JPF TALK – Featuring Kenji Arai
Marshaling the defence in one of the top Asian Leagues, J-League, at the age of just 21, winning 6 titles within 4 years in S-League, professional career included stint in India! Under what circumstances did
Marshaling the defence in one of the top Asian Leagues, J-League, at the age of just 21, winning 6 titles within 4 years in S-League, professional career included stint in India! Under what circumstances did Kenji Arai leave the Land of the Rising Sun to become a top professional footballer in Singapore? Junpiter Futbol caught up with Kenji Arai and he shared his life with us!
JPF: You turned out for Albirex Niigata from year 2001 to 2005 in the J-League, tell us about those days.
KR: I was scouted by Albirex Niigata in my final year of University during a major football competition at the age of 21. And also with the recommendation of my then football coach, Albirex invited me to join them. I moved from Saitama to Niigata which was much colder in winter, and represented Albirex Niigata in J2 (J-League second tier). I managed to break into the first team and be a regular right away in my very first J-League season. The fans started to recognize me on the streets and I became popular. Unfortunately, that was to be the start of my downfall. I was blinded by the fame and glory which changed my attitude and affected my performance. More good players were scouted and brought into the team and before I knew it, I was already on the bench for my second and third seasons at Albirex. The chairman knew that my playing time was rather minimal so he offered me a couple of options – join another J2 team, Vortis Tokushima or join their Singapore-bound Albirex team to participate in the S-League where I could rejoin the first team back if I perform in Singapore. Management was also toying with the idea of terminating my contract at that time too. I wanted to change for the better and give myself a second chance so I took up the Singapore-bound team’s offer.
JPF: During those years with Albirex Niigata in J2, who were some of the best players you ever played along and against?
KR: In my last season with Albirex Niigata in year 2003, former Japan International, Motohiro Yamaguchi joined Albirex and was made the captain of the team. Yamaguchi is a very intelligent player with great attitude and excellent leadership both on and off the field. He is such a great professional that he would do recovery exercise after every game due to his age. He is also willing to teach every young player who approaches him at the club.
One of the best strikers I ever played against has to be Emerson Sheik, a Brazilian-Qatari striker. He used to play for Kawasaki Frontale and Urawa Reds in J-League. He was also J-League’s Top Scorer in year 2003 and J-League MVP in year 2004. He is very fast!
photo from nagisa.skr.jp
JPF: J-League is one of the best well-run and established professional leagues in Asia, are you able to share with us on the salary cap of J-League players based on what you know?
KR: For top J-League teams,atop player (including Japan NT player) earns about S$700k annually (S$58k a-month). A middle-tier player (not Japan NT) earns about S$15k a-month. A reserved team (prime league in local context) player earns about S$8-9k a month. For a player who joins a top J-League club immediately after graduating from high school, earns about S$5k a-month. Not forgetting, there is winning bonus between S$5-6k for every game paid as a motivation. (JPF: Mouth opening wide…)
JPF: You played alongside former Japan Internationals like Nakata, Maezono, Kitazawa and Sawanobori last year for the Take Action charity game, how were they in real person?
KR: They were very friendly in person. Before the actual game, I was warming up with Hide (Nakata). His long passes never fail to find me; very accurate despite having retired from competitive football for a couple of years. Although it was really exciting to play alongside these good players, we were not exactly overwhelmed by their presences. Our minds then were all with the unfortunate tsunami victims back home. We just wanted to put up a good show with Hide and the rest.
photo from takeactionfoundation.net
JPF: How do you feel about the passing on of former Japanese International defender, Naoki Matsuda?
KR: I was sadly surprised to hear about his death. For a great player who possessed great leadership as a centreback, having played in Olympic and World Cup, it was a huge disappointment for the nation to lose him. I do not know him personally but I have a close friend who was a friend of Matsu’s (Matsuda). According to my friend, Matsu was a nice fellow. He was a joker of the team too. In fact, he was already a well-known player since High School days as he represented Japan National Youth at all levels. And we had a chance to play against each others in a high school competition as both of us studied in the same Gunma prefecture. His passing is a great loss.
