Phoenix in Okinawa

Life is short and sometimes we tend to simplify events and legacies. There are some men, professionals, players remembered for just one moment: like in the cases of “zona Cesarini” or “Bosman ruling”, we defined a certain event or behavior based on a moment in history. The same could have happened to today’s protagonist.

Yasuhiro Higuchi was 52 years old in December 2013, when he was about to clinch the biggest achievement of his career back then. In all honesty, it’s the aim for many Japanese coaches in their careers: winning the J. League. At the time, he was managing Yokohama F. Marinos and the club was tantalizingly close to win the title after almost a decade. With four points of advantage and two games to go, it seemed done.

The whopping crowd of 62.632 at the Nissan Stadium was ready to celebrate. The opponents? Albirex Niigata, a solid side in 2013. Unfortunately, the home side tumbled and lost 2-0 in front of one of the biggest crowds in J. League’s history. Next week, Kanagawa derby: well, all it takes is a win against third-placed Kawasaki Frontale. And Sanfrecce Hiroshima are playing anyway away, against Kashima Antlers.

Catastrophe stroke instead: while Hiroshima took the three points with a brace by Naoki Ishihara, Marinos lost also at the Todoroki Stadium. Done and dusted: the title is gone. That disaster could have defined the trajectory of Higuchi forever. Not many managers rebuilt their careers after such a nosedive, especially when this name wasn’t so ranked high among Japanese head coaches.

A nice song about the concept.

After almost eight years, a lot of water has gone under the bridge and Higuchi is living through a renaissance. He worked hard on himself to change his game and developing a different brand of football. As today, with Ryukyu unbeaten in the first six games of J2 in 2021 and top of the table, we can say he did it.

The rise

As a player, Yasuhiro Higuchi was a product of pre-J. League times. He featured with Nissan Motors in the first part of the 80s, before retiring and then coming back in 1993 as a youth coach. He worked hard within the organization to earn his chance, becoming part of technical staff for the first team in ’99. But to get his first chance as the main man, Higuchi had to leave Yokohama.

First Montedio Yamagata (2006-07), then Omiya Ardija (’08) and in the end the other side of the city, coaching also Yokohama FC (’09). Those four years brought mostly bad reviews, especially after the last year in Yokohama. Nevertheless, Marinos wanted him back to be alongside head coach Kazushi Kimura, legend of the club. When Kimura was sacked in 2011, the club picked Higuchi to succeed him.

It seemed a tough bet to cash in: instead, Marinos came fourth in his first year in charge, also winning the Emperor’s Cup in 2013 (the first trophy in nine years and the last one until Postecoglou won the league in 2019). Put together, the three years of Higuchi were mostly positive in terms of results: fourth, runners-up, seventh. Unfortunately, before the crushed hopes of a title in 2013, nothing really mattered.

Those two afternoons, those two losses counted more than what achieved in three years. You can still feel it observing the anticipation of those two games: the excitement of the fans in front of Nissan Stadium, the looks after the loss against Kawasaki, the distraught faces of some players (among them, Yuzo Kobayashi and Shunsuke Nakamura). In all of this, for Higuchi it was even hard to gather everyone and salute the travelling fans.

The fall and the rebirth

When he left Yokohama for good, Higuchi found anyway a new gig: in 2015, he was announced as the new head coach for Ventforet Kofu. A tough nut to crack, since Hiroshi Jofuku left and replacing his work wasn’t easy. In fact, the relationship lasted just 14 games in all competitions. After losing 1-0 to Shonan Bellmare, Higuchi and the club part ways with Kofu deadly last, three goals scored and twenty allowed.

If Ventforet found the way to survive in J1 under the guidance of GM Satoru Sakuma, this adventure left Higuchi with the problem of rebuilding his career. After this string of collapses, it was hard to start from scratch. Luckily, Yokohama was still up for grabs: YSCC Yokohama offered him a new beginning. Higuchi had the humbleness of accepting the job and thinking that yes, it was possible to start over.

Moreover, the head coach felt this was a key-chance to reinvent himself. Defensive football didn’t work in Kofu? Then let’s try to play differently. YSCC became a small lab, where new players blossomed. Higuchi himself maybe discovered something fresh about his coaching style: he stayed three years, averaging 0.92 points per game, which is something enormous while managing a club at the bottom of the third division, with basically no budget.

In his second year in charge, YSCC finally avoided the last place in J3 for the first time since they turned pro. He managed to repeat the same feat in 2018, while also qualifying for the Emperor’s Cup in both seasons. For a minnow club, it was something unbelievable: sure, Yuki Stalph then improved their best result ever in 2019, but these performances were enough to grant Higuchi a new rise.

The biggest moment of his time at YSCC? June 6, 2018: the club clinches three points in Kitakyushu, closing a run of 15 points in eight games. At that point of the championship, YSCC were sixth on the table. SIXTH.

The present

With a surprising move, FC Ryukyu – who had just won promotion and the J3 title – let their manager, Kim Jong-song, sign for rivals Kagoshima United FC. To replace him, the club chose Higuchi. We don’t hide the fact that the appointment left us with some doubts: why letting KJS go and hire Higuchi? Would he have been able to keep their entertaining style of football going, even with losses in the transfer market?

The answer was a resounding yes. Not only Kim Jong-song didn’t impress in Kagoshima, but FC Ryukyu started 2019 with a blast, winning their first four games ever in a row. The pace wasn’t the same for the rest of the season, but they managed to avoid comfortably relegation. In 2020, after some first struggles, FC Ryukyu bagged some impressive wins, crushing their opponents (5-0 v. Omiya, 6-1 @ Matsumoto, 4-0 v. Verdy, 6-0 v. Ehime FC).

With four relegations on the line, we were fearing a little for the Okinawa-based club. Luckily for them, they found a balance both on and off the pitch: the system works and not many players tend to leave, while the club is able to attract expert J. Leaguers and add quality to the squad. Just look at how Takuma Abe was reborn in Okinawa or how Koya Kazama is basically a J2-level Akihiro Ienaga with less technique, but more pace.

In this scenario, Higuchi not only put everything together, but he’s developing players or rebooting careers like he was doing at YSCC. Keita Tanaka found new life as a right-back; Keigo Numata is a solid left-back; Kazumasa Uesato must have drunk a healthy elixir to prolong his career indefinitely. And now Ren Ikeda looks like another player on the rise, with three goals in just six games.

Surely this article might look like a jinx, but we felt it was time to acknowledge Higuchi’s work throughout the last seasons. With his 60th birthday just around the corner, we can say Higuchi learned his lessons and found a way to reboot his career in a fashionable manner. And rising from your ashes is complicated, especially if you have to crawl back your way to the top.

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