text by Yoichi Igawa
After hearing of the contract renewal between Mitchell Langerak and Nagoya Grampus in December 2019, there must have been quite a few relieved fans of the club. Since joining in January 2018, the Australian goalkeeper had established himself as first choice between the posts and made many great saves for the team. Given the fact that Nagoya survived relegation battles in each of the last two seasons, they could now be aiming for promotion back to the first division if Langerak hadn’t been there.
As this interview was taking place before the contract renewal Langerak’s future was on hold, but he had to be fully focused on the final fixture of the season because Nagoya still had a slight chance of relegation (Nagoya lost 1-0 to Kashima Antlers, but survived in 13th due to other results on the same day).
During the conversation, however, he talked cheerfully about his positive impressions of Japan and the J.League, so I was guessing he would extend his stay in this country.
“Everything is very clean and safe in Japan, and people are very polite and friendly,” Langerak said cheerfully. “You can enjoy a quality life here, even foreigners like me because they are very kind to us. My family and I do enjoy life in Japan. We are very happy.”
Langerak always talks loudly and honestly. No matter what he’s asked, the frank and nice guy replies straightforwardly with what he likes or doesn’t know. Regarding the reasons why he decided to come to Japan, he was similarly forthright.
“It wasn’t that I went chasing the opportunity to come to Japan,” Langerak said in his high voice. “After playing in Germany for seven years (five with Borussia Dortmund, two for VfB Stuttgart), I moved to Spain (Levante UD). It was four or five months after moving there and we were still planning to stay in Europe for two or three more years, but I got a phone call out of nowhere. It was the offer from Nagoya and I thought it was a great opportunity because I knew a little bit about the city and the club through Josh Kennedy (former Australia international striker who played for Nagoya for six seasons). My agent took care of Josh Kennedy as well and they said everything is fantastic in Nagoya.”
His wife also urged him to accept the offer, excitedly saying, “Let’s go to Japan!”
“I’d been to Japan a few times for AFC Champions League matches when I played for Melbourne Victory and with the national team. But it was the first time for my wife and she was very excited. I knew it would be a great experience for all of us and promised her that.”
In the beginning, however, it took a few months for them to adjust to their new surroundings, “because Japan is completely different to Australia or Europe.
“For example, I could get by with English a lot better than I can here in Japan. So, at the start, it was intimidating because I didn’t know anything around my neighbourhood. But we got used to it as we walked around and now feel at home. Now we feel completely normal, even though I can’t understand Japanese characters and signs. I can say it’s my home town.”
Langerak appreciates not only daily life in Japan but also the “fantastic football and packed stadiums at the J.League matches.
“I don’t see negative aspects of living here,” Langerak continued. “If I have to say something, there aren’t many rubbish bins in public so I have to carry things after use. This was a bit surprising in the beginning, but I realised there are no rubbish bins but also no rubbish either on the streets! It’s unbelievable.
“Especially for us having a little baby, it’s great to live here in terms of safety and cleanliness. My son, Santiago, was born in Nagoya. I hope he will become a member of the Samurai Blue in the future.”
As a result of hearing such positive words from him, I believe Langerak will remain in Japan for a few years and will continue to make big saves and shine in the J.League.
Although Mitchell Langerak revealed that he was, “not chasing the opportunity to come to Japan” in the first part of this interview, he has many connections with the country ─ and they are rather strong.
Langerak played for Borussia Dortmund for five years from 2010, where he met Shinji Kagawa, and after that he also played alongside Hajime Hosogai and Takuma Asano at VfB Stuttgart. The clubs arranged the players closely in the dressing room, possibly due to their common Asia-Pacific origins.
“It’s actually funny because I sat next to Shinji at Dortmund for three or four years, and then I went to Stuttgart and it was Haji and Taku next to me as well in the dressing room. They are really good guys and friends of mine, and we all get along well. They were among the first people to congratulate me by sending messages when I moved to Nagoya. My impression was that if all Japanese are similar to those guys, I would have no problem in Japan.”
Langerak owes his great progress to Ange Postecoglou, the manager of Yokohama F.Marions, the current champions of the J.League (they were on the verge of winning the league at the time of this interview). The Australian tactician was the first coach to call Langerak up for the national team.
“He selected me for the Under-20 Australia national team, and when he became the national team coach I was there as well. So I’ve played four or five years under him, and we still have a good relationship.”
For Langerak, it was no wonder that Postecoglou succeeded in the J.League in his second season.
“He has left big impressions on players, fans, and the people around him everywhere he’s been. I am not surprised at all that he’s done very well in Yokohama ─ now only one more game to go (until they win the league title). You’ve watched his teams play for nearly two years now – an attacking, exciting, free-flowing, nice style of football. If it’s not Nagoya winning the league, I am happy enough that another Australian has the chance to do so.”
