When the season began back in March, only a fool would have predicted that Oita Trinita would go into November preparing for a cup final just two points off the top of the J. League table.
After a 14th-place finish the previous year, events during the offseason did not exactly suggest the planets would align for one of the league’s least fashionable clubs.
First, Urawa Reds came calling for star midfielder Tsukasa Umesaki, seducing the youngster with the promise of playing for trophies rather than survival. Then Umesaki’s loan replacement from Gamba Osaka, Akihiro Ienaga, injured his knee before the first ball of the season had even been kicked.
With the team conceding 60 league goals in 2007, and with barrel-chested 36-year-old striker Ueslei the biggest name to arrive at Kyushu Oil Dome, Trinita’s fans were left praying for a miracle.
Eight months on, manager Pericles Chamusca has delivered two.
That the Brazilian is readying his players for Saturday’s Nabisco Cup final against Shimizu S-Pulse at National Stadium is impressive enough, but the fact that the club is firmly in the J. League title shakeup at such a late stage of the season is truly remarkable.
Chamusca deserves full credit for the job he has done, blending up-and-coming talents such as Masato Morishige and Mu Kanazaki with experienced heads like Ueslei and fellow Brazilians Roberto and Edmilson.
Harmony is Chamusca’s mantra, stressing the sacrifices that need to be made for the good of the team above all else.
“It is the friendship between the players, the bonds, the communication between players and staff and the good atmosphere,” he said after holding Reds to a 0-0 draw at Saitama Stadium in September. “The good communication we have now is half of what good marking is about.”
But the manner in which Oita has achieved success has not left such a sweet taste in everyone’s mouth. For all the florid eloquence of Chamusc a’s words, there is little poetry in the way his team plays.
Trinita is the last word in ultra-conservative caution, smothering opponents with a defensive blanket while relentlessly breaking up play in a midfield packed with ruthless destroyers.
Attacking seems merely a diversion from the defensive task in hand, and with hulking striker Yasuhito Morishima leading the line, the route toward goal is rarely easy on the eye.
“They don’t play much soccer, but they have the point they need,” Urawa manager Gert Engels grumbled after the September draw, echoing the same sentiment of grudging respect muttered throughout the country every weekend.
When Spain won Euro 2008 this summer, newspaper columns around the world were filled with eulogies for Luis Aragones’ team, and how it had wiped away the turgid memory of Greece’s triumph four years earlier with proof that commitment to expansive, beautiful soccer will eventually bring its reward.
Not everyone subscribes to that view, however. Some years ago, the then-Internazionale coach Hector Cuper nailed his colors firmly to the mast.
“For the person who really likes football,” he said, “acres of space and little closing down can end up being just boring. For me, though, I like to think back to our 0-0 draw with Roma. That game was a perfect example of a football (match) in which you have to think and act quickly, do everything in a flash and in a tight corner.”
For someone to offer a 0-0 draw as the example of the perfect game may be anathema to many fans, but it suits Trinita’s philosophy like a glove.
Italian soccer has always placed the emphasis on defense, and there is something of current Inter manager Jose Mourinho in Chamusca, and not just in the physical similarity and touchline strutting. But while the English media’s praise of Arsenal’s fluid grace over Mourinho’s dour functionality during his time in charge of Chelsea always grated with the Portuguese, Chamusca is unlikely to care what is said about him as long as his team keeps winning.
Indeed, in a league where high-scoring games — and by extension, sloppy defending — are commonplace, Chamusca may well feel justified in wearing his side’s pragmatism like a badge of honor.
But it is not Chamusca’s job to appeal to the purists. It is his job to bring success to his club.
Even if S-Pulse denies him his first piece of silverware on Saturday, there can be no denying he is moving in the right direction.