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Interview: Dejan Damjanović - "I still want ACL glory"

FC Seoul Dejan talks Champions League, management, formations and K League

Following on from our first interview with him earlier this summer, K League United sat down once more with star FC Seoul striker Dejan Damjanović to ask him his thoughts on the Champions League, what's next after he hangs up his boots and how to improve the K League.
(Photo Credit: OSEN)

On the Asian Champions League

Regarding ACL, do you think that qualification is the target still?

Yeh, it's four or five points difference. So, if we can make two or three games, we can still be in that spot and then we can see how it's going after. Obviously Jeonbuk is already showing that they have quality. I don't like that honestly, but man, that's a fact, so we need to be realistic and try to keep this ACL spot. And then, if something happens unexpectedly, and they start losing some points, and we start playing normally, then we're going to see. But for now, ACL spot is the realistic target for this year.

Is that a successful season at this point?

Not even close. But what can we do now? If I had a remote to turn back time three months then for sure, we can try again, but now we don't have that. We are professionals, we want everything perfect, but it's not going perfect. Honestly, this is unbelievable how many injured players we have had this year. Seven or eight? Of the best eleven, five or six? All the time we have some injuries. Summer was the worst part, it's humid. It is can be possible to have some other injuries because it is really hot. So we need to now focus to save the season. We are professionals, we are playing for FC Seoul. We must play ACL next year. That's our objective. Luckily the league is almost the same except Jeonbuk, I have to be honest as I said. So we need to start thinking like FC Seoul.

Clearly you think the ACL is really important to a club like FC Seoul. You want to go as far as the semis, the finals. That's what a club like FC Seoul...

ACL is a competition where you represent the K League. You represent the capital city. This is FC Seoul, we are in the capital. The biggest and main city in Korea. It is not only this, we represent the country, and who will represent it better than FC Seoul. The best stadium, the best fans and we were the best team for a long time. So with this kind of thing, you must keep the level of FC Seoul. Normally when you are there, you need to show the best performance and try to go to the final if it's possible but you must play ACL. This must be a normal thing every year. You must play ACL and then we are going to see something else. So these kind of other things, we must not speak about. We are not only representing us, we represent the K League, Korea, my country, everything.

So you want both. Which which do you think is more fulfilling? Is it better to go that far in ACL or is better to go through the grind of a season in the K League? Which one is more rewarding?

I'm now just speaking personally, I want ACL. I know the K League is unbelievably tough, even when you think it's easy, it's never easy. Every game is similar. It just depends on how you prepare yourself for the game, that's all. All teams are going to fight against you. I know it's tough, but personally I want ACL.This is something that I am missing and how I missed that chance in 2013 really hurt. That was the game I lost. Plus, against a team like Guangzhou, if we did this we were going to be in the history of Korean football. I missed that, so my main focus is ACL, and it hurts me even more this year how we have performed. It is embarrassing how we have performed in ACL. It hurts for me and I can say for all my teammates we were embarrassing [for the] K League, not only us. Yes, that's my main goal normally, but if something happens like last year and they give us a chance in the K League then we are going to take it. We will not give up but ACL is a priority in what we are chasing for a few years and its sleeping. Now two times semi-final, one time final, it shows how big is FC Seoul. In 2013 final, 2014 semi-final, '15 after group stage they are out and now semi-final. In the last four years we played three semi-finals and go to one final. So that means we are representing all Korean football. We need to think like that.

On Management

And hopefully for your sake, and for FC Seoul's, you do get to experience ACL again. When you've talked about management before, would the next best thing to be winning it with FC Seoul as a manager?

