It promises to be an enticing weekend for fans this week in Japan’s J-League, with defending champions Kashiwa Reysol entertaining leaders Vegalta Sendai while up-and-coming FC Toyko cross swords with heavyweights Kashima Antlers. For the faithful from Shizuoka, however, it is the local derby between Shimizu S-Pulse and Jubilo Iwata on Saturday that takes centre stage.
Sharing the same Shizuoka prefecture, the two sides have developed one of the country's most long-standing rivalries, dating back to the early days of the professional J-League in 1993. Relishing the encounter in particular, of course, is S-Pulse's Iranian coach Afshin Ghotbi.
"This Shizuoka derby is a fantastic affair here," the 48-year-old former Persepolis and Iran manager told FIFA.com in a recent exclusive interview. "There is a special love for football in this region of the country so the local derby means a great deal to the fans and players. For me, the S-Pulse fans are the best fans in Japan and their unconditional support has always been our inspiration for success."
The two rivals enter the rematch level in the head-to-head record from their past six meetings. Iwata twice emerged 2-1 victors recently, but S-Pulse can take heart from two earlier emphatic triumphs including a spirited 5-1 home win in