Just over seven years have passed since Toninho Cerezo ended his first glittering reign as Kashima Antlers manager, but after returning to the club for a second stint, the Brazilian is pleased to find that not everything has changed in his absence.
Cerezo led Antlers to two J. League championships, two Nabisco Cup titles and one Emperor’s Cup crown during his six years in charge from 2000-05, making the most of an exceptional crop of home-grown youngsters that included midfielders Mitsuo Ogasawara, Masashi Motoyama, Takuya Nozawa and Koji Nakata.
Now, after stepping in to fill the breach left by previous manager Jorginho’s departure for family reasons at the end of last season, Cerezo is preparing to lead the seven-time champions into Saturday’s season-opener away to Sagan Tosu. And with his former proteges still around to help guide the next generation of Kashima talent, the 57-year-old is on familiar ground.
“After living and working for six years in Kashima, it’s like coming home,” said Cerezo, who starred in midfield alongside Zico as part of Brazil’s legendary 1982 World Cup team. “Kashima is a small city and very easy to live in, so it’s nice to come back.
“I’m just a small piece in a big puzzle. When I first came here, I had some players who already knew a lot about football. Now the most experienced players are the ones who were young when I was here the first time. We have a lot of young players and they have to a lot to learn, but I think that’s normal.”
Kashima enjoyed mixed fortunes under Jorginho last season, with victory in the Nabisco Cup offset by a disappointing 11th-place finish in the J. League. The club has been active in the winter transfer market with Nozawa returning from Vissel Kobe, Atsutaka Nakamura arriving from Kyoto Sanga and Brazilian striker Davi joining from Ventforet Kofu, but Cerezo admits there is pressure to perform from the outset.
“There are some young players who you need time to develop, but in football you don’t have much time,” he said. “You have to get results first. It’s normal that you have difficult things to resolve, but you have to have a competitive team.
“I think not only Kashima but all the teams in the J. League have developed since I was here the last time. The foreign players make the difference, and that is why you have to have good foreign players.”
Cerezo’s job should at least be made easier by his prior knowledge of the club, and also by Kashima’s strong relationship with his native country. Antlers did not field a single non-Brazilian foreign player until South Korean Park Joo Ho arrived at the club in 2009, while Cerezo’s countrymen have held a virtual monopoly on the manager’s position ever since Masakatsu Miyamoto vacated the post in 1994.
“One time I asked the president why they always bring in Brazilian managers,” said Cerezo. “He said if they were looking for character they would look for a Japanese manager, but Brazil is the world’s No. 1 football nation and Brazilians can make the difference. They can bring something more.
“Japanese are close to South Americans. They have good ability and technique, and they understand the Brazilian way of thinking about football much more easily.”
But soccer’s random nature, Cerezo acknowledges, means winning is far from an exact science.
“Football is not like mathematics,” he said. “Two plus two is not four. It is always different and there are always surprises in football. That’s why last year the champions had a Japanese manager. He had something different that allowed them to get the title.”
Had things worked out better for Kashima last season, Jorginho could have been the one lifting the championship trophy instead. The 1994 World Cup winner wanted for nothing in terms of goodwill having spent four years at Kashima as a player in the 1990s, but family matters meant his return as a manager ended prematurely.
“I have talked to him,” said Cerezo. “He is a fabulous person. He explained his thoughts about the team. Now I have to make my own decisions and compare that to what he was thinking. I just need some time to prepare my team to be competitive in the league.”