I'm still a player, man! No, no manager. I don't think I'll ever be a coach, honestly. I blame football when I am feeling a lot of stress. I'm that kind of guy, everything really feels personal, especially in the game sometimes I'm really, really bad in the game to my teammates if they are not performing how they can perform. It's not that I don't like them, just that I am like that. I don't like to see it when someone is ten years younger than me and walking in the game. I hate that. Honestly, I hate that. I cannot be like that. I'm here because I am like this, and he's there because he's like that. And I hate that, but we are wearing the same uniform so that means he needs to be similar to me, not me to him. So these kind of things, I really need to... I can sometimes be a bad boy so these kind of things, if I move into coach[ing] and see in training he's messy, and then also in the game, these kinds of things I'll never keep it normal so I will probably have a lot problems with players, so I don't want to be that guy. That doesn't mean, if I was a good player, I am going to be a good coach. I'm more focusing on [moving] up with my club. If I am finishing football here in FC Seoul, that's going to be my priority. I have a lot of ideas and I think I have the courage to try to do some things different here than the Korean way. I know it's very hard to change, that's a fact, but who will try if not a legend who is a foreigner here in Korea? I'm the biggest ever here, honestly. So, I will try. If I fall down, then "thank you guys" but I will try. I think I have good ideas and I see a lot of problems. Not problems, just the way how it works for the last fifty years so these kind of things are hard to change but I am going to try. Not totally but, step by step, and I hope the results will follow me so maybe in the future... we're gonna win the Champions League! If we don't win now then we're are going to win like different function.

So, if you were a manager, would you be a tracksuit manager or a full suit manager?

I will be wearing a training suit because I'm gonna run and yell and call. I'm going to be like that maybe in the beginning. And then after time I'm probably going to calm down. Maybe I'll be like that lunatic [Marcelo] Bielsa or, you know, you never know, Jose Mourinho wearing suits. Before he was wearing tracksuits so these things, I don't know. I cannot see myself like a manager, honestly.

You've still got a few years left.

I'm thinking the same!

Hopefully they agree...

We'll see. Them first and then we're going to see. If they want me then I am going to stay here.

So is there anyone in the squad right now who does have the manager buzz. Is there anybody htat you think would make a good manager?

Osmar. Yeh, Osmar. I've told him a million times, "you're that kind of guy". He's kind, calm, he sees a lot of things. He's adapted very well in Asia. He's now been here seven or eight year with Buriram and now in Korea. I can see how he speaks and how he feels everything here. I think he likes Asia so, in this part, I think he can be a really good manager. I think he looks like that, I always say "You can be a good coach. You are calm, even when you get angry." I cannot. I burn, and tomorrow I'm okay, but he is not [like that]. In that moment, he just breaks and then speaks nice. This I cannot do so he can have this potential for a good manager.

So maybe then, you have "Good Cop, Bad Cop" with Osmar as the calm one...

Yeah, I swear we are those guys! Sometimes maybe this a good thing. To have somebody who can yell. To have somebody who can calm the team. You must somebody who has authority and responsibility to shit on, not shit on you, but shit on you if you are not performing good. If we are in a small team you can do whatever you want. So these kind of things who can [yell]. I'm that guy in our team.

Every team needs one though.

Yeah, I've been that guy for a long time.

"Good cop, bad cop" Osmar and Dejan celebrate winning the 2016 K League Classic. (Photo Credit: OSEN)

On Formations

Do you think the departures of Adriano and Yojiro Takahagi affected the team more than expected this year?

I was sure, my personal thinking, that when Adriano transferred to China my mind was okay, it's going to be okay because with this money we took for him for sure we can buy one good foreigner and plays what we are missing; in my opinion a shadow striker or another good winger, and then no problem. I was sure that we can make this goal [ACL] without any problem.

Takahagi, when he left we were thinking that [Ha] Daesung is going to be that guy, and he is that guy, believe me. But, many things happening unexpectedly; a lot of injuries, a lot of strange results and even tactics; how we play some games. So, we were thinking that we will not feel that too much [the affect] but we feel it.

Do you think what's happened this season has stemmed from a lack of support up top or is there more to it than that? 

I don't know. Everybody is guilty; from the top of the club, when they made these transfers, to the coach who makes the tactics, the players we didn't perform good on the game. I cannot say he [the manager] did not give chance to everybody. So, many things come together but generally I must say the players are guilty, nothing more or less than the coach. He gave us a lot of freedom about these things so it is about your character, this is about the character of players.

