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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Ono, Ghotbi confident S-Pulse will be contenders

Staff writer

Given the changes that have taken place at Shimizu S-Pulse over the winter, new manager Afshin Ghotbi could be forgiven for playing down expectations in Shizuoka ahead of the new season.

News photo
Optimistic: Shimizu S-Pulse's Shinji Ono believes the team can improve on its sixth-place finish last season. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

As far as the much-traveled Iranian-American is concerned, however, even the departure of virtually the entire first team does not mean an improvement on last year's sixth-place finish is out of the question.

"I think change is good sometimes," the man whose resume includes stints as an assistant on Guus Hiddink's 2002 South Korea World Cup coaching staff and manager of the Iran national side said ahead of Shimizu's season-opening visit to Kashiwa Reysol on Saturday.

"The S-Pulse chairman and management want the championship and I think they have decided to go in a new direction. They have brought in a manager with a very international vision and really from the beginning our target is to be champion of Asia.

"I'm not shy to say that's what we want to achieve, and to do that first we have to qualify this season for the Champions League. We want to do it in style by winning the J. League."

Having shipped out 13 players over the offseason, including national team trio Shinji Okazaki, Jungo Fujimoto and Takuya Honda, Norwegian striker Frode Johnsen and club captain Akihiro Hyodo, few would be inclined to agree with Ghotbi's early assessment. But with veteran striker Naohiro Takahara joining former international teammate Shinji Ono at the club, the manager believes he has the essential ingredients to keep supporters' minds fixed on the future rather than the past.

"Any time you want to build a new team you need experienced players with the right professional mentality, and when you have players like Shinji and Takahara, they are real professionals," he said. "Every day they come to training and they want to grow and improve. When the young players see that mentality, they are inspired.

"The fact that he (Ono) has played abroad and he has a little bit of an international mentality himself, we can communicate in English together and it's very important to the success of this team."

Ono looked revitalized after joining S-Pulse last season, rolling back the years for his hometown club after familiar injury troubles dogged his second spell in Europe with Bochum in Germany. The 31-year-old inevitably faded as the campaign wore on, but Ghotbi's enthusiasm has helped him recharge his batteries for the season ahead.

"I have played under more than 15 managers and he is the best I have had in my career," Ono said. "When I met him on the first day I felt his energy and his personality, and it was a good fit for me.

"A lot of players from last year have left but some new players have joined, and now I think we will play better than last year. In football you don't play alone. There are 11 players, so we need to learn from this manager and then we can put on some good performances."

Ghotbi's route to the J. League has been circuitous to say the least, having moved from Iran to California at the age of 13, started coaching in his teens and getting his first break as an analyst with the 1998 U.S. World Cup team. His work with Hiddink then opened the door to club jobs in South Korea, the U.S. and Iran, and led to a two-year stint in charge of Iran culminating in a quarterfinal appearance at January's Asian Cup.

"Of course I had some information and background about the J. League and Japanese football, partly because of my experience working in Korean football and with the Korean national team," he said.

"Overall it is the best league in Asia and in my opinion one of the best leagues in the world, maybe top 10, because of its organization, because of their attention to detail, the players' willingness to work and improve. I'm very excited to be here and to work in this league."

Ghotbi's varied background makes him impossible to categorize, but the man himself has his own ideas.

"I think probably the best way to describe myself is that I have the heart of an Asian, the football brain of a European and the spirit of an American, so it's a great combination," he said. "I'll let the Japanese fans decide after they see my team playing over the months ahead."

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