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Ricardo Peres Interview: "I love challenge... it's very exciting to start from zero"

 In November 2020, Busan IPark chairman Chung Mong-kyu responded to the disappointment of relegation with the appointment of Ricardo Peres, Busan's first foreign head coach since 2007, and the only foreign manager currently plying his trade in the K League. The Portuguese coach has had a promising start to his time at the club, leading his side into contention for a playoff spot in an extremely competitive K League 2. 

The Portuguese manager sat down with K League United columnists Lee Dowon and Todd Wilde to talk about his first few months at the club, and begun the interview by expressing his happiness at settling into life in Korea's second city.

"For my family living in Busan, it's like we are feeling at home, we have fallen in love with the city, since there are many places here that are similar to Portugal. My children are very happy. They are at an excellent school, their friends often come to our place, and [from them] we learn more about the Korean culture. Peres also was appreciative of the Korean football community's support. "I appreciate how my colleagues, and the other Korean coaches, have welcomed me to Korea. I feel very happy here".  

In a wide-ranging and rare interview, conducted at the IPark Clubhouse in Busan, Peres:

  • Talked at length about the new 'Project' at Busan IPark, with a focus on innovation.
  • Discussed the club's new culture, and his respect for the traditional Korean culture.
  • Expressed the importance of spirituality in his life, and its impact on his coaching ideology. Uniquely for a figure in Korean sports, Peres follows a vegan diet and utilises the Bhagavad Gita as a core training technique.
  • Stressed the importance of the club's academy to the team now and in the future/
  • Noted that IPark may dip into the transfer market for a central midfielder, with the likes of Park Jong-woo and Kim Jin-kyu currently unavailable for selection.

"I love challenge... it's very exciting to start from zero"

Peres was approached directly for the role by IPark and KFA President Chung Mong-kyu, who was looking a coach that could replicate the philosophy, professionalism and training methods being utilised within the National Team set up (led by Paulo Bento, who Peres served as assistant at Greek giants Olympiakos). Peres tells KLU how "we talked for 45 minutes about my ideas and proposals. He said I will call you in two weeks if you are interested... Two days after, he called me, and it was very easy for me to come here. I heard many good things about Korea before coming here, so I didn't hesitate when offered the job".

A major attraction of this project for Peres was the opportunity for a 'fresh start', as an IPark side reeling from relegation and the loss of several star players searched for a new identity. Peres has implemented an attractive, passing style of football that is somewhat unique to K League 2, as Busan have become renowned for free flowing, attacking football, however it is his extensive use of young talent that has grasped many supporters' attention.

One key pillar of Peres' philosophy is the development of young players, with the likes of Park Ho-young, Choi Jun and Lee Ji-seung breaking into the first team this season. It is clear that the Portuguese coach takes great satisfaction from seeing his young charges learn from their more experienced teammates, as they develop experience and confidence. "It is rewarding when you start to see a team play in a consistent way, and you see your under 18 right back play like a mature player, alongside an experienced player that leads him according to the philosophy. Here you see the sacrifice of players for others on the pitch".

Peres' unique training philosophy

Perhaps the most fascinating side of the coach is his spiritual background. Brought up in the majority Catholic nation of Portugal, nowadays Peres is guided by the Bhagavad Gita, one of the main holy scriptures in Hinduism. In 2012, Ricardo - then Portugal's goalkeeping coach in the national team coaching set up - was introduced to Atma Kriya yoga by a family member. Soon after, Peres met his Hindu master Paramahamsa Vishwanada, which he credits as a life changing moment. 
After being the recipient of a Darshan, or a divine blessing, Peres became a devotee of Vishwanada, using the master's teachings to give his life structure. Peres praises the use of daily meditation and breathing techniques as providing balance to his life, and now is on a mission to help others harness the power of Atma Kriya yoga. Peres is a licensed instructor of the discipline, and gives weekly yoga sessions to his players. 
Peres clearly speaks with pride and happiness when explaining how this has guided his mindset on life. "I learned to love everything related to life, including myself. And when you love everything including yourself, you feel much more confident. So, how does this relate to coaching a professional football team? "The perspective is, I would like to treat others by being myself, respecting others, not expecting anything in exchange. Expectations are what bring suffering, so people should live in the present to enjoy their life." This is one of many teachings from the Bhagavad Gita, a 'life manual' which explains how people should act, and the consequences of such actions.

The lessons from this book have guided his coaching, and has become a handy training tool for his players. "We present the verses of the Gita before each match. For example, 'For a warrior, there is nothing superior to fighting in a righteous war'. So, if you are a footballer, there is nothing better than playing the game the right way. This is our 'Dharma', which means this is our duty - we must commit to that duty, and we cannot go against our duty in the world. Other quotes are used by the coach to help players understand how they can sacrifice for each other, to be free from selfishness, and to form a closer team spirit.

Related to his philosophy on life, Peres also decided to become a vegan, based on an ethical belief that it is respectful to animals to not eat meat. He does not believe this point of view should be enforced on anyone else, but does mention that he has managed players that have decided to follow a vegan diet after working together. "I respect people who eat meat, and it's up to each person. I don't press anyone to [become vegan] if they don't want to do it. However, I have had some players (in Portugal and Greece) that have become vegan after we shared a conversation (about the benefits of veganism)."

