Twenty-four players. This is the number of J.League players that Osaka’s prestigious Kokugoku High School soccer team has produced in the last ten years. Although the school has only made one appearance in the national championship in 2008, its alumni include Japan’s national team player Toru Furukawa (26) and Ryonosuke Kabayama (18), a rookie high school graduate who started the season for Yokohama F Marinos.
Last year, four players joined Yokohama F Marinos at the same time, and Takatora Naganaga (18) has been offered a job at Kawasaki Frontale next season. It would be rare for a nationally known and prestigious soccer team to continue to produce so many J-leaguers. Why have so many J.League players come out of Kokugoku High School? Tomoaki Uchino, 42, the coach of the school’s soccer team, reveals the secret.
“The scouts from the J-League tell me this. The J-League scouts tell me this: “When you take J-League players from the lower divisions to practice with the top team, they all do very well. But it’s hard to see their individuality. On the other hand, the kids from the emerging countries have a lot of things missing, but they have clear weapons that can compete with the pros. It’s easy to see the kind of player they will become. The philosophy of Kokugoku is not to win in high school soccer, but rather to focus on what is needed to compete on a higher stage.
Uchino, who took over as coach in 2006, recalls that at the time, Kokugoku did not have the resources to compete with the strong private schools in Osaka. With prestigious schools such as Osaka Toin, Jousha, Kinki University, Tokai University, and Konko Osaka High School dominating the scene, Kokugoku, as a new school, needed to make drastic changes in its team building.
“We can’t win in Osaka if we do things the same way as everyone else, and we can’t attract people. If that’s the case, let’s do something that no one has ever done before. That’s how we started.
Through acquaintances, Uchino traveled to Spain and the Netherlands to learn from the coaching methods of European clubs. Ten years have passed since then, and he has now formed a partnership with Barcelona S.L., a soccer service company, and his style of developing individual players has taken root to the extent that he is called the “Barcelona of Kansai. Once a year, the team makes an expedition to Spain so that the players can experience the world standard, and the training menu is also based on the Spanish style.
There are almost no physical training sessions, set plays, or organized defensive practices in the country, and from the time the players are in their first year, they are constantly on the ball and spend an overwhelming amount of time practicing their individual skills. In recent years, high school soccer teams that choose to play “fast, vertical soccer” that takes advantage of their physicality tend to be at the top of the national rankings. This is a style of soccer that avoids risk and relies on players with high individual ability to have a high chance of winning. However, Utsuno does not make such a choice and consistently focuses on developing the individual abilities of his players.
He asks his players, “If you had to choose between going to nationals and becoming a professional, which would you prefer? If you had to choose, which would you prefer? Most of them answer “professional. In Japanese club activities, as typified by Koshien and championships, there is a widespread emphasis on winning, but I have my doubts about that. Of course, there is nothing wrong with winning, but what is the point of winning?
How many professional players are born from teams that place the highest priority on winning rather than developing players, and how many players are able to compete on the world stage? I believe that the time has come for such a discussion in Japanese soccer.
During my first visit to Barcelona’s lower division, there was an incident that determined Uchino’s coaching policy.
The first time I visited Barcelona’s lower division, there was an incident that determined Uchino’s coaching policy: the concept of “chanrezi and cover” was excluded, which is common in Japanese coaching.
“The positioning of both CBs was spaced out, so I said, ‘If we keep going like that, if they get past us, we’ll score a goal. When I asked him why, the Barça coach said, ‘CBs need to be able to stop one on one at the lower levels to make it up there. He said, ‘This is good for the kid. That was a shock to me.
The same could be said for the offense. The same was true for the offensive side of the ball, where Uchino’s theme of “developing individual players who can compete on the world stage” was hidden.
“He showed me a video and asked me, ‘What would you say in this situation? He showed me a video and asked me, ‘What would you say in this situation?’ It was a 3-2 situation on the counter, and there was a free player on the right, and if I passed, it would be a decisive moment. I replied that I would tell them to pass it. But the Spanish coach said, ‘Your opinion is 100% correct. But sometimes you have to let them be adventurous,” he said. In the video, I saw Robben (former Dutch national team player) as a youth, and he scored a goal ahead of the other two players.