For the personnel that is with Seoul this year, what do you think is the ideal formation and tactic?

Before when we were in Seoul, I am here from 2008 and until 2013 we played 4-2-3-1, sometimes 4-4-2, but generally we played 4-2-3-1 for seven years, six years and it was working a lot. To be clear; we were Champions, we had good players, good character players  - this is more important than tactics but at that time tactics was perfect for us. We get used to it, we know what we need to do. When we are on the game, automatically we know 'okay, this guy is going to do this' and it was working and then I left for two years. When I came back we were playing three-back with Choi, and man it was working. I don't like three-back, to be clear. I hate three-back because this is a defensive tactic, for me always defensive. When one striker comes, two defenders they are not doing anything: just running and speaking too much. So, these kind of things I don't like

But, it [4-2-3-1] was working, it was perfect. We play two top [two strikers] and that time, me and Adriano. Adriano will not run too much, that's fact but he knew how to score goals. Fact. One chance one goal, two chance one goal. We were playing for him, so for me it wasn't a problem to go a little bit back and help in a free role but generally we were offensive and it was working and then I can stand there and say "three-back, it was working in FC Seoul". I didn't believe, but it was working.

And then, when Choi left we changed to four-back very soon and I was thinking 'that's it, we are going to go back to the same system' and then again we have this. For almost two months we played 4-1-4-1 and it was working last year.

I like 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3. That means that if teams want to be defensive against us, they cannot control one guy they need to control one shadow [striker] who, if he is smart, he can play a lot against small teams. So, these kind of things, especially if you have me and [Park] Chuyoung who are like main focus on the game  so many defenders are just looking for us, you have free time. These kind of things I am sure that it will work better.

You said in an interview that one thing that you felt was hindering the Chinese Super League was a lot of changes, how would you compare the changes that happen in the CSL versus the changes that happen in K League? I think you have played in five different formations since you have been back, how is this affecting continuity within the team?

In K League you have three days and then a game so you don't have time to work on these kind of things so it is very hard to catch that. So, generally I think that four-back is the best system. You see what kind of profile players you have for 4-3-3, 4-4-2. Generally, big teams must be offensive. These kind of things like Jeonbuk, Seoul, Suwon Samsung, Ulsan - these big teams, they need to play more offensive. Plus, they are keeping reputation in K League. These teams must be the best, keeping some level for the last 10 years, 15 years. I think four-back and offensive part of game is the most important thing here in K League for big teams, for sure.

On Improving the K League

I've got a question about goalkeepers. we talked about Yang last time, and that you were very impressed with him, but there are some good young Korean goalkeepers around. In the K League, teams cannot have a foreign goalkeeper. Do you think it is time the league changed the rule?

No. Honestly, I understand these kinds of rules. They need a good goalkeeper for the national team. If you open this rule, it's not like too many teams are going to bring in a foreign keeper because generally, more or less, you are buying foreigners to finish your job up front. You have good Korean strikers, but generally shadow wingers. Strikers is why you are buying foreigners. So I am not sure they would even buy a keeper if this rule is not standard any more. But I think that's good. You don't need a keeper. Try to push. I'm sorry for keepers in Europe but this is not a place where they need to come. This is for Asian keepers, they need to improve.

I'm more for staff to be foreigners. Bring more foreigners. One coach, two coaches, a physical coach.. Give them a chance to show [the players] something else other than Korean style. It doesn't mean we are changing Korea, just give us a chance to show you something else than Korea. It doesn't mean we are the smartest in the world. Just be honest, "in this you are not good, but in this you are good". Give a chance to foreigners to help you. We will not take your life, your pride or your faith. Just give us a chance to make something different. It doesn't mean it is not going to work. So these kinds of things I'm more for foreigners. Give chances to foreign coaches. If not head coach, then second coach. But give them a chance to work, not bring them here and shit on them. Give them a chance. You're physical, your responsibility is physical performance and ability of players. If they start getting injured, sorry man, "bye-bye" but if they are performing good and they are doing a good job, it means they are doing a good job. Give them a chance to work and not just bring them and then you are doing training for them, throwing them a paper [to follow]. I do not agree with this. I know it's the Korean way but give them a chance. This is what I am thinking is the biggest problem here. They don't even give chances to foreigners to try to help anybody here. They think this is the best way to work and it goes like that.

