From Japan with a goal

Arata in a celebratory mood with Pune FC team-mates.-

“There was never a clash between the cultures for me as I grew up in Japan, embracing the way of life there. The Japanese in me will never die,” Izumi Arata, who now plays football for India, tells Ayon Sengupta.

Japan with a FIFA ranking of 32 leads the Asian ranking charts and recently became the first team to come through the qualifying rounds for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Meanwhile India, once a powerhouse of Asian football (winning the first Asian Games gold in 1951), now languishes at the 147th spot in FIFA rankings and the 26th in Asia. Japan’s success in the international stage, particularly since the early part of this century, can largely be credited to the Japan Football Association’s readiness in picking naturalised citizens for the national team. Various foreign imports, particularly Brazilians, were an integral part of the Samurai Blues. Now, India, trying to follow the same path, recently gave a former Japanese citizen a chance to be the nation’s first naturalised international. Izumi Arata, born to a Japanese father and an Indian mother, joined East Bengal in 2006 after stints in Singapore and Japan. Eight seasons later, and after struggling to get a citizenship, Arata finally made his India debut in an international friendly earlier this year. A playmaker with Pune FC now, the 31-year-old spoke to Sportstar, from Japan, about his life in India and love for his motherland.

Excerpts:

Question: How does it feel to be back in Japan after a long time?

Answer: I am back here after a gap of three years and it feels great. I am enjoying myself, meeting old friends, football contacts and generally enjoying a break.

How would you rate the recent season?

It has been a great season for both me and the club. It has been a good team effort. Individually also I’ve had a good season and it was nice to be shortlisted for the FPAI best player award. It’s sad that we could not win the title but we deserved to be in the top three (the team finished second). The support from the team management, supporters, and of course the determination of the players has helped us achieve this.

You were the first ‘Naturalised Individual’ to play for the Indian national team. How has been the experience?

It was a great experience and I hope to continue to play for India as long as I can. It was a dream come true for me when I made my debut against Palestine. I was very happy to have finally played for the national team. I was welcomed warmly by the staff and the players. They made me feel comfortable and I appreciate it. I love India and the people here because from day one I have been made to feel at home. It has been a very eventful journey and an enjoyable one and I want to give everything when I am wearing the blue jersey. But this was not an easy decision to make but I think it was the right decision.

You have played in Japan, Singapore and now India. How would you compare the three systems and what are the immediate improvements needed for the development of the game in India?

It’s unfair to compare between India and Japan as Indian football is still developing. Between India and Singapore there is not much difference. No immediate change can suddenly improve Indian football but in the long run youth development can definitely help India to make its mark in Asian football. We can easily be one of the top five footballing countries in the region.

Tell us about your youth development days in Japan…

As a player whatever I am it is because of what I learnt during my youth development years. There is a lot of stress on basic skills and developing character, that helps you in the long run. But my best moment in my professional career came when I wore the jersey of Albirex Niigata for the first time in Singapore. It was a learning experience to play for J-League side Mitsubishi Mizushima later.

Tell us about the cultural clash of being half Indian and half Japanese. What are you more comfortable as?

There was never a clash between the cultures for me as I grew up in Japan, embracing the way of life there. The Japanese in me will never die.

Was it difficult to settle in here? Do you miss Japan?

It was very difficult. I miss Japan and my friends over there, but I make sure that my mother comes every year to watch me play. I haven’t got the time to visit Japan often and I want to rectify that. But I know if I have to leave India now then I’m going to miss India, as well. I want to hang up my boots and settle down in India. It’s a complete misconception that Japan is a better place to live than India. Things like that depend on the choices you make. Since moving here in 2006, a lot of my habits have also changed. I can eat spicier food now. I’m getting Indianised slowly and I am enjoying it thoroughly.

How did you manage to sign up for East Bengal in 2006?

An Indian agent approached me when I was playing in Singapore and I thought it would be an interesting challenge and thankfully things clicked for me.

It is reported that you have chosen an Indian name for yourself, Neelkanth Khambholja… How did you decide on that?

I chose to use Arata Izumi on my Indian passport and hopefully you can correct that piece of information floating in the public domain.

Tell us about your wife…

Shweta is a physiotherapist by profession and at present, she is also attached with Pune FC. We got married a few years back in Japan, it was a small ceremony.

What are your future plans?

I want football to be a part of my life always.

What do you do when not playing?

Spending time with my family, taking care of my fitness, keeping myself prepared for the next training session or match. And, also a bit of time on my playstation.

* * * SHORT BYTES

Your footballing idol: Kazuyoshi Miura (A Japanese international who has played 89 times for the country, scoring 55 goals.)

Favourite attire: Semi-formal Favourite ground: Balewadi Stadium.

Favourite holiday destination: Yamaguchi, my home town.

Favourite car: Mini Cooper. Favourite restaurant: Terttulia in Pune. Favourite kind of music: Jazz and classic.

Best coach: Yusuke Adachi (Former coach of J-League side Yokohama.)

If not a footballer: A kindergarten teacher. Favourite sport, apart from football: Tennis.

Favourite personality in other sports: Ichiro Suzuki, one of the greatest international baseball players ever.