SAITAMA – Long-serving Urawa Reds midfielder Keita Suzuki won every domestic title on offer in the Japanese game before recently deciding to call time on his 16-year playing career.
But the 34-year-old former Japan international says that helping Reds avoid relegation to the second tier in 2011 beats winning the 2007 Asian Champions League along with the other four domestic titles.
“The matches when we became champions really stick in my mind. They were massive both from the club’s perspective and on a personal level as a player,” Suzuki told a press conference held in Saitama on Sunday to mark his retirement as a player.
“But the lasting memory for me looking back over my career would be our games in 2011 against Avispa Fukuoka at home and when we played them away with our (top flight) survival on the line.
“At the time I was captain and we were having a really tough season. At home we needed to beat them and I scored amid all the intensity, we won the game 3-0 and that was a relief.
“It was even more difficult when we played them away in our second-to-last game of the season in Fukuoka. I was captain on that day and really felt there was no way this club could allow itself to drop into J2 again,” he continued.
“I joined Reds when we were in J2 (in 2000) and even though I wasn’t playing I could feel what a struggle it was and how hard the matches were.
“After that, good times were ahead and we won the Nabisco Cup, the J. League and the ACL (and the Emperor’s Cup twice). Having experienced all those great memories I was thinking (when we played Fukuoka away) that I wouldn’t be able to bear seeing the sad faces of the fans and the staff at the club and we simply could not go down again. We fell behind in that game and it was really hard but we won and it was a massive game, bigger for me than the final of the ACL.”
A hard-working, reliable midfielder, Suzuki decided to call time on his career in November after making 379 J1 appearances with 10 goals for the Saitama giants.
Suzuki was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat at the end of the 2014 season and said that was a factor in deciding to call it a day.
“I had offers from other clubs,” said Suzuki, who was limited to just four league appearances last season. “I spent a lot of time fretting and when I said (in October) I was leaving the club without anything being decided for the future there were various reactions from the fans. Supporters said to me ‘wherever you go we want you to keep playing,’ and I really felt that people were giving me their sincerest support,” he said.
“It would probably have been possible to keep on playing but I was concerned about my condition and thought if I could not give 100 percent then I had no right to be on the pitch. Reds raised me and I am finishing as a Reds man.”
Suzuki said he hopes to continue to be involved in soccer and with Urawa.
“I have been privileged to be in the game and want to give something back,” he said. “I want to stay involved with Reds and will be having talks with (Reds) president (Keizo) Fujita and the club about that. As a pro I have had issues with performances and fitness and the field of sports science has advanced so I would like to support players with their fitness and conditioning and pour my efforts into that.”
Suzuki has ruled out going into management, at least for the foreseeable future.
“To be honest if I was asked if I want to become a coach it would not be a straight yes,” he said. “Watching from the players’ side you can see how stressful it is. I have an irregular pulse and it would not be good for my heart!
“I’m only joking but if I were ever to become a manager, the manager of Urawa Reds would be too great a job for me. I’d rather coach elementary school and kindergarten children but that’s something I’m thinking now and I don’t know how I’ll be thinking in the future.”
Suzuki launched his international career under former Japan boss Ivica Osim and was the only player to start all 20 matches under the reign of the gruff Bosnian. Osim once referred to Suzuki as the Japanese answer to former French international midfielder Claude Makelele.
“Osim gave me my international break and he was a mentor in the truest sense of the word,” said Suzuki. “I had this image of him being really frightening and having no idea what he was thinking, which was actually true for the other players, but I learnt a lot from him not just about soccer, but about life. He really was a fantastic coach.”