K-League and ACL Champion Stevica Ristić (more commonly known as Stevo) sat down with me to talk about being a foreigner in K-League, the physicality of the league, being a veteran leader, Cristiano Ronaldo's chances in K-League, attendance issues, and the Dragon's season so far.

Ryan Walters: Starting with something extremely important. How much would it cost to get everyone on the team to get Kim Byeong-ji's haircut?

Stevica Ristić: No chance. He’s already been in the league 25 years and he has his style. So many people recognize him by his hair. He’s had so many color changes: pink, orange, yellow, red, that is his style. Now he’s changed to a normal color, but still he has his haircut and everybody knows his image.

RW: You've been in the K-League on and off since 2007. What were your perceptions of the league before coming over?

SR: I didn’t know anything about K-League because I was playing in Serbia and Macedonia and I had many chances to go to some European teams. But I went one day for my first national team game and I scored a goal and I came back and got a call from my agent and he said “Do you want to play in Korea? We have a team that will pay the transfer fee and everything.” So I said yes. Because I was playing for small money and here [Korea] everything was safety and a two year contract, so I came to Jeonbuk.

RW: So one international goal was what got the transfer done?

SR: Yeah, but I had 102 goals in my league. You know, in Europe when you’re coming from some small country and want to make a big contract everything must be perfect. My boss wanted some big money, but European teams didn’t want to pay big money for a player from a small country, so it was difficult to change. Even though I scored many goals it was difficult.

RW: Having played in the league for so many years, how do you view the league now?

SR: It’s funny, before coming to Korea I didn’t speak English. I saw my Korean agent just one time. So I came into the airport and didn’t know anything. I didn’t know if he would wait for me, if he wouldn’t wait for me. It was so scary for me. So, when I came to Jeonbuk and in the first game I scored a goal everything started to become perfect. I got used to Korea life, Korea style, Korea mentality and I started to think like Korean players. I went to another team and everybody respected me, so I’ve stayed here a long time and got used to everything.

RW: The K-league is often described as being a soft league. How do you think the league compares to others? Is there a different defensive philosophy compared to other leagues?

SR: I think it’s tough to play here. I think maybe you can bring Cristiano Ronaldo here and maybe he can’t play. Because the Korean style and Korean football and Korean culture and everything about football is very difficult. If you start to think like Korean people, you can have success here. I think the Korean style is all the time big fighting, strong on the ball, big defense, many long balls, so you cannot play nicely. You cannot play like in Japan and only pass and change sides. In Korea, not one team plays like that.

RW: So would you say it’s a more physical league than people think?

SR: Yes. You know, I’m from Europe and so many people don’t understand the big difference between Korean people, Chinese people, and Japanese people. And everybody says when I go home “oh, for you it’s easy because they’re very small.” And I say no. If I don’t know how to jump, you never can take the long ball from a Korean defender because they’re big and they have a big jump. So if you don’t have good positioning, you can’t take any long ball from a Korean defender. So I say for a Korean defender, I’m not big. Maybe I’m strong, but not big. So for the people from Europe, or from Brazil, they don’t know until they come here how difficult it is to play with Korean defenders.

RW: Who is the most challenging defender you've ever played against (K-League or otherwise)?

SR: In Korea I have a lot of respect for Ulsan’s [former] defender Kwak Tae-hwi. He plays on the national team now and in Saudi Premier League. These past two years I’ve had a lot of respect for Jeju defender Oh Ban-suk. He’s a really good defender with good jumping. In Europe when I played in Russia I played against Zenit, so I played against the Portugal National team player [Bruno] Alves. He’s a champ. He jumps one meter over me, so it’s really difficult to take the ball, and he’s aggressive [with] many strong tackles. So when you play against guys like them you think “oh, I’m not strong. They’re much stronger than me.” So you must try another way.

RW: So would you say the mark of a good defender for you would be strength and aerial ability?

SR: It depends on the team which you play and what’s the style of play for your team. A defender must be strong, must be aggressive, must be good at jumping, and good positioning. If you have that, then it’s really difficult to take the ball against him.

RW: With a league limit of four foreign players per team, you're obviously in something of a unique position. Talk a little bit about the foreigner experience in the K-League and what's kept you here for so long.

SR: First, for me, for my life the most important is my family. And my family is happy here. The kids go to school, my wife has an easy job. Here it’s safe for kids and for family, so you can let kids play outside. You don’t need to think like in America and Europe that the kids will have problems. So I can go to training, away games, everywhere I can go and I don’t have stress about my family. I know they’re safe and they have everything they need to have. So that is, for me, the most important thing.

