It’s a nice Sunday, sunny and relaxed. It is for me in Munich and it’s the same as well for our contact. He has enjoyed a nice nap after seeing his old team, Sanfrecce Hiroshima, snatching a solid away win in Sapporo. He’s in a good mood himself from the day before, when his team won a heated Kyushu derby. Classic Nordic look, a big smile and a down-to-earth attitude.
It wasn’t easy to arrange this, but that’s the nice thing about our protagonist. To our request, he always seemed open to talk. He’s living his Japanese experience with the same open mind: he uses his Twitter account to arrange Q&A with J. League fans, he’s truly enjoying the time in Japan. And even if he went through a rough patch in his rookie year, he never looked back.
Through one Instagram post after his first season in Hiroshima, he wrote he was happy to have realized his “childhood dream of playing professional football abroad”. He always wanted to, since his time with Göteborg, where he played for almost a decade and left as an absolute pillar of the team. Little did he know life would have brought him to the other side of the world.
But that’s probably the beauty of Emil Salomonsson. When we talked with the Swedish right-back, he told us right away: “I always loved reading about adventures. I read about Magellano, Vasco de Gama, Columbus… so, when I’ve heard about the interest, I said: “Sure, let’s go for it!”. I’ve always been adventurous”.
We enjoyed a nice talk with Emil for half an hour, and we talked about a lot of topics, from his arrival in Hiroshima to the decision of moving to Avispa, going through the struggles and the joys of living an experience abroad.
It seemed obvious starting with one question: why a player like him, a symbol of Göteborg throughout 2010s, should have moved to a foreign country?
“I think most of Swedish guys look forward to play in Europe – said Salomonsson, enjoying a relaxed afternoon in his home in Fukuoka –, maybe in bigger leagues… I’m thinking Netherlands, Germany… When I’ve heard about the interest from Japan, in the back of my mind, I’ve always thought it was going to be a great adventure as a football player, but as a person as well”.
It wasn’t the first time Japan made the headlines to Sweden. Salomonsson admitted two news caught his attention in the Summer of 2018. First, the performance of Japan at the World Cup. Secondly, two different signings. Andrés Iniesta – one of his favorite players ever – moved to Kobe that Summer, but another Swedish player’s move give a hint to the right-back.
“Of course, I knew there was a professional league in Japan, but when Robin Simović signed for Nagoya, I thought J. League was a move you could try as a Swedish player. I watched him since I played a lot against him in Sweden”.
In fact, Sanfrecce Hiroshima made clear they were interested throughout their sporting director. Therefore, Salomonsson started looking into highlights, games and facts about the league. And most of all, an unexpected help came from another Swedish man who has been in Hiroshima twice (one as a player in the 90s and another as a coach two decades later): that man was Jan Jönsson.
Life wanted that Jönsson had another crossover with Salomonsson: “I didn’t know him personally, but he used to coach Halmstads BK, a club where I used to play – said the right-back, who debuted as a pro in Halland county –. Sweden isn’t the biggest country of the world, so we had mutual friends and I know he liked my playing style. He told the sporting director at Sanfrecce to check me out and they remembered me”.
Under the (Big) Arch
Given the tip, Sanfrecce opted to pursue Salomonsson. The year before, in 2018, Hiroshima went from dominating the league in the first half under Hiroshi Jofuku to tumble massively in the second part and almost losing their ACL-spot. Therefore, additions were needed to face a bigger schedule and they opted to sign Salomonsson, who became the third Swedish player to wear their jersey.
“When I saw the history of the club and the success they enjoyed in the years before, it was a great chance for me – told us Salomonsson –. The first part of the season was wonderful. I think I played every game until the end of May”. Not only that, because he also debuted with a goal in his first competitive match. Fun fact: goal against Shimizu S-Pulse. Manager on the other side? That Jan Jönsson.
Unfortunately, injuries ruined the streak of performances for Salomonsson, who injured his adductor and missed two and a half months before coming back. When he returned to the squad, the playing style changed a little bit, with Jofuku heavily relying on Rhayner – still at Sanfrecce today, although he changed role again, now featuring as a central midfielder – and the situation was another for the Swedish player.
“The role of the wingback was different. When you come back from an injury, you always need a little bit of time to find your rhythm back – said Salomonsson, 26 games played for Sanfrecce in that season –. I didn’t feel I suited the best there, but when I got the chance of playing, I always gave my best, because the club gave me a shot at playing in Japan”.
