YANGON - Manager Yoshinori Kumada has been leading the Myanmar women’s national soccer team for 2½ years, guiding the unheralded side gradually up the FIFA rankings with the goal of qualifying for the 2015 World Cup.
“Try not to float the ball, but roll it steadily,” Kumada, 52, calls out in Japanese to his players practicing in the scorching heat of Yangon.
Kumada has a translator by his side, but “even when I shout in Japanese, I seem to make myself understood to the players and I’m not concerned about a language barrier,” he said.
After graduating from high school in Fukushima Prefecture, Kumada played for a number of teams, including the now-defunct ANA Yokohama soccer club.
He retired as a player at age 28 and has since coached various teams, including ANA Yokohama and various high school and university sides.
Kumada said his curiosity was piqued when he learned the Japan Football Association was looking for a manager for the women’s national team in Myanmar, where the military junta gave way to a quasi-civilian government in March 2011.
But Kumada, who chose to leave his family behind in Osaka to live alone in Myanmar, was often confused by the lifestyle differences in Southeast Asia.
Although he found the players’ skills “not so bad” and believed he could help them, Kumada has faced many difficulties coaching players who spent so much of their lives oppressed by the military junta.
“Players did what they were asked to do but were unable to think or play on their own,” he said.
When the team held a training camp in Japan in September 2012, there was a lack of effort during practice matches against teams in the Nadeshiko League.
“Once they became afraid that the odds were against them, they soon gave up,” he said.
This led Kumada to focus on improving their mental strength and stamina. This paid off with strong performances against teams from neighboring nations. In April, he was named the Women’s Coach of the Year by the ASEAN Football Federation.
He now aims to win the Southeast Asian Games under way in Myanmar, hosting its first international sporting event in 44 years.
“Ever since Mr. Kumada became our manager, our team has made improvements in every aspect, including skills and tactics,” said Khin Marlar Tun, 25, one of the team’s top players.
Kumada has also worked hard to improve the status of women’s soccer in Myanmar, where the men often get priority in using the relatively few pitches. The slim budget is also a problem.
“We have no extra uniforms and players can’t change during games,” he said.
Kumada has asked the Myanmar Football Federation to help improve the conditions.
“I’m only planting seeds,” Kumada said. “I hope that a better environment will be prepared by the time the current players become managers.”