In Japan, the overwhelming majority of coaches in the developmental age group are angry and say, “Why didn’t you pass the ball? However, I realized that in order to raise a monster like Robben, it is not enough to do the right thing. That experience made me think that I would like to raise a player like Robben by my own hands. From then on, even in emerging countries, I made sure that CBs were stopped individually and attackers were set up one-on-one. As a result, we were easily beaten on the counter and missed the national championship many times (laughs). On the other hand, the number of players who go on to become professionals is increasing every year.
Although the level of J-youth players has improved in recent years, Uchino believes that the number of players with distinct personalities has decreased.
In recent years, the level of J youth teams has improved, but Uchino believes that the number of players with clear personalities is decreasing. “Japanese players in general move like Japanese minivans and work well in an organization. But on the other hand, they don’t have a lot of “fun. I think the current situation is that players are mass-produced in a cohesive manner, for better or worse. This is due to the fact that instructors study and teach the right answers too much, depriving them of the opportunity to think for themselves.
Some people are excited about cars like GT-Rs and Ferraris, which are fast and fun to drive, although they are less fuel efficient than the all-rounder minivans. I think what everyone is waiting for is a player with a large sense of scale like that.
In terms of scouting, Xingguo has established a unique set of criteria. They have established three criteria: physical ability, technique, and soccer IQ, and if there is even one shining talent among them, they will consider acquiring it. Rather than trying to make up for a player’s deficiencies, Uchino is always thinking about how to develop the player’s characteristics.
“For example, Furuhashi was short in stature and not very skilled, but he had remarkable speed. For example, Furuhashi was short and not very skilled, but he had remarkable speed. Kabayama also had great technique, but I didn’t feel that he was physically strong. J-youth teams don’t often take players who excel at one skill, but with the right coaching, they can develop their characteristics. Also. One of the best parts of club activities is that you can spend a lot of time teaching By the way, we can spend a lot of time on coaching.
There are a lot of good leaders at J-youth, but the system is changing rapidly, with nearly 90% of the leaders moving up to the top team after only five years. The better the coach, the higher up the ladder they go, and the salaries are completely different. That’s why they usually want to go to the first team and not stay in the youth team. At overseas clubs, coaching at the developmental age is seen as a profession, and it is hard for people to move there.
In the case of children who choose to play soccer in high school, many of them say, “I want to play under that coach. Soccer is not only a technical sport, but it is also a sport that requires a lot of time to develop the human side of the player. There is no doubt that the number of talented “super material” in Japan is increasing, and if the J.League’s subordinate organizations change their structure and create an environment for coaches in the developmental years from a long-term perspective, I believe that world-class players will surely emerge.
Uchino’s forward thinking is sometimes difficult to understand, and in the past he has been criticized from within. In the case of Japan’s club activities, team performance is directly linked to career and employment opportunities, so it is not surprising.
“Even so, he stuck to his beliefs, and that is why he was able to produce 24 professionals. I think it’s okay to have people like me, instead of everyone heading in the same direction.
Uchino laughs. He is determined to create a direct route from high school soccer to Europe in the future.
“Our first-year player Yuta Miyahara, who is now number 10, has the talent to go to Europe right after graduation. Naganaga, who joined Frontale, is still in the middle of his growth period and his body is only about 30% complete. His technique and potential are definitely at the top of the players I have seen so far. He has the potential to turn into an attractive player in Europe’s top league when he gets more physical. As a school, we would like to build a support system for such players who aim to play in Europe.
One thing I still remember is when one of our graduates, Kenyu Sugimoto (Yokohama F Marinos), came to visit us, he talked about Neymar of Brazil, whom he had played against many times in the national team for each generation. He said, “Yes, Neymar is great, but at that time, Usami (Takashi Gamba Osaka) was by far the greatest. But even though Usami was so talented, something was missing and he never reached the top level of the world. I’ve always believed in the potential of Japanese soccer, and I want to be the one to give the players hints about it.
The “sharp” players of Kokugoku will continue to make their way to the professional ranks one after another. Following Furuhashi’s success with Celtic, it would not be surprising to see another Kokugoku-born footballer making his mark on the world stage in the future.
Reporting and writing： Shimei Kurita Photo： Courtesy of Kokoku High School