In the end, like he said as well, it was a tale of two halves: a very positive first part of 2019 and a difficult second spell, where opportunities on the pitch shrunk. Nevertheless, Salomonsson learned a lot on that year, especially because he had to face the recovery from the injury by himself, in a different environment from the one he used to live in.
“I got injured and it was mentally tough, because you’re alone. You can’t do what you like, playing football, you know? – reminded the Swedish right-back – My fiancée, at the time, wasn’t with me in Japan: I was alone. As you said, I didn’t move from Sweden to Denmark, but across the globe. A lot of things can explain why I didn’t perform the way I wanted, but it was a great first year. Supporters are still writing me about the goal against S-Pulse and they’ve always wished me the best in Fukuoka. It’s a special club”.
Even though both fans and the board were hoping to see a possible successor to Mihael Mikić in their hearts, it didn’t work out. Or at least, not in the terms Salomonsson was hoping for, because Sanfrecce were ready to retain the no. 3 also for 2020. Little problem? He wouldn’t have played so much, and he did feel the wing-back role wasn’t suited for him, feeling more of a side-back, the position he always played for his whole career.
And that’s where Avispa Fukuoka intervened.
“At the end of 2019, it was clear the club liked me, since I was professional and I trained hard, but I wasn’t the first option – said Salomonsson, who moved on loan to Avispa –. They wanted me to stay, but when I heard about Avispa’s interest, I knew already something. I visited the city when my girlfriend came that Summer and I fell in love with the city. That played a big part, because I felt it was a viable option and the soul of the city was really interesting”.
Of course, 2019 wasn’t easy for Avispa Fukuoka. The club lingered around the relegation zone for the whole championship, and it was a bet. But the club trusted its change of direction, hiring Shigetoshi Hasebe from Mito HollyHock – where he brought them to their best season ever – and many interesting players. They wanted to push for J1, but was it really possible?
“I knew they struggled in 2019. It was a gamble, but I like to bet on myself and my qualities as a football player. If I hadn’t worked out, I would have been in big trouble – laughs the right-back, who realized that not finding any pitch time in a J2 struggling team could have been the end of his experience in Japan –. Normally a big city can nurture a big football club. I’d be lying if I said I knew we were going to be this successful, but surely I saw the potential in Avispa to become a stable J1 club”.
2020, an unique year
There was one certainty: it’s fun to enjoy a winning season, whether you’re playing in the first or second division. Salomonsson knew it as well. But it wasn’t written in the stars: it took some time to see Avispa going full throttle and gain some traction in the table. Just when other Kyushu teams were thriving (Giravanz Kitakyushu and V-Varen Nagasaki were just on a streak of results), Avispa Fukuoka needed more time.
“We started well, winning the derby against Kitakyushu, but then our captain got injured around the Summer mark. He’s important for us – said the right-back, who played 39 matches with Avispa in 2020 –, because he was with the coach in Mito and he’s basically the coach on the field. We struggled: we lost some games, and we drew some, but then he came back and we started winning”.
In fact, a header by Juanma in the 96th minute of an away game in Chiba gifted Avispa a point against JEF United. Salomonsson identifies that goal as sliding doors for their season, since it helped shifting the momentum in another direction. 12 wins in a row were the reward after that incredible comeback. Meanwhile, other teams – like Nagasaki – started losing track and form.
“Many Kyushu teams started better than us – smiles Salomonsson, reminiscent of an incredible season –. I remember thinking at the beginning of Summer: “Okay, it’s gonna be difficult”, but then we started winning. Once you gain momentum, it’s kind of easy. We were not tipped to win, many probably thought we were not going to make it. Then we started to win, but we stayed in the Top 2 only for two months”.
Avispa were surely under pressure even in the final stretch of the season, when they drew four out of five games between September and October. Nevertheless, the Swedish player remembered how many players were instrumental for the success of Avispa in 2020. Like Hiroyuki Mae, the captain, or Daiya Tono, whom Salomonsson hailed as an excellent link-up player for Avispa. And there’s one more surprise between the posts.
“Jon [Serantes] was our goalkeeper, but then injured his shoulder. We didn’t have a clear no. 2, because we had Sugiyama, who had played for the club before Jon arrived, and then Murakami, who was in Mito with the coach”. Salomonsson praised Murakami for stepping up: “He took his chance, as this year. He’s an amazing keeper, one of the most vital players of our team. That was a big “What if” when Jon got injured, but Mura really came through for us”.