When my contract in Suwon finished, I had a big offer from China, but I didn’t want to go. Because my friend who I spoke with [said] it’s very dirty, it’s not safe, and Chinese people are another style, a different style from Korea. So I chose it’s better to play for less money and stay in Korea than to go there and have problems and no concentration for the game. So it’s kept me here long time. I have everything here, my family has everything here. I feel good. People respect me. I respect people. And I think I give good results for my team. Wherever I play, I play normal. Not special, not bad. I think normal. (laughs)

RW: What would your advice be for someone new coming into the league?

SR: I would say to them if you want to play in Korea, you must know you must play defense and offense. If you play just offense, not play defense, you cannot play K-League. OK, I speak for the midfielder, striker, and shadow striker. If you don’t play both, you cannot play in Korea. You must [do] running, fighting, and every game you must give 100%. If you aren’t ready for that, you cannot play K-League.


RW: Lots of tracking back then?

SR: Only fighting, and fighting. And then after fighting, fighting again. (laughs)

RW: Having spent so many years in Korea it would seem you've taken to the culture. It's quite well known that you're a dedicated family man with a few little ones at home. How's it been raising a family here?

SR: I’m every time sorry for my wife. Because she is [often] alone, and she doesn’t have many friends here. For ten years we’ve been out from our country, and all her life she gives to me and to kids. She has all the time for us and doing everything for us, so I’m very thankful for my wife. She gives me power to play, continue fighting, continue playing, and when I see [what] she can do, I can do also.

RW: On the way in someone gave you a bit of grief about your Korean. How is your Korean?

SR: I can speak some. I can understand more than I can speak. I played for four teams [in Korea], I never took a translator. So, football things, I understand everything when the head coach speaks, when players speak. And every team has somebody who speaks English, so if I need to say something, if I need somebody to explain [for] me, they can. Now, this team, nobody speaks really good English. So my brother Jong-ho he’s in the room with me all the time, so his English level from the last two years is 80% up. (laughs)

You know, football language is the same for everybody. So if they explain to you with hands, or with marker and they write you understand what you need to do. And outside everybody tries to speak something in English, I try to speak something in Korean, so this guy you saw on the way in… he’s crazy.

RW: So how many languages do you speak?

SR: I speak Serbian and Macedonian. I speak perfect Russian, I speak English, so… four. And some Korean. (pauses) Oh, and I speak Portuguese.

RW: You mentioned when you got off the plane here you didn’t know any English, so how did you learn it?

SR: My agent who brought me here, he’s a Korean guy who speaks English. So everytime I speak with him [in English], I watch a lot fo movies. I’m a movie maniac. So every movie that comes, I watch. I don’t put on the subtitles, I just watch in English. So I learn that way.

RW: What’s been your favorite movie of the past year? Or all time?

SR: All time is Gladiator. It’s a really amazing movie for me. In the last year, maybe the Hobbit. The third one was nice. I [also] like a lot of history movies, action movies, every kind. In Suncheon you have very nice chairs. It’s like in business class. It’s fantastic. I love to go there. I want to go more, but it’s tough. With training and with the kids going to school it’s a tough time.

RW: What's the biggest struggle for you here in Korea? You’ve been here quite a while, has there been any kind of continual problem?

SR: Problem? I don’t have. I really don’t have any problems. Maybe… when I live in Gwangyang my only problem is that I have no international school for my kids. I have two kids, and my son is five, so he goes to an English school. With Stephanie we still have some problems.

RW: How’s their Korean?

SR: Stephan, my son, last year he started kindergarten and he speaks Korean perfect. Really perfect.

RW: So he’s your translator now?

SR: (laughs) No no. Stephanie, my daughter, she’s eight, and now she speaks really really good. Because she has Korean friends and they spend all their time together and she can speak very good Korean… but I think Stephan speaks better.

RW: So in a few years he can be your agent and do all of your translating?

SR: You know, I think maybe one or two years more… and I think it’s enough. I’m 34 now, and maybe I want one more year [to] stay here, and after I’ll come back to my country and really enjoy life.

RW: That kind of leads into a question I was going to ask. At this point in K-League you’ve really done all of it. Golden Boot, Outstanding Player, The FA Cup, K-League Cup, and AFC Champions League. Is there anything left you still want to do? Is there a competition you still really want to win before retiring?

