The Masterplan

Japanese football is evolving, but we can grow only when we meet something that doesn’t belong to our daily lives. In this case, the J. League is experiencing the influence of many styles and especially from the Spanish world. But it’s not anymore confined to the main leagues, because this push has reached even the lower levels of the football ladder, influencing even JFL clubs.

We had already talked about the work of Milagros Martínez Domínguez, who has been coaching Suzuka Point Getters: this will her third year at the helm of the club and they might also have some promotion chances, since they recently obtained the “100 Year Plan” status. After coming fifth in 2020, the work of the Spanish head coach brought results and some other clubs in the league have decided to take this leap.

We’ve been expecting Nara Club from a long time. Promoted to JFL in 2014, the club was tipped to soon reach the professional world. Unfortunately, results have gone in a different direction: the highest place reached in this six years-stint in the fourth level of Japanese football was seventh. They made some bold choices – in 2020, the head coach was GM Maiki Hayashi, class ’94 and now working at Urawa Red Diamonds –, but it wasn’t enough.

They needed a new profile to reboot their ambitions: that’s Julián Marín Bazalo, who lastly worked with Göteborg in Sweden and who has already some experiences both in Japan and Asian football under his belt. We had a chat with him in January, when he was still blocked in Barcelona, preparing the season with his staff through Zoom. The same tool we used for this interview.

Bazalo is currently still in Barcelona, since the travel ban for foreigners in Japan has been strict upon them. Tomorrow the 2021 Japan Football League will start, with Nara Club expected to debut away by facing JFL regulars MIO Biwako Shiga. This interview unlocked the whole universe behind the project in Nara, so we hope you’ll enjoy this read like we had pleasure in interviewing the Spanish head coach.

If I have to start somewhere, I’d like to ask you first of all something about your experience. I’m amazed by your story, because you started from Futbol Club Sant Cugat Esport, a little club in Catalunya and you got into coaching when you were 15 years-old, going through many experiences. Why you chose Japan as your first country to be a head coach? Although, if I’m not mistaken, for you it’s a return.

“Actually, I have been the head coach in Thailand with the U-23 team, but in a professional level it was my first experience as a head coach. Before I’ve been the head coach for youth academies, but it’s true that it’ll be my debut as a head coach in a club. In Thailand, it was a bit different with the U-23, it was a national team and you got only the international break to work with the players, so it’s tricky how you organize the season and approach the competition. Now I’ll face my first experience in a senior team, and that will be diverse.”

You’ve been really involved with the “Ekkono Method”, which has been originally developed by Carles Romagosa and David Hernandez and promoted by the Soccer Services Barcelona. Could you explain to our readers what’s about this method? And do you think Japanese football might be the right footballing movement where to make some experiments?

As for Japan, “Ekkono Method” has developed in several projects throughout the country and I have been involved in Tokyo. I didn’t get the chance of going around Japan when I was the manager of this project, but I know the country and the culture. For example, the method has been successful in Niigata, where Oscar Rodriguez (Methodology Director at Albirex) is one of the men in charge of developing this method.

We have developed many good teams, as well in the academy in Yamanashi, the project in Tokyo and in Osaka: Soccer Services have worked with Japanese football for a long time and I think we got quite the expertise to work within this environment, so I think this could be helpful for Nara Club. We’re talking about the first team, but this is a project for the club in its entirety.

The president of the club, Mitsuru Hamada, made this ambitious decision of bringing in the Ekkono Method. It’s true we’re working in Niigata with the methodology department, but here we’ll work directly with the first team, so it’ll be a strong project for us. Maybe not in the first season, because it takes time, but I’m sure that in the medium-term – let’s say in three-four years – it will be something that will benefit the club.

With the Ekkono Method – especially the identity part of the project, so how we approach to clubs by helping them solidify their identity and how to apply this method to all parts of the club –, I think it could be proposed in many cultures. It has been applied in Chile, in Finland, in Thailand and in Japan: every country has its own characteristics, but there are some processes who could be helpful everywhere.

Of course, Japanese players and the clubs have this culture of being hard-working, so this helps in completing this transition in a shorter term, but that’s not the only positive trait. In terms of fitness, the players are solid, taking care of health and food; the nutritionist is always there, so there’s a lot of things within Japanese football that are helpful for the coaches.

Furthermore, Japanese football has risen fast: I don’t remember how old the J. League is, but they’re always in the World Cup. I can’t remember a World Cup without the Japanese national team, so they’re making immense progresses and competing in the World Cup: this means the coaches their way of working in football is quite good not just for our method, but for every method.”