In the end, apparently, 84 points were enough to grant Avispa a safe return to J1. Salomonsson told us there was a whiteboard to keep the score and he was the guy in charge of updating the points and the games played. After 17 points in 15 games, he had some doubts, but the head coach – Shigetoshi Hasebe – had in mind 82 points.
They ended racking up 84: “Our coach is a math genius”, joked Salomonsson.
If 2020 was a surprise, 2021 represents a total madness. After 31 games, Avispa Fukuoka are in the top-half of the table, with good chances of ending in the Top 10. They won against Kashima Antlers (twice), Sagan Tosu, they broke the unbeaten record of Kawasaki Frontale in August. They seem to have surprised everyone.
In the pre-season, just by looking at #JPred2021 – the game the J. League-sphere loves so much about predicting the upcoming season –, many imagined Fukuoka suffering throughout 2021. We were not among those, but we’re surprised to see them already safe and sound for 2022. And the performances of Salomonsson were a big reason why that happened, with the Swedish right-back seriously on the run for a spot in the Best XI.
“We started the season with the goal of taking 50 points and it’s still our goal to finish Top 10. I think it was natural to see us – the second team to come up from J2 – as a possible relegation candidate. People will always make that kind of prediction, but… from the POV of a football player, it’s a very good situation. If you lose a game, nothing happens; but if you win and you do in it on a streak… it’s not easy to play against us”.
Indeed, it hasn’t been easy to face them. Avispa Fukuoka gained 28 points over 15 home games. They’re sixth in the “home table” of 2021 J1 League: more points than Kashima, Kobe, Tokyo. The atmosphere at the Level-5 Stadium isn’t easy to manage for the guests every time. And since they were successful, Avispa didn’t think about changing that much.
“It’s not fun to play against us: we fight, hard and strong. If you’re going to win against us, you’ll have to fight for it – underlines Salomonsson, three goals and six assists until now –. We have our set pieces and strong players. Our squad is strong: as a new team in J1, I don’t think many teams feature the depth we have. Nevertheless, we’re still humble; the players work hard, and the new ones have adapted to the philosophy of the coach”.
Although their goal isn’t still reached, we felt Salomonsson’s confidence in getting there, to the finish line. The ultimate objective is writing a unique page in the history books of the club, being the best version of themselves and write off that reputation of being an “elevator club” (going up and down between J1 and J2).
Eyes to the present, heart to the future
After a long talk – in which we had the chance as well of talking even about small nuances of Japanese football compared to Europe –, we came to the final question for Emil. And it wasn’t just the last, but in our opinion the most important.
J. League Regista hasn’t been shy about what J. League would need, at least in terms of players’ improvement. Like we wrote at the beginning of 2020, most of the time less celebrated players – who truly enjoy their time in Japan and want to make the most of it, both on and off the pitch – are the ones who actually help developing the league. And Salomonsson checks all the boxes.
“I like what’s happening now. Grampus signed Swierczok directly from the Poland national team, Urawa Reds saw two Danish players (Scholz and Junker) joining recently. I like they’re signing European players, because they can help the development of the championship, especially from a tactical point of view. I like that kind of signings and I hope they’ll continue like this”.
With his Instagram and Twitter feed providing more evidence about his love for Japan, we wondered as well how much Salomonsson would like to stay in Japan. For him, though, it’s not a matter of “what’s next”: he’s only focused on the present. With a smile on his face, the Swedish right-back told us he wanted to think only about the next games until the end of the season and Japan will always be an option to stay.
“As I said in many interviews, I love Japan and I’ll always do. I wanna leave my mark in the next games”. Relaxed, amicable and pragmatic: it doesn’t get better than this.
This represents a big mark in J. League Regista’s history. This isn’t just because we managed to interview directly a current player in the league – we did have an interview with a head coach and another player, but indirectly –, but also because – as we said – Emil Salomonsson represents in our view the kind of player this league needs.
We had the chance of having a good laugh as well and we’re sure Emil will be a J. League aficionado forever after this experience. Meanwhile, we wish him the best for the remainder of the season and hope to see him again in the league next year. To our readers, thank you for reading and enjoying our pieces!