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Feb 22, 2013

Japan's infatuation with Wenger

"No one trusted Wenger at first. They all said 'Here comes another foreigner.'" Those were the words of Tetsuo Nakanishi, a defender at Nagoya Grampus in Japan as a little-known Frenchman arrived to take control of the team back in 1995.

It was not the first time that Arsene Wenger had to overcome a certain level of scepticism and it was not the first time that he did so with flying colours to revolutionise not only the fortunes of a club, but help change the way of thinking in an entire country. Wenger's 18 months in Japan may have been a fraction of that already spent in England but nonetheless, he left a legacy, a legion of admirers and silverware.

Yet it is not just about what he left, but what he took. His time in the J.League came as the competition was still finding its feet. To suggest Wenger did the same in the Land of the Rising Sun would not be accurate after his success with Monaco, but his time in the East was not only successful in terms of results, it left an indelible imprint on Arsene Wenger the man and the coach, both feeling disillusioned after the Marseille corruption scandal. Japan, even the industrial city of Nagoya, was a breath of revitalising fresh and pure football air.

He arrived in January 1995 to replace the 'other foreigner'. Gordon Milne was an English manager recommended by his former Leicester City striker Gary Lineker whose injury-plagued spell in Nagoya ended before Wenger arrived. It didn't work out for Milne either. The ex-Liverpool star was not in the same library as his players, never mind book, chapter or page and was on his way out after just a few months. The 1994 season ended with the team next to bottom.

Wenger, hair brown and glasses thick and round, rolled into town. Like his English predecessor, he struggled at first to get his message across. In training, players would constantly wait to be told what to do. "There was a wall between me and the Grampus players," Wenger recalled. "The know-how I had developed in Europe was of no use with this wall. They wanted specific instructions from me... but the player with the ball should be in charge of the game. I had to teach them to think for themselves." In those early days, the shout "what are you afraid of" was a common training ground refrain.

If there was fear then there was soon a good deal of stress too. The season started with three defeats, the third a 6-2 home thrashing at the hands of Jubilo Iwata. The first three-point haul came courtesy of a penalty shoot-out win after a goalless draw (in the league's early days, no draws were allowed) but then followed four more losses with just two goals scored and 11 conceded. It was three points from eight games and it wasn't good.

But there had been signs that the team was starting to play. Wenger had been impressed with the squad's willingness to work together, learn and improve. Slowly, the hours on the training pitch started to pay dividends. Despite the results, the players were talking to each other much more, the movement of the whole team started to improve and while defensive issues remained, there was more variety in attack.

It helped that Wenger had Dragan Stojkovic as an able lieutenant on the pitch, one who could effortlessly demonstrate just what making decisions and taking responsibility actually meant. The star of the famous Red Star Belgrade and Marseille teams of the late 80s and early 90s, the Serbian arrived in Japan just a few months before the man who was to become his manager and mentor.

Inspired by the superb Stojkovic - far from over the hill at 30 - results started to change. The first stage of the season (the winners of each stage met in a championship play-off) ended with Nagoya rallying to finish fourth, an impressive feat after such a poor start. The highlights came in a 6-0 thrashing of Cerezo Osaka and a 3-2 win over eventual champions Yokohama Marinos. There was a buzz growing in the increasingly full Mizuho Stadium; fans could see what was happening and the players knew it too.

"I began to feel he was a great coach," said Tetsuo Nakanishi, who had shed his earlier suspicion and started to write notes at home after every training session. "I began to think they may be valuable."

The players enjoyed their new lease of life, enjoyed working with a ball in training (even Stojkovic was surprised and delighted to do so) and started to enjoy the games. The second stage started in opposite fashion to the first with four straight wins. In the end, Nagoya finished second, easily their best showing since the J.League started in 1993. The season ended with the Emperor's Cup in front of 50,000 at Tokyo's National Stadium.

That was the club's greatest triumph until 2010 when Stojkovic, now as coach, finally delivered the title. "It was a really enjoyable time for me to have Arsene Wenger as a manager," Stojkovic told ESPN in 2010. "In 1995 I was the league's MVP and he was the best coach. We worked very well together. What I understood from him and what I learnt from him was what modern football is. My work today is very similar. I can't say the same but very similar. I want to ensure that my players always enjoy their football whether it is the game itself or training."

Wenger coaxed the best of out the players with goals coming from all areas of the team with midfielders such as Tetsuya Okayama, Frank Durix and Takashi Hirano enjoying much better than usual seasons in front of goal. Young striker Takafumi Ogura flourished, scoring 19 goals in 42 games in 1995. Had he not missed much of the 1996 season through injury, fans maintain that Nagoya would have finished first and not second. Wenger left for London before it ended.

He never had time to take the league title but took the award of best coach in 1995, and that was not all. "More than the wins, I was proud of the quality of soccer we were playing," the Frenchman said when Nagoya became champions in 2010. "This was a fantastic moment, when I suddenly saw a ray of light. I could touch the beauty of soccer as a team sport - the essential thing of it being full of individual expression at the same time as a team sport."

"The happiness of people who love football [was also a highlight]. We were sold out in every single game. I am still in touch with Nagoya over their decisions. I am personally very happy, very proud because we started the work at Nagoya."

Just before he left for London, Wenger said goodbye to the fans at the stadium. "I will never forget you and will love Nagoya forever", he said in Japanese. The scoreboard replied in English 'Thank You'. And then he was gone - but not forgotten.

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