You would expect Franky Vercauteren to feel reticent when he heads back to Abu Dhabi. But you’d be wrong.
‘The Little Prince’ – a nickname earned as a gifted, left-footed winger for Belgium – was mystifyingly sacked by chronically-impatient Al Jazira in March 2012 after just seven months in charge, despite the club sitting second in the UAE Pro League.
Yet, his latest trip to the capital as head coach of Russian Football Premier League returnees Krylia Sovetov Samara has been made without any bad feeling. He is more than happy to undergo a crucial pre-season here, not held back by past experiences.
Sport360 caught up with the engaging 59-year-old to discuss hopes for the new campaign, memories of a short stay at Jazira and his nation’s “obligation” to taste glory at Euro 2016.
You are back in Abu Dhabi ahead of a big season for Krylia Sovetov Samara back in the Russian Football Premier League. How are preparations going?
We had to discover the second division (he won promotion at the first time of asking in 2014/15) and now we face the first division.
The main question is how are the players going to adapt, as we haven’t changed a lot. Are they going to be able to do the step up and where can we bring them to?
The board have asked us to finish between 8-10th by the end of the season.
Most of the players were previously in the Premier League, but not really involved at clubs like Lokomotiv Moscow. They have some experience, but they are not so sure and still have a lot of questions.
How do you look back on your time at Al Jazira?
It was too short (laughing). I was very happy to work here, I was feeling good.
The only thing was it was seven months. Not bad months, meaning we were second in the league and in the semi-final of both cups.
Even in my last game as coach (a 4-2 win against Nasaf in the 2012 AFC Champions League), the first half wasn’t good but we changed a few things and the players responded immediately and we won.
The players, the challenge and introducing younger ones who later became internationals (such as Ali Mabkhout and Khamis Esmail), it was always a positive thing.
Forward Ali Mabkhout has gone on to be top scorer at the 2015 Asian Cup. What are your memories of working with him?
He has a special talent in that he always scores. Sometimes you were not very happy with his game, as at that moment he was still developing.
He was rather closed in his communication. But even when you were wondering where he was in a game, he had that capacity which not a lot of UAE players have which is to score.
He didn’t show enough ambition and emotions then. He was somebody who was introduced as an interesting player for Al Jazira and the UAE.
What was the big challenge for you at Al Jazira?
For me, there were two kinds of players – the older and younger generations.
We had a lot of older ones, as you need them. But there was a big difference between Khamis (Esmail) and Ali (Mabkhout) and the others, such as (now Al Ain midfielder) Ibrahim Diaky.
There was a lot of interesting potential.
You are one of eight coaches hired by Al Jazira since summer 2011. Do you think the club need to start showing patience?
Normally, that is what every coach hopes. I understand – which is different to accepting – sometimes you cannot do that, as some situations do not work with one coach.
You can make a bad choice, it can happen. On the other side, since I am gone (from Jazira) we are always laughing, ‘again another coach, again another coach, again another coach’.
It is part of our job. Normally, there should be more stability at all levels.
At your previous job at Genk, you introduced Thibaut Courtois and Kevin De Bruyne to regular first-team football. How have you seen their development into global superstars?
I had them when they were just starting. It was not difficult to see Courtois had talent, it was not a risk with his talent.
When I began in Genk, I had a lot of complaints about De Bruyne’s difficult character. But I prefer someone with character, than without.
I could not say they’d go this far then. I said to them both their places were no longer in Belgium (at the end of 2010/11).
You never knew it was going to be Chelsea or Manchester City.
Do you think Euro 2016 is the perfect time for Belgium to turn their talent into trophies?
It is a good generation, the best we’ve ever had. But we’ve won nothing. For me, at Euro 2016 and World Cup 2018, there is an obligation to win something.
To win also means for me if you lose in the final of the World Cup. Quarter-final is nothing special. You can only be happy with that if a team beats you who are proved to be much better than you.
I see them only in one place. If I was the coach of this team, I would tell them it will not be easy but they have the potential to win things.
You were a winger in your career. Eden Hazard is the big star of the current Belgium team. How do you judge him?
I am not happy with him. He has to prove in Euro 2016 he is really a big player.
If he wants to be Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, he has to be a star in the national team.
He has to be hungry in what I call the big games. Everyone expects Hazard to make the difference in the semi-finals and finals.
He hasn’t got much to prove, but this something for me is the most difficult step. Just make the difference.
It is a small step, but a big step to show he is what everybody says he is. He needs this little thing.
Are you worried about the fitness of Manchester City centre-back Vincent Kompany?
I have known Kompany very well since he was 15.
He’s always had a lot of injuries and he started very young. He needs to be completely fit to get to his level.
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