SHIFTER Sports writer Markus Marshall interviewed Ottawa Fury FC coach Nikola Popovic earlier this week. The club has suffered two heavy defeats at the start of the USL season, although producing two spirited performances. Popovic took the time to share with us his feelings on the start to the season, what life has been like since he arrived in Ottawa just a few months back, and opened up about his life and career as a coach. The fans of Fury FC have been looking forward to hearing from their new head coach in-depth and Popovic certainly didn’t disappoint.
SHIFTER Sports: What do the Ottawa Fury fan base need to know about Nikola Popovic the coach?
Nikola Popovic: Well, it’s difficult to talk about myself. What can I say? I am passionate, I love soccer. I really enjoy seeing good soccer on display. The philosophy we want to bring to this club is about playing good soccer, but for that we need to create a good foundation to be able to perform this way.
SS: Can you talk to us a little about your past experiences as a coach?
NP: I almost went all around the world. I have experience in Europe- in Portugal, Spain, Bulgaria, and Serbia. I went to the Middle East. I was in Qatar. I have experience on the national team level with Cape Verde in Africa. I have experience in North America with Sporting KC and Swope Park Rangers, and now in Canada too. I also have the highest coaching badge. The UEFA pro licence.
SS: What lead you to choose Fury FC over the other options available to you at the time?
NP: This is the question everybody asks me. I had a lot of invitations. What was the most important thing for me when I spoke with Julian (Fury FC General Manager) was seeing how much he loves the game and that he wants the team to playing in a certain way with a certain style and culture. Seeing the stadium and the big field. I saw the right components to lead me to believe that what we want to achieve could happen. All of this was a good attraction for me and the challenge that we want to do this with Canadian players. I find the challenge appealing and it was the reason I came here.
SS: How have you found your time with the club so far?
NP: It’s been full of challenges. We have a club that for two years didn’t reach the playoffs, and being here now for three to four months, I’m starting to understand why. I didn’t know why at the beginning when I came but now I’m understanding a little of the culture, the facilities, the players we have here and the conditions we have. This allows me to understand a bit better what is ahead of us.
SS: Are you happy with the squad you and Julian have put together?
NP: Yes. As you know, we have had a bit of a strange pre-season. We have had to practice in a smaller field. I only know Kevin Oliveira well; he’s the only player I’ve worked with before. I am now starting to learn more about the players we have and I’m just starting to get the chance to see them perform in a real environment. I need a little bit more time to answer this question in a fully informed way.
SS: We know the results for the first two games of the season haven’t been exactly the results we hoped for, however I think it’s clear to anyone who understands the game in-depth there is more to it than just the scorelines. What’s your thoughts on the first two games of the season so far?
NP: I agree with you. I think of course if you look to the scoreboard it’s one thing and it’s a true measure. That being said, it has to be considered that we are trying to change the style of play and the players still need more time to get a better understanding of what we are trying to achieve. We need more time to create the foundation. There have been very good aspects of both games that we can take forward and we must correct the bad things that have happened.
SS: Do you feel as though the players are buying in and adapting to your philosophy?
NP: One-hundred percent. It’s still a learning process that’s going to take maybe even a little longer than I was expecting. More than in my time with the Rangers for example as the culture was already in place there. Here we are trying to create the foundation of a strong culture and when we have this in place it will be much easier to implement the ideas, so we still have a lot of work to do.
SS: Could you tell us a little bit about your style of play on the field?
NP: It’s a style of play in which we want to have a lot of the ball. However it’s not simply about having the ball for having it’s sake. It’s with the idea of being organized and bringing defensive stability. We want to be able to break through our opponent with penetrating passes and with all of this the idea is to play in a passionate way. A way that will be attractive for the fans to watch us. It’s a very ambitious and demanding style and this is what we are trying to implement here.
SS: You spent time under Baltemar Brito, Jose Mourinho’s assistant in Qatar. You have spoken of how that experience influenced your ideas of the game. Can you share with us a little bit about that?
NP: Yes. As you know, I was lucky to be able to work all around the world and experienced three different methodologies of training. The analytical, the systemic, and the integrated. Having the chance to experience the tactical approach Mourinho uses in my time in Qatar was very interesting and very rich for me. There is not one methodology that is correct, but if you take the best of the three, I think this is the best way.
SS: What other coaches have influenced your philosophy and style of play?
NP: I think the methodology of Jose Mourinho, but when I think of style of play of course Pep Guardiola. Watching his teams give me pleasure. it’s beautiful to watch. What he did in Barcelona more so that Bayern Munich and Manchester City, nonetheless he is the coach that most inspires me when I watch his teams play.
SS: You have almost always achieved above expectation as coach at your different clubs. Why do you think this is? What’s your secret?
NP: I think I understand culture. Not only football, but cars or computers. Those who have success have a strong culture. Look at Steve Jobs at Apple. The culture is fantastic. The All Blacks in New Zealand. This is only possible because of a strong foundation. I don’t think the secret is a secret, I think it’s something that is completely understandable. If you want to create something great, if you want to have success in life, you have to have a very strong culture and without that it’s impossible. It’s important that every day you work with excellence in all you do, not to live in the past, or be too attached to the future that you forget the present. These are some of the core values I think are important for any organization that wants to have success.
SS: What are some of the things you’ve learned about the culture in Ottawa so far?
NP: In regards to the football team, we are starting from zero. If you come to a place where they have already established a strong culture it’s easier to implement a new style of play or system, but when you come to a place that doesn’t, it takes more time because you have to create this foundation. You can’t start building a house from the roof; you have to first build a strong foundation. It’s perhaps more interesting to build this way; it’s challenging and fantastic. It just takes time.
