The Yokohama foreshore is one of the nicer places to spend a sunny summer afternoon in Japan’s sprawling Kanto region. I should know. I used to live a couple of hours down the Tokaido Main Line in the football hotspot of Shimizu.

For three seasons between 2006 and 2009, I watched a Shimizu S-Pulse team playing some of the most exciting football in Japan terrorise J. League defences with their relentless brand of attack. They certainly were a sight to behold.

With former S-Pulse legend Kenta Hasegawa at the helm and the supremely talented Jungo Fujimoto pulling the strings in midfield, the Nihondaira foothills soon became a launching pad for those destined for bigger and better things – chief among them Shinji Okazaki, who went on to win the English Premier League with Leicester City.

Hasegawa ultimately went on to claim the treble in 2014, winning the J. League, the J. League Cup and the Emperor’s Cup en route to being named the J. League Manager of the Year. Sadly for S-Pulse fans, it was with Gamba Osaka.

Still, those three seasons watching S-Pulse at a packed Nihondaira Stadium (pictured) – one of the most picturesque grounds in Asian football – made a huge impression on me. It’s an experience I’ve chatted about with a few people in Australian football, including – albeit briefly – Ange Postecoglou.

A new frontier

The first myth to bust in terms of Postecoglou’s move to Yokohama F. Marinos is that it has come out of the blue. His stock may have risen after winning the Asian Cup in 2015, but he’s been on the radar of J. League clubs for years.

The second myth is that Postecoglou will be walking into the unknown. Of all those involved in Australian football over the past decade, perhaps none have been as obsessive as Ange. When he says he watches Japanese football, he means it. And the one-time Young Socceroos coach knows better than anyone that Japan boasts some of the best youth team set-ups anywhere in the world.

So when Postecoglou says that he wants to get back into club football in an environment that allows him to nurture young talent, that’s exactly what he’ll be doing in Yokohama.

The move has little in common with Graham Arnold’s unsuccessful five-month stint in charge of Vegalta Sendai back in 2014. Whereas Arnold found himself in charge of a provincial outfit run along Japan’s old conservative corporate lines, Postecoglou joins a club for whom the City Football Group is a growing influence. They may only own a minority share in the Tricolore, however their global connections helped smooth the way for Frenchman Erick Mombaerts to take charge as coach in 2014.

Great expectations

Postecoglou takes over from Mombaerts, and he does so at a club that is indisputably one of Japan’s biggest. Yokohama F. Marinos haven’t won the J. League since claiming back-to-back titles in 2003 and 2004, but they boast one of the most passionate fan bases in the league.

They’re also one of just two clubs – Kashima Antlers being the other – to have played all 25 seasons in the Japanese top flight. That statistic comes with an asterix, though, and it’s one Postecoglou would do well to remember. In 1998, founding J. League members Yokohama Marinos and Yokohama Flügels merged almost overnight – that’s where the ‘F’ comes from in F. Marinos – and such was the level of anger, a rival fan-backed club Yokohama FC soon sprung up.

There’s no doubt that Yokohama F. Marinos are still the top dogs in the city, yet their recent failure to add to their three J. League titles is testament to just how tough it is to win the division. And in a region that is not only home to local top flight rivals Kawasaki Frontale and Shonan Bellmare, but also FC Tokyo, Kashiwa Reysol and the biggest of them all, Urawa Reds, Postecoglou will have his work cut out for him playing an attracting brand of football that brings fans through the gates.

He also needs to be wary of the popularity of the city’s professional baseball team. Just like Arnold stepped into the Sendai hotseat in the same month the city’s Tohoku Golden Eagles won the Japan Series, so too did the Yokohama Baystars reach the Nippon Professional Baseball decider this year, although they lost to the Fukuoka Hawks. In a nation that plays its football across the summer months – just like in Australia – the influence of its enduringly popular baseball league shouldn’t be underestimated.

Postecoglou is unlikely to be too worried about that though. His first concern will be getting his message across to his predominantly Japanese players – no easy feat when communicating through a translator, as Graham Arnold discovered. He’ll also be aware that results matter much more in Japan than they do in Australia. In a league that boasts a relegation trapdoor, Postecoglou will need his team to be battling at the opposite end of the table.    

But perhaps his greatest task is one that is most meaningful to fans of Australian football. It’s to prove, once again, that Aussie coaches can cut it on the big stage. There’s no doubt the J. League is a major step up in class to what’s on offer in Australia. But if anyone has got the ability to make the leap, surely it’s Postecoglou.

Ganbatte kudasai, Ange. 

Categories: Analysis | Asia

ange postecoglou, yokohama marinos, j. league

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