Testing times make ex-Barca star van Bronckhorst ‘a stronger person’

Shanghai (AFP) – Giovanni van Bronckhorst won the Champions League and captained his country to a World Cup final, but the Dutchman told AFP that he’s still learning — and never more so than during his coronavirus-hit start to life in China.

The 45-year-old took over at China’s Guangzhou R&F in early January, but what should have been an exciting new chapter in his fledgling coaching career was quickly turned upside down by the virus outbreak.

The Chinese Super League, which was supposed to kick off in February, was indefinitely postponed and the country largely shut down.

Van Bronckhorst, who as a player moved from Arsenal to Barcelona in 2003, spent time with his family back in Europe before returning to work. He has not seen them since.

“I haven’t seen my family since March 1, four-and-a-half months,” he told AFP in China by telephone ahead of the rescheduled CSL season, which will begin on July 25.

China, where coronavirus emerged late last year before spreading worldwide, closed its borders to most foreigners in late March because of fears over imported infections.

That means if he leaves the country, van Bronckhorst may not get back in. His family cannot come to China either.

“It’s really difficult. It’s something I have to deal with, it’s hard, but I’m coping well,” says the former Dutch international defender and midfielder.

Two weeks of quarantine, coupled with trying to coach a new team during seven months of uncertainty and upheaval, has tested van Bronckhorst as a person and manager.

Another challenge awaits, when the delayed season starts in the unprecedented conditions of a virus bubble.

The CSL’s 16 teams will be divided into two groups playing in two different cities. For the first two months, teams will be confined to a hotel except for training and matches.

“As a leader I’ve learnt to adjust to the situation and prepare the team, the planning, almost on a daily basis,” van Bronckhorst said. 

“(I needed to) find a new rhythm, especially when you are at home alone and cannot get out of home because of quarantine, and especially now the two months in a hotel.

“You need to be very structured and mentally very stable.

“For me I learnt that about myself — to be strong mentally because of being away from my family for so long.

“I think that has made me a stronger person.”

– Pep talks –

Van Bronckhorst won the 2006 Champions League with Barcelona along with Scottish, Spanish and English league titles before retiring as a player in 2010.

He spent four years as coach of his home club Feyenoord, delivering five trophies, and then spent an enlightening four months last year with the City Football Group.

That included precious time with Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola, a fellow Barcelona old boy.

Learning is again the watch-word.

“It was really helpful for me to develop as a coach and a leader,” said van Bronckhorst, who won more than 100 caps for the Netherlands.

“Of course, as a coach, I learnt a lot from the time with Pep and the first team.

“I (also) visited him when he was in Munich so of course I know his way of working.

“But you see that he’s also developing as a coach. He is a different coach compared to when he was at Bayern Munich.

“He also wants to develop every year, I think that’s also one of his strengths.”

– ‘Difficult, different’ –

Van Bronckhorst takes over a team containing the former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Mousa Dembele, but R&F are not one of China’s heavyweights.

They finished 12th last season in the CSL under Yugoslav legend Dragan Stojkovic and have a reputation for attacking football — but also for conceding too many goals.

In the truncated campaign the team will be based and play their matches in the northeastern city of Dalian, about 1,200 miles (1,900 km) from southern Guangzhou.

China’s footballing authorities are still struggling with how to arrange the competition after the first two months.

It means more uncertainty, but van Bronckhorst is looking forward to having some competitive football at last, even if games will be behind closed doors.

“It’s always difficult when you’re training without a specific goal,” he says.

“I am happy that we are now able to start so we can focus on the league.

“It’s going to be a difficult season and a different season as well.”

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