text by Yoichi Igawa
Thanks to his explosive physical strength and adhesive marking ability, Simao Mate became the talisman of Vegalta Sendai’s backline in 2019. As his first season in the J1 League it took some time for him to adjust new surroundings, but after returning to the starting 11 early in the summer Vegalta won all of their J1 matches in June and Simao was selected as the league’s monthly MVP. Since then, he has been a regular centre-back for the team, and even assumed the captain’s armband in the latter part of the season. His debut season in J1 saw him make 24 appearances and score three goals – produced by headers unleashed from a strong muscular base. The fans and media chose him as Vegalta’s player of the season.
On the pitch, Simao has sometimes cast his fierce glare upon opponents, while also intensely inspiring his teammates. I therefore wondered what kind of personality he is, and prepared questions that could be altered if the man from Mozambique turned out to be sullen or quiet.
That, however, was a needless concern. In November 2019, when we visited him at a Sendai clubhouse basking in warm sunshine, Simao was always smiling and as radiant as the sun overhead. The interview was supposed to be conducted with a Portuguese translator, but when I asked him, “Do you speak English?” he replied, “Yes, no problem at all! It’s actually better for us to speak directly.” He smiled brightly and gave the translator a wink as if to say, “It’s fine”.
Having left his home country in his teens, Simao played for Panathinaikos (Greece), Shandong Luneng (China), Levante (Spain), and Al Ahly (Qatar) before coming to Sendai in January 2019. Along the way, he has competed at the highest level, including the Champions League and La Liga. Why, then, did he choose Vegalta and the J-League?
“Well, I had the chance to come to Japan six years ago (when at Shandong),” Simao said. “I ended up taking an offer from Spain instead, but my wife was very interested in Japan. She is Italian and I met her when I played in Greece. In Italy and Greece, Japanese food is very popular and my wife has good knowledge of Japan as well. She repeated many times, ‘Let’s go to Japan if you have the chance again!’ And you know the world speaks very highly of Japan, especially in recent years, so I had been interested in Japan as well. So it was a dream for my wife and I to live in Japan.”
Simao continued gently and peacefully.
“And now, the dream came true after six years! It wasn’t only my wife but I also wanted to come. Of course, there is no guarantee of success, but I wanted to come anyway and see how things went.
“I think most professional soccer players (Simao calls the sport ‘soccer’ like a Japanese, not ‘football’) are motivated by new challenges. I like challenges too, and my career has been built by them. I went to Europe at a young age and jumped into different countries and cultures. I have been a foreigner everywhere I have played, but have had many interesting experiences as a result. That also means you can be open-minded.”
Although Simao talked in a unique singing flow, he confessed to having slightly struggled to adjust to life in Japan. The stats show as much, with him only starting three J1 games up until the 13th round of games at the end of May.
“To be honest, I found it a little strange,” Simao said drily. His tone and voice were still the same though, mellow and happy, and reminded me of the teatime, which is very popular in his country. In Maputo, the capital of Mozambique where he grew up, there are stunning coastlines as well. Those made him a broad-minded and relaxed person, and for such an individual life in Japan can be totally surprising, especially when it comes to time-keeping and scheduling.
“First of all, I was so surprised that the subway arrives precisely on time! I don’t think that happens in any country. Also, in my opinion, Japanese people have to set their entire schedule before the day begins. You don’t like sudden invitations, right? But soccer players like me want to call friends to go to lunch after training sessions. If I want to go out with you, maybe I have to let you know at least one week in advance, right?
“And the way they respect others was shocking to me. Of course it is good manners and shows values, but for me it is a little too much. For example, I want to speak loudly – that is natural for me – on the subway or in a restaurant, but there is nobody doing so. Then I thought I must follow the custom and be quiet.
“It’s different at the training ground or stadium where you can talk loudly though I couldn’t speak Japanese at all at the time, so that was difficult too. But luckily, my teammates at Vegalta were very welcoming. They accepted me as I am and said, ‘Simao, you can speak loudly if you want. Scream if you want!’”
With that help, Simao started showing his real ability to become the indispensable cornerstone of Vegalta Sendai’s defense.
“The standard of the J-League is higher than I imagined,” Simao Mate said of his first impression of the league.
“I’ve played at the top level of soccer including La Liga and the Champions League, so I think I know what the highest level is. My impression is that the standard of the J-League is of course below those examples, but not that far. Honestly, I was surprised by the skills and pace of Japanese players.”
In particular, the individual talent in both his team and the opposition was beyond his expectations.
“There are many players with big potential,” Simao continued. “In general, the level of players’ fitness is very high, and they can maintain it throughout the season, which is not easy. Overall their skills are also good, as well as their professionalism. They concentrate highly in every training session and match.
“At Vegalta, we have some exceptional players like Katsu (Katsuya Nagato, now at Kashima Antlers), Yoshiki (Matsushita), Hira (Yasuhiro Hiraoka) and so on. As for opponents, (Shinzo) Koroki of Urawa Reds, Yokohama F. Marinos’ number 23 (Teruhito Nakagawa), and the number 16 of Vissel Kobe (Kyogo Furuhashi, now number 11) were very good players with pace and movement, and I struggled to cope with them.”
In fact, Simao had a hard time at the start of his debut season. In March, Vegalta lost all three of the matches he started as a midfield anchor. After that, he had to bide his time until June for another start.
At that time the media and fans had doubts about his physical condition, as he seemed almost to be in slow motion compared to the best form he went on to show. Simao, however, thinks differently.