You mentioned why you chose Nara as your next destination. And I think personally that they need somehow a turnaround, because the Prefecture has been tipped over the years to join the pro-world, but the results haven’t been there, despite the club took courageous decisions over the years (last year the head coach was Maiki Hayashi). What did you find in Nara that attracted you as a gig to be the manager?

There are two things to consider here. On one side, they wanted me there because of the good relationship we built with the owner of the club, I know him from the times I was working in Tokyo, so I experienced how well Hamada-san works to achieve goals. This isn’t just about getting promoted, but also how he manages the project and takes care of many sides of it. I’m sure that in the future – with the work of Hamada-san, Soccer Services and the Ekkono Method –, the club will grow.

The second reason to join the club is the experience of living in Nara: I’ve been there a couple of times at least and it’s an amazing city. And that’s what me and my wife we’re expecting from a city: even if it’s a little smaller compared to other cities, you got everything you need. It’s a place where there’s a huge history and Nara used to be one of the capitals in Japan: the temples, the bamboo, the parks, all looks pretty nice… why say not? It’s about the football project, but it’s also about the life project.

Given also the current situation around the COVID-19 pandemic, you’re still in Barcelona, but did you feel Japan was also a good choice in terms of quality of life? And how will it be to settle again in the Land of the Rising Sun?

Being in Japan is quite difficult because of the language: I tried to learn it while I was there, but it’s difficult for us. It’s different and you need to study a lot, but with the work and everything related to it, it was hard to find a good moment… but I’m trying my best to learn Japanese. This is a wall between us and the people there, so we should try to speak the language, we should try to learn it.

Nevertheless, it’s a nice country to experience, because everyone is so respectful, trying to help you and they’re super polite. It’s one of those cultures where you want to learn from them. I’m always saying my Spanish friends: “We should learn from them”, because everything would be easier, for Spain and European countries. This kind of environment makes all easier in order to live and work there.

Last but not least, maybe it’s early to think about the goals for 2021, but it seems clear to me that Nara Club must improve their results. As you said, you’re in Japan to build a philosophy that will resist the test of time, but do you share that concern in terms of results? Or for now the main goal for the club must be build a philosophy above all?

When you’re in professional football, you have the pressure of results, to win every Sunday, to challenge yourself in order to win the matches… but I don’t see any Japanese club needing a Spanish head coach or a Spanish method to do this. I don’t know if foreign coaches have been recruited in JFL to make the leap to J. League: they could sign a Japanese coach [to get promoted], but they know it’s not about what to do, but how to do this.

This year will be more about the style of playing, the joy for the fans to come and watch us, but as well for the players improving in terms of quality, so I think the vision is why I’m here. If someone is expecting for me to come there and win the league and getting promoted… well, it might happen, but when fans come to our matches, they should expect something new in terms of our brand of play.

If I’m going there and we’re not performing – like in the positional game style and holding the ball as much as possible, pressing as high as possible, being a good offensive team while defending solidly as well by pressing – then I would complain with myself.  That’s something we have to develop as well, the methodology in training: just think that this year we had to bring in 17 players.

In a club where you have to change a lot of players every year, it means that every year you have to start from almost from scratch. We must improve the scouting process: the past three months, analyzing JFL, J3 and J2 – we brought in several players from J3 and J2 – was a good point to start from. The better the players we have, the closer will be to getting promoted to the J. League.

Of course, this isn’t something to complete in three months: if we’ll be close to the promotion zone in the beginning of the season, it means we’ve done our job, but I don’t think in three months you can change everything: first you need to bring in the players, then you need to work with them. We have to analyze how we perform in the upcoming matches and the results will come sooner or later.

Yes, also because JFL isn’t easy as much as someone would like to think. The further you go down the Japanese football ladder, the harder it gets to achieve results, even when you’re tipped to be the favorite.

In 2020, Nara Club were playing better at the end of the season, without the pressure of being promoted, than before. At the beginning, it seemed impossible for them to hold the ball, then they recovered it and they lost it again without stability. It felt like some players, with good qualities, were broken, because they were trying to get promoted before playing well.  The first thing you have to do is playing well, because everything will come after.

When they were too far away in terms of points to get promoted, then they started playing well. Of course, now we have players like Yusuke Kaneko, who won the league with Verspah Oita, and we brought in players from Imabari: they got promoted two years ago, so they have experience about the pressure at this level. If we’re thinking only about the promotion and the media are talking about it: we have first to play better.

We can’t thank enough Julián for the time he has given us with this interview. We understand how difficult it might be to arrange a pre-season preparation by being more than 10,000 kilometers away from your workplace. His rookie season in Japan will be made of 32 games in JFL, two Spanish derbies and a journey with a clear goal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram. And enjoy JFL, it’s a national treasure for Japanese football!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s