In Langerak’s view, Postecoglou has many distinguished qualities in football coaching.
“Obviously his tactical approach is something special, and he is a very intense coach who can bring the best out of his boys with great speeches to motivate them. In this regard, I was interested to see how he would do it in Japan because there must be some language barrier. But they’ve had no trouble whatsoever with a translator, and we can see how his messages clearly get across to the team.”
Postecoglou was criticised, fiercely sometimes, for his radical and revolutionary approach in both Australia and Japan before he ended up winning major titles. According to Langerak, who had seen his compatriot up close for several years, Postecoglou will have especially enjoyed those times ─ something the manager himself admitted at the press conference right after the J.League triumph.
“I think those criticisms made him more determined,” Langerak continued. “He believes in his way and style of football, which is very difficult to perfect. So I think criticism is normal, but he showed how he could get through the tough periods. He sticks to his principles; that’s very important.”
Not only a J.League winner, but the world champion coach has also trained Langerak ─ Jurgen Klopp, who won the Club World Cup with Liverpool in 2019, was the manager of Dortmund while he was there.
“As a coach, he is very intense and fair,” Langerak said of the top German manager. “He always wants everybody to give 100 percent in every training session and game. He treats all the players like his sons, communicating a lot with the players, getting onto their personal level, and speaking about everything. Then the players are highly motivated and want to play for him. When the team play well, he is the happiest guy but when things go the other way, he is very sad, just like a real player or a devoted fan. I really think he is a perfect coach because he is great as a coach as well as a person. He speaks to anybody and gives everybody a lot of respect.”
Mitchell Langerak names Gianluigi Buffon and Iker Casillas as his biggest idols, and he has aimed to become a top goalkeeper just like the Italian and Spanish veterans.
But his home country, Australia, has also produced many great keepers who have thrived in the top European leagues, such as Mark Bosnich and Mark Schwarzer, while Mathew Ryan currently defends the goalmouth of Brighton and Hove Albion in the Premier League.
It is fair to say, at least in Asia and the Pacific region, that Australia is a goalkeepers’ nation. With that in mind, I asked him the same question I posed Krzysztof Kamiński in a previous interview in this series ─ why do you think your home country is able to develop such good goalkeepers?
“I don’t know the exact reasons,” Langerak replied. “Maybe because in Australia, we play many sorts of sports using our hands from a young age, and learn catching, throwing, diving around, making saves and so on. Also, there are a lot of ball sports such as rugby, Australian football, and cricket, and I think all these sports teach you good hand/arm coordination. I myself have played many kinds of sports in addition to those I mentioned, like swimming and tennis.
“But I’m not too sure about it. I think each professional goalkeeper has a different story about how they became who they are. Obviously there is a lot of hard work, as I have done as well.”
Langerak was born in a sports-oriented family that urged him to play many kinds of sports. With natural athleticism and constant hard work he grew into a professional keeper, moving to Germany where he was trained by the finest coaches including Jurgen Klopp and had the chance to play in the Bundesliga and the Champions League. For the custodian with first-hand knowledge of the highest level, the J.League is also a quality stage.
“The standard of the league is very high,” Langerak said in his typically optimistic tone. “For goalkeepers like me, it’s always a big challenge, really. The players are truly skillful, pacy, smart, tactically intelligent overall, and their shots are so powerful and precise. So, even for foreign players with top-level experience, it’s not a walk in the park. Some top players like (Andres) Iniesta and (David) Villa came to play in the league and they raised the standard.”
While Langerak faced many great attackers such as Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Robert Lewandowski and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in Germany, he acknowledges there are also many tough strikers in the J.League, including Fernando Torres (now retired), Douglas, and Leandro Damiao. As a foreign player himself, Langerak would like to see more arrive in the near future, and has some advice for possible newcomers from overseas.
“If you have the chance, you should definitely come to Japan,” he said clearly. “It’s obviously intimidating to move to a new country in a new continent. But once you are here, it’s a really fantastic place to live and play football. You will get looked after, will get treated very nicely, and you won’t have to worry about anything.
“The majority of the stadiums are big, new, clean, and have many spectators. As a player you want to play in full stadiums, and you can enjoy that often in the J.League. Apart from Germany, where most matches are full houses, there are not many other places in the world where the stadiums are full week in week out, but you get that in Japan. I think this is one of the coolest things about playing in the J.League. It’s the opposite in Australia, unfortunately ─ we have big and nice stadiums, but not many people come to watch. So I’m very happy to play in Japan.”