La aventura manchega

Which image comes to your mind when you think of Japan? Tokyo and its great, almost immense spaces? Osaka and its fascinating life? Kyoto or Nara, with either the ancient vibe of the country or the idyllic encounter with some deers? Or even Sapporo and the magnificent view of Hokkaido? Yes, but also no. Japan is made of many realities and there are prefectures or zones that don’t even come close to the conversation.

One of those might be Mie Prefecture. If we think about Mie – a zone with just 1,7 million of people –, personally we immediately think of the Suzuka Circuit, where Formula 1 has held many Grand Prix from the 80s. Its misfortune, though, is to border with Aichi and Kyoto prefectures, two other renowned zones in Japan. It seems that the same script could be followed in football.

Just in 2017, Veertien Mie reached Japan Football League and they might be on the run for a possible promotion this season (their Winter transfer market window was promising). But if Kuwana and Yokkaichi are home to this project, in Suzuka another reality rose through the ranks. It changed its denomination several times, but it seems that Suzuka Point Getters are here to stay.

In 2019, the club got promoted and they retained their JFL status with several games to play, with Efrain Rintaro – their Brazilian striker – achieving the top-scorer title with 18 goals. Behind this successful maiden campaign – closed in thirteenth position, with more goals scored than FC Imabari – lies a new manager, who came all the way across Europe to coach this team.

Just like Mie is a relatively small place in Japan, the protagonist of this piece comes from Spain and particularly from a region not ranked so high in the consideration of foreigners when they think about the Iberic country. Fuentelespino de Haro is a tiny municipality in the Province of Cuenca, belonging to Castilla–La Mancha, the region where the pen and the genius of Miguel de Cervantes opted to imagine his renowned “Don Quixote”.

Even if the region was originally created to separate this from the Community of Madrid (too much disparity in population density), while also adding Albacete to the region, this proud land managed to promote itself through the words of de Cervantes and their amazing food. In the same way, Milagros Martínez Domínguez proudly found her way through the frantic world of football.

A fun bunch in the training session.

Class ’85, the manager started as a player in the Segunda División Femenina, in a time where things were even harder than now for Spanish women’s player, way before the huge success the national team draw in the last years. At 22 years old, she became a coach, working mostly for the women’s team of Albacete. She was a key-member for Fundación Albacete, staying there for 12 years in several roles.

Just like she mentioned in many other Spanish interviews before, it was a struggle. Despite the recent rise of Spanish women’s football in the country, making it wasn’t granted at all. The Spanish manager told it herself to “Newtral” in December 2019:

“I fought my way to the top, but this proposal from Japan was too good to refuse, despite being 10,000 kilometers away from home. I never managed a men’s side and it was a dream for me. Women in football put their heart and soul in this work, but it’s tough to get certain opportunities. In Japan, I’ve been appreciated from day one; I’ve even gained confidence about what I could bring to the table for this club”.

All this information was intriguing for us at J. League Regista: a recently promoted team, a maiden season with a new manager, coming from a different world and continent. And that’s why we wrote to her and we were lucky enough to get an interview. So, sit down and enjoy this chat, which will definitely fit in this moment, given that Suzuka Point Getters will start their season on Sunday away at MIO Biwako Shiga.

Disclaimer: this interview was conducted through email way back, in March. Some passages might look out of time because of this, but we couldn’t wait anyway to share these words with the kind fans of Japanese football and especially the ones of the lower leagues, who are looking for the most interesting stories about the development of this unique football movement.

  • Spain has represented a solid hub for Japanese football in the last years, both on and off pitch. How did you have this opportunity and why you opted to accept the move to the Far East?

In recent times, Japanese and Spanish football are very close. Not only in men’s soccer, since there are also several Japanese players in Spain. This opportunity arose a year ago, when the club was looking for a female coach. My dream was to be able to train in another country and I think Japan is perfect for this.

