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Why I play in Japan: Jay Bothroyd ‘J.League is not easy. Even with Iniesta in your team you're not guaranteed to win‘

Fri, 15 May 2020 - 02:00 JST
Why I play in Japan: Jay Bothroyd ‘J.League is not easy. Even with Iniesta in your team you're not guaranteed to win‘

“It was one of the best decisions of my career.”

This is what Jay Bothroyd said of his move to Japan in 2015. As usual, the tone of his voice was clear and slightly high. The Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo striker then smiled, raised his eyebrows and the corners of his mouth, and shrugged softly - habits of his when he answers questions - as if to confirm he is not lying.

“Because for me it is very good experience - I’ve enjoyed my football and living here. These have made me a better person.”

It’s the beginning of August 2019 in Sapporo which has been hit by an unusual heatwave by the standards of Hokkaido. Before the interview, during the team’s training under the harsh sunshine, Bothroyd’s interpreter Harry Bissell told me wryly of that “it’s unbelievable weather”. Once the training had finished Bothroyd also came over to me and said, “it’s hot!”

“It is, but I am happy today because I can finally have a proper interview with you after some conversations in mixed-zones,” I replied. “Me too,” Bothroyd said as we shook hands. After entering the dressing room and taking a short time to shower and get changed, Bothroyd appeared in the interview room right on time – just like a Japanese man. Maybe this is one of the reasons Bothroyd thinks he has become a better person.

After four-and-a-half years in Japan, the 37 year-old striker is regarded as the most successful English player ever in the J.LEAGUE, both in name and in reality. Having been capped once for the national team of the birthplace of football, he has scored far more in the league than the English legend, Gary Lineker.

Bothroyd is still netting at a high rate, even at his age. In his fifth season in Japan, the veteran attacker’s tally is eight goals at the time of writing (after Matchday 25th). Although that leaves him 13th in the J1 goal rankings, his minutes-per-goal ratio is 123, the third highest in the division. Furthermore, his average tally over the four seasons including this one is in double figures. Bothroyd is one of the most consistent strikers in recent years in the J1 league.

But his first club was Jubilo Iwata, who then played in the Japanese second division, J2. Why did he choose that team?

“When I was at Queens Park Rangers and we did a pre-season tour to Malaysia. Before that, I didn’t really have experience in Asian football and hadn’t seen the stadiums and so on. Of course that’s not Japan but it gave me a sense that playing in Asia might be something that I’d be tempted to do that in the future. The facilities were better than I had thought, and the fans seemed to be really into football, very passionate about it.” 

Then, in 2014, he moved to Thailand to play for Muangthong United. Things there, however, were far from straightforward.

“I didn’t really enjoy it there as the league and club were disorganised and the standard was poor, so I told the club I wanted to leave. Then there was the opportunity to come to Japan, to play for Jubilo. I also spoke to a few other teams, but decided to come to Japan. And that was the right choice.”

Of course there were confusions in Japan, too. For instance, Bothroyd feels there is less flexibility in daily life.

“Those little things, ” he says. “Such as you have to follow the rules all the time in society. For example, if you are short a few pence when shopping in England, people don’t care and they will let you off. But here, you can’t do that. If you want painkillers here, you have to see a doctor, whereas in England you can get them at petrol stations. Also, at restaurants here in Japan, if you want to get less of something, they won’t make the change because it’s not on the menu.”

It is easy to imagine that a professional vegan athlete from London has been confused by such scenes in this country. Nevertheless, the footballer who has lived in Perugia of Italy, Cardiff of Wales and Muang Thong Thani of Thailand has been gradually adjusting himself to the culture of Japan. In fact, he used to be a vegan before but now only avoids eating meat due to the inflexibility.

On the pitch, though, his adjustment was faster. Bothroyd scored 20 goals in his first season and became top scorer in the J2 League to help Jubilo earn promotion to the first division as runners-up. By that point, he had become familiar with the virtues of the country.

“Of course it’s culture, respect, safety, cleanliness. If you compare it to other countries, there is much less violence, almost no homeless people, no stray dogs. Even in England it is very dangerous in some areas, where violence such as stabbings is not rare. I think the situation is getting worse there these days. In Italy things are bit more similar to Japan, in that there is a sense of respect, close families and good foods. Plus there are four seasons like here - in England you get summer and the rest is almost all grey.”

