Kashima Antlers head into the new J. League campaign at something of a crossroads after a disappointing sixth-place finish last season, but incoming manager Jorginho sees no need to start a revolution.
Antlers won three successive championships from 2007 to 2009 under previous manager Oswaldo Oliveira, but when damage to Kashima Stadium in the March 11 earthquake forced the team into temporary exile early last season, it was clear 2011 was not going to be another vintage year.
A brief flirtation with relegation followed until results picked up over the summer, and although Antlers lifted the Nabisco Cup before the season was out, Oliveira’s end-of-year departure felt like a full stop on a great side that had grown old together.
Not so, insists Jorginho. The 1994 World Cup-winning Brazilian has returned to the club where he played from 1995 to 1998 after cutting his managerial teeth as an assistant to Dunga with his country’s national team, and the 47-year-old is adamant that Kashima stalwarts like midfielder Mitsuo Ogasawara still have plenty to offer.
“With every club there comes a time where you have to change your players, but you don’t have to do it all at once,” Jorginho said ahead of Kashima’s season-opening visit to Vegalta Sendai on Saturday. “You have to do it naturally.
“Ogasawara is 32 years old, but I don’t think that makes him old. I think he can play until 36 or more — it all depends on him. The process will go on naturally and we don’t have to think too much about changing it.”
Jorginho’s words will no doubt win him friends in the dressing room, but then there can hardly be a corner of Kashima that does not revere him already. The Brazilian was one of the J. League’s most successful foreign imports — winning the championship twice and picking up the player-of-the-year award in 1996 — and his bond with the fans remains unbroken.
“It is a great pleasure to come back, especially because I am the first former player to become the manager here,” he said. “It feels great to be back and very exciting to meet the supporters. Now the expectations are on us to get results and win titles.”
Jorginho will have to make do without two of last season’s most reliable performers, however, with striker Yuzo Tashiro and midfielder Takuya Nozawa both departing for Vissel Kobe. Veteran striker Juninho heads a relatively inexperienced crop of newcomers, but the manager is confident he can find a solution.
“We have a small squad but we have a lot of quality in the group,” he said. “If we all pull together, we can have a good season. We know that we lost two big players in Nozawa and Tashiro, but now we have to try to find the players to replace them.
“We also have Juninho coming in from Frontale, (Hideya) Okamoto from Avispa, (Ryuta) Sasaki coming back from Bellmare and some youth players coming through with a lot of quality. So we have to see how the team has changed and how we can get results this season.”
But Jorginho’s transition from player to manager is not the only thing that has changed since he was last around the J. League. The former right back or midfielder lined up alongside Leonardo and played against the likes of Dragan Stojkovic, Dunga and Salvatore Schillaci in his time, but the days of such glamor signings are long in the past.
“There is a big difference,” he said. “First of all, the foreigners who were playing at that time were playing for their national teams and they were big stars. They made the difference in the game — between the Japanese and the foreign players and also between the teams.
“Now there are some national team players but not many. This helps the Japanese players to develop tactically, technically and also physically. Now you can see a lot of Japanese players playing overseas, and the J. League has grown up and developed too.”