AFC - After a managerial career that took him to five different Asian countries, Portuguese coach Antonio Oliveira, better known as Toni, reflects on great times at Tractorsazi Tabriz and playing in the AFC Champions League.
Tractorsazi had achieved their highest-ever finish in the Iran Pro League in the 2011-12 season, ending the campaign as runners-up, a single point behind champions Sepahan, which meant the club would be making their AFC Champions League debut the following season.
An experienced coach was needed to help the club navigate this new territory, and with past experiences in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and China PR, Toni was the chosen one for the challenge. The Portuguese remembers his first encounter with Tractorsazi players.
“I remember my first day; I told the players that being there was a challenge for me,” the 71-year-old told the-AFC.com.
“I explained to them that I want to bring my experience as a coach and as a player, to help them become not only better players, but better men too. I always give 100 percent to be engaged with the players.”
Tractorsazi’s AFC Champions League debut was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 70,000 fans filled the Sahand Stadium in Tabriz as Toni’s men recorded an impressive 3-1 victory over UAE side Al Jazira.
Although they could not win any of their next five games, eventually finishing bottom of the group, Toni still has fond memories of playing in Asia’s top club competition.
“Playing in the AFC Champions League is one of the greatest experiences in my life; to travel around the continent, meet coaches and new people, to see people of different cultures and beliefs. It was amazing.”
Under the guidance of Toni, Tractorsazi went on to lift their first, and to date only, Hazfi Cup title in 2014, while also matching their runner-up finish in the league. The club were transformed into AFC Champions League perennials, only missing out on one edition of the competition in the past six years.
Success brought along adoration for Toni, who soon grew into a fan favourite in Tabriz, having transformed the team’s home ground at Sahand Stadium to a fortress.
“The players and fans at Tabriz don’t consider me just a coach, I was considered one of them. I can never forget my time in Tabriz or the fans. When I walked into the stadium in Tabriz, I would hear the fans cheering my name. We rarely lost there, and it was fantastic for us.
In his four years at the club, Toni coached many of Iranian footballs biggest names, but three names stood out for the Portuguese.
“Ali Karimi was one of Iran’s best players of all times. I remember whenever we travelled abroad, I saw the appreciation fans had for him. He was such a big name across Asia.
“Andranik Teymourian was a great player too, very talented and I enjoyed working with him. Also an important player for Tractorsazi was Mehdi Kiani. He was a player who loved Tractorsazi and the fans loved him back. He was always great for us.”
After a 35-year journey that took him across Asia, from China PR to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and IR Iran. Toni can now be found in the Kuwaiti League, trying to turn the fortunes of historic club Kazma who have last won the league in 1997 and now sit sixth in the table.
“I have had good times managing in China and in the Middle East. Kuwait is a nice country and a new experience for me. I try to bring my expertise as a player and coach to help the players improve. I am here with the same spirit I was in Iran, China and everywhere else.”
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