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Akita Prefecture has traditionally been famous for its rice. But, in recent years, the quality of young soccer talent coming out of the area’s high schools has caught the media spotlight.

Local teams, such as the one from Akita Shogyo High School, have earned themselves a reputation as top contenders in national high school competitions. The school has also produced top professional players such as Tomoaki Seino and Shingo Kumabayashi, now playing for Jubilo Iwata in the J. League.

Inspired by an effort to bring the level of sport in Akita closer to international standards, foreign soccer coaches have been invited in recent years to teach in the local high schools. Guilherme Costa, a 25-year-old Brazilian, is one such coach, now finishing up his third and final year in Akita City.

His background made him an ideal choice to coach soccer in Akita. In his junior year of high school he played in the Brazilian national high school championship team, and a number of his teammates went on to become international soccer stars; Ferreira Evanilson for one.

Choosing to continue his education rather than go professional, Costa entered the prestigious Minas Gerais university. After graduating with a degree in physical education at the age of 21, he joined Cruzairo, one of Brazil’s top professional teams, as its youth team’s physical coach.

When the Japanese consulate in Brazil sought young coaches to come to Japan, Costa was one of just two candidates chosen. Commenting on his decision to go to Japan, he said, “I welcomed the opportunity to come and give the young Japanese players victory.”

In August of 1998, Costa arrived in Japan as one of 30 elite foreign athletes in the fledging Sports Education Advisor program. SEAs first started coming to Japan in 1995 as a part of the government’s Japan Education and Teaching program.

After a brief training session in Tokyo, Costa was assigned to the Akita City International Affairs Office, where his job was to assist in the coaching at Akita Shogyo High School. He had heard of the school’s impressive soccer history, but he was surprised by what he saw during his first weeks on its training field.

The school’s training program followed a rigid routine typical of many of Japan’s school sports programs. During the exhausting four-hour practice sessions, Costa sensed a lack of genuine enthusiasm among many of the players.

The young Brazilian coach also found it particularly disturbing to observe many of the boys vacantly standing around drinking water during the rest breaks, while the school coaches smoked cigarettes.

“This kind of atmosphere went against everything I was taught in Brazil,” Costa explained. The Japanese style of training that stresses monotonous routine can induce burnout and unnecessary player injuries. In Brazil, however, the emphasis is on bringing diversity to each day’s training program.

“[This], combined with short, but very concentrated training sessions, keeps the players alert and enthusiastic,” Costa added.

The most startling culture shock came, however, when the young Brazilian saw the team’s head coach violently disciplining one of the team players. “I found the experience strange,” Costa said. “This is something that never occurs in Brazil.”

New to Japan and unable to communicate directly with the coach in Japanese, Costa asked his supervisor to relay a message to the high school’s head coach, asking him not to beat the players in front of him again. Instead of complying with — or at least addressing — Costa’s request, the coach simply stopped sending an assistant to pick him up for team practices.

For the next three months Costa was out of coaching work. He spent his hours at his office studying Japanese and improving his English skills. “Those were the most horrible days of my life,” he said. “It was a deeply confusing time, finding myself being ignored by the very people who invited me here.”

Hearing of Costa’s situation, a teacher from Minami High School in Akita City asked Costa to coach the school’s soccer team. The team was ranked among the top eight in the prefecture, the players were eager to work with the young Brazilian and the coach gave Costa free rein to coach his own style of soccer.

Under his leadership, the Minami team improved rapidly. That first year the team went to the prefectural tournament, where they lost in the finals against Shogyo, but eventually finished the season ranked third among all teams in the Tohoku region of northern Japan.

Costa’s accomplishment did not go unnoticed. He was soon approached by other high schools eager to benefit from his coaching skills. During his second year, he was requested to coach five teams at the same time. After an awkward year juggling this impractical schedule, he negotiated to spend his third year concentrating on just two high school teams. Both teams made the quarterfinals of this year’s prefectural tournament.

With his coaching career in Akita coming to an end this month, Costa reflected on his three years in Japan: “The hardest part about this job has been dealing with the coaches. So often they are too protective of their way of doing things. I’ve learned to change my way of talking, so as not to be misunderstood. But my only regret is that I couldn’t have proven myself with the Akita Shogyo team.”

When asked about his future plans he said, “One of my Brazilian coaches has introduced me to a coaching opportunity on the Gold Coast, where I am heading with my Australian fiancee.”