From the Gulf to Kyushu

Compared to the past, Kyushu is becoming a centre for Japanese football. 2023 will see Avispa Fukuoka and Sagan Tosu competing in J1. V-Varen Nagasaki has done so in 2018, Roasso Kumamoto almost made it in 2022, while Oita Trinita had a nice three years-stint in the topflight. With Tegevajaro Miyazaki doing their thing in J3, plus Kagoshima United FC and Giravanz Kitakyushu completing the scenario, you can see how Kyushu’s importance rose.

Speaking of Kagoshima, do you know which city has ties with the Japanese town? Naples. Both with a volcano, although someone would say that the Sakurajima is more active than Vesuvio. And someone took this trip, from Italy to Japan, to develop his career and find himself a career in football. That someone was a young kid, now become a man in Japan through experiences via two Kyushu-based clubs.

He started with Sagan Tosu, he then stayed with V-Varen Nagasaki, but he’s coming back to the Ekimae Real Estate Stadium from January 2023. Alessio Mariani has lived through several experiences in these years in Japan, and he’s enjoyed every one of them. Looking back, though, it’s always an instructive exercise to understand how much road has been done.

Alessio, first of all, thanks for your time. I really appreciate it. How did you come to Japan?

“Well, I got two degrees at the University of Naples – first Orthopedics, then Physical Education –, but I always wanted to be within the world of football. Thanks to my degree in Physical Education. My teacher at the university was the head coach of the Regional Juniors at SSC Napoli: seeing my passion, he invited me to follow him. Almost for two seasons, but then Japan intervened.

I’ve always been in love with the country, since I was a kid. I went there for the first time in 2012 on vacation, then I decided I needed to go back to work there. It wasn’t easy at the beginning, since I didn’t know the language at all. I spent the first 18 months trying to familiarize myself with Japanese, then I looked for a job on the Internet. I got the luck of entering the AC Milan Academy in Tokyo, which picked a former Italian player – Manuel Belleri – as the manager of the institute.

I spent there three years. Thanks to a common acquaintance – Cesare Polenghi –, I heard Massimo Ficcadenti wanted to expand his Italian staff at Sagan Tosu in 2018. We made contact and found an agreement for me to move there. I was living a nice life in Tokyo, but the opportunity convinced me. Meanwhile, something special happened.

After the FIFA World Cup, Torres signed for Sagan Tosu in July 2018. I said to myself: “This is a major opportunity to make a serious leap in my career”. Starting from a youth team of SSC Napoli… it wasn’t granted. I did indeed work for Sagan, although Ficcadenti had to leave due to contrasts with the back-then board. We stayed, and I have to admit the relationship with Torres was amazing.

He was a kind person, he helped me integrate, and I was his interpreter in the months of that first season. At Sagan Tosu, I also engaged with Victor Ibarbo, who was recovering from an injury in Colombia. He was picked Ficcadenti, but now was alone after the dismissal of the manager. Speaking with his agent, he asked me to help him out with his experience with Sagan Tosu.

After that, Ibarbo moved to Nagasaki, and they wanted me with him in this adventure. Unfortunately, this stint ended last month and I’m ready to go back to Sagan Tosu, with a place on the staff”.

And why the return? I’m curious.

“Back in the Ficcadenti times, the goalkeepeing coach was Gilberto Vallesi: now he’s in Grosseto, but he’s been called back, because the club wants to follow a project to develop a school of keepers in Saga, given the strength of the youth sector.

Gilberto is behind the renaissance of Shuichi Gonda. When he signed for Portimonense, he actually came back during the int’l break to train under Vallesi. He was always grateful for the return to the national team. This year wasn’t easy with S-Pulse, but Gilberto has the habit to develop stars between the posts.

Do you know about Takaoka? Many were doubtful he was going to be a starting keeper in J1. He trained hard under Gilberto, and he fell in love with his methods. Takaoka is so grateful that he said he wanted to go to Italy in the off-season to thank Vallesi. Surely, Gonda and Takaoka are different, because the latter builds up the play with his foot, but they represent two sides of the same valuable coin.

I remember how Ficcadenti asked for a goalkeeper coach because he felt the situation called for one. In fact, Gonda had a tremendous 2018 season thanks to his work”.

This extensive experience requires another question. How much is different the J.League compared to Europe and particularly Italy, both on and off the pitch?