And you can see how well she adapted to Japan: here a small clip where she announced in Japanese that she was going to stay for 2020 as manager of the club.
  • Suzuka Unlimited tried several times to reach JFL, but in 2019 they were facing their first season-ever in the fourth tier. Someone could think that going down through the ladder of Japanese football, it’s easier for debutant clubs to surprise everyone, but you had the top-scorer of the championship (Efrain Rintaro) and you defeated all the Top 3 teams at home. How do you value your first year at the helm of the team?

The fourth division is a very close league. There are great players and teams that play very well. For us it has been a difficult season, but very exciting. We also have players who make a difference, and one of them is Efrain Rintaro. winning the first three classified shows that we have worked well and that the players have understood everything we have asked them from the staff.

  • Japan hasn’t been the easiest country in dealing with equality issues between men and women, since gender equality has been a solid concern. In sports, this gap might also feel bigger than in other sectors. Did you feel some resistance at your arrival in Suzuka or adapting to both life and the standard of Japanese football was a quiet process?

It was an easy process for me. I was very excited to live this experience. The club and the staff helped me a lot. I think some players doubted at the beginning of me, but it is part of my job to earn their trust. I think the players now respect me a lot because I have shown them in the field that they can trust me. I like to be close with them and listen to their opinions about football, life in Japan, etc.

  • Meanwhile sometimes it might not be easy, living in Japan can also be a life-changing experience. Yet, when we think of the Land of the Rising Sun, we might often picture Tokyo or to the Kansai area (Osaka, Kobe, etc.). How it was instead to experience Japan through a different Prefecture like Mie? Did you enjoy your time there during the first season?

I love Mie-ken, I like small cities. Kyoto, Osaka, Nara and Nagoya are close, so whenever I can, I visit those places. I am very happy to have come to Japan: here you can find wonderful people. I have learned a lot from them and I think that I am now a better coach and person. Japan changes your life.

  • Suzuka Unlimited changed name (becoming Suzuka Point Getters), they will have to face another tough year in JFL and near rivals Veertien Mie have heavily invested on the market trying to raise their profile. Which kind of season you expect for your team in this second year in Japan? Avoiding relegation to Regional Series remains the main target for 2020 or do you hope to go further than the 12th place of 2019?

We know that our rivals have improved their rosters. Last year there was a balanced contest in the category and I think this year it will be similar. I think our goal should be to improve last year’s position, but in this pre-season we’ve focused on working to be a more complete, united team, capable of fighting against any rival. We want our fans to be proud of us and to enjoy the team game.

New season, new desires.

Just like for other divisions, 2020 season will be particular as well for Japan Football League. The fourth division will be even more intriguing, since the rollercoaster called Iwaki FC will certainly represent a challenge for every opponent, Honda FC will always be the favorite to win it all and many clubs could try to get some spotlight in a shorter season than usual (only the second round of games will take place, so only 15 matchdays will take place).

In this scenario, the approach of Milagros Martínez Domínguez is certainly useful for Suzuka and for herself. Just like we’ve said when we interviewed other people, Japan seems a wonderful experience for whom are involved in football. The Spanish manager isn’t an exception in this and she’ll surely push her squad towards better results in 2020, looking to improve what she achieved in her maiden year.

She said recently in another Spanish interview, this time to “Marca”, about the recent COVID pandemic and the delay in the beginning of the season: “I have 14 new players and it felt like starting from scratch. Here players jump from university to the pro-world and it takes time to adapt, since our league is pretty competitive and you have to fight to get results done is such a balanced context”.

Resilience seems a common characteristic between Mie and Castilla–La Mancha, a trait that well defines the Spanish manager and who might be useful once again to Suzuka Point Getters in getting another good season. Only time will tell how well this small club will cope with this strange, but fascinating year.

The article is over, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop there. You can follow more closely her journey through Japan through her Twitter (@milamartinezdo) or her Instagram account. Surely there’s a whole community rooting for her, both in Spain and in Japan, two countries that are getting closer and closer with the passing of time in football.

¡Hasta pronto! for the next pieces coming on J. League Regista.

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