Machida Zelvia of the JFL have big ambitions and have appointed a heavyweight coach to help them achieve their goals. In football, as in life, the first step is usually the hardest to take though..
The last time most Japanese football fans were aware of Ranko Popovic he was in charge of Akihiro Ienaga, Mu Kanazaki and Shusaku Nishikawa at Oita Trinita.
This season the Serbian has made a low-key return to the Japanese game, taking charge of JFL side Machida Zelvia, after Naoki Soma moved on to take the reins at Kawasaki Frontale.
While the quality of player at his disposal is not quite the same this time around, Popo-san is working towards the same aim though – with a place in J1 the target for his side.
Zelvia General Manager, Tadashi Karai – who has formerly had spells in the top-flight with Shimizu S-Pulse, Tokyo Verdy, and JEF United – is delighted to have attracted such an experienced manager, and is hopeful that they can keep hold of him to achieve the club’s long-term goals.
“Of course our final aim is to go up to J1 in three-to-five years,” he told me before Zelvia’s recent game against Tochigi Uva at Nishigaoka Stadium.
“The J.League has just started the play-off system within the top six places so clubs have a chance to go from J2 to J1. Of course we want to keep Mr. Popovic for at least 5 years. This is the president’s decision.”
As well as being attracted by Popovic’s impressive stint at Trinita – although they got relegated he guided them on an unbeaten 10-game run at the end of the 2009 campaign that almost preserved their J1 place – his previous success in his homeland was also attractive to Karai-san.
“He had experience in Serbia, his club [Zlatibor Voda] got promoted from the third to the first division, so not [just] in Oita, but he already had good experience for us.”
While this achievement does appear to bode well for Machida, Popovic points out a big difference between Voda and Zelvia.
“In Serbia it was different because in that team in the 3rd division I had three or four players who’d played in the 1st division,” Popovic explained to me after the game with Uva ended 0-0.
“[That makes] a big difference. We must have players with more experience, for times like today if the ball doesn’t go in the goal.”
Attracting them is not easy though, and as well as having to contend with J.League egos (not many are prepared to rough it in the JFL and would prefer to swan around in the comfort of a J.League satellite team) money is, of course, an issue.
Karai-san believes that the lack of a large corporate investor at Zelvia means that more bums on seats is the best way to bolster the club’s coffers.
“We think we need bigger attendances because we don’t have a Toyota, Nissan, Hitachi. We are originally a town club so we need bigger attendances to finance our budget.”
Unfortunately the fickle nature of some fans makes this a tricky thing to achieve. After the draw with Uva, for example, a journalist suggested to Popovic in the press conference that some fans were pleased with the style of their team’s play, but unhappy by the lack of results.
This led to a lengthy exchange between the reporter in question and Popovic – via his tireless translator Tsukada-san – and after the press conference had concluded the Serbian expressed his frustration at this aspect of Japanese football.
“In Japan there’s a problem; the result is everything,” he told me. “We must try to learn to watch the football. The result is important in the end, yes, but it’s also important how you make this result, if you want to have [a good] future.
“Who guarantees if we change something we will go [to J2], who guarantees? To change now, to work for eight months, to play beautiful football like today and then say ‘no, forget that’?
“I want to make a team who can stay there. To make guys who can play football.”
This is an admirable target and one which, if successful, could well provide Machida with a chance to establish themselves in the fully professional leagues.
Finding a balance between aesthetic play and positive results is the main challenge now though, and that is perhaps the trickiest obstacle to overcome.