NAGOYA – Nearly 20 years after his brief stay in Japan, Arsene Wenger’s influence still echoes, following its rise from a backwater of world soccer to one of its emerging powers.
The serious Frenchman left a lasting impression not only on his colleagues at Nagoya Grampus, where he was manager for 18 months in 1995 and 1996, but also on the Japanese game as a whole.
“Pass the ball to the future. The side pass is present and the back pass is past,” Wenger was fond of saying at the time, according to former Nagoya midfielder Tetsuo Nakanishi, 43, who doubled as his interpreter.
“He advocated positive attacks with thrusts forward. It was entertaining to watch and the players enjoyed it,” Nakanishi said.
When Wenger returned to Nagoya for the first time this week with Arsenal, a largely red-clad crowd of 43,000 turned out to greet him, waving banners such as “Welcome home, Bengeru (Wenger)”.
Before Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Nagoya, former players of the club — including current manager Dragan Stojkovic — played a commemorative game in honor of the Frenchman.
“Manager Wenger remembered the name of everyone,” mused former striker Takafumi Ogura, now 40. “I felt nostalgic when I saw them (Wenger and Stojkovic) together. It’s been 17 years already. How amazing!”
Excitement is understandable in Nagoya after Wenger transformed the club, in the early years of the J. League, from a foot-of-the-table outfit to trophy winners, and then went on to lead Arsenal to three English Premier League titles and four F.A. Cups.
“It was a great loss and disappointment to Japanese football that they abruptly decided on Wenger’s transfer to Arsenal in the middle of the 1996 season,” said veteran Japanese soccer writer Yoshiyuki Osumi.
“But he has since made a great success in England and become one of the most outstanding managers in football history. This does Nagoya as well as Japan’s football community proud.”
Wenger’s legacy extends beyond Nagoya after he wrote a book on soccer management, “Shosha no Esprit” (Spirit of Conquest) for the Japanese market.
While “the Professor” is not the only man to influence Japanese soccer, the attractive, short-passing game of its national team bears a resemblance to Arsenal’s distinctive style.
And it’s been successful for Japan, which won its fourth Asian Cup title in 2011 and will play in its fifth straight World Cup in Brazil next year.
At the 2012 Olympics, Japan defeated Spain in the group stage.
Meanwhile, the Japan women became Asia’s first soccer world champions in 2011 when it beat the United States on penalty kicks in the final in Frankfurt.
Hans Ooft’s time in charge of the men’s team, from 1992 to 1993, is seen as seminal for Japanese soccer, but Wenger, who turned down a chance to coach the Blue Samurai, is also credited with helping them recruit fellow Frenchman Philippe Troussier, manager from 1998 to 2002.
He also successfully mentored Stojkovic, a talented but wayward player for Nagoya when Wenger arrived, who then helped it win the Emperor’s Cup and finish runnerup in the 1996 J. League.
The former Yugoslav international, who remains an ardent fan of Wenger’s, later became Nagoya’s manager and coached it to its first J. League title in 2010.
“One of Wenger’s biggest achievements at Grampus was his success in helping Stojkovic’s genius contribute to the team’s victories,” Osumi said.
“If Wenger had served as the Japan coach from 1998, the way the J. League and the Japan Football Association act would have been different,” he added.
Asian influences also shaped Wenger following his arrival after seven years at Monaco. He was inspired by Japan’s healthy diet and the feng shui concept of design when he began his project to revolutionize Arsenal’s training habits and culture.
He said he was impressed at developments in Japan. Whereas the J. League once relied on foreign celebrities, it now exports players like Shinji Kagawa to Manchester United, Yuto Nagatomo to Inter Milan, Keisuke Honda to CSKA Moscow and ex-Celtic man Shunsuke Nakamura.
Japan, 37th in the world, isconsistently Asia’s top-ranked team, and has twice reached the knockout phase of the World Cup, on home soil in 2002 and again in 2010.
Expectations have now risen so high that there was harsh criticism when Japan crashed out of last month’s Confederations Cup without a win, despite running Italy desperately close in a narrow 4-3 defeat.
“Japanese football has moved forward fantastically,” Wenger, 63, told Arsenal’s website, citing its Europe-based stars and well-organized youth system.
“I don’t think they are a candidate to win the World Cup today, but when you look at their youth teams, Japan are dominant forces in the international tournaments. That means that their next step is to reach the semi-finals or final of the World Cup,” he said.