KAWASAKI – After the upheaval of an offseason transfer to Kawasaki Frontale, Koji Yamase is happy to see his new team occupy familiar ground near the top of the J. League table.
Kawasaki has recovered from an indifferent start to go into Saturday’s game against Kashima Antlers just two points behind first-place Kashiwa Reysol, rekindling hopes that this could be the year the Kanagawa side finally claims the title after finishing in the top five for each of the last five seasons.
But such consistency masks the changes that have taken place at Todoroki Stadium over the past six months. Former player Naoki Soma took over from manager Tsutomu Takahata after a disappointing 2010 season that saw the departure of key players Eiji Kawashima and Chong Tese, and ther were further comings and goings over the winter as the club began to lay the groundwork for a new era.
Among those arriving was midfielder Yamase, who found himself surplus to requirements at Yokohama F. Marinos despite 13 international caps and succesful stints at Consadole Sapporo and Urawa Reds under his belt. The 29-year-old attracted no shortage of suitors, but ultimately it was Frontale’s reputation that spoke the loudest.
“When I was considering which team to join, the most important thing was to find a team that suited my style of play and had other players who shared the same rhythm,” Yamase said at the club’s training ground earlier this week. “I had offers from three other J. League teams, but Frontale was the best fit. When they have the ball they go for goal, and that suits me.
“At first we had some difficulties, but little by little it has come together and each player has come to understand what it means to play Frontale’s style of football. We’ve begun to show that on the pitch, and the results we have been getting lately reflect that. The atmosphere is good and everyone is enjoying it.”
Yamase has helped the cause with five goals from midfield, but he is still far from happy with his own contribution.
“I would give myself 60 out of 100,” he said. “There have been some good things about my game, and I have been able to score some goals. I’ve been getting in shots and my finishing has not been bad, but when the game is over and you watch it back you always see things you need to work on.”
Under former national team defender Soma, that means adding discipline to Frontale’s characteristic attacking flair.
“The team is much more united now,” Yamase said. “When we defend we defend as a unit, and everyone knows exactly what they have to do. All 11 players’ movement is connected, and we are all on the same wavelength. When you think of previous Frontale teams, they were able to make the difference through their individual talent. This year our strength is our teamwork.”
Yamase has no hard feelings at being shunted out of Marinos after six years of service, with the experience of his move from fierce rival Urawa in 2005 thickening his skin to the tribal rivalries of the club game.
“Marinos didn’t offer me a new contract, so I had to move and the supporters appreciated what I had done in six years there,” he said. “When I moved from Reds to Marinos it was a big move for me, and I felt both appreciative and apologetic toward the fans. When I played against Reds the fans booed me, but I knew that was because they had affection for me in the first place. As a player you feel you have a responsibility to respond to that by playing well. That’s all you can do.”
That sense of perspective came in handy when Yamase was handed a late chance to stake his claim for a place in Japan’s 2010 World Cup squad against Serbia in Osaka last April. The 3-0 defeat was the team’s last match before manager Takeshi Okada named his final squad for South Africa, but Yamase always knew time was against him.
“It was the last match, and I hadn’t been involved for a long time so I wasn’t really under any pressure,” he said. “On the other hand, the players who had been there all along might have felt they had to show something. I knew my chances of making it were slim. I just went out there and enjoyed it. I don’t know how the regulars would have taken it if I had got in the final squad. It wasn’t a huge shock that I didn’t.”
Yamase’s chance of global success might have passed, but a new generation is determined to seize the moment. The number of young Japanese willing to make the move to European clubs is increasing all the time, and Yamase approves.
“If you look at it from a long-term perspective for the good of Japanese football, the experience those players can get from going abroad is immeasurable,” he said. “When I was younger I studied football in Brazil, and it was a fantastic experience as a player and as a person. If they go abroad and then bring back what they have learned, the level of Japanese football will continue to rise.
“When I was about 20 there weren’t many players doing that — maybe Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura — but nothing like the number now. I think the level of the younger players now is higher than it was then. Year by year the game is getting stronger here.”