KASHIWA, Chiba Pref. – Kashima Antlers’ attempts to clinch another J. League title will hog the limelight on Saturday, but not everyone’s eyes will be focused on the top of the table.
Seemingly dead and buried just one month ago, Kashiwa Reysol are sensing first-division survival. Two wins from their previous two games have left Reysol just four points behind Omiya Ardija with two games to play, with a head-to-head showdown between the two sides next up on Saturday.
While Omiya has been in a free-fall over the past month, Kashiwa has been raging against the dying light with a string of tenacious performances, most notably a 5-0 demolition of Shimizu S-Pulse earlier this month.
At the heart of Reysol’s revival has been Brazilian playmaker Franca. The mercurial 33-year-old has polarized opinion since joining from Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen in 2005, but there can be no denying the role he has to play as Kashiwa seeks to emulate local rival JEF United’s great escape of last year.
“We have won our last two games, and that has given us a huge boost,” Franca said at the club’s training ground on Thursday. “Momentum is very important in football, and the manager has been preparing us to take that spirit into our final two games. I think we can do it.”
That manager is Nelsinho, who took over from rookie Shinichiro Takahashi when results began to run away from the team earlier in the season. Franca credits his fellow Brazilian for turning things around, but also believes a greater sense of responsibility among the players has played its part.
“The biggest difference is that the players as individuals have woken up,” he said. “Since he arrived, the manager has demanded a lot from us, and we have been able to take that into the games and express ourselves.
“If we had done that from the start, we wouldn’t be in the situation we are in now, and we know that we have to beat Omiya and then Kawasaki Frontale. But we are on a high from our last two games, everyone is confident and we will be giving it everything we’ve got.”
Franca was the undoubted architect of Kashiwa’s thrashing of S-Pulse, running the show with his pinpoint passing and helping himself to two goals before bagging the winner against Albirex Niigata in the next round of games.
The Brazilian is aware of his status as the team’s star, but concedes he would be nowhere without his colleagues’ efforts.
“In training, the manager’s message of moving and supporting has been getting through to the players, and that has given them the confidence to do it,” he said. “I’m not the type to keep the ball for myself and dribble. My strengths lie with other players moving around me, and when that happens I play well.”
On his day, Franca cuts a bewitching figure. Moving with a distinctive loping, hunched gait, the striker’s gift for seeing what others cannot marks him out in a league characterized by frenzied and often aimless running.
“It’s very difficult to explain,” he said. “My style of play is not really based on thinking. I see what is happening around me in panorama and make decisions based on the moment — to pick out this player with a pass, or see that this player is being marked so that route is closed.
“Maybe I can see what is happening better than others, but my game needs boldness and confidence for it to work. You can’t be afraid to make mistakes.”
Franca’s time at Leverkusen, where he played alongside Lucio, Dimitar Berbatov and Urawa Reds’ Robson Ponte, ended badly when he found himself unable to force his way back into the team after injury.
“I still had a year and a half left on my contract when I left Leverkusen, but Germany just didn’t suit me,” he said. “I was a regular in the team for about six months, but then I got injured and was out for two months. In Brazil, when you return from injury or illness you get your place back, so I couldn’t come to terms with the German way of thinking.
“At the time I was in the Brazil team and I really wanted to play, so when I found myself on the bench I couldn’t put up with it and wanted to leave. Everyone was telling me I should go to Spain or Italy, but I was fascinated by Japan. When I came here I really loved it. If I had known what Japan was like I would have come here straight from Brazil instead of going to Germany.”
Not that he regrets his European experience entirely.
“Japan is a great place to live, but if you are only interested in your career Europe is better,” he said. “Everyone knows (FC Porto’s) Hulk now, and he played in Japan before becoming a big name in Europe. If you are like him and you get the chance to play in Europe when you are 20-25, it’s a blessing.
“I had that chance and I played in the Champions League. Europe is the stage to get that kind of experience and make a name for yourself.”
Franca also played eight times for Brazil’s national team, scoring the equalizer in a 1-1 draw against England at Wembley in 2000. Appearing alongside more illustrious teammates, however, left the young striker overwhelmed.
“To be chosen for Brazil was a great honor and an experience that stays with you for the rest of your life,” he said. “After the game at Wembley I was in the bath when Rivaldo tapped me on the shoulder, passed me a mobile phone and told me to call my family. I was young and didn’t have much experience or much money, and here was Rivaldo offering me his phone!
“It was all too much for me, so I told him I couldn’t take it. I ended up calling my family from a public phone at the airport. For a Brazilian, to wear that uniform is a really special thing.”
While his international career might not have continued on the same trajectory, Franca nevertheless etched his name into history that day at Wembley. His goal was Brazil’s last ever in the historic stadium before it was hauled down for rebuilding, and the significance has not been lost almost 10 years on.
“I’m still waiting for them to unveil a plaque or give me a certificate,” he joked. “Seriously, it’s a great honor to have my name remembered in history like that.”