With more than 300 games and 90 goals in the J-League, Cerezo Osaka striker Ryuji Bando is one of the most popular football players in Japan not only for his abilities with a football but also for his innate joviality.
“Ban,” as he is known by his friends and supporters, accepted to meet me for a chat about the forthcoming season at a Sicilian restaurant in his adoptive hometown of Osaka, and here are the best excerpts from our two-hour chat.
Goal: 2010 was a great year for the Samurai Blue and Japanese soccer. Does that change the way you and the other J-Leaguers approach the 2011 season?
Bando: Perhaps even more than the results of national team, what makes a huge difference for us is the success of some of the Japanese players who went overseas.
To play abroad used to be a far away dream, but now most of us have former team-mates and friends playing in Europe. For example, to overhear that a German or a Dutch scout will be at the next game has become the norm.
That makes us proud and of course also gives us extra motivation.
Goal: While the national team dominated in Asia, J-League clubs staggered in the last two editions of the Asian Champions League. Why is that?
Bando: I was with the Gamba squad that won the title in 2008. Since then we all have underperformed, and surely there are a few reasons for the flop.
First of all the schedule doesn’t help us. I remember once we went to play in the Middle East and less than 48 hours after our return to Japan we had already an away league game to play!
Champions League clubs in other Asian countries seem to have better schedules, as it is common in Europe, and perhaps more than that they seem to be more committed to the competition.
For us in Japan, more than the Asian Champions League itself, the real prize is a ticket to the FIFA Club World Cup. Now, that is something!
Goal: Any chance for Cerezo in the ACL this season?
Bando: Hard to say. Of course we want to win it, but it is not going yo be easy. We have a lot of young players, they are all very good, but in international competitions experience is very important...
Goal: Cerezo sure did well last season in J1, you guys were an absolute surprise!
Bando: We surely were! First of all, the defending was exceptionally good. A few experienced players joined, and the youngsters made the grades.
Boys like Yusuke Maruhashi and Hiroshi Kiyotake were put in the condition to play at their best, and even when we lost Shinji [Kagawa] or when Adriano was injured, whoever played for them did great.
Goal: So, which team could be the surprise packet in 2011?
Bando: Maybe Kashiwa Reysol? But for an underdog to end third as Cerezo did last season was something unique. Top clubs in Japan are becoming stronger every year and it will be harder and harder to break their monopoly.
Goal: You mentioned Kagawa and the other Japanese in Europe. Can you give us some names of promising Japanese youngsters who could make it big in Europe?
Bando: In general, Japanese young players have improved a lot. There are many good ones at Cerezo. Besides Kiyotake and Maruhashi, Ryo Nagai, Kenyu Sugimoto and Takahiro Ogihara are all great prospects.
Yuji Ono at Yokohama F. Marinos too seems very skilled. Perhaps the boy to watch now is Takashi Usami: this year he will wear “my” number 11 jersey at Gamba!
Goal: Speaking of Gamba, they and Cerezo will open the season with the Osaka derby. Should you score a goal against Gamba, would you celebrate?
Bando: (Becomes thoughtful for a few seconds). Well, of course I would. When I score I am... just too happy! I mean... I am a striker! (Laughs)
Goal: Fair enough! To finish: at Goal.com there is a growing international community of football fans looking at the J.League. What do you want to tell them?
Bando: Enjoy our league! Japanese teams always play to win, no game is a given! And as Japanese football keeps improving, many more of us soon will play all over the world. Ciao!