“I don’t think my condition (in spring) was so bad at the time,” Simao continued gently. “We lost those games because the opponents were better than us. And yes, I had to sit on the bench after that, but sometimes you have to wait for your chance. The manager decided the starting 11, and I just followed that.”
During that time, Simao gradually got used to life in Japan. He and his wife had originally liked Japanese food and found new favourites such as ox tongue, the local specialty of Sendai. Based on that adjustment and with help from his teammates, Simao was then able to perform well when he returned to the starting lineup in June.
“My teammates were so nice to me from the first day,” Simao said appreciatively. “Thanks to them, I was selected as the J1 league player of June. I’m very grateful to them for everything. I know some people thought I was one of the key players for our perfect results in June because they started when I came back into the starting lineup, but I think it was just chance. I rather see it as the whole team becoming hungry again at the time. It was not me that revived the team.”
The man who has lived in three continents – Africa, Europe, and Asia – always respects and thanks others, saying that football is, “a sport of respect”. For him, football is joy and love but also a job and a tool to explore many places around the globe, as well as to make friends.
Having played for five years in Greece, the longest run in his professional career, he still has a lot of friends there and goes to the Mediterranean for holidays.
“When I played in Greece, the financial crisis had yet to occur and the standard of the league was high. Especially teams like my club at the time Panathinaikos, Olympiakos, and PAOK, who competed well in the Champions League. Throughout that experience, the toughest opponent for me was Zlatan (Ibrahimovic), who was at Inter Milan at the time. He was a monster, a beast. I also played against (Lionel) Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, but marking Zlatan was the hardest thing for me.”
In Greece, Simao enjoyed exchanges and friendship with fans, some of whom are, “a bit crazy”. They are, “fanatically singing, chanting, and laughing out loud” from the stands, and a few of them came to talk and made friends with him.
On the other hand, he “couldn’t feel that kind of close connection with fans in China, even though there was a good number of supporters in the stands”. And in Qatar, where he played before coming to Japan, “there is only a small group of spectators for league games, and 15 or 20 of them are family members, friends, or agents of players.”
But now he appreciates feeling close interaction with the fans in Sendai, just like he did in Greece.
“For me, Japanese fans are the best,” Simao said with sincerity. “It’s for real. They keep singing throughout the matches to support the players and to give us power. Japanese fans have energy, love, and respect. We, the players, can feel that strongly on the pitch and that makes us give everything.”
Patrick Mboma, Seydou Doumbia, Peter Utaka––.
Simao Mate respects these African pioneers in the J-League. He feels he is able to play in the league because of the paths they carved.
“They made the way to the J-League for African players,” Simao said. “Because of their efforts and great performances, African players are acknowledged in Japan”
For long-term fans of the J-League, African players have produced some great scenes, especially Mboma in the late 1990s. In the fifth J-League season in 1997, Mboma –– dubbed the “Black Panther of Naniwa (Osaka)” –– showed many stunning performances, which were not only unforgettable but also raised the standard of the league.
With great athleticism, physical flexibility, and freedom of the mind, the African players could sometimes perform beyond our imaginations. If more players were to join the league from the continent, it could become even more fun and full of colour.
“Yes, I hope so,” Simao happily agreed with me. “There are still many players with big potential in Africa. Some European clubs realised that a long ago and have founded local academies or agreed partnerships with local clubs. In Portuguese-speaking countries like Mozambique and Angola, Portuguese clubs such as Benfica, Sporting, and Porto have made close connections and scouted good young players.
“So I hope some Japanese clubs or people will do the same. Geographically, Africa is far away from Japan, but such a move could bring it closer. Although it could of course bring some risk, it would be of great benefit to Japanese clubs and the J-League in the future. There are many players from South America in the league, especially Brazilians, but I would like them to pay attention to the opposite continent.”
What kind of advice would he give to any foreign players thinking of moving to Japan?
“Just come here!” Simao said, before laughing naturally. “You can enjoy high quality life and high level soccer here. Very convenient and nice living, a highly competitive league, professional clubs with no delay in payment, great teammates and fans… What else do you need? If you hesitate, decide it now and do the hard work. If you can prove yourself on the pitch, the supporters will give you great respect.”
That is also what Simao experienced. He only started a few matches in the beginning and struggled a little afterwards, but returned as a starter and became the lynchpin of Vegalta’s back line. That is mainly because of his adjustment to Japan, and he still wants to know more about the country.
“Now I am mostly used to life in Japan, but I will try to understand more so I can enjoy it more and perform well.”
Based on his own experience, he seemed so sure about that ── something that could also apply to Japanese players wishing to move to Europe.
“Many Japanese players try their chances at European clubs, especially in recent years,” Simao continued. “Most of them are youngsters who have great potential, and if they can display their ability it is not very difficult to play or start games in most of the European leagues. In order to do so, you have to adjust to the different culture, surroundings, and mentality. Even if you have great talent, you can’t succeed without that adjustment.
“After all, Japanese players in general should believe in themselves more. If you are not confident, you can’t succeed professionally. In my impression, Japanese people, including professional athletes, care too much about what others think. Especially in professional soccer, you can’t wait for something ── you have to grab it yourself. Decide, act voluntarily, and maintain your will all by yourself. Soccer is not only about chasing the ball but also scrambling for chances. I think the important things are focusing on what you do, believing in yourself and your teammates, and heading towards your goal without fear.”