Ulsan Hyundai forward Lukas Hinterseer has been singled out as suffering a loss of form, with elements of the Korean media blaming his vegan diet as the reason for his lack of goalscoring. Peres challenges a narrative that has also been present in some Western media, noting that there are clear benefits to a vegan diet for footballers.
"There is a big dogma regarding vegan food. We need to destroy this dogma that you cannot be an athlete without eating meat, as it is a false concept. You can find much better protein in vegan food, and you will feel much more balanced as a person. It is scientifically proven that you will become much more calm if you don't eat meat, and you can feel this in your senses, your body, your spirit and your mind."

Incorporating a European and Korean culture

In training sessions, players typically will run 6-7km in one session, with players running 10-12km during a game. These intensive training sessions - which last less than an hour, once per day, are in great contrast with former regimes at IPark and the current training systems at multiple K League clubs. Cypriot defender Valentinos Sielis was required to take part in three training sessions a day at Gangwon FC, but said recently that he feels like he's "20 years old again" due to the introduction of "European style, high intensity" training sessions at IPark.
Peres notes that less can actually mean more. "The players are being pushed to the limit. This is normal in the growing up process, as players sacrifice and develop themselves during training. Valentinos told me he is exhausted after training sessions nowadays!"

At Gyeongnam FC, Seol Ki-hyeon has changed the structure to adopt a Western club style atmosphere, abandoning the hierarchial structure common in Korean companies in favour of a more democratic system that mirrors the structure of European clubs. Peres has sought to transform the culture at Busan, however has instead decided to fuse elements of European working culture with parts of traditional Korean working culture. When asked why he decided to retain the traditional heritage at IPark, Peres noted:

"You have advantage everywhere, in all cultures. Since we are in Korea, we cannot do something 100% in a different context. You can bring something different to the project. However, if we don't adapt to the local circumstances, the project will finish very soon in my opinion. I have some good friends in Korea, and they told me many good things about the Korean culture before I arrived, with advantages like the compromise that players show, their respect for rules, and respect for the coach. These things are different in Europe, as players can have bigger egos and are often driven by their mind instead of the heart."

Peres noted that he hadn't experienced great challenges conveying ideas to his players, "I have had to study the Korean culture, and decide which parts of my philosophy can fit here and grow up in a Korean project." He possesses a humility and respect for his colleagues, as he consulted the views of his players before finalising nutritional targets and negotiating time off with his players. He admits that as a relatively young head coach, he feels that he is developing with his players. "We are in a huge learning process, as a person and as a coach, to find the right mentality (for the needs of the team and the players). You can study, you can learn, you can analyse; but only when you get the 'Ahh!' experience will you completely understand the learning process."

Indeed, it is notable that the Portuguese has not had any troubles adapting to the work culture in Korea, noting that he has had no issues adhering to the strict structural hierarchy that some young Koreans are reassessing in modern Korea. "I don't feel like the hierarchial issues have been an issue for me. All people, from the CEO to the kitchen staff, have made me feel welcome here and given me and the players respect from day one at the club."

Long Term Innovation for Long Term Gain

Peres has brought significant innovation into the club in his short time at the helm. The Portuguese's relaxed demeanour hides a serious and technical side to the coach, who has introduced the use of advanced data analysis and modern technology to Busan. From the use of GPS tracker vests to the introduction of a defensive zonal marking system (where players are positioned based upon the 'zone' the ball is currently placed), innovation has been at the heart of Year One of the new project.

Peres notes that "a very strong group of professionals for performance" analyse the GPS data after every training session. This informs the direction of future training sessions and conditioning plans as players are set up to peak on matchdays. The data analysis team also analyses the effectiveness of warm up exercises before the game. This has allowed pre-game warm ups to be adapted over the season, as the club looks to find the correct formula that allows players to be competitive from the first whistle, ensuring that players do not have to 'feel' their way into the match.

Technology has also made its way into the dressing room, with the introduction of in-game analysis. "We have an analyst, who is able to cut images during the game, which allows us to show images at half time on a TV in the dressing room. This can help us find trends and areas of improvement, which we can use in the second half". Peres cuts his own videos of match day analysis after games, as he personally breaks down the team's performance, always with a focus on the improvement of players to aid their development.
"Even the gym, we've changed. We found old machines that only worked on individual muscles, but our philosophy is to work all the body in each training session, so we had to change the tools for that". Peres believes that players have only recently finished the base of their training, and given the nature of the long term project, he believes that players are "a little bit far from their physical peak". Peres has lured compatriot Francisco Calvete to become the club's fitness coach after a seven year spell at Benfica, as the club aims to implement specialised strength and conditioning programmes for individual players, under specific training plans. Under previous management, players were left to their own devices to make their own training plans, which had contributed to Busan's lengthy injury list in the 2020 season. 
This radical shift in thinking is very much in its infant phases. There are plans to introduce other technology used at top clubs in Europe, such as smart trackers that can improve players' sleep cycles. Peres believes that IPark can also learn from current innovations in other sports. Busan IPark are set to co-operate with the city's KBO side, the Lotte Giants - another side which has hired foreign staff, including an American head coach and R&D team - as they look to learn from each other's operations. One example cited by Peres as being utilised on the pitch is the 'three corridors' counter-attacking method, which was first used by the German National Team in 2012, but directly adapted from the tactics of professional basketball.