SR: I want to win one more trophy, and I want to finish my Korea life with a trophy. I tried to play these two years in Jeonnam, not like in other teams. On other teams, I gave 100% for the team, fighting, and running. But here really I try to play for the team and play for the other players. Show them how to play, how to live, how to stay all the time on the same level and the same mind. Because you have many players who play two three games good, go to national team maybe, and then after change mind and put [their] nose up and don’t think about other things. I spend a lot of time with Jong-ho and I think he’s a really amazing guy. Everything that I say to him, he accepts and he tries to do. When he went to the national team I was really happy for him. He played very well there and now [he] came back and he stayed the same Jong-ho like before. That’s a good person and that’s a good player.

RW: With Lee Jong-ho and with Oršić (who’s another young player), it seems you’ve taken on a mentor role on the team.

SR: Yes because when you’re a player… you have coaching staff…. but… as a player I learn more things from players than the head coach. Because the head coach is told to lead. He’s here to lead us, to show us how to play, and tactics and everything. But if you want to improve, you need to look how another player is shooting the ball, how receive the ball, how moving, how change direction. If you take everything good, you will all the time improve and improve and improve. So I try to show the players what is good, what is right. When they make mistakes, I come to them and say ‘hey, listen, this is not good, you try to do it like this.’ And the players who listen, they really improve. I don’t want to say I’m more smart. Just… I’m more experienced.

Also, Byung-ji, Young-min we have three or four older players, and I think we really try to lead this club. And I think we’re doing well. The last two years Jeonnam Dragons have changed from before. A lot’s changed. With me, [Hyun] Young-min, [Bang] Dae-jong, and [Choi] Hyo-jin, the four older players, if another young player [comes in] we have the leaders and we have the young player, so like a group we come up.

I’ll give you an example. This season Daejeon lost many goals and many games in the last five minutes. Because they don’t have experience. They don’t have experienced players. They don’t know when you lead how you need to play, how you need to stop on the ball, take time, and change the rhythm of the game. They just play. So they lost a lot of games in the last five minutes.

RW: Who was someone who taught you those kind of things?

SR: I had a lot to learn from Denilson. In Pohang, I played two years together with Denilson and together we went to Bunyodkor together after. He was a very experienced player, and he spoke very good English, so I learned from him a lot.

When I moved to Bunyodkor I played together with Rivaldo. Then I see one player, one star like Rivaldo, he’s a really normal guy, normal person, and he gave everything for his family also. So, I started to think I want to be the same. I want to have the same mind, like him.

You can be the best player in the world if you change your mind and lifestyle, if you don’t respect people, don’t respect your friends, people who are not soccer players. I respect everybody. So I can sit and speak and drink coffee with any people in the world. But when I see some player that makes a little success, they don’t give a fuck about nobody. I don’t want that. The player who is like that I directly say to him “you don’t need to do that.” So some accept, some don’t accept. Everybody in his career, they go [up], and after go [down]. Nobody just goes [up]. When you go [up] everybody likes you. You think everybody’s your friend. But when you start to go [down], if you’re not normal when you go [up], then no one will help you after. Nobody wants to speak with you after. Because you already put people out from you because you think “I’m a star.” If you’re normal, when you have a problem, people come and say “I’ll help you with this.”

For example, I said to Oršić (he played two months fantastic), I said to him all the time “Oršić, please, just don’t change, and just think you will start to go [down]. You cannot go [up] all the time. You cannot score every game, you cannot make an assist every game.” So now he start to come a little down, but we try to help him because he didn’t change. He’s the same. So I hope now he will again start to go up.

RW: Speaking of that decline… August was a rough month for you guys. Being a target man for headers and crosses seems to play to your strengths (length, height) but has resulted in some predictable play this year and you being double teamed at times. What is coach Noh Sang-rae's offensive philosophy right now and is it something that will change after a slow August?

SR: We don’t want to play with long balls. We want to play with a short pass, change sides, and put Oršić and Ahn Yong-woo to go one-v-one to make cross for me and Jong-ho. We try to put more options for our attack. Because everybody know the most strong thing in Jeonnam is four attacking players. Because we have over 30 points with four players. Ahn Yong-woo, Oršić, Jong-ho, Stevo. Over 30 points. I think no one team has four players with more than 30 points. And everybody try to analyze because we are good, everybody try to stop us. But, when everybody is in good condition and everybody has a good day, I think there isn’t a team in Korea that can beat us. Because you can stop one player, you can stop two players, another two players will kill you.

