The remaining days of one of the J. League’s most tenacious managers may be numbered.
This week’s conclusion of the summer transfer window has been largely overshadowed by the controversy surrounding Shonan Bellmare boss Cho Kwi-jea and accusations of power harassment that could force him to leave the Kanagawa Prefecture club as early as this month.
Now in his eighth year in charge of the first-division side, the former defender has become renowned for his disciplinarian style, regularly drilling his players with physically intense training sessions that have given the team the nickname “Running Shonan.”
After guiding Bellmare to top-flight promotion on three separate occasions, Cho captured the club’s first major trophy since 1995 last fall when the team defeated prefectural rivals Yokohama F. Marinos in the J. League YBC Levain Cup final. He’s earned significant praise for his ability to develop young players and field a competitive squad with a fraction of the budget enjoyed by larger clubs.
But just hours after Bellmare’s dramatic 3-2 win at Jubilo Iwata on Sunday night, Monday morning’s headlines instead focused on reports Cho had been accused by several players and staff of power harassment.
According to several local papers, Cho had been witnessed repeatedly dressing down players and staff, kicking electric fans and striking his desk. In other meetings, the 50-year-old allegedly confronted his team with newspaper clippings, shouting “this is what they’re writing about you” before forcing players to do sprints.
Three of the 16 players who left the club after the 2018 season did so as a result of the emotional distress they suffered, according to a report by Sports Hochi, with two club staff departing for similar reasons in the last 18 months.
Cho is as well known for his passion in the technical area as he is for his fiery demeanor in the locker room. His wild celebration following Shonan’s stunning 3-2 comeback victory over Urawa Reds in May, which followed a controversial non-goal by midfielder Daiki Sugioka, made national newsreels.
But fans saw another side of Cho in the 2018 edition of the club’s annual documentary series “Nonstop Football no Shinjitsu” (The Reality of Nonstop Football). In the documentary’s trailer, he’s seen kicking over a box of equipment and scolding players after a loss.After its release, that documentary drew high praise from across the J. League fandom for its brutally honest depiction of Bellmare’s efforts to avoid relegation.
Now it’s possible that Cho’s conduct on camera will be used as evidence against him.
While the Japanese sports world has come under increasing pressure to deal with the issue of power harassment as the 2020 Tokyo Olympics approach, Cho’s case appears at first glance different from that of cases such as wrestling coach Kazuhito Sakae’s bullying of four-time Olympic champion Kaori Icho, the May 2018 dangerous tackle ordered by Nihon University’s former American football head coach Masato Uchida, or the 2017 assault by then-yokozuna Harumafuji of junior wrestler Takanoiwa.
Instead, J. League investigators will be forced to draw a line between power harassment and strict coaching, and they will likely struggle to reach a conclusion that respects the rights of players and club staff while giving coaches leeway to forge discipline their players.
Fitness club operator Rizap, which purchased Bellmare last year, praised Cho in a statement as “an irreplaceable and important friend,” expressing its belief that no major compliance violations would be found.
Several active players have also rallied around Cho. Portimonense goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda, who in his years at FC Tokyo and Sagan Tosu regularly crossed paths with Cho, described the manager as “a rare coach in Japan who always says what needs to be said,” further describing him as “someone I respect.”
Former Bellmare goalkeeper Nobuyuki Abe, who currently plays for AC Nagano Parceiro, tweeted that he “felt nothing but love” from Cho in his four years in Hiratsuka.
Bellmare announced on Tuesday that Cho would temporarily step back from his coaching duties until the league’s investigation is complete, leaving head coach Kenji Takahashi potentially in charge for Saturday’s game against Sagan Tosu and beyond.
While Cho has indicated to his inner circle a desire to accept responsibility and resign, club officials are attempting to dissuade him from doing so, instead preferring to wait until the league’s investigation is complete.
In the meantime, Bellmare’s players are struggling to come to terms with the rapid developments as they hope to improve on the team’s 11th-place standing in the J1.
“There’s a lot we don’t know about how the situation reached this point,” veteran midfielder Tsukasa Umesaki told reporters after a closed practice on Tuesday. “To be honest I worry about whether we’ll be able to play a match in this state.”