“First, off the pitch. The J.League was born three decades ago. For many executives, it should be something new, to build. But most of the executives in the Japanese corporative world – not only in sports – are a little bit stubborn. They treat clubs like companies, but this doesn’t bring improvements like Japanese football would need. Some youngsters emerging now might leave an impact, but it’s a long process.

To improve, foreigners with experience might help. But they usually get ignored. That’s what I liked about Ficcadenti: he always crossed a line between the corporative side and the life on the pitch. In Tokyo and with Sagan Tosu, that’s what happened. I wasn’t in Nagoya, but I suppose Grampus witnessed the same style. That’s also the reason why he can’t stay more than a few seasons.

Results were there, but clubs rarely want to engage with a full delegation of certain tasks. This produces arguments between the parts, but it’s not his fault. Japanese executives tend to act like this in every kind of environment, they’re reluctant to let go. And this is about the off-the-pitch side…

About what happens in the field, foreigners can bring different styles – look at the influence of Spanish football, or what German and Brazilian coaches did on Japanese football –, that Japanese coaches can witness, integrate, and even evolve. But the Japanese way of doing football relies heavily on aggression, the stamina over 90 minutes. And only a few squads can implement this style – look at the Marinos or Frontale, who were able to absorb some foreign elements as well.

Other teams struggle to reach the same level, because they face football in an old way. Even the Samurai Blue – who enjoyed some success on the continental and int’l stage – do indeed reach those achievements thanks to players who enjoyed a European leap. This should push some thinking over the level of the Japanese league – not the football, but the organization itself”.

You mentioned the two experiences you’ve done, both in Kyushu. I’m curious to know more about the two stints because I imagine Saga Prefecture isn’t like living in Nagasaki. They should be different realities.

“There’s a cultural difference between those two environments. Saga residents are rustic, they’re relentless, they fight, but they’re also stubborn. Instead, in the Southern cities of Kyushu – like Nagasaki – life goes slowly. It’s an old city, it never went through another renovation after it’s been rebuilt once WWII was over. Surely, a company like Japanet (that sustains V-Varen) helps a lot in promoting the club.

But many local residents in Nagasaki – especially young people – tend to leave for Fukuoka, or Osaka, or even Tokyo for a brighter future and a job. It’s tough to develop future programs and initiatives in a land that’s losing population. Even players can taste the slow life. Japanet tries its best to push the club, but Kyushu has different football realities to compete with.

When the final output has to be shared with Kumamoto (Roasso), Fukuoka (Avispa), Miyazaki (Tegevajaro), or Oita (Trinita), it’s tough to emerge. In Tosu, instead, they have still the hunger to retain their title of the best squad in Kyushu. Back then chairman Takehara pursued the goal of having the spotlight, including the Torres operation, which though almost brought them to bankruptcy in the end.

With a Spanish legend and an Italian manager, Takehara thought this was going to work, when instead Sagan Tosu can rely on a wonderful youth sector. There’s this coach, Shirai, who has done an amazing job with the youth ranks, and now he’s in Tokyo. Sagan Tosu are able now to win the national youth championship for J.League clubs thanks to his work”.

Well, even this year, Kenta Kawai played a really solid role in bringing Sagan Tosu to salvation pretty early. I mean, we’ve seen Yuto Iwasaki with a Japan shirt…

“Honestly, I don’t know Kawai, but everyone is speaking highly of him. They told it’s a wonderful lad. But in Saga it’s the way of doing things: fans really push hard for the team, it’s a passionate fanbase, who’s close to the team. Sometimes, it becomes nervous if results are not coming, but in general, it’s motivating. And I’m curious for me as well because Nagasaki accustomed me to another football rhythm *laughs*.

I’m from Naples, so I’m used to passionate crowds, but I remember how the people there gave me the nickname “The Sun from Naples”, and together we pulled it through in 2018. There’s a fighting spirit I’ve never witnessed in Nagasaki: I want to give my 110%, like the city of Tosu would love to see”.

It’s also interesting to see how Japanese football will develop. We’ve been getting the news that J1 will become a 20 teams-league, but through COVID many outlets struggled to keep this pace…

“Japan has another major sport in baseball, which though… plays every day. They tie the wealth and the good status of the sport to this tight schedule. Then they have as well a weak spot for Brazilians: it’s a cultural question, but they play a lot as well – given they have Série A, the State championship, two different cups… I hope Japan won’t turn into something like that”.

