Future days

There has been a constant question in the last years when it comes down to Asian football: which is the right way to bridge the gap compared to Europe and South America? Both those continents looked far away in terms of competitiveness, but in the last decade the gap – especially from South America – looks slimmer and, with the right plan, it might be possible to overcome the historical fútbol.

But you have to wonder which is the right path to do so. Do you have patience and momentum or, like it’s happening to China right now, you seem to have run out of both of them? Do you have solid and strong basis in your professional leagues or, like Qatar, you mostly have a really good academy (the Aspire), but the less appears weaker? No, you probably feel that Japan’s way might be the most appropriate in this scenario.

Alongside the promotion of the championship and an international journey started one year ago with a resounding branding project around the world, you also need a footballing philosophy to be associated with. And this is where Spanish football appared the right match: sure, there are deals between LaLiga and Japan, just like they’re players featuring in their first division, but it’s not about that.

The “Spanish Wave” was already mentioned by the excellent Stuart Smith on these pages four years ago. With several Spanish-speaking manager around – Lotina, Rodríguez, Esnaider –, it seemed the process was just starting, but we also needed to understand how many of them would have coped with this challenge. Well, Lotina is now at S-Pulse and Rodríguez just achieved his personal promotion, landing the Urawa Reds’ main job.

Nevertheless, among the seven Spanish head coaches in the first four tiers, there’s one that might have gone underrated, despite his pure passion for football (a true fan of RCD Espanyol, a team for which he worked 13 years as a coach, from the youth ranks to the reserves squad). He’s now associated with FC Imabari and surely he’s looking towards the second season at the helm of the club.

The reason why we know that it’s because we had a chat with Lluís Planagumà Ramos, the current manager of the Ehime-based club. He’s another product of this wave and he’s looking to build his project in Imabari, accordingly with the guidelines from the club. We talked with him in mid-January, while he was preparing the 2021 season in these hectic times due to the COVID-restrictions.

Spain and Japan: so close, so far away

As we mentioned before, the career of Planagumà has mostly revolved around Spain. Espanyol has been the team of his heart, but the coach had other gigs in the country, working with Villarreal, Murcia and Granada (for which he was even the caretaker for one game in LaLiga). After the end of his last experience – in Segunda División B with Hércules –, we asked him why he picked Japan as a possible destination.

“I never thought about the possibility of working outside of Spain, because I always had good projects there. After ten consecutive seasons working in Segunda División B and even featuring in the first division (La Liga), the possibility of signing with FC Imabari materialized itself. In my career, I have chosen difficult and ambitious projects. FC Imabari is one of them.”

In fact, his arrival in Japan was claimed as official only on January 9th, 2020, after the club got promoted from JFL through the work of Takeshi Ono. And the move from Europe to Asia could have been harder to digest in Planagumà’s mind, given how different the history and the facilities are between even a third tier Spanish club and a Japanese club playing in the same level of a way younger football movement.

“Each country has its positive characteristics and things that can be improved. My challenge as a coach is to adapt and get the players to improve, while the team also win games. In my opinion, the best difference is decision-making during the matches: in Japan, I’ve witnessed how players are very disciplined and they display themselves in very good conditions.”

He probably realized very soon the difference, also because the Spanish coach has been in the business for more than two decades, despite the young age (he turned 40 last year). And it’s not always easy to match your idea of football and the reality of things, but when I asked Planagumà more about his role models, he told me that taking something from everyone you met throughout your career is the key.

“I started as a coach 25 years ago. I have seen and listened to many coaches over the years and I had learned something from each of them. Sometimes we just want to learn from the top head coaches or the best in our profession, but we can learn from all kinds of coaches, from the ones working in the clubs’ academies to non-professional coaches.”

Imabari, a unique case in Japan

The wait was even bigger because Planagumà signed for a team which is somehow unique in Japanese football. Way before their arrival in the pro-world, the lights were already focused on the project that was coming together in Imabari. This city in the Ehime Prefecture – population of around 170,000 people – saw their club mostly serving as an Ehime’s B-team.

In fact, throughout their time in the Shikoku Soccer League, the squad was a branch of the more famous club in the Prefecture. This kept happening until 2012, when they were renamed “FC Imabari”; shortly after, in 2014, Takeshi Okada – former Japan national team head coach, twice – bought the club to start a new path. Among the staff taking care of operations there, you even had Takeshi Oki, now coaching Roasso Kumamoto.

