Big in Japan: Wenger in the J-League

Posted: April 19, 2018 in Uncategorized

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“He’s a novice. He should keep his opinions to Japanese football.”

The famous welcome Alex Ferguson extended to Arsene Wenger might have been one of his less nuanced attempts at mind games, but it was also an opinion quietly shared by many at the club who’d appointed him back in September 1996. Fans were disappointed that their first choice, Johan Cruyff, hadn’t been approached. Bookies installed the new man as one of the favourites for the sack, offering odds of 5-1 that he wouldn’t survive the season. “Oh no, bloody hell, French? I’ve got to play for a Frenchman?” was captain Tony Adams’ diplomatic response to news of the appointment, while Ray Parlour held court at the training ground doing Clouseau impersonations.

Of course, while it might feel to Arsenal supporters like several lifetimes ago, Wenger would drag Arsenal and indeed English football kicking and screaming towards the 21st Century via such revolutionary practices such as ‘stretching’ and suggesting 10 pints and a kebab wasn’t the wisest regimen for an elite level sportsman, delivering with a swagger three league championships, seven FA Cups and an invincible season.

Why though, was a manager who’d won titles and cups in France with Monaco and been on Bayern Munich’s radar working in the nascent J-League in the first place?

Soul-sick in paradise

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By autumn 1994, Arsene Wenger had become as bored and disillusioned with football as those of us across the channel had with Wet Wet Wet’s stranglehold on the charts. In a seven-year spell in charge of AS Monaco he’d brought unparalleled success to Les Monègasques. He’d given Glen Hoddle a last hurrah, made fleeting but gorgeous use of the Rolls Royce engine of Franck Sauzee, and moulded a young Liberian striker by the name of George Weah into a future Balon D’Or winner. Ligue Un was won in 1987-88, the Coupe de France delivered three years later. Yet the pressure to keep up with big-spending, formidable Marseille, with their Waddles, Papins and, erm, Trevor Stevens, proved exhausting and when the match-fixing scandal involving their president, Bernard Tapie, came to light, Wenger was disgusted but not surprised: “There was nothing worse than knowing the cards were stacked against us from the beginning.”

Meanwhile, his relationship with the Monaco board was deteriorating. When Bayern Munich, smarting from a scarcely believable 11th place finish in the 1992-93 Bundesliga, asked to speak to Wenger, his employers, much to his chagrin, flatly refused. With fissures opened and proceeding to deepen, a poor start to the 1994-95 campaign saw Le Professeur sacked.

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It didn’t help that he’d started to dress like Inspector Gadget.

Weary and embittered, he pondered his next move. He accepted FIFA’s invitation to deliver a series of technical lectures in the game’s developing regions, and it was one such presentation to the Asian Confederation in Abu Dhabi  that brought him to the attention of Nagoya Grampus Eight.

Grampus had skyscraping ambitions but were so shambolic on the pitch that they’d become a source of embarrassment to owners Toyota. Knocked back by their first choice, Guus Hiddink, representatives now approached Wenger with a lucrative offer reportedly in the region of 150 million yen over two years.

Wenger had needed convincing. Grampus might have been the most well-known Japanese team on these shores following the marquee signing of Gary Lineker in 1992, but they were in a very bad way indeed. In 1994 they’d finished second-bottom of the J-League’s sophomore season, and when Wenger arrived they were stone bottom. The Lineker gamble had been a failure. He’d been expected to carry the team, but even on the rare occasions when his dodgy toe wasn’t acting up, he required service to make an impact – service that his awestruck team mates didn’t know how to provide.

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“Ladies.”

Similarly, the initial reaction of the squad to Wenger was one of scepticism. “Here comes another foreigner” was the perception according to defender Tetsuo Nakanishi. The outgoing manager, Gordon Milne, hadn’t made much of an impression (and appears to have got the job in large part because he was Lineker’s mate and old gaffer at Leicester). Neither did Wenger at first, losing seven of his first eight fixtures. “I lost all my credibility in one month” he’d recall. With Grampus still firmly rooted to the bottom of the J-League he was summoned to the boardroom, only to see his interpreter get the bullet he was expecting himself.

By his own admission, in those early months there existed what he termed “a wall” between himself and his players. “They wanted specific instructions from me…but football is not American football, where the coach can give instructions for each play over headphones. I had to teach them to think for themselves.”

The turnaround

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Wenger liked the materials he’d found in Nagoya however. He was impressed with his players’ work ethic and eagerness to learn. So keen were his charges during training that Wenger had to confiscate footballs at the end of sessions just to get them to stop. “The values I believe in are still being valued in Japan,” he’d observe. With no weight of history in Japanese football, players were more receptive to experimentation and new ideas. “It was easier to bring in something because professionalism was young.”

The language barrier proved to be an unexpected bonus, all things considered. Though initially limited to just three Japanese phrases: “Genki desu ka” (“How are you?”), “Daiji bu desu ka” (“Are you ok?”) and “Gamba rima shou” (“Give it all you’ve got!”), the fact he didn’t speak the language meant he didn’t read the press, avoided all criticism and was unfettered to chart his own course.

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One involving a shell suit for every occasion.

