Reinvented Ryuji spurring Salgaocar

Sudoku is a combinatorial puzzle that exploded on to the international scene following its publication in English newspaper The Times in 2004. That same year another six-letter, S-fronted word checked out of Japan’s exportation lounge with designs on eminence overseas.

And though Sueoka’s route to realisation has been a marathon, he has belatedly managed to conquer a foreign field and evolve into a conundrum. A conundrum, that is, to Indian I-League defences. Indeed Ryuji Sueoka has, after years of treading water in Singapore and Thailand, taken his game to symbolically grander heights amid the backdrop of Goa’s Sahyadri Mountains – and at a considerable age of 31 that rarely allows for such reinvention.

The benefactors have been Salgaocar. Inexperience (the club only entered the I-League in 2009/10) and miserable campaigns in the Federation and Durand Cups at the back end of last year dictated they kicked off the I-League in December as non-contenders for gold. Sunday’s 2-1 win at second-placed Churchill Brothers thrust Karim Bencherifa’s side three points clear at the summit with six games to play, and emphasised their status as favourites for gold.

That victory, and that status, is indebted to Sueoka. His latest exhibition included testing Vinay Singh’s hands from 35 yards, less than 90 seconds into the game, forcing another save from the Brothers’ keeper courtesy of a sumptuously executed overhead-kick, repeatedly uncorking the hosts’ defence with his jinking runs and piercing through-balls, and stroking home the winner.

I try to analyse my performance after every match and even after every training session, to see what I did well and especially what I didn’t. I think this helps you improve as a footballer, even if you’re on the wrong side of 30.
Ryuji Sueoka

It was his 15th goal in 20 outings this term. Add to that 11 assists and it’s evident the Yamaguchi native, who invariably operates up front, but has also been deployed in central midfield and on both wings this season, has a case for being the I-League’s player of 2010/11.

“I was so excited to score against Churchill Brothers,” Sueoka told FIFA.com. “I ran to the Salgaocar supporters to share my happiness with them. I’m very pleased the goal helped us win, but what was more important was that we didn’t concede after it. The victory was achieved by the whole team.

“I must admit that going into the season, I thought it would be very difficult for Salgaocar to challenge for the I-League title. But I knew we had potential in the squad, and I’m so glad we’ve managed to shock people and challenge up at the top.”

But if the club’s success has been a surprise, their No11’s has been a greater one. After spending the first few years of his career as an invariable bench-warmer for Albirex Niigata in his homeland, Sueoka silently plied his trade in Singapore and Thailand before a 2009 switch to Mohun Bagan, with whom his first-team chances were limited.

So, how, at the age of 31, has he managed to transform himself from a little-known import into an I-League superstar after signing for Salgaocar last year? “I was hoping the subject of my age would not come up!” Sueoka joked, before offering a rare, refreshing explanation.

“I try to analyse my performance after every match and even after every training session, to see what I did well and especially what I didn’t. If I play badly, I don’t put it down to bad luck, but think there must be a reason. So I try to identify the problem, analyse it and work on putting it right. I think this helps you improve as a footballer, even if you’re on the wrong side of 30.”

Sueoka also attributes his regal reinvention to Bencherifa, who is fast emerging as one of the region’s most insightful coaches and took him to Kolkota and then Goa. “He’s a wonderful coach,” said the diminutive Japanese of the 43-year-old Moroccan.

“He’s a very good trainer, really perceptive, an accurate analyst, sharp strategist and great motivator. He’s even a good player in training! He always tries to have good communication, not only with the players, but also with his coaching staff, the team manager and the media. I’ve never met a coach like him in my career.”

Bencherifa told FIFA.com: “I’ve known Sueoka since 2004, when I was coaching in the [Singaporean] S-League. I coached in a couple of All-Star games there and selected him. I also took him to Mohun Bagan and then brought him here to Salgaocar, so I know his character and personality well along with his strengths as a footballer.

“He is a true professional and has become an important figure in Indian football. He’s adapted well to the conditions here. His performances this season speak for themselves. He’s a key player in our team, not only because of his class, but also because he’s versatile, which gives me the opportunity to deploy him in different positions depending on the opposition. Moreover, he is such a team player.”

The modest Sueoka nevertheless prefers to deflect praise on to his Salgaocar companions. “I think I’ve been doing pretty well so far this season, but my team-mates deserve to take the credit for this,” he said. “Everybody has been playing really well. We also benefit from an excellent coach who has a great backroom staff behind him too, and that’s not to mention our amazing supporters.

“The people of India love football. Especially those in Goa and Kolkata. I often see kids and teenagers playing in the park or on a sandlot, on the beach or the streets. There’s such enthusiasm for the sport here.”

He is a true professional and has become an important figure in Indian football. His performances this season speak for themselves.
Karim Bencherifa on Ryuji Sueoka

Another country in which Sueoka has first-hand evidence of an immense passion for football is Japan, which was recently devastated by an earthquake and tsunami. “It has been a huge concern for me,” he explained.

“However, I have been really impressed that so many people from across the football world, including India, have been doing so much to help our country. I cannot tell you how much it means to us. The entire Japanese population appreciates these efforts from the bottom of our hearts. I have again realised that football can connect the world. I think it’s great.”

And while Sueoka yearns for the rehabilitation of his country of birth, he also has desires within his country of residence – ones which would have been fantasy just 12 months ago. “My target is to help Salgaocar win the I-League,” he stated.

“The upcoming matches against Dempo and Mumbai (fourth and fifth respectively) will be very tough. We have to fight as a team. Personally, I never rest on my laurels. I always need to work hard to improve. Everyone in the team feels the same way. That’s the spirit we need to stay the top.

“Then I’d love to play at the next level: in the Asian Champions League. I’ve dreamt of playing against other Asian teams, and especially Japanese ones, since I started playing overseas. It would be wonderful to fulfil this ambition.”

If Sueoka can inspire Salgaocar to I-League glory and a berth among the continent’s elite, it would crystallise what is a compelling Indian summer.