Fostering a broader team mentality

Peres has come into the club with a perspective of creating a team mentality that not only involves the coaching and playing staff, but also all operational staff and supporters. "Every part of the club should be connected under the same values. The expression of our values should be our game model. Every department should adhere to these values, for example the marketing department should have courage [to improve the club's image], whilst the playing staff should also have courage, for example to take some risks on the field."

These groups of values have been designed to create a greater unity between different parts of the club, with each part of the club asked to bring one value to the table. All staff are required to adhere to the nine club values, creating a team mentality where everyone is important and working towards the same goal. Peres clearly cares about - and wants his players to care about - the input and sacrifice of non playing staff, as he crafts a vision of Busan IPark's employees becoming a large family, one that wins and loses together.

As a result, rewards are equally distributed throughout the club. "Everyone has the same game bonus, from the kit man to the captain to the cafeteria staff. We needed to find a way to keep a balance. Every person from the kitchen staff, that ensure the players have the nutrition to perform at the best of their duty, to the marketing team that must get people in the stadium is part of the club - all these contributions are big to ensure that the club works well and moves forward. It's important. All things have a big influence in the game, so if we all work 100%, we should all receive the same reward, because we are all important."

Looking Forward

After working under Paulo Bento as Assistant Manager at Olympiakos, Peres moved into a youth development role at the club, where he simultaneously managed the Greek club's Under 20 side and took the reins as academy director. Ricardo speaks of his pride of this time at the club, one which was dedicated towards youth development, working to create a supply line of talent after previously being responsible for incorporating young talent into the first team. During Peres' stint at the club, a number of Greek internationals were developed before continuing their careers elsewhere, including current Empoli CB Dimitrios Nikolaou and Liverpool LB Konstantinos Tsimikas.

There is a connection here with Busan's academy, already well renowned within Korea after Korean internationals Kim Moon-hwan and Lee Dong-jun were developed before moving on to greener pastures after the club's relegation. Peres talks of "one of our compromises with the President when we spoke" as the focus on improving the academy, and it is understood that the club expects to develop a pipeline of talent, both as a source of talent that can establish Busan as a top tier side, but also as a source of revenue in future years. Peres plans on bringing the academy much closer to the first team.

"We have to connect with the academy, we have to develop the academy with the pro team. I work in both contexts, to connect the two worlds into one world". Peres notes that this is a long term goal of IPark's current project, as the vision and philosophy within the senior team must be fully established before the same goals can be implemented in IPark's academy sides. Most radical changes within the academy are intended for Year Two of the project. However, the coach has proactively made attempts to include youngsters in his plans from the very beginning, as standout members of the Busan IPark's Under 18 team were invited to train with the first team in pre-season.
Four members of this side are splitting their time between Gaesung High School and the first team this season, most notably resulting in a debut for Lee Tae-min, K League 2's youngest ever player at 17 years and 302 days. Another schoolboy, Heo Seung-chan, has seen action in the Under 18s in a variety of positions to aid his long term development as a central midfielder. Peres notes "We are giving players experiences in different positions, so they can play in different roles in different strategies. He might play as an attacking midfielder now, but another time he can play slightly deeper as he learns another way of playing".

Looking towards the near future, Busan has become a swashbuckling side in the first year of the new project, easily the league's top scorers, but also the team that has conceded the most as IPark look set for a tilt at the league's playoff positions. Peres appears to be happy with his squad, however when asked about his plans for the transfer market, he admitted that the side may look to sign a central midfielder. This comes after the loss of captain Park Jong-woo to injury, Kwon Hyeok-kyu to the military, and the team's talisman Kim Jin-kyu to the Korean Olympic side. Peres also noted that the decision to only sign two foreigners (Valentinos and Domagoj Drozdek) was a deliberate one, which gives the club flexibility to sign a third foreign player during the summer transfer window.
One position where Busan does not need fresh blood is up front, and Peres was full of praise for the league's top scorer, An Byong-jun. In pre-season, the player was challenged to think about how to defend as an attacker, to ensure that he can develop as a footballer. "I told him that if you don't change your mentality, you won't develop. But he has listened, he has developed, he has changed his game, and he sacrifices for his team".

Mr. Peres, an enigmatic and gracious interviewee, was humble about his long term status at the club. "This is not my project - this is Busan IPark's project. The main target is always the players and always to help them develop. The coach is nothing. When I leave, I will be very happy if the Busan IPark project can continue to grow, with different things that can also allow the project to develop further". It will be of interest to many to see how the team develops under Ricardo over the months and years to come.

Lee Dowon and Todd Wilde - K League United Columnists

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