By mentioning Brazil, I had as well a small question over Nagasaki throughout 2022. There was a Brazilian enclave in there. I was sure they were going to fight for the promotion, with Edigar Junio scoring 100 goals. Instead, it seemed the situation was all but smooth. How was it from the inside?

“He’s a wonderful chap, a great player. But Nagasaki has this smooth routine and doesn’t create this fire to fight every match. Furthermore, there’s not always a link between quality and a Brazilian player. You have to be a professional and many have let down expectations throughout the last 2-3 seasons. Probably Wellington Rato was the player to keep, but it didn’t happen. He had an otherworldly level for J2.

Furthermore, other players shone. If you look at the trajectory of Seika Maikuma, he had a really good path here in Nagasaki. He started as a winger in the youth ranks, then he reached the first team, and we switched him to a wing-back. It worked, and I think it’s visible as well with Cerezo Osaka, where he endured a wonderful first year”.

Well, Alessio, two final questions from us. The first comes from an Italian point of view, where many outlets underlined only or mostly the referrals to Captain Tsubasa. I wondered if the narrative around Japan should change a bit from Europe, even about the fact that Japanese fans are tidy and clean up the stadium after the matches.

“Well, over Captain Tsubasa, if you’re a foreigner, that’s been an essential part of your life… but Japanese people are not bothered by that. If you think about it, Nankatsu SC is a real club in the Tokyo Prefecture, although they’re not able to reach JFL for now. If you mention the anime to Japanese people, you’re labeled as an “otaku” and that’s it. What has left a deeper sign is from Italian football. They mentioned Baggio, Totti, and all these great champions from the 90s and the early 2000s, when Serie A ruled the world.

About tidying up the stadiums, Japanese people must show they’re polite, but sometimes they overdo it. Cleaning the stadium for them is mandatory, virtual signaling to the rest of the world. If the world sees us like this, we should confirm this stereotype… they might even go further. Even if you don’t leave your stadium seat clean and shining, the world won’t despise them.

And they could be appreciated for so many things… If you think about the origami left as well in the locker room, it’s the same. That’s a habit from another era, not from professional players, after the stress of a World Cup match. Surely, that’s not high among priorities. It’s useless at this level”.

The final question then: you’ve been in Japan for almost a decade. Now this new stint with Sagan Tosu… how do you see the development of Japanese football in the next years? We’ve been talking of the win over Germany, but which aim should they have?

“I wanted to talk with you about the length and the conditions of the contract for a J.League player. They need to retain some of their stars. If these players will keep taking the European route, surely they will have stars, but the J.League won’t grow. If instead – like they recently did – they start to work on the contractual conditions and pay them more, they might get something in return.

I mean, there are young stars who can’t earn that much. Then 20-something years-old players will go to Europe to have football experience, but also to earn more. No doubts. Only Rakuten through Vissel Kobe tried to bring more important footballers to J.League, not only Iniesta. But there’s the need for other players who are still active and in the full course of their careers.

I know how Japanese players, technical-wise, are really good. I’ve seen it in the youth ranks or in the AC Milan Academy: they train like crazy; they’re sponges able to learn and improve by the second. They work on their individual craft: if they see a Ronaldo play, they’ll work on it 1000 times a day to master it. But then that technical craft must be put together on a football pitch.”

Okay, so retaining young stars and bringing active and fundamental foreigners to Japan. Given this answer, a little follow-up: do you think that current Japanese players in Europe, once back in Japan at the end of their careers, could help improve the situation? And what about the kind of foreigners who are coming now to Japan, like Junker, Scholz, etc.?

“The first trend… no, I don’t think that will help. Young stars must be retained. Having them come back is partially useful because Japanese players reach the zenith of their performance before others. Usually, their peak is before the 30s and, when they come back to Japan, it’s because the player is a household name for either the league or the club interested. It’s a marketing matter, it’s a financial loss – that player had a minor wage when he left and now he’ll require a different treatment once he’ll be back.

Over the second trend, instead, I’m way up for it. Japan has always been accustomed to Brazilians or Spain in the last few years. But there are other options beyond these two, so it’s interesting to see players like the ones you mentioned. Other ways of coaching, training and playing will always be helpful for J.League to grow. Furthermore, Argentinians would be nice to have around. I hope other Europeans will join the J.League”.

We can only thank Alessio for his time. It’s been a wonderful ride through Memory Lane and we’re sure he’s going to enjoy his new adventure in J1. Good luck to him!


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