Japanese players can be difficult to coach if you don't know the culture. —Zdenko Verdenik
TOKYO — Zdenko Verdenik is rebuilding another team in the J-League, joining a long list of foreign managers who have overcome cultural obstacles to make an impact in Japan.
Under Verdenik, Omiya Ardija went on a record 21-game unbeaten run that dates back to August of last season. The team won seven games in a row and is in first place in the standings with 26 points, three ahead of Yokohama F Marinos. Kashima Antlers held the previous record of 17 games without defeat.
It's a remarkable turnaround for a team that has never been prominent in the J-League and underscores the success managers from abroad have had in Japan. Before this season, Omiya's best finish was 12th in the 18-team league.
Verdenik, who has been in Japan for more than 10 years, says a key to his success is breaking through the cultural mindset of the Japanese players.
"Japanese players can be difficult to coach if you don't know the culture," Verdenik said. "You must have more patience because they need a little more time to improve. The one thing they lack is creativity because in Japanese life there isn't much creativity. It is more order and discipline."
After coaching for a decade in his native Slovenia, Verdenik had a brief stint in Austria before arriving in Japan to manage JEF United Ichihara in 2000-2001. He also worked at Nagoya Grampus and Vegalta Sendai before being hired by Omiya last June.
Verdenik had similar results with JEF United, taking over a weak team and guiding them to an impressive third-place finish in 2001.
"When I came to Omiya, I knew exactly what I wanted to do," Verdenik said. "I made a concept, I explained what I wanted and the players have been able to execute my plan. Many thought we would be relegated but now we are in first place."
Verdenik's practices are high-energy. The 64-year-old coach demonstrates drills and talks to as many of the Japanese players as he can through his translator and it's clear the message is getting across.
"He's the best coach in Slovenia," said Milivoje Novakovic, a Slovenian striker who has scored five goals for Omiya this season. "He's had some chances in Europe but has found success in Japan. He's able to get us to play like a team which isn't easy considering the different personalities he is dealing with."
Foreign managers have a long history in Japan's domestic league, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this season. The most successful was Brazilian Oswaldo de Oliveira, who guided Kashima to three straight championships from 2007 to 2009.
He is one of eight Brazilians who have coached Kashima, which is the most successful team in the league with a record seven championships. Kashima has also won the J-League Cup a record five times and the Emperor's Cup four times for an unprecedented total of sixteen major domestic titles.
Hans Ooft, Zico and Ivica Osim are the only managers who have coached in the J-League and Japan's national team.
Other foreign managers who have enjoyed success in Japan include Brazilian Nelsinho, who led Kashiwa Reysol to its first championship in 2011 when he was named Manager of the Year. German coach Guido Buchwald guided Urawa Reds to the championship in 2006.
But not every foreign manager has had success here.
Former Tottenham player and manager Osvaldo Ardiles had mixed results.
Ardiles became coach of Yokohama in January of 2000, but was fired in June 2001 following a poor start to the season. From 2003 to 2005 he coached Tokyo Verdy, where he won the 2004 Emperor's Cup. But in July 2005 he was fired after a nine-game winless streak.
In 2012 he came back to Japan to coach Division 2 club Machida Zelvia but was let go after the team was relegated to the third division.
Perhaps he just didn't adapt enough.
Like Verdenik, FC Tokyo boss Ranko Popovic said an understanding of Japanese culture is essential to being successful in the league.
"Japan has a group mentality," Popovic said. "They want to be all together, to be the same. This is good in many instances but sports are different, it's a competition. Everyone has to strive to be better. I try to give my players the option to make the best choices. There isn't one right way to do things, there are many ways and I try to teach that."
Coaching methods have come under the spotlight in Japan since it was revealed in January that the head coach of the women's Olympic judo team, Ryuji Sonoda, used violence against athletes at a training camp prior to the London Olympics. He also verbally abused his athletes.
In December, a Japanese high school student committed suicide after enduring repeated beatings from his basketball coach.
Most foreign coaches take a more gentle approach to get their points across.
Nagoya Grampus boss Dragan Stojkovic has been in Japan for 13 years and is one of the most popular coaches in the history of the J-League.
"It's important for me to not criticize too much," Stojkovic said. "To criticize is very easy, you can do it and you have the right to do it but the most important thing is support, to help the players learn from their mistakes. I want to give them confidence, they need this kind of communication and support."
For foreign coaches there are many things that make coaching in Japan attractive. Japanese athletes are notoriously hardworking and respectful of coaches.
Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger coached Nagoya in 1995-96, just two years after the league started, and said the tremendous organization and dedication of the players was obvious.
"The quality of the organization was something that stood out to me," Wenger said on Arsenal's website. "Secondly, the huge, unbelievable desire and hunger for training from the Japanese player. When I arrived in the morning they were already on the pitch and training started one and a half hours later."
Wenger will return to Japan in July as part of Arsenal's Asian tour.
Stojkovic believes one of the biggest benefits to coaching in Japan is the level of respect.
"The most important thing is there is no fighting here," Stojkovic said. "There is no hooliganism and this is one of the reasons I have been here so long. This is a big problem in (world) football, but in Japan everything is based on respect."