If Mechelen boss Ivan Buskens had actually seen a J. League game before signing Masahiro Endo, perhaps it would have changed his mind.
The Mechelen man, on a flying visit to Tokyo to tie things up with the 29-year-old Shimizu S-Pulse defender/midfielder, took in the Verdy Kawasaki-FC Tokyo game at Todoroki Stadium on Saturday and found it hard to be diplomatic about the quality of soccer he saw.
“I don’t know enough to know exactly about the level of football here, but I think it’s lower than in Belgium,” he said in an interview in Tokyo afterward. “Or maybe we just had a lousy match this afternoon.”
Fellow-Belgian Robert Maes, a Japan-based businessman who helped facilitate the deal for Mechelen, was able to put his finger on it.
“It was s**t,” he commented unequivocably.
Maes, a former professional footballer himself, kept faith with former Jubilo Iwata star Endo after the midfielder suffered a series of injuries and found himself plying his trade with Yokohama FC, which he helped to the JFL title last year.
Maes took Endo to Mechelen for a trial and Buskens was both surprised and impressed with what he saw.
“To be honest, I knew nothing about Japanese football until last month,” Buskens admitted. “I looked on the Internet and had a lot of information from Robert, but I didn’t know so much.
“I also spoke with (former Cerezo Osaka manager) Rene (Desayere) and he told me he liked it over here and that there were some very talented players in Japan.
“I saw two tapes of the national team from the last World Cup and I was surprised at their level of play.
“Obviously, (Hidetoshi) Nakata is the key of the national team; he’s something special. I saw him play with Perugia on TV and he’s a great player.”
Buskens took former Japan international Endo on a month’s trial, training with the Mechelen squad and playing for the reserves. He was surprised at what he saw.
“He was with us for a month and gave a very good impression,” Mechelen’s general manager commented, adding that Endo’s style of play was well-suited to the more aggressive Belgian league.
“In the game he played for us he was very good, very aggressive. I was surprised today about the level of the (Verdy-Tokyo) game, but I think Endo is ready for the Belgian league. He’s got that good mentality and positional sense. He also has good discipline.”
Buskens described the style of play in Japan as “naive” and said that Endo would be under more pressure on the ball in Belgium.
“You can see they love the Latino (South American) style here,” he explained. “You can see it in the way they play. But modern football is no longer Latino style. You can see that from the World Cup. Now you have to combine the technical and the physical. For me, Argentina is at the top and that’s the style we are trying to play.
“One of the reasons why we are happy to welcome Endo is because he has that style and I think he could be a top player in Belgium. I’ll be looking for other players (from Japan), so I hope he will be an example for players who want to come to Europe.”
While in Japan, Buskens checked out a Yokohama FC game and saw Pierre Littbarski’s team romp 6-2 over Otsuka FC. He is hoping to take Yokohama’s Kosaku Masuda and Narita Takaki for a similar one-month trial to the historic town of Mechelen.
“I’m sure Belgium is a good place for Japanese players to go,” Buskens added. “The level is not the highest, but it is high enough. I think it’s perfect for Japanese players.
“Perhaps the most important thing with Endo is that he has experience and he can help our younger players.”
Endo will be playing for a club with a long and successful history in Belgium. Mechelen won the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1989 and has one of the best soccer schools in the country. The club is situated about 20 minutes from Brussels.
Buskens believes Belgium football is on the rise again after a sharp decline toward the end of the ’90s.
“There’s a new buzz in the national team,” he enthuses. “I think we are top 10 in Europe, and on a good day top six.
“We can beat anybody — unfortunately, everyone can also beat us.”
Buskens didn’t commit himself beyond saying that Belgium should qualify for the second round of the European Championship next month, but he did sound a word of warning over the controversial choice of Charleroi as a venue for the England-Germany game on June 17.
“England are balking at playing in Charleroi and I think they are right,” Buskens noted. “I was there two months ago and, for me, they are not ready to receive anyone. It’s a mess. They were still building.
“I hope it will be ready, but I’m afraid it will be a disaster. I hope that doesn’t come true.”
Endo is contracted to stay with Shimizu S-Pulse until July 15 before heading for his new home in Belgium. He has signed a one-year contract and a deal to show Mechelen games live on TV in Japan is in the pipeline.