“Thailand is different, because things only seemed to be good or not; nothing in between. It is very different from Japan, where a lot of people are middle class. That’s good and you can have a good quality of life here. You don’t have to worry about pickpockets even when you put your wallet in your back pocket. Every time I go back to London, I appreciate having my life in Japan. One thing my wife and I do always talk about is that it would be much nicer if there were more English speakers. But overall Japan is a lovely country.”

Bothroyd grew up in a rough part of London. The capital of England, London – it sounds cool and attractive for most Japanese like me, but in reality there are rougher areas too.

“My upbringing was around violence and drugs and so on,” Bothroyd continues. “Many of the friends I went to school with have been in prison for drug offences, robberies and even for murder, so for me football was my sanctuary and that kept me focused on what I wanted to do in life. Of course there is great culture and history in England as well, but my family wasn’t privileged so I never got to experience the nice parts of what England has to offer.”

Therefore, he appreciates his current life in Japan, especially now because of his little baby.

“We are very happy to be here in Sapporo,” Bothroyd said. “I am grateful for having a quality and calm life. There is a lot of sunshine and we go to parks to enjoy the slides and swings with our baby boy. Sometimes I am surrounded by fans for autographs and pictures, but that’s okay for me as it’s part of my job and Japanese people are very polite. As I said, I have become a better person here.” 

Again, Bothroyd smiles as he said so. 

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What abilities are needed to make a good striker?

You could reply that the skills required include speed, calmness, precision and so on but foremost in Jay Bothroyd’s mind is “being selfish”.

The former England international, who netted many times in the Premier League and Serie A after developing at Arsenal’s academy, thinks strikers should be egotistic, in a positive way.

“My playing style has changed throughout my long career,” Bothroyd said. “Especially under ’Mischa’ (Mihailo Petrovic, the manager of Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo), where I’ve learned the importance of the passing game and combinations with teammates. But I still have an ego for finishing. When facing the goal, I would only pass the ball if a teammate is clearly in a better position, because I believe I have the best finishing ability in this team, and take responsibility for scoring. For that reason, I think strikers need to be selfish.”

Having played five seasons in Japan, the 37-year-old Bothroyd feels the quality of the J.LEAGUE is “quite high”. Although the top league in Japan does not have such a long history, he doesn’t think the standard of all round performance is very different to that in the European leagues. H also believes there must have been a lot of effort centred upon diligence and passion to enable such fast improvement over the past few decades.

However, there are not many prolific Japanese strikers in and the J.LEAGUE or oversees. If you look at the scoring rankings, domestic strikers are usually low down on the list. The reasons for this are rooted in social and cultural factors.

“I think the Japanese are basically sharing people, unselfish people. That is why you have a fantastic society with many middle class people. But if strikers have a such mentality, it is difficult to succeed, because strikers are evaluated by the number of goals. In Europe, goalkeepers defend the goal, defenders break up opponents’ attacks, midfielders and wingers create chances, and strikers score – there are responsibilities for each position. But in Japan, many think that if any player contributes for the team in any way, it is OK.”

Then what do we need to do in order to produce top-level strikers in Japan? For Bothroyd, the main thing is mental strength.

“We have seen many good Japanese midfielders. There are also a lot of good wingers, fullbacks, and central midfielders. The likes of Takefusa Kubo, Takashi Inui, Makoto Hasebe, and Yuto Nagatomo have played in Europe and are quality players but they are not strikers. Given the fact that Japan has produced such good players, if you could change their mentality, especially in front of goal, good strikers could appear.”

Strikers need to have a tough mentality as well as footballing ability – they have to want the ball even if they have missed many chances. That is exactly what Bothroyd embodies.

For instance, Bothroyd missed several clear chances in the J1 match against Sanfrecce Hiroshima in August 2019, and Sapporo lost the game 1-0. After the match, television images captured him hanging his head at the bench, seemingly feeling guilty and showing that he felt responsibility.

But, having remained in the starting eleven, he scored a hat-trick in the following game against Shimizu S-Pulse, and including that hat-trick, he netted in three consecutive matches.

Also, after getting injured in the spring of the same year, Bothroyd was back amongst the starters for the J1 match at Kawasaki Frontale in June. After the game one journalist told him that, “Many fans are waiting for your goals!”, to which he replied with smile, “No worries, I have always scored goals and always will.” We felt his confidence in himself as a striker in that moment.

