Japanese star tackles China’s soccer shortcomings at youth level

By Xie Wenting Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/27 19:55:00

Takashi Rakuyama (left) plays in the Chinese Super League. Photo: CFP

For Japanese football player Takashi Rakuyama, the decision to set up a training school for Chinese kids after ending his professional football career in 2013 came naturally.

Rakuyama was the first Japanese soccer player to play in the Chinese Super League, and also the first foreign player to bring the Japanese football spirit to China by setting up the Total Communication Football club in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province. 

"I love Shenzhen and I had my best days here. So after retirement, I was thinking that I should make some contributions to the city," he told the Global Times. His club is the first of its kind run by a former foreign player from the Chinese Super League.

The sport of soccer in China scored a new ally when Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed the importance of its development in 2015. As well as Rakuyama, many other foreigners have also come all the way to China to help develop Chinese football.

Compared with other foreign players, Rakuyama said that he has more resources from Chinese soccer to help children become professionals.

Takashi Rakuyama and students he trains in his Total Communication Football club Photo: Courtesy of Takashi Rakuyama

Lifelong goal

Rakuyama, 37, started playing football at the age of 7. After graduating from primary school, he told his father about his dream of being a professional football player and his ambitions of playing for Japan's top football clubs.

He received strong support from his family and later went to a senior high school renowned for its football training.

In the high school where he studied, the best players were chosen and recruited directly by football clubs. But Rakuyama decided to pursue a college degree at Chukyo University, because he believed a college education will benefit him in the long run.

Upon graduation, he signed with Ichihara JEF United, kicking off his professional football career. Before joining Shenzhen Ruby in 2011, he stayed in Sanfrecce Hiroshima for a year.

A devotee of football, Rakuyama did not want to give the sport up when he was facing retirement in Shenzhen. At that time, he had already found major flaws in China's teenage training system.

Rakuyama said most Chinese coaches responsible for training teenagers had no experience as professional soccer players. "So during the training, they could only see the big picture but failed to detect the small problems children have," he said.

Rakuyama tried to make remedies. At his training school, he introduced Japanese teaching methods. Instead of telling children how to play, he tries to inspire them to think on their own.

Parents often stood by the field, trying to tell their children how to pass, kick and play football. But Rakuyama insists that his students "use their own wisdom to figure out what to do."

However, cultural conflicts still remain. In Japan, coaches can yell at children and even criticize them harshly. In China, he is milder in the way he treats his students, as their family members tend to be extremely protective of them.

At the beginning, his school had barely more than 10 students, and most of them were Japanese. Now the number has grown to more than 300, of whom the majority are Chinese.

Chinese parents now like to send their children to the school. According to Rakuyama, this is due to the club's international atmosphere and multilingual environment. Besides soccer training, he also teaches them Japanese etiquette.

According to him, as most Chinese students are the only children in the family, they are accustomed to being the center of attention, and this self-centered mindset is reflected in the football field. "Chinese children comparatively are worse at teamwork, an important element in football," said Rakuyama.

In the field, Japanese children tend to work together to get the ball moving, but Chinese kids put value on being individual heroes, he added.

He also noted that while the campaign to popularize football in primary schools has been successful, this success tends not to continue into high school due to the lack of support from parents. "Chinese parents don't support their kids if they want to become professionals," he said. "If those Chinese kids continue playing, they can become as good as their Japanese counterparts."

He told the Global Times about two improvements China soccer should make to cultivate young talents. The first is dealing with the problem of the lack of official soccer games open to teenagers. He suggested there should be more official games at district, city and county levels to select talented players. The second is the need to convert more professional players into coaches for children. 

No politics

When Rakuyama first came to China, his Japanese identity drew insults at the football stadium. For a whole year, he had to play under a hostile environment, but Rakuyama said it wasn't a problem for him. "If you play badly in the field, there are fans swearing at you. I don't think being called names at the stadium is a big deal," he said.

To better communicate with Chinese people and improve his Chinese, he later opened a Sina Weibo account where he shared his thoughts and moments of his everyday life.

He told the Global Times he doesn't talk much about politics or relations between China and Japan. "I'm not interested in that stuff. What I care about is football."

During the interview, Rakuyama said he was worried his poor Chinese may lead to misunderstandings. One media outlet had previously written that "Rakuyama said he would be happy if the Chinese children he trains could beat Japanese players." He said he had only wanted to convey the idea that it would be great if one day his students could take part in international competitions between Japan and China.

On the amateur field, his students have already competed with their Japanese counterparts. Every year, he organizes summer camps to bring students to Japan to play football. While the results aren't yet as good as he hoped, Rakuyama said he is confident about his students' abilities.
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