Shimizu S-Pulse manager Afshin Ghotbi has seen more changes in his two years at the club than most coaches experience in a decade, but that isn’t stopping the Iranian-American from aiming high over the coming J. League season.
Ghotbi took over in 2011 with S-Pulse in a state of upheaval having shipped out practically the entire first-choice lineup over the offseason, but after a 10th-place finish at his first attempt and more squad changes ahead of his second, something began to click.
S-Pulse reached last season’s Nabisco Cup final only to lose 2-1 in extra time to Kashima Antlers, and took their challenge for the J. League title down to the final month before falling away to a ninth-place finish.
Now, as the Shizuoka side prepares for Saturday’s 2013 season-opener away to Omiya Ardija, Ghotbi again finds himself surveying new faces on the training ground. The 49-year-old admits his time at the club has not always run smoothly, but nothing, it seems, can dampen his enthusiasm.
“My hopes and expectations are sometimes beyond the reality,” said Ghotbi. “I’ve had a difficult project, because when I came in some of the key players were gone and we were in the red financially, so we had to really build the club from scratch.
“I feel now we are in the position where we can challenge for something. Last year we almost did something incredible, historic and special. When we reached the Nabisco Cup final we were alive in all three competitions, then when we lost in overtime we didn’t have the depth to achieve our goals in the J. League. I believe this year we have built a base and recruited some very good players with leadership and experience to complete our squad.”
Given the abundance of young talent at Ghotbi’s disposal, experience will certainly be a valuable commodity. The team that started the Nabisco Cup final had an average age of just 23, and with potential superstars like Toshiyuki Takagi and Hideki Ishige on the books, the manager sees a bright future.
“I really believe that in the next few years you will see several national team players come from our club,” Ghotbi said. “That is really exciting for S-Pulse and our fans. If you look at our squad from Ishige being one of the youngest, there is some really good talent coming through, and hopefully if they develop they can contribute to Japanese football.”
One young player whose development Ghotbi will no longer have a hand in is attacking midfielder Genki Omae. The 23-year-old was S-Pulse’s top scorer last season with 13 goals, but when Germany’s Fortuna Dusseldorf came in with an offer over the winter, the siren song of Europe proved impossible to resist.
“The challenge for us as a club is to sustain our players as we develop them,” said Ghotbi. “Genki developed and he did well, but his contract was up so it was a very inexpensive option for Dusseldorf to take him. It was his dream and we couldn’t keep him so he left.
“That’s what we have to do from this point on. I think the club has done a terrific job of creating longer contracts that keep our players at our club longer so we can build something.”
As for the short term, Ghotbi is expecting new Brazilian striker Bare to start firing immediately.
“I am so impressed with the personality he brings in every day to training,” he said of Bare, who enjoyed success with several J. League clubs before leaving for the Middle East in 2008. “The guy is not only a great goal scorer, powerful, experienced, but he is also a real leader. He still has a hunger at 31 to want to win.
“He is a great addition to our club because last year we missed efficiency in front of goal. We didn’t have the striker that could regularly score goals.”
Whether Bare and his new teammates can live up to Ghotbi’s expectations remains to be seen, but for now, nothing can stop the manager from dreaming.
“I am an optimist and always have been,” he said. “I always feel like we are going to win something.”