The Basque gatekeeper

When we launched the polls about J2 League and the 2019 Regista Awards, we expected a good return in votes, but not an invasion. Apparently Avispa fans gathered around the account to express their favor and support to their goalkeeper, Jon Ander Serantes, who collected a nomination both in the “MVP Award” and the “Best Goalkeeper” one, ending up to winning both.

Someone would say there was a clear violation, just like it happened with Formula 1 when Rio Haryanto – you remember him, right? – won the “Driver of the Day” award in Melbourne, at the opening round of 2016 season. It was later disqualified from that poll, but we won’t do that. We recognize that polls have been “hacked”, but this gives a perfect chance to tell an important story.

Time ago, we talked about the importance of spending less to get the right players on the market, avoiding the temptation of throwing DAZN-money to some famous, but washed up player. Japanese football doesn’t work like in China: spending more doesn’t give you better chances of winning (ask Vissel Kobe). In J2, this concept becomes even more important: Avispa got it right this season, at least on the pitch.

Where he comes from

Born and raised in Barakaldo – where he moved his first steps in professional football –, Serantes played also for the B-squad of Athletic Club, Lugo and mostly Leganés, where he found the right environment to emerge. Under manager Asier Garitano, the keeper was fundamental to create a good core at the club. The same who brought LaLiga games in the city after 87 years of life.

It was an historic promotion and Leganés kept their spot in the first tier until now. This year it’s gonna be difficult, but Serantes was long gone months ahead. He never found back his way to the starter spot after a tough injury in November 2016, when he was at the peak of his form: he was even awarded as “Player of the Month” in August, following an impressive debut in the top division.

It took him more than 500 days to play again with Leganés and the change of coach didn’ improve his situation. When he realized the club had picked different options from him for the keeper position (Cuéllar and Lunin were ahead in the picking order), Serantes took the courage of making a tough choice: quitting the club who gave him a real chance at the best of Spanish football.

It was a tough decision, but it took Serantes few days to understand he was satisfied with the option of pursuing a career abroad. He chose Avispa Fukuoka to start fresh and he was impressed immediately by the clash with the new cultural world, where everyone seemed more at ease with football and its life. And if Avispa’s gamble on the bench didn’t work (Pecchia left in June after a streak of bad results), the Spanish keeper couldn’t complain.

MVP on the pitch

Polls were indeed hacked, but where Avispa would be without Serantes on goal? It’s a question we often asked ourselves in 2019, because he was instrumental to get some crucial points. Fukuoka fans were certain of playing another J2 season only on Matchday 41, which is insane for a side who missed playoffs by an inch in 2018 and was probably tipped for another kind of season in this year.

And you have to remind yourselves something essential: Avispa needed a solid player in goal. After the departure of Kosuke Nakamura (who spit fire with Fukuoka for six months in 2015, before going back to Kashiwa Reysol), the club hasn’t found the right interpreter between the sticks for three years.

Lee Byom-yeong didn’t work out; Ryuichi Kamiyama is an absolute legend in Fukuoka, but he didn’t seem cut for the role; Akishige Kaneda didn’t leave any mark; Kentaro Kakoi left a decent impression, but he wasn’t retained at the end of 2018 season (only to end up playing J3-football for Cerezo Osaka U-23); Rikihiro Sugiyama was an embarrassment with S-Pulse, let alone in Fukuoka.

WTF is this?

That’s why Serantes came into the picture in the first place. His performances on the pitch have been outstanding: you can think of about 4-5 super-saves during this season. In Yamaguchi against Renofa, at home against Zweigen Kanazawa and most of all the notorious intervention against Ehime FC. THE SAVE OF THE SEASON, in all three divisions, without any doubt.

Serantes certainly enjoyed the change of life in this new adventure and this mood around his Japanese experience probably values even more after the kind of season Avispa got through, flirting with relegation and definitely underachieving on the pitch.

A new hero on the cards?

There are some questions that have to be made. Where Serantes could go after this? Just like Jordy Buijs made the leap from Tokushima Vortis to Kyoto Sanga FC, the “Basque gatekeeper” – nice nickname we’ve just made up – could look out for other options. At the time we’re writing this, though, no news about him leaving Fukuoka. And why should he? He’s living the life in Kyushu, even mastering his SNS accounts in Japanese.

Another question might revolve around what Avispa could give him. The Fukuoka-based club has definitely the need to step up their game, because 2019 was a disappointing season and there can’t be another year like this one. Avispa have become a “elevator-club” in Japanese football, so another run at J1 is on the cards, unless something catastrophic happens even in 2020.

Last but not least, we often talked about the influence of Spain in the current times of J. League. Non-followers tend to quote Iniesta, Villa, Torres or Sergi Samper. We think instead stories like the ones of Lotina, Rodríguez, Victor and Sisinio create more passion around this league, building curiosity and a real legacy about what’s gonna come in the next future.

It’s a nice story to witness and it’s the best message you could send to a Japanese football  aficionado – whether it’s a fan or a player who has featured there –, since Serantes himself knows this year will stay with him for life:

“I missed an experience like this – he said to “Migrantes del Balón”, in a long interview –. Football here is lived with much more easiness, although I got an award ahead of Hisashi Jogo [Mr. Avispa himself]. Team-mates told me if fans were picking me ahead of him, that’s massive”.

Just like his story of redemption through Japanese football.

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