Saturday’s sold-out J1 League match between FC Tokyo and Shimizu S-Pulse marked the final domestic appearance for striker Yoshinori Muto, who will be joining Bundesliga side Mainz this summer.
The 22-year-old’s curtain call took place in an appropriately sold-out Ajinomoto Stadium, and Muto himself featured in the 3-2 win when he assisted teammate Ryoichi Maeda’s first goal of the night.
Following an emotional farewell ceremony that featured tears, flowers presented by the player’s parents, and a farewell lap to greet over 41,000 supporters, Football Channel’s Cesare Polenghi spoke with FC Tokyo manager Massimo Ficcadenti about the young star and his future.
Cesare Polenghi (CP): What was your impression of Muto when you first saw him? You had just arrived in Japan a year and a half ago, and he was an unknown player…
Massimo Ficcadenti (MF): What was immediately clear about him as soon as I saw him at practice was his great power, his explosiveness. When I spoke with my assistants I told them: “If he could also learn how to play, he can become an awesome footballer!” (laughs).
I started using him as a winger, often on the top flank in a 4-4-2, then as he gained more confidence, he moved more to the centre of our offensive game.
CP: Is there something funny or interesting that you can tell us about him that could define his character?
MF: He is a very serious guy; the other players too, but Muto is really meticulous, he rarely acts out, so it is difficult to nail him on something funny.
There is one thing, maybe: sometimes he still tends to run with his head low, and his team-mates amicably call him “rhino” (laughs) You know when he starts running straight down the pitch…? But of course this is a joke among good friends…. when he picks up speed, he really has an incredible power… Muto, our rhino… (laughs again)
CP: I remember a moment from earlier in this season that showed your affection for him. Muto was sitting on the bench after a match, and you grabbed his face and kissed him on the top of his head, as one would do with his son.
MF: Well, he is more or less the same age of my son, and sometimes he reminds me of him… Muto is a nice bloke, but I like to have a good relationship with every player, not only with him.
I always told everybody: I am your manager, but I don’t want to be like a classic Japanese sensei, I don’t want a cold relationship. Of course I want respect, but that should go both ways and should also come with trust. Without respect and goodwill it is not possible to create a synergy and understand each other.
It is OK if the image of that kiss went around, because that is the way I am with all of my players, not only Muto. Among us there is trust but also fellowship, although we always remember what our roles are.
CP: Were you moved by tonight’s farewell’s ceremony?
MF: Well, there are no such events in Italy; a player leaving is usually an ordinary event, while here in Japan there are these beautiful ceremonies, with greetings and all. I am honestly happy for Muto, because he is a great guy and he deserves it.
He worked hard, he earned it, he is a good boy, and he is also lucky. Since I arrived he improved a lot, he and seized all the opportunities he was given. I hope that others from this team will see a similar send-off in the future.
CP) How was he lucky?
MF) Because he had me as his manager (laughs)
Muto is already the second FC Tokyo player I help to grow, the first was Yuto Nagatomo at Cesena, although lately he never calls me (laughs)
I am sure Muto will be in touch, he is a player who listens very carefully to advice. We’ve spoken a lot lately about European football.
CP: Will Muto be OK in Germany?
MF) He needs to improve in terms of how he uses his power and his agility. He needs to get deep into the other team’s defensive line, and look more for space instead of directly challenging his opponents.
Here in J.League he can still get away physically, but in Europe it will be much harder, as defenders there are much stronger. He needs to improve his timing, his technique… But he knows, and he will. Step by step, he’ll learn quickly playing at a higher level.
CP: Tonight there was an incredible atmosphere at the Ajinomoto Stadium with over 40,000 supporters. I believe it was the third time this year, and it is not so usual here in Tokyo. What did you, as a team, do to create this atmosphere?
MF: The supporters love Muto, but they do love the whole team, they are real supporters. We have generated this enthusiasm around us because of the team’s hard work. I remember last season, even when Muto was not a starter we had a full house at times.
CP: Do you believe this enthusiasm will continue after Muto’s departure? How can you keep the team and the passion of the supporters at this incredibly high level?
MF: We will see, but we actually hope to see crowds even larger than 40,000. We’ll do all we can to bring them to the stadium. With Muto gone we are now looking for other players, to keep playing a brand of football that will make our fans enthusiastic.
We want them to come and watch us, to have a good time, and to create a winning mentality together with the team.
To play entertaining football and for the fans to have a good time is very important, but then again it’s even better if we win games; now that is surely entertaining, isn’t it? (laughs)