It would not, however, be easy for Japanese players to have this kind of mentality. In this society, if you make a mistake or fail at something, there are not many second chances. For example, if graduates miss opportunities at the bulk hiring of corporations it would then be difficult to find a proper job. Besides, in youth sports, there are still very rigid coaches who get angry at young players’ mistakes, which means youngsters feel then feel afraid of making errors. That is what Fernando Torres saw in Japan and when he retired he said to young players, “Don’t be afraid of mistakes”.

Bothroyd acknowledges Japanese players’ quality and said the only thing they are missing is a strong mentality.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Japan made it to the quarter- or even semi-finals at the World Cup; and I’m not just saying that. But Japanese people get so excited and happy when the national team qualifies for the final tournament. Maybe because they are humble. But in reality, it is a normal thing for the Japan team to play at the World Cup. We have seen so many quality players in Japan, so I think Japanese people should aim higher than just making it out of the group stage.”

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Although it was just a single friendly match, Jay Bothroyd considers playing for England as his highest honour.

“It’s obviously the biggest achievement of my career,” he says. “It wasn’t only great for me but also my family and friends, they were delighted. I was so honoured”

In 2010, Bothroyd was playing well for Cardiff City in the Championship and scored in six consecutive matches in the autumn. Fabio Capello, the then-England national coach, sent his assistant to watch some league games.

“I knew Franco Baldini, Capello’s right hand man, was in the stands for those games, and I was fortunate to score goals when he came. I was very happy just being called up for preliminary squad with 30 players or so. It was for a friendly match against France.”

At that time, he was happy but did not expect much because lower league players are seldom called up to the final team from the preliminary squad. With that in mind, he went to watch a boxing match, David Haye against Audley Harrison, and then got a text message: “You have been selected for the England national team”.

“I thought it was a joke at first,” Bothroyd laughs. “So I replied to them, ‘Who is this?’ and they said ‘It’s the England FA’. ‘For real?’ and they said, ‘Yes, you are called up to the national team, and will meet us at this hotel…’ It’s funny, that’s how they did it!”

The next day, Bothroyd went to the hotel and the then-captain Steven Gerrard introduced him to all teammates. Rio Ferdinand was also very nice to him, but of course he was overwhelmed by Capello’s authority.

“He is a bit smaller than I imagined, but he has a big aura. When he walked into the room, everybody was chatting but became quiet. I actually nearly got into trouble at the first meal. I was coming down in my flip-flops and Steven Gerrard came to me and said, ‘Go upstairs and change them because the boss doesn’t like that’. He gave me the advice to avoid possible trouble. He was a great captain, and it was very nice to train with such top players.”

Bothroyd played the final 18 minutes of the friendly against France, earning his first cap. That was to be his only national team game experience at 28 years of age, but it marked a huge achievement brought about by a change in attitude.

“When I was younger my attitude was not great. I almost wasted my talent. When you are young, you don’t think about your long-term career, you just think you can play football forever. But professional football is a short career, you have to make the most of each day. When you’re young you waste your time, and then you are 26 or 27 and realise you are not young anymore. Sometimes it can be too late. But for me I realised that at good age, and I built my strategy and mind to get where I wanted to be - taking steps, getting to the highest level, and playing for my country and in the Premier League.”

Throughout his career, who were the toughest defenders he faced? Bothroyd’s face takes on faraway look before he replies.

“Paolo Maldini, Rio Ferdinand, and Ivan Cordoba, who is small but jumped really high and played very aggressively. I didn’t like playing against him. In the J.LEAGUE, (Gen) Shoji, who went abroad from Kashima Antlers, was a tough defender, and (Tomoaki) Makino is always strong.”

Bothroyd would like to see more foreign players coming to the J-LEAGUE, but thinks they need to not only have good quality but also high motivation, a good physical condition, and a proper attitude. Otherwise, he doesn’t feel they can succeed in Japan.

“I came here with desire and a hunger to do well. I did not come here to just play out the end of my career, just kicking the ball around one last time. I wanted to prove myself. As a foreigner, if you come here to play and want to improve, to be successful, you can do so. But, take the current Vissel Kobe side, for example, it looks like the senior team of Barcelona. If you look at the table, though, that says a lot. The name doesn’t matter. What matters is what you can do now. Don’t get me wrong, (Andres) Iniesta and (David) Villa are playing really well, but J.LEAGUE is not that easy. On paper, they should be at the top of the league, but in reality they are not. So if you want to come to the J.LEAGUE, come here with the right attitude to want to succeed, not for a holiday.”

text by Yoichi Igawa

 

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