I-League team Mumbai FC have started the current season on a promising note by remaining undefeated in the four matches they have played so far. They have drawn two and won two till date.
Before the season began, the Mumbai outfit recruited three players from Japan — Arata Izumi, who has been a part of the I-League since 2006, Minchol Son and Ryuki Kozawa. They even extended the contract of Japanese midfielder Taisuke Matsugae and handed him the captain’s armband.
Izumi, Son, Kozawa and Taisuke started as professional footballers at the Japanese League (J-League) before shifting base to India. They have represented second-tier and third-tier clubs in the J-League, which began 23 years ago in 1992-93 and was yet to find its feet when India hosted the first edition of National Football League, the country’s first professional league and precursor to the I-League, in 1996.
After two decades, the two leagues are a picture in contrast with J-League given the ‘A’ rank by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). Its Indian counterpart, in contrast, is fighting for survival against the onslaught of a glamour-rich Indian Super League (ISL).
Mumbai FC have chosen to put their fortunes in the hands of players with Japanese roots. Son is a Korean with a Japanese passport, and the move seems to be bearing fruit.
So what is it that the J-League has done that its Indian counterpart did not?
“The knowledge of the game is very high in Japan. We have good coaches who have a lot of knowledge about the game. Our main contributor has been the tie-ups with clubs such as Real Madrid, Barcelona, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Juventus, among others, who have set up schools for aspiring footballers,” says Taisuke.
“The support of France has been a major factor in Japan’s football culture. We followed their style of play and coaching. It is efficient and easy to understand.
“Twenty years ago, we always lost to teams such as South Korea, North Korea, Iran and Iraq and we wanted to learn and improve. We sent players and coaches abroad to learn the game and when they returned they started working for the betterment of the sport in the country,” said Son.
“Now we have players in the European leagues and making a name for themselves.”
The results are clearly visible given that Japan are ranked 58th in Fifa rankings while India are 104 places below them at 162.
For India to compete with Japan is an onerous task.
“India is a bigger country compared to Japan which is an island. The Indian association should focus on first conquering Asia — their focus is on EPL and European football. Indian players only play in India, but they should send players who have potential to play abroad in countries across Asia,” said Son.
But the sudden influx of Japanese players in Indian football given that it is not at par with the J-league is surprising. Son says that is due to the tough competition.
“Competition is very high in the J-League. We have a lot of players who play better than us and it gets difficult to cement your place in the side,” said Son. “I wanted to play in India for the experience and was contracted by Shillong first. It has been quite a journey knowing about the Indian culture and traditions,” added Son.
“Better money than the previous league I played in (laughs). In J-League we have three divisions. The money paid in the first division is very high, but the second and third division pay is not that great. But for me the Indian experience was pending because I have already played in four countries before coming here,” said Kozawa.
The Japanese boys want to earn and learn in India. One just hopes the Indian players take the hint from Arata, Son, Kozawa and Matsugae and try their luck in the top divisions of Asian leagues instead of struggling for two-bit appearances in Europe.