October 27th, 2007. Yokohama F. Marinos are playing away in Kofu, in a season that surely hasn’t seen them anywhere close to the top. It’s a mild 1-1 draw away at Ventforet, when back then head coach Hiroshi Hayano opts to make some changes. In fact, he’ll do just one of those: the no. 38 lifts himself from the bench and takes the place of Yukihiro Yamase to play the final minutes.
Back then in ’07, Marinos relied on certain protagonists: Hayuma Tanaka, Yuji Nakazawa, Yuzo Kurihara at the back; Koji Yamase, Hideo Oshima, and Daisuke Sakata for goals and offensive firepower. The young no. 38 will play just eight minutes plus injury time in Kofu, but it’s a start, especially after the experience he just had in South Korea a couple of months prior to that day.
When Japan featured at the 2007 FIFA U-17 World Cup, that young winger was the captain for the first two matches. Despite Japan won’t progress to the Round of 16, his teammates are well-known J. Leaguers, whom neutral fans tend to know: Daisuke Suzuki, Yutaka Yoshida, Naoki Yamada, Takuji Yonemoto, and mostly Manabu Saito and Yoichiro Kakitani. Not a squad covered in quality, but…
Back then, Kota Mizunuma seemed promising, but he delivered less compared to other teammates from that expedition in his first years. At a certain point, after 5-6 years as a pro, his career seemed stuck in J2 or in a lower J1. Instead, he was able to turn it around in a clever way, ending up winning the title where everything began.
Leaving the Nest
It’s not an accident if we’re talking about “nest”: Kota was born in 1990 when his father Takashi – back then 30 years old, a winger (same position as his son) – was actually playing for Marinos, taking part in the opening match in 1993. He featured for the Yokohama-based side for 12 years, and even played 32 times with Japan, ending up coaching the team once, in 2006, one year before Kota debuted in the senior team.
In four years in the first team at Marinos, he played just 41 matches. When he was 20, Mizunuma thought of leaving for a new challenge. The first stop was Tochigi SC, where he stayed on loan for 18 months. He finally found some continuity as a starter, featuring in several positions and showing first glimpses of his ductility. Nevertheless, the return to Yokohama was never an option: Marinos had other players they wanted to value.
Mizunuma needed to find a place to play since his dream was to participate in the 2012 Olympic Games. After being the captain at the 2007 FIFA U-17 World Cup, he featured also at the 2010 Asian Games – where he won the gold medal –, but opportunities shrank as higher Mizunuma climbed the ladder of Japan’s youth teams. He wanted also to play abroad and had a tryout with CFR Cluj – a Romanian side that was playing UCL football back then –, but didn’t find an agreement to seal the overseas deal.
And that’s where the first move of his career came through: Sagan Tosu, who exploited the missed abroad opportunity. It was just another loan, this time in J1, since the club just got promoted to the top flight. It was an incredible success: Mizunuma played 33 games and scored five goals in the first season, opting to make the loan move permanent. He then enjoyed three more seasons with Sagan, ending with 150 games and 28 goals in four years.
Blooming like a Cerezo
At this point, the status called for an upgrade. That’s how FC Tokyo came in play, with the capital-based side signing Mizunuma for 2016 (despite Sagan offering a renewal). It was a mistake: Hiroshi Jofuku wanted to involve him as much as possible, but – once sacked – newly-appointed Yoshiyuki Shinoda wasn’t interested in having him around. In fact, Mizunuma started playing with the U-23 team in J3 (with Shoya Nakajima and Sei Muroya).
It was unsustainable: that’s why Mizunuma opted to leave for g, even if on loan. In Osaka, the winger reunited with Yoon Jung-hwan, the Korean manager who (almost) built a title run in Tosu in 2014. Cerezo picked the right manager, and the club needed a strong figure to be a trailblazer, a leader in the locker room: “We need at least one person who can lead the team with his role and voice. I want that responsibility”.
And Mizunuma did just that. Cerezo came third in the league, but they built even more in the national cups. First, the J. League Cup final, where Mizunuma provided one assist; then the Emperor’s Cup, where he scored in all three games where he played, including the final against… yes, Yokohama F. Marinos. His winning effort was worth the Emperor’s Cup in extra time, and Cerezo will lift also the 2018 Japanese Super Cup in a few months.
Even when Yoon left and Lotina came in, Mizunuma retained his role of a focal player for Cerezo, although he had to jump between the winger in a 4-3-3 and a right midfielder in a 4-4-2. But he probably felt it was the right moment to look back. At that time, he had already worn the Marinos shirt twice: as a kid, when his father retired, and as a young gun. Doing it as a consumed pro, at the age of 30, would have made all the difference in the world.
Kota had a different path compared to his father, Takashi. He didn’t stay his whole career in Yokohama, but this probably made the return even sweeter. He celebrated his 300th cap in J.League with his father awarding him a small homage. He enjoyed the return in Yokohama, living through the atmosphere at Marinos, who were back then defending champions after lifting the title with Ange Postecoglou in the dugout.
Furthermore, under Postecoglou, Mizunuma was just a rotation player. He settled with that role the first year back to Marinos, but when Postecoglou left in the Summer of 2021, this opened a new opportunity for the winger. In fact, in the 2021 season, Mizunuma started all his matches from the bench, except for one (on October 24th, 2021, against… Cerezo Osaka). Nevertheless, he gathered nine assists, second in all the league.
With the new manager, Kevin Muscat, Mizunuma found more minutes, especially in 2022. Despite being one of many, many wingers – just to recap: Elber, Miyaichi, Nakagawa, Yoshio, Kabayama, Yan, plus Nishimura and Anderson Lopes can play on the flanks –, Mizunuma featured in 42 matches in all competitions (tied with keeper Yohei Takaoka as the most present in 2022, albeit being seventh for minutes played).
His capability of making himself ready and available for many occasions made the difference. His ductility and scoring capabilities (seven goals in 2022) made the rest, with Mizunuma being elected the MVP in June. This brought him also to the national team: after 10 years after his last game played with a youth team, his dream of becoming a Japan member became true at the 2022 EAFF E-1 Championship.
When the triple whistle sounded off in Kobe, you could see how Mizunuma was one of the most emotional among Marinos players, and he told this to the traveling fans: “I won the title, a title I was dreaming about since I was a child with Yokohama. I’m grateful to my father, who made the history of his club, and told me to write another page”. Surely, it’s not over yet.