JPF: That really came as a surprise when you signed for FC Goa in the I-League in year 2009. Tell us more about your move and this team.
KR: SAF did not extend my contract at the end of the season. So through a Japanese friend, I got to know that FC Goa was looking for an experienced centreback. So I went over to play in the I-League where they were already halfway through their season. We had to share the football pitch with a cricket team so naturally we played on a harder pitch because of this dual-usage. Standard wise, I-League was more physical but not technically good. Foreigners playing in I-League were good too.
JPF: Why did you not carry on playing in I-League?
KR: I joined FC Goa halfway through the season so to be exact, I only stayed in India for 6 months. At the end of the season, another big team, Mohun Bagan A.C wanted to sign me but because my family was unable to settle in India, I decided to turn-down the offer. (JPF: What was the reason your family was unable to settle in India?) Because my wife loves shopping in Orchard Road, Takashimaya! Haha!
JPF: When you first played in the S-League, did you ever feel that the S-League’s standard was not as strong as what you were used to as a J-League player previously?
KR: Yes, I was very disappointed as the standard here was very low here compared to where I used to play in the J-League. Well, I was proven wrong in the end. We (Albirex Singapore) coped well in the first few games. As we continued through the season, things like game play, weather, referee, and many other factors came in, I then realized that the S-League is not an easy league after all. The local players and teams are actually strong.
JPF: You are currently playing for Home United, previously you had also played for Albirex Niigata Singapore, SAF and Sengkang Marine. Which are the best days of your career here in Singapore?
KR: It has to be my 4 years with SAF. We were crowned S-League Champion for 4 years in a row and also proud winner of the Singapore Cup twice! We had got almost the same group of players, including foreigners like Aleksndar Duric, Therdsak Chaiman & Masahiro Fukasawa, same coach, Richard Bok. We were all moving towards the same direction, with the same objective and achieved 6 titles in that 4 years. It wassimply amazing. Something I won’t forget for the rest of my life!. Because of Singapore football, I was also given some rare opportunities to be involved in some of the big games where I will never forget too. I was called up to represent the Singapore Selection to play against Brazil Olympic Team where I faced off with Ronaldinho. And I also played in an Adidas Charity game in Thailand where Zinedine Zidane was my team mate! I am a lucky boy!
photo from sleague.com
JPF: Who are some of the best players you ever played in the S-League?
KR: There are a couple of them actually. First is Aleksandar Duric. I played against him when I was still with Albirex Singapore and Duric was with Geylang. You could see that he was already a class above every player. Second is Therdsak Chaiman. Similar to Motohiro Yamaguchi; he is a very intelligent and hardworking player. He understands football very well. (JPF: What about local players?) Noh Alam Shah and Ahmad Latiff. Ahmad Latiff in particular, he is the best local player that I have seen and played with. He has the physique, technique and skill but I don’t understand why he is not in the National Team for such a talented player. Perhaps, he might have to control his temper?
JPF: Who will win the S-League this season?
KR: Of course, Home United! I’m gonna be killed if I’m going to say other teams! Haha..
JPF: Futbol boots?
KR: Training, I wear Puma. Game day, I wear Adidas. (JPF: Size?) UK 8.5 (JPF: Favorite brand?) Adidas!
JPF: Favorite Player/Team?
KR: No particular favorite team but I prefer Italian football, I like Fabio Cannavaro. (JPF: When you were playing in the J-League?) I am from Saitama and naturally I supported Urawa Reds. I like Naoki Matsuda.
JPF: Favorite Music?
KR: I don’t like Hip-hop or dancing music. I used to like trance and noisy music but now I hate it. I prefer more relaxing music these days but not classical, haha!
JPF: For the benefit of all JPF readers, please share with us how to be a good defender or a centreback like you?
KR: Being tall and big (physique are not important. Most important is game control for 90mins. For example, you have to read the game well. If your team is leading the game, you must play more possession football. Specifically for a good centre back, you are in the best position to watch the entire play. From there, you have to communicate to the players upfront. It’s not easy to read and focus on the game for 90mins especially for a young player, but if you do, you are on the right track.