KAWASAKI — Forty-four-year-old Kazuyoshi Miura may have rolled back the years to score in Tuesday’s disaster relief charity match, but for former international teammate Naoki Soma those days are long gone.
In 2005, Soma brought down the curtain on a playing career that saw him win 58 caps as a marauding left-back for the national team, representing Japan in its first World Cup appearance in 1998 and forming an integral part of Kashima Antlers’ backline as the Ibaraki club established itself as a powerhouse when the J. League began in the early ’90s.
Now, after a stint working as a TV commentator, Soma is back in the game, taking over as manager of Kawasaki Frontale at the beginning of the season after a year in charge of Japan Football League side Machida Zelvia.
A 2-0 opening-day win over Montedio Yamagata got Soma off to an impressive start before the league shut down indefinitely in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, but the 39-year-old is keen to get back to business now that an April 23 return to action has been decided.
“We prepared for the opening game, and the result and performance were both good so it was disappointing not to be able to build on that,” he said at the club’s training ground earlier this week. “But now we have a clear target to work toward, and that focuses concentration in training. Now we want to use the time we have to prepare and start strongly again.”
Soma’s shrewd reading of the game was as evident in his broadcasting work as it was in his playing career, but history is littered with those whose talent does not make the successful transition to management. His time at Machida may have been short, but Soma believes it served as a crucial testing ground.
“For me, that’s the only experience I have as a manager,” he said. “After I finished playing I worked as a commentator and watched a lot of games, but there is a difference between watching and doing it for real. It’s about more than just studying, so that experience was very important. . .”
Having ended his playing career at Frontale after winning four league titles with Antlers, Soma now finds himself in charge of a team containing players he once counted as teammates. That close bond with the dressing room, he feels, can only work to his advantage.
“To be a manager you have to have a wide range of skills,” he said. “You’re not out there playing, so you have to be able to convey your message to the players, and you have to be a leader and set an example with the way you act and behave.
“You are responsible for the whole team, and a lot of things are very different from how they were as a player. But I was also a player for a long time, and I know what it feels like to be a player. I don’t want to lose that.”
If Soma wishes to seek inspiration from a former teammate, however, he could do worse than Leonardo. The Brazilian midfielder made 49 league appearances for Kashima between 1994-96, but the skills that would eventually see him become European champion Inter Milan’s current manager appear to have been lost on Soma.
“When I was a player, Leonardo didn’t strike me as the type to become a manager at all,” he said. “I didn’t play with him for a long time, and he was young at the time — maybe 25 or 26. There were a lot of Brazilians at Kashima, and I thought it would be players like Jorginho or Santos who were more likely to go into management. They were the veterans, so it was easy to imagine that. But I couldn’t really imagine Leonardo.”
The fact that Yuto Nagatomo — a left-back in the same swashbuckling tradition as Soma — now plays under Leonardo at Inter shows just how far the Japanese game has come since the country’s first World Cup appearance at France ’98. Soma, however, is keen to stress the progress that has been made off the pitch as well as on it.
“I think Japanese football has grown a huge amount from top to bottom,” he said. “I played in the World Cup 13 years ago, and if a huge disaster had happened at that time, like we have now, I don’t think Japanese football would have been strong enough to put on a charity match like the one we had this week. Certainly not one that could attract as much attention.
“In 1995, when the earthquake in Kobe happened, football wasn’t able to help, but this time it has brought so many people together. So when I say football has grown a lot in this country, I’m not just talking about the quality of play. The power of football has grown also.”