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Rafael says Ardija must keep poise despite home struggles

by Andrew Mckirdy

Staff Writer

Omiya Ardija are yet to win a single game at their own Nack5 Stadium this season, but Brazilian striker Rafael is determined to find some home comfort as soon as possible.

The current campaign has been a curious one for Omiya, whose league position of 10th fails to tell the full story of a team excelling on its travels but puzzlingly unable to find the answers at home.

Five away wins have been offset by five defeats and four draws in Saitama, and with the season passing the halfway point last weekend the situation is beginning to cast a sizable shadow over Jun Suzuki’s side.

Among those feeling the frustration is Rafael. The 190-cm striker has scored three of his four goals this season at Nack5 Stadium without ever celebrating victory there, but even though Saturday’s visit to Yokohama F. Marinos means the record cannot be set straight for at least another week, Rafael cautions against dwelling on it for too long.

“It’s very difficult for the players,” the 28-year-old said at the club’s training ground earlier this week. “We’re getting results away but we haven’t been able to win even once at home, which is very hard to take. It’s normal for teams to get better results at home than away, but for us it’s exactly the opposite.

“I don’t feel under any particular pressure when we’re playing at home. Maybe some of the other players feel that way, but not me. I go into every match wanting to win so I always feel some pressure anyway, but not just because we’re at home.

“In the first half of the season there were many times where we created a lot of chances late in the game but couldn’t finish them off. In a situation like that it’s important to stay calm.”

Cool finishing has been a hallmark of Rafael’s game since joining Ardija in summer 2009, and his direct running and powerful athleticism have also played a big part in keeping the club in the top flight for a seventh consecutive season.

Omiya has been striving for years to swap its annual relegation dogfight for a place among the division’s upper echelons, and Rafael believes the current squad is more than capable of doing so.

“If you compare it to last year I think we’re in better shape now,” he said. “With Keigo Higashi and Kota Ueda joining we’re a more attacking team and we’re creating more chances. But we are also making a lot of mistakes and conceding needless goals, and although we are making chances we aren’t scoring them. If we can sort these things out in the second half of the season, then we can start moving up the table.”

The last few years at Ardija, however, have hardly provided a distraction-free backdrop for success. First came the announcement last February that defender Taishi Tsukamoto had been diagnosed with bone cancer, before a scandal emerged eight months later when president Seigo Watanabe admitted that the club had falsified official attendance figures.

“When we heard the news about Taishi it was a huge shock for all of us,” said Rafael. “After all the hard work and effort our friend had put into his football career, suddenly he couldn’t play at all. But we tried our best to hide our shock from him because we needed to be strong and support him.

“As players, the attendance-padding thing was something that happened away from the training ground so it didn’t have anything do with us at all. We have to concentrate on our job, not the things that go on outside. The news about Taishi was a shock and it affected us a lot, but anything that happens outside the ground has no impact whatsoever.”

Such single-mindedness was also evident in Rafael’s previous overseas posting, with a four-year stint in Turkey coming close to earning him an appearance for his adopted country’s national team. A change in nationality and a new name — Rafet El Marques — showed how far he was willing to go to fulfill his international ambitions, but when a callup failed to materialize the trail went cold.

“I played in Turkey for four years, and in the third year the director of my club told me that if I took up Turkish citizenship I might have a chance of playing for their national team,” he said. “This was something I was interested in doing, so I took up the challenge and gave it a shot. I got Turkish citizenship and a Turkish name but not a passport. I didn’t get called up to the Turkish team, and then I came to Japan and I haven’t heard anything since.”

His new home, however, is proving to be a worthy substitute.

“Japan is a very orderly country and a pleasant and easy place to live,” he said. “The Japanese are very sincere and hard-working people, and that is something I can really respect. I aspire to be that kind of person myself, so I’m doing my best to adapt as quickly as I can.”