SS: What are some of the necessary characteristics a coach needs in order to build the desired culture in a soccer club?
NP: First of all I think you have to live your life according to that culture. You can’t be saying one thing and then living your life in a totally different way. So you have to be fully committed to the culture you are trying to build. You have to understand that everything matters. The fans are important. Everyone plays a part. It’s impossible to build this with one person. A coach cannot do this alone. Everyone is important- the technical staff, the media, the owners. The whole organization. Everyone needs to be attached to be able to create this. Otherwise it’s impossible. It’s not a job for one man. In life, whenever you have a dream or objective with the goal of achieving greatness there is always on the other side an opposite force that doesn’t want you to have success. You are fighting against a lot of people who don’t want you to succeed. So what you have to create is a whole club connected to the same idea. Committed to one another no matter what and if you do this, believe me, in a couple of years you will have something very important and very beautiful.
SS: How have you found living in Ottawa?
NP: Fantastic. The people are great. The city is very beautiful. Everything is nice, quiet and calm. I am in love with Ottawa.
SS: What motivates you?
NP: I’m motivated by a challenge. Many people call them problems; I prefer to call them challenges. Whenever we have a big challenge ahead of us. I am only more motivated. If someone tells me you cannot do it, it’s even bigger a challenge and my passion comes from there.
SS: Now for a few fun questions. Cats or dogs?
SS: Cold weather or hot weather?
NP: Cold weather.
SS: Premier League or La Liga?
NP: La Liga.
This is a tricky question. La Liga is more about beautiful football. Of course, you have fantastic teams in the Premier League and you have Pep Guardiola. Watching Manchester City is like an orchestra. It’s art and I love it. But if you ask me La Liga or Premier League, I have to say La Liga because all of the teams play with this perfume of beautiful football, but this is of course very subjective. When you think of culture, you see teams like Bilbao. An idea built around identity. The club is a mirror of the people and when you see them play you can see the passion attached to something that is very important to the region. It’s these reasons why I love La Liga.
SS: Is it fair to say you are looking to build a similar passion to play for the shirt, the badge, and the nation with the amount of Canadian players the club have brought in?
NP: One-hundred percent. You are completely right. We are trying to bring this type of passion to this club, and trying to create a strong Canadian culture here, with Fury FC representing the country. It will be fantastic. Of course, we need the right players with the right qualities and this takes patience. We will not establish this if we change things after two or three losses. You have to believe and insist, and if you really want something you have to fight, no matter the result, for the idea you believe will work.
SS: Hockey vs. CFL/NFL?
NP: Can I say basketball? I watched the Senators and I watched the NFL when I worked in America. The problem I found with both sports is the fact that they stop a lot and I am used to a fluid game. The NBA is fantastic to watch. They are such great athletes, the tactical performance and coordination, and the game flows a little more. So if you say between these three, I will say the NBA, but if you say between hockey and the NFL/CFL, I would have to say hockey because it’s more similar to soccer.
SS: We know that you speak many languages. Which one do you enjoy speaking the most?
NP: I think Portuguese is the easiest for me. Serbian and Croatian I speak with my parents. English now is more and more easier. French has been difficult. I can already speak some things, but I was expecting to find much more people speaking French here in Ottawa, but everybody seems to speak to me in English. When you speak Portuguese you speak Spanish easily. Serbian, you understand easily Bulgarian and Russian. You feel more rich when you know more languages. In our profession, since you always have many different nationalities, it’s easier to communicate with them in their own language. This is a plus.
SS: What’s your favourite city that you’ve lived in or travelled to?
NP: I have to say Lisbon.
SS: Your favourite soccer player of all time?
NP: Ronaldo and Messi are of course the two best players. I like the 6’s. Like Redondo, Veron, Matic, Busquets. They are my kind of players. He’s not the guy who is going to make the dribble, or who’s going to score the goal, but he’s going to carry the team at the back.
SS: Your favourite football coach of all time?
NP: For sure Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola.
SS: Who would you say is the best of the up and coming coaches in world football?
NP: The one who attracts me the most, who very few people speak of is from Atletico Madrid- Diego Simeone. What he has achieved is very difficult. To have consistency of results whilst fighting against two of the most expensive teams in the world with Real Madrid and Barcelona, and he was able to win La Liga and get to the Champions League final twice. I think this is fantastic.
SS: What team did you support growing up?
SS: Who was your favourite Benfica player?
NP: Valdo Filho is my favourite. We’ve had some great players. Nuno Gomes, Rui Costa. You have Bernando Silva who plays now with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. You have Andre Gomes who plays at Barcelona. You have Renato Sanches in Bayern. Some of these players I was lucky to coach when I was there so it is fantastic to see them now in the best teams in the world.
SS: The Fury FC fans seem willing to be patient with the process because they have an understanding that it will take some time to lay the foundation to build upon and for the players to adapt to the style of soccer you want to play. What’s your message to the Fury fan base?
NP: I think it’s the same message as the one I give to the players. This type of model requires a lot of patience; patience with the ball. Finding the right pass, making the best decision when carrying the ball. Understanding what passes are risk passes and which passes are safe, and knowing when to take the risk and when to play it safe. It’s all about patience and I would say it’s the same for the fans. If you want to see this type of soccer you will have to have patience to wait because this type of system takes some time to be implemented. However, it all comes back to the core value of belief. We have to believe. We have to put the team’s ambitions above personal ones. We have to play for the team. Sometimes making a simple pass is better than making a dribble. The fans are of huge importance to us. In the home stadium with their support, it will be like having an extra player on the field and this will be very, very good for us.
Thank you to Ottawa Fury FC coach Nikola Popovic for opening your heart to the Fury FC fans.