Do you think then that once one [foreign coach] comes in and does well, would it encourage others teams to bring in a foreign coach?

No, I don't think so. The policy now of the Korean Federation is to give chances to young Korean coaches, ex-national team players, really good football players. They were really good players so they are now trying to come out as a coach, and I respect that. A lot of these guys played in Europe even, some part of Korea, and maybe Japan. They have seen something different so I respect that. Give them a chance. But for sure, they need to have a system for more foreigners, Especially goalkeeper coach, physical coach, even one assistant to be a guy, a friend from Europe from that head coach who could've played together. From Japan, and he's from Sweden for example, or from Montenegro! These guys are friends so "I believe you, we have a good relationship". So this kind of thing we need. I'm sure everybody can benefit from this. It's cannot be worse than this. It's not bad, but it could be better. It's hard to see that some foreign head coaches are going to come. I respect this because I know who is trying to get licence and trying to take some team and have a chance. But assistants and other coaches, we really need to have some foreigners. They can just help.

So perhaps then, for the league to grow further, because it has grown a lot since the early 1980s, but do you think that perhaps the league has hit a glass ceiling and there should be more foreign interest to help it grow?

For sure, even some TV rights. You never know, maybe somebody wants to watch some big player from some country who is here having the chance to make a TV show - you never know. Our league, in Asia, is the worst rate for average attendance, in Asia I think. That means it can be just better, you cannot go more down than this because when we played in places like Gwangju there is just 5,000 people.

When stadiums are so big, it makes the attendance look even less...

Yes. You feel like 2,000. But generally, you cannot be worse you can be just better so just give them a chance. And, you know, how we have said, K League is respected here in Asia. If one guy plays three, four, five, six months good, he is in Japan, China, Qatar. Everybody is watching. Korean players, they have one game for the National Team, five goals in K League he is in Qatar, Emirates, not China now because no Asian quota but in Japan...so we are a respected league. Everybody is looking, just to see if they can catch somebody. So, these kind of things, let's just try a little more. Let's just try just a little more, it can be just better. Why don't sell three players at the end of the year, maybe? Why just one? Sell three and take $7m or $8m to invest in club. You can buy good players or good foreigners and then invest in young team. Perhaps just open the mind a little bit, it's enough. This is K League, the best league in Asia. I am saying this still. So we need to do a little bit.

Lukas Podolski went to Japan and there was talk of another Japanese team trying to sign Francesco Totti, do you think a K League team needs to do something like that?

I don't know. I don't know even if it is possible to do in K League, to be honest. I don't know. Maybe these kind of things, some players who play for a long time like I play in Seoul and I came back, maybe some players like this who leave like some big Korean names. For example, Lee Chungyong, Ki Seungyeung, and some others. Even Son Heungmin, he will need to go to the army so he will play six months here, sooner or later. He's coming here for six months! These kind of things can help a lot the K League. Now, in the beginning, we must be realistic, to pay some big names it is almost impossible. And, to be honest, this league is not for too many old players who come in from Europe. They cannot take this level; this is too much running, physical. This is different football but to try to bring big Korean names for one year, two years to invest in them to make marketing, to make some TV show like Lee Donggook is making now in Jeonbuk - these kind of things.

The new manager, Shin Taeyoung, said that he wants to use more K League players which can only be a good thing for the league, surely?