As he began to instill confidence and get his men to enjoy being in possession of the ball, communication on the pitch improved, and the results followed. Takafumi Ogura started to find the net with increasing regularity, ably assisted by Tetsuya Okayama and Takashi Hirano. Wenger had been very savvy in the transfer market as well. Frenchmen Gerald Passi and Franck Durix had played for him at Monaco and became his on-field lieutenants, bringing much-needed in-game management. With the J-League heavily influenced by Brazilian football, and players like Careca, Jorginho and Leonardo all plying their trade in the country, Wenger found himself under pressure to sign a Brazilian himself. Eschewing the kind of twinkle-toed flair expected however, he instead brought in an uncompromising centre half he’d noticed on television. Wenger had been unable to put his finger on why the player looked so familiar, until he arrived to sign the contract with his agent and father – Alex Torres’ dad, it turned out, was Carlos Alberto, captain of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup winning side. Torres would wear the armband for Grampus.

The centrepiece of Wenger’s side, however, was already at the club. The Dragan Stojkovic he found was not the maestro who lit up Italia ’90. Knee problems wrecked the Serb’s time at Marseilles, and he’d missed their 92-93 Champion’s League-winning season in its entirety. Moving to Grampus in 1994, he’d quickly become frustrated with the poor standard of play, the state of the training facilities and the condition of the pitches. He was sent off on his debut for arguing with an official, and would collect a further 12 red cards during his time in Japan. Finally, he’d simply given up, and was cast into the reserves, another expensive foreign flop. That’s where the new manager found him.

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For his part, as Jasper Rees identifies in Wenger: The Legend, Wenger had declared Stojkovic’s kind of mercurial maverick dead in the very presentation that earned him the Grampus gig, stressing in his analysis of USA ‘94 the growth of physicality and the team ethic in place of reliance on creative genius. On discovering Stojkovic (still only 30), however, he installed him as the heartbeat of his team. The midfielder responded with some of the finest performances of his career.

Stojkovic loved Wenger. He loved that his training sessions were inventive, varied and focused on work with the ball. He loved the way he was managed carefully and not flogged into the ground. He loved that he’d found someone who could teach him things about the game he didn’t know. “For the first time, I started to understand tactical behaviour,” he told The Blizzard. Now, the ‘Piksi’ of old returned, full of shimmies, tricks, flicks and volleys. Finally the club had the superstar they’d been looking for, someone who could convert the layperson into a football fan, who could make them fall in love with the game – and they’d had him on the sidelines all along. He scored 17 goals that season, and was crowned J-League Player of the Year.

Goals were positively foaming out of the side as Grampus’ form finally took off. They won 17 of their remaining 27 games, with Ogura grabbing 19, Durix 11, Moriyama 14. Wenger encouraged his side to play positively and take risks, imploring them to “pass the ball to the future”. Soon observers were saying that Grampus were producing the best football the J-League had seen thus far. Leaders Yokohama Marinos were vanquished in a thriller. Cerezo Osaka were slaughtered 6-0.

Ultimately, it wasn’t quite enough to win the league, and they had to settle for second place in the league’s Second Stage (third overall). Yet there was still the Emperor’s Cup, and after despatching Dunga’s Kashima Antlers in the semis, Sanfrecce Hiroshima were beaten in the final at Tokyo National Stadium, in front of 47,000 fans. A team Wenger had found at the bottom of the league, “with no experience of winning”, had in just a year lifted its first piece of silverware.

The Long Goodbye

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Inevitably, Wenger’s success caught occidental attention, not least in N5, where David Dein was a longtime admirer. Wenger still harboured European aspirations, and had only seen his Japanese adventure as a short-term palate cleanser. Now, though, just as he’d hesitated before taking the job, he agonised over leaving. Japan had restored his love of the game.

“I was at a dangerous point and had to make a decision…I felt that if I didn’t come back now I would stay forever in Japan.”

Ultimately, his European ambitions won out. He gave his farewell speech on the pitch at Grampus’ Mizuho  Stadium. “I will never forget you and will love Nagoya forever,” he told the crowd in flawless Japanese.

The scoreboard simply bore two English words: “Thank you.”

Each had a lasting impact on the other. Wenger credits his time in Japan with calming him down, freed from the pressure of the European game which had made him a surprisingly hot-headed coach at Monaco.

He also learned a lot about diet, which he quite literally brought to the table at Arsenal. “Their whole way of life is linked to health,” he told Amy Lawrence. “Their diet is basically boiled vegetables, rice and fish. You notice when you live there that there are no fat people. I think in England you eat too much sugar and meat and not enough vegetables.”

Back in Nagoya, it would take time, but they would finally win the J-League in 2010, under the guidance of Wenger protégé Stojkovic. Before that, it was Wenger’s recommendation, compatriot Philippe Troussier, who would guide Japan to their then-best finish at a World Cup finals – on home soil no less – further cementing the sport’s popularity in the country.

After 22 years, things appear to have come full circle for Wenger at Arsenal. Where once he was the trailblazer, now he chokes on the dust of young, inventive coaches. Once English football’s premier developer of young talent, now starlets stagnate on his watch. The appetite for him to remain for another season is receding among even his staunchest defenders.

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Et Tu, Crossy?

Might a return to Japan be the answer? He’s perennially linked every time the national job becomes available, while Grampus themselves have fallen on hard times – they’ve only recently returned to the J-League following a first-ever relegation in 2016, one overseen, sadly, by 1995 hero Ogura.

In 1995, out of love with football, Arsene Wenger found himself reinvigorated by the Land of the Rising Sun. Today, with football seemingly out of love with him, perhaps Japan can revitalise him again.

 

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