SHIMIZU, Shizuoka Pref. — It’s an image that sticks very firmly in the mind. Sixty seconds into a crucial game against the Yokohama F. Marinos, a brilliant 60-meter pass out of defense by Kazuyuki Toda catches a flurry of dreadlocks on the run.
In a flash, the owner of the dreadlocks flies down the wing, completely humiliates the Marinos right back, steams into the penalty area and unleashes a left-footed slice of Brazilian banana that is just a blur to the ‘keeper and rips into the netting just inside the far post.
It was not an ordinary goal and the owner of the dreadlocks, Shimizu S-Pulse forward Alex, is not an ordinary J. League player. That brilliant goal helped Shimizu clinch the second-stage title last year and confirmed Alex as a star on the Japanese soccer scene.
Alex went on to become the 1999 J. League MVP and the future couldn’t have looked brighter for the 22-year-old. But, a year on, the Brazilian is having a hard time convincing S-Pulse boss Steve Perryman to put him in the starting XI every Saturday.
Alex still has dazzling speed and the ability to outfox opposing defenders, but his fortunes — reflected in the fortunes of his team — have fallen since the golden days of 1999.
After last week’s league game against Vissel Kobe at Nihondaira, Perryman admitted he had “tried to prove to Alex that S-Pulse can play without him.” The point being: The team is bigger than any individual.
Unfortunately, as Perryman quickly admitted: “I don’t think we proved that today.” And Perryman knows the reason why.
“Any opposing manager coming up against Alex has got to be worried, because he can do that special thing,” Perryman noted last Friday. “He can open up defenses when normal things can’t.”
Perryman says that both Alex and the team in general have underachieved this year and while some teams may be paying more attention to the speedy 23-year-old, Perryman believes Alex has the class to find ways out of any situation he finds himself in. But, he adds, Alex is still learning his craft.
“He’s young and is still getting an education,” the English manager noted. “But he’s got to get his percentages higher, he’s got to develop mentally and he’s got to learn team responsibility.
“But he can develop, he’s got very special feet, he can make goals and he can score goals. How much is the rest of the world paying for that?” he added rhetorically.
Is Alex interested in the rest of the world? “Yes,” he confessed in an interview with The Japan Times. “I’d like to play overseas and if an opportunity comes my way I’d have to think about it.”
Portuguese and Brazilian clubs have checked out the speedy striker, but, for now, he’s content to improve his skills in Japan. Indeed, Alex has gone so far as to apply for Japanese citizenship and it’s possible he could be in the reckoning for a place in Japan’s 2002 World Cup squad. But he’s not getting ahead of himself.
“First, I have to be granted citizenship,” he reminds us. “Then I would try my very best to make it to the Japan squad.”
Alex was recruited by Meitoku Gijuku High School in Shikoku at the age of 16 and he has lived in Japan for around seven years. He speaks Japanese and has settled in easily to the lifestyle in Shizuoka. But in some ways he is torn by the different cultural elements in his life.
“I’m not quite sure what nationality I am at the moment,” he laughs. “I’ve been here seven years and I’ve grown to like Japan and really want to live here, but as a soccer player, I’ve been here quite a while already and I do feel the pull of playing overseas.
“When I look at myself now and compare myself to how I was when I joined the club four years ago, I can see a huge difference in how I’ve developed.
“I’ve been lucky to work under (former manager Ossie) Ardiles and Perryman and I need to keep developing my skills.”
After leaving high school, Alex joined Argentine manager Ardiles and English coach Perryman at S-Pulse, although Ardiles reportedly wasn’t terribly impressed with the Brazilian. Ardiles left two years ago and Perryman took over the running of the club. Alex feels he has benefited from the disparate approaches of the two managers.
“Both have their good points,” he explained. “Ardiles taught me how to attack and how to enjoy the game, while Perryman encourages us to work hard on both attack and defense. All in all, it’s been a good blending of styles for me and the team and that’s certainly helped us develop.”
Perryman acknowledges that his team relies on confidence and that was missing in both the team and Alex in this year’s second stage, in which S-Pulse finished 13th. It’s put him in a quandary: Whether to leave out his most gifted player or leave him in not knowing if he will fire up again and kick-start the team back to success.
With the first leg of the Asian Supercup just a few days away (Dec. 3 in Shimizu), Perryman has to come up with the answer quick. The manager outlined his dilemma after the Vissel game.
“Alex is a big part of this team,” he told the press. “But if you become over-reliant on one player and that player doesn’t deliver, then that must be a problem.”
In order to solve the problem, Perryman has either dropped Alex to the bench or used him in a freer role up front instead of wide on the left. That occasionally gives Alex the freedom he seeks, but also forces him to play with his back to goal from time to time, which is not his forte.
“When you play there, you have to be able to turn before you can do anything else and that’s the hardest part for me,” Alex notes. “But other than that, I have no problem playing there.”
The Asian Supercup will be a test for Alex, the team and its manager. The rewards could be immense. If S-Pulse wins, it will qualify to play in the Club World Championship; for Perryman, who will leave S-Pulse at the end of the year, it would boost his chances of taking over another club in Japan or elsewhere; and if Alex shines, he’ll be on a world stage and in a position to show off his undoubted skills to potential clubs.
As Perryman says, it’s a confidence game and the risks are high — but the rewards could be even higher.
Win a Jaguar cap signed by Alex
Jaguar, which has supplied Alex with a rather spiffing S-Type model to cruise around in for a year, has given The Japan Times three baseball caps signed by Alex as a prize for readers.
In order to win a cap, write your name and address on a postcard and send it to: Alex Competition, Sports Department, The Japan Times, Central P.O. Box 144,352, Tokyo 100-8691, and answer the following question:
What was Alex’s answer when asked which girls he preferred?Was it: 1) Brazilian? 2) Japanese?
Those who can get their names and addresses right and can guess the answer correctly will then be selected by lottery.