We have already told their story in great detail here, but basically Imabari reached JFL in 2017 and waited three years to make another step. They came close twice, but the third time was the lucky one, ending third in the table and granting themselves the access to J3 League for 2020. With all these premises, there were a lot of expectations, but the COVID-outbreak probably helped playing those down.

The Spanish head coach had more time to prepare a season that then revealed itself as a solid maiden appearance on the pro-stage. In their first year, Imabari ended seventh on the table, not so far away from promotion zone in a season where Blaublitz Akita basically stole the show (and yet, Imabari defeated them away with a 3-1 victory). I had to ask Planagumà if he liked this first approach with Japanese football.

“First of all, thanks for your words about our club and the team. I have to say I’m satisfied with this season: we have been in the top positions all year long and we had some chances to get promoted down to the finish line. We have improved during the season. FC Imabari were a new team in the third division and we have learned that this league is different from JFL.”

Maybe it’s easy to say now, but I’ve also asked him if he would have changed in the hindsight: “We have scored few goals, although we have created many chances. We have an offensive brand of football we’re working on, but we have failed a lot. I want to push FC Imabari to improve last season’s results.”

New reality, old ambitions

We can’t deny we were also interested in another dimension, not strictly tied to the field. Many foreigners have to adapt to a different culture: if Japan and Spain look closer and closer than ever on the pitch, it might be otherwise outside. At his second year in Imabari – located in a small Prefecture, compared to life in the Kantō or Kansai area –, we wondered if the Spanish manager was getting used to the reality of every day’s life.

“If I have to be honest, I’ve adapted to Imabari and I‘m very happy to be here after a year. Imabari, Ehime and Shikoku are very different to the places you mentioned, obviously. And I’m from Barcelona, which is a very big city… but Imabari has charm. Furthermore, the staff of the club and the players have helped me a lot to adapt.”

June 30th, 2020: the first pro-game ever by FC Imabari. A good point and a clean sheet in Gifu.

And if living in Imabari is nice and quiet, the ambitions of the club are pointing towards a bright future. There’s the idea of taking over the Prefecture already in this season, with Imabari that might be in the run for promotion and Ehime FC struggling a lot in J2, in a year when four relegations will be on the line for the second division. We might not even get a “Ehime derby”, in the end.

It’s early to tell, but we tried to ask Planagumà what he envisions for himself and his team in 2021. Imabari have lost Masamichi Hayashi, who joined Montedio Yamagata. And if this is a big loss in J3, the club did its job in reinforcing the midfielders’ department: Takuya Shimamura, Tasuku Hiraoka and most of all Koichi Miyao are excellent additions. If some elements will confirm their development, Imabari might get promoted.

Just think about some excellent members of the team: Shungo Tamashiro is at the peak of his career, Wataru Harada endured a solid first J3 season, Jung Han-cheol blossomed after a couple of pro-years and Léo Mineiro might be a bargain after some games with the club in 2020. With these chips on the table, it’s not a madness to account Imabari a possible promotion candidate. The manager, though, has one main goal in mind:

“We want to improve the results from last season. About the change in the roster, I think it’s normal what happened: we lost great players, but we’ll sign other players to achieve our goals. We want to improve our brand of football and win many matches to get back in the top positions again.

In 2021 many clubs are strengthening themselves with very expensive seals, but we believe in our way of developing the game and the hard work of our players. We’ll try to be competitive with humility and sacrifice. With this recipe, we’ll try to get the promotion, but it’ll not be easy”.

There’s no doubt J3 League will be interesting to watch. Unless like last year, it might get harder to have a clear favorite, also given how only 28 games will be played by each team. The field of favorites looks crowded, but FC Imabari are there to battle. And with Lluís Planagumà at their helm, this “Spanish Wave” could do another step ahead in developing the football culture of an entire country.

We can’t thank enough Lluís: we were truly happy to have a chat with him about his time in Imabari and the future plans involving him. We wish him and his squad the best for what it’ll definitely be a tough 2021 season: you can even follow him here on Twitter. Mucha suerte y buen trabajo a él.

Instead, JLR is back next week with another travel around the world.

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