Al Shaab are known as the "Commandos". It is a reputation well earned through years of battle on the field, they have never been short in spirit and seldom lack in a fight. It is a trait the new coach Luka Berzovic would like to preserve, but he wants a bit more. Shaab have few medals to show for all their years bravado - just one President's Cup crown in 1993 and not a single league title.
"We have to keep our fighting spirit, but we also need to start playing more football," says the Belgian with a smile. And that's his primary focus as he leads Shaab into the thick of action in the Pro League, with a first-round clash at defending champions Al Shabab on Saturday. Berzovic makes no lofty promises of winning leagues and cups, nor does he boast of bringing the local giants to their knees. His pledges are simpler, yet endearing.
Berzovic has coached the Saudi Arabian clubs Al Ittihad and Al Ahli, and Qatar-based Al Sadd. "For me, it is important that we produce good, appealing football," says Berzovic, a member of the Yugoslavia national team in the 1970s. "I want my side to play a different class of football. "Results wise, if we finish one place higher, I will be happy." Shaab finished fifth last season, faltering after being in the hunt for the title.
They lost four of their last five matches, hurtling down the table. "I know that they started good, but had problems in the second half of the season," says Berzovic. "They had problems in getting results. If I can change that, I think we will be successful. "I cannot talk about the championship, first place or something like that, but we have to do better than last season." Shaab have brought in players that should help them improvetheir performances.
They have signed the Sierra Leone captain Mohammed Kallon, who was a member of an Inter Milan attack who boasted the Brazilian forward Ronaldo in his prime. He has also plied his trade at Monaco and helped the Saudi Arabia side Al Ittihad win the AFC Champions League in 2005, emerging as the tournament's top scorer. The young Moroccan Merouane Zemmama has arrived on a loan from the Scottish Premier League club Hibernia, while the Ghanaian striker Godwin Atram completes the triumvirate of foreign players. These three might not be in the same league as Jorge Luis Valdivia of Al Ain or Al Jazira's Rafael Sobis, but Berzovic believes they are the right men for his side.
"Zemmama is a quality player and he is going to bring us what we need. He is a very creative and crafty player, with a good pass. He is good at free kicks also," he says. "So I am confident Zemmama, Atram and Kallon will bring the quality we need in the side." Shaab lost one of their most influential Emirati players, Saif Mohammed, during the summer. Al Ain came in with a Dh10million offer and Shaab just could not turn it down.
"I saw a bit of him on DVD," says Berzovic. "He is playing for the national team and left for one of the biggest club in the country, Al Ain. "But I will not cry for him. I have to work with the players we have." Berzovic is happy with the squad at his disposal and the hard work they have put in. Due to the holy month of Ramadan, the former Bahrain national team coach has not been able to go full steam in training - but he warns it will get tougher once the season begins.
"I am happy to see the players accepting the hard work," he says. "It is different to what they did before and it will get harder for them. "But this is the first professional season and we have to increase our workload as the season begins." Berzovic has a one-year deal with Shaab and knows well the fickle nature of club administrators in football - but he does not fear being shown the door if he cannot mount a title challenge.
"I know my job and I will be trying to do my best," he says. "The best guarantees are seriousness and good work - and that is the only promise I can make for Al Shaab this season." firstname.lastname@example.org