In the winter, FC Gifu made the surprise signing of a European goalkeeper. Most watchers had expected Gifu to roll with Yoshinari Takagi & Satoshi Tokizawa as the two primary options in goal, with possibly a youngster being brought in to be groomed for a future role. But that strategy was rendered (probably) redundant by the signing of Victor Ibanez from Spanish side L’Hospitalet.

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Foreign goalkeepers

There have been plenty of foreign goalkeepers in Japan, you only have to look at this season’s J1 to find a plethora of Korean goalkeepers currently plying their trade here. Kashima, Sapporo, Kobe, Kawasaki are four teams that currently have Korean custodians, but this is not rare for Japan. Koreans have a much easier time in adjusting to the Japanese leagues due to the proximity and similarity of the league. European goalkeepers are much rarer these days; I can only think of Jubilo Iwata’s Krystof Kaminski as a European-born goalkeeper who has been a regular starter in the past few years. But Gifu’s number 25 is the newest member of that exclusive club of foreign goalkeepers.

 

How & why?

Those two questions interested me for a long time before I actually got to ask Victor himself and FC Gifu’s president Hiroyuki Miyata. Before the defeat against Oita, I asked Mr. Miyata about the process of signing a foreign player, and how it worked with Victor.

“We were given a list of criteria by our new coach (Takeshi Oki) on what he wanted from a goalkeeper, and then we told our scouts & agents (FC Gifu have some connections with European scouts/agents, especially in Spain) and they gave us a list. The coaches watched videos of the goalkeepers, it is easier these days because we can ask for videos or there are lots of resources on YouTube, and then we decided which one would be best – thinking about various factors: cost, age, abilities. Then we negotiated with Victor, and that’s how we signed him.”

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When I put this to Victor, he added another interesting bit of information. “I was actually looking to move abroad, to move away from Spain. I wanted to experience playing outside of my home country, and this opportunity came up and so I was happy to accept.”

 

Challenges

Mr. Miyata continued “I think Victor is a nice person. He’s polite & humble, but wants to work hard. I think he wants to learn as much Japanese as possible, and when he learns more he’ll become a better player.”

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Victor: “Yes, communication was difficult at first!” I asked him how he communicates with his defenders. I was under the impression that, given he has Daiki Tamori (Japanese) and Henik (Brazilian) usually in front of him, the lingua franca would be English. Apparently not. “We communicate in Japanese if possible. I know only a bit of Japanese: Migi (right), hidari (left), ushiro (behind), mae (in front) – those kinds of important words. Sometimes Henik helps me because Portuguese is not so different from Spanish so sometimes we can work things out together. But I want to learn Japanese. It has been very busy for me coming here because I’ve come here with my family and we wanted to settle down a little bit. I hope to make a big effort to learn more Japanese soon.”

 

What does Victor bring to Gifu?

Much like Pep Guardiola hand picked Claudio Bravo to move to Manchester City because he’s a goalkeeper that fits Pep’s playing style, Takeshi Oki and goalkeeper coach Motoki Kawahara have taken the same route with Victor.

Kawahara had an especially interesting interview in the latest “Football Critique” (フットボール批評) in which he talked at length about how the European model of goalkeeping – especially the German one of which Manuel Neuer is the poster boy – is becoming the standard. Kawahara said “The prevailing thought is “attacking goalkeepers”. Goalkeepers that have the ability to influence play not just by the way they stop shots or take crosses, but the way they can start attacks quickly are in demand. It starts with making goalkeepers aware of the benefits of playing a little further forward, which can be difficult for goalkeepers to get used to. European goalkeepers seem to be a bit more advanced in this regard.”

Victor: “I think one of the reasons that Gifu wanted me was because I like to have the ball at my feet. I can build play from defence. Maybe the level of Japanese goalkeepers in this area, while getting better, might not be as high as European ones. I’m not sure though.”

If ever a team needed a goalkeeper who is comfortable on the ball, then Takeshi Oki’s team is it. Under his stewardship, Gifu pass and pass and pass and pass. And then pass some more. Everyone needs to be comfortable receiving the ball. In the recent 4-4 draw with V-Varen Nagasaki, Gifu attempted a staggering 945 passes, completing 90% of them – good for a 73% share of possession.

On this topic, I spoke to Sisinio, Gifu’s other Spanish import.

Sisinio: “Yes, we pass a lot! It is how the coach likes to play and we have good players.” Don’t you get a bit nervous when you are passing it out of difficult situations in defence, I asked. “Haha! Yes, of course. Sometimes I just want them to clear the ball, but our coach wants us to keep possession, so that is what we try to do.”

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Victor (right) shares a word with fellow Spaniards Sisinio (centre) and Juanma

Victor’s impressions of Japanese football & Japan itself

I asked him what he thought of the level of football in Japan.

Victor: “I think the actual level of the league is a bit lower than what I was playing in in Spain, but the facilities are much better. Look at this (he motions to the stadium). Today we had over 7,000 here, and great support all game long. I’ve found the set up good for me.”

Off the pitch, he seems to be taking advantage of any free time he has to see as much of Japan as possible. If you follow him on Instagram, you’ll see regular updates from travels around the country.

Victor: “Yes! I want to see as much of Japan as possible. I want to go to Tokyo, Hiroshima, Takayama…..anywhere!” It is a refreshing view. People just think of football players training and then going home. But Victor and his girlfriend (sorry ladies, he is taken) want to extract the maximum amount from their time in Japan.

Victor has had a good start to his time in Gifu. His performance in the 1-1 draw at Tokushima Vortis was outstanding, and he has been key in other good performances against Machida Zelvia, Gunma & Kanazawa. On the flip side, his “attacking” approach to goalkeeping has left him exposed once or twice. Against Oita, he was exposed by a cruel deflection which let in Yusuke Goto to open Oita’s scoring (Oita would go on to win that game) and in the latest game a misplaced pass by Takayuki Fukumura which fell to Nagasaki forward Yu Kimura left Victor helpless as Kimura chipped the ball over him.

Such are the risks associated with goalkeepers that start off in an advanced position, but it doesn’t phase Victor. “That’s the…..(searches for the English word)….beauty of football. Those things can happen. It is football. But, we must move forward.”

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