Generally it is nice he is going to watch K League, he is going to give chance to K League players to show themselves but still I am thinking that the main part of the National Team is normally going to be outside players. That's good for Korean football, generally. Just give chance to K League players, I respect that because these guys they are going to try to show themselves in their best light and, give them chance to go out, to earn some money, to help the team with a transfer fee. It's good. Shin, he was fighting for the position, now he get this chance, I like this because we need, and I understand Koreans doing these kind of things, giving this coaching position to young coaches who were before really big players. I think he still understands a little bit, the situation in K League. Plus, he was a little bit outside, he knows different things because he is younger. He saw something else than Korean style so you need to give them a chance. I respect that, I agree with that.

There are a lot of big, big Korean companies Hyundai, Samsung, Seoul are owned by a big company as well, but what about a big foreign company? In Austria and in America there's Red Bull...

Generally, we don't even need them. We don't need them, just bring Korean companies; Kia, Daewoo, in Hyundai they have totally different companies, Hyundai Industry, Hyundai Cars. So, like in Samsung they are the same, they are separate companies so you can invest. Hyundai Industry are Ulsan, Hyundai Cars are Jeonbuk so Hyundai are investing in two teams so this means it can be like in Kia invest in one team. These kind of things you need to attract them, make some interest, they see some interest in that like everybody else. I will not give you $50m if I don't get back something, it's business. At the end, it's all business. So, we need to make this part of the job better. These companies have interest to come here and then it is no problem. Then, we can attract better players, probably fans is going to come more and it is going to be more people going to watch and then everything is going step by step naturally.

Every single player that we have spoken to say the same thing; this is the league in Asia but attendances is the issue. Do you think that if money stays the same but more people came to the games that would attract some of the more marquee names like the Podolskis that are going to Japan instead?

If more fans are coming they are going to have more income. If they have more income they are going to have possibility to invest. If they see more income they are going to bw more attracted to do something different. So now it is like if 17,000 people every game, but we have good season ticket revenue so you have good income so let's try, let's buy one more player. We have $1m for one player, let's get a good player. Then, it's connected, automatically if you bring him 5,000 more people are coming. Everything is connected, you must start from something so the biggest problem is marketing to attract people to come and then people start coming everybody is going to have more interest; for commercial, for TV rights, for some investment, for some business.

The fans that are coming to the games, you have played in a lot of different leagues, I think this one is a bit unique in the way that fans in the supporters section is almost always going to cheer at the end of the game no matter what. Do you feel like that sort of positivity is good or would you'd like to see a little more animosity when things aren't going so well?

Now, after seven years, for the first time I heard some of our fans when we come after the game to bow, a few guys they boo. They didn't say anything like "go away" just a few of them boo. I understand in someway, like I say they don't like this kind of negativity and pressure. They are not good in that so probably these fans who are there, they are probably the same. They are not negative, they are always positive thinking: 'it's going to be okay'. So these kind of things I understand. Here is not the country where you need to do like in Europe, negativity. Here is a little bit different so it's not going to help, it is just going to make things worse. So for us it is lucky that it is like this. For me, I am a foreigner. I like Korea; I am half Korean but I am a foreigner, in my mind I am a foreigner. But, the Korean players are going to think before the game that the fans are going to boo, if we play bad so I think it is a good thing not to have too much negativity. Luckily, and I am thankful that our fans, even now in this is the worst moment in FC Seoul history, in the last 10 years for sure, from 2007 I was here so I know the situation, this is the worst moment, they are really supporting us 100%. They are standing behind us, cheering for us, trying to be positive. The Korean way, they are really nice and showing just how big of a club we are and our fans believe in us even if it is the worst situation ever, I think.

A post shared by Dejan (@boske9) on
So you really appreciate how positive the fans are?

Yeah, yeah especially our fans. I believe that they still believe more than us, I swear. That we can overcome this and, like many times, we make in the last couple of seasons like five, six wins in a row easily we win and then we are second directly. They still believe we can do this because we are Seoul. We need just one good set like one, two, three and then is going to flow automatically, just go. It's hard to catch this first flow but they are believing in us. That's good for us. They are pushing us to try to do something better because if they are like this then we need to be better. They believe in us, we need to start believing in ourselves more.

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