This month you say we have tough month. Yes it’s true, we have a little problem because Pyeong-rae and Hyo-jin had injuries, and also Oršić conditions come down. Some games we didn’t really have luck to win. For example, home game with Incheon. Incheon come here and play just to be 0-0 and they win 2-0. They played with 10 defenders, and in second half they have two counter attacks and they score two goals. And after we played Jeonbuk. Away game. We were really the better team. We were leading 1-0 until 85th minute, make a stupid mistake, penalty kick was no penalty kick, but we lost the game. If we won those two games, we’re number three, maybe number two. So after we play home game against Pohang… Pohang is the most difficult team to play against.

RW: Why is that?

SR: Because they have really good midfielders. If you’re open against Pohang, you can [concede] four of five goals like this (snaps fingers). You cannot turn, they can score four or five goals. So you must all the time play with one guard. I played in Pohang, I know that midfield. Any mistake, they get the ball, counter attack, score goal. The game before we played against them, they scored three against Jeonbuk.

The most bad game we played this season was against Busan. I think we don’t deserve one point. Busan was much better than my team, but we took a point. Now they don’t have anything to lose. Before they played five back, they had only two midfielders. Now they change head coach, they play with four back and more midfielders and they just play. They don’t have pressure. No “we need to win,” “we must win.” They know they cannot fight with Ulsan to get out. No chance. I think they will play the extra game [against K-League Challenge 2nd place]. So now it will be most difficult to play against Busan and Daejeon. Because they just come and they just play. If you score, no problem. But if you score, you have a big problem.

RW: Who is the toughest team to play against in the league right now? Is it the bottom teams? Pohang? Jeonbuk?

SR: I think it’s Suwon. But Suwon has a problem now. They don’t have a striker. If Jong Tae-se stayed, I think it would be a very difficult situation for Jeonbuk. Before the season when I had some interview, they asked me “what do you think?” when Kaio came to Suwon I said if Kaio plays good, if Suwon have a good top striker, Suwon can be champions. Because I know that midfielder and side player, how they can play. And Yeom Ki-Hun, he’s not for K-League, he’s for some big league. Because you see his cross, and his pass, and his style, if he has a good striker he can make over 20 assists for the season with no problem. I played with him twice, once in Suwon and once in Jeonbuk, both times only six months and in six months I scored 11 goals and he had about 9 assists to me. So, if he has a good striker, he can make a lot of assists. So, they have really good players, just they don’t have striker. If they had a striker, they have everywhere a national team player. So I think they have the best team.

But, Jeonbuk…. I think you have two or three players that don’t play for the team. They play just for themselves. So, I think it’s the big problem for another player. They need to run a lot, they need to close a lot, they need to make offense and defense a lot. Because two/three players don’t help a lot. And when Edu went, the Jeonbuk condition was 50% down.

RW: That was a tough loss for the league. To see someone go to the second division in China instead of staying.

SR: But, I understand him. He was 34 years old, he got a fantastic financial offer, so any player would go. In Korea he needs to pay tax and everything, so his money is down. He doesn’t have a reason to stay.

RW: Speaking of Edu, he was the league leader in goals for a while. FC Seoul's Adriano is currently leading the league in goals with 11 (at the time of the interview). After having finished with 13 last year, that's certainly a number within your reach. You're currently sitting on 9. Do you see yourself challenging for the Golden Boot again this year?

SR: You know, I don’t think about it. Honestly, I don’t think about that. I just think I go to the ground and I give 100%. If God gives me a chance to score goal, I’m very happy. For me, it’s very important that my team wins and go to playoffs. This season we want to go to playoffs. Last season we lost [out on] playoffs in the last game. So this season we can to qualify for the playoff. In football, everything is possible, if you have some luck in a game you can score 2-3 goals. Everything can change. Because now, I think 6,7,8 players we have a difference of one goal or two goals. So you never know who will explode.

RW: A question I've been asked all season is what to realistically expect from the Dragons this year. What are your expectations for the team for the remainder of this season? What do you think needs to be accomplished for this season to be called a success?

SR: We’re in the semi-final in the FA Cup. So we’re still running on two fronts. We can take Champions league ticket this way, and we can take Champions league ticket that way. First one, we want to qualify for the playoff. Second one we’re in the semi-final, so only two wins from being champions. So, if we’re lucky and we play home games these two games, I think we have big chance to win trophy. I don’t think another team, any of the three teams Seoul, Ulsan, and Incheon who come to play here in Jeonnam will have more chance to win than my team. I think we’ll be 60-40 or 50-50 for my team. This season we’re in top three teams in home games. And any team that comes here it’s really difficult. To play in this stadium is a little different than other teams. For example, Jeonbuk and Seoul they have big stadiums and it’s a different feeling. When they come here everything is close and my team’s style is so fast and so tough, semi-counter attack, counter attack, long ball, we can play any style, so they have a really difficult time to play in Gwangyang.

When I played on another team, I really didn’t like coming to Jeonnam Dragons. Really. I think I never won at Jeonnam Dragons. I played on the three best teams in Korea and every time I come to Jeonnam Dragons, all draws or we lost. So if a big team comes here it’s very difficult. Look at this season: we win Seoul, we win Jeonbuk, we draw with Suwon, draw with Pohang, so we don’t lose. The five best teams, we haven’t lost.

RW: What makes a great stadium?

SR: If you go to Europe and watch a game, England or a Dortmund game, that’s feeling amazing. Even Japan, every stadium is full. So the other day I was having coffee with Oršić and he said “I have no good feelings, because every time the stadium is almost empty.” I said because Korea company just gives money to the club. And clubs just spend money. So they don’t have organization for how to bring people into the stadium, how to make something, how to make an event. Simple things. Many schools, many high schools, so tell the students, come to tomorrow’s game and they will bring their parents. Sell tickets to them, for the students free. So you have 4,000, 5,000 more people and the stadium’s full and feeling nice.

When I played for Suwon Samsung, I played in the Super Match. I never lost Super Match. I never lost to Seoul in Super Match. Every time I scored a goal, or made an assist, and every time kill them at home.

RW: So you’re still very popular in Suwon?

SR: Yes. I like the Suwon supporters. I love Suwon supporters and they love me also. My last game in Suwon I will remember… for my life. It was really special. Really fantastic. And after, when the head coach [substituted] me, I went to the supporters and for 60 minutes they just sang my name. It was fantastic.

RW: Supporters groups are kind of strange here. They can sometimes feel a bit forced or non-existent.

SR: You know, the supporters group… the club must support. The club must give them a call. Make the community. Give them something where they can come and make [an] event. They can make a big group. That’s not big money. For the money they spend, it’s small money. When you have supporters and the players come to the ground, it’s… if you need to give 90%, you will give 120% because of supporters. They give you adrenaline. For me it’s like that anyway. Some players get scared. But for me, when it’s a full stadium, when it’s a big game, I’m more strong.

RW: I would say having 4,000-5,000 in the stadium would be a really good night here. It’s a bit strange.

SR: For Gwangyang, maybe I can understand. But I cannot understand about Incheon, about Busan, about Daegu. That’s 7-8 million people and they come 200 people to the game. 1,000 people to the game. If you look at Germany, Hoffenheim village has 5,000 people. Stadium? 60,000 people. Every game is a full stadium. Dortmund, for the next five years, their stadium is sold out. Sold out stadium for five years. 80,000 people come to Dortmund stadium.

RW: We just need to Korea to win some World Cups then, eh?

SR: No, you don’t need World Cup. In Japan, I played in Japan for six months, every stadium was full one hour before the game. Two hours before the game you come and the stadium half full.

RW: How can we get Korea there?

SR: Turn off the TV. You turn on TV, four channels, only baseball. I hate baseball. Because of that I can’t watch football.


He was then kind enough to drive me home, where we promptly were cut off twice. To which he said “you know what? I have one problem in Korea. Ajumma Driving.”

8 comments

  1. Great interview! Really bummed he shut down the mullet idea though

    ReplyDelete
  2. Shut it down for now. Season's not over yet!

    ReplyDelete
  3. great interview! favorite suwon player of all time

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad you enjoyed the interview! He spoke quite fondly of Suwon and the fans. As a Dragons fan there's a part of me that's afraid he'll sign with Suwon this off season he spoke so highly of them.

      Delete
  4. What a depth !
    Awesome your interview.
    Even though I'm Korean and live Korea but not many uploaded by journalist interview unlike yours.

    I'll try to read all of this page's article.
    I'm really impressed what you interesting about K-league !!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the compliments! Really glad you enjoyed the interview and that you will be reading more regularly. Hoping to talk to Stevo again before the season starts and I'm sure he'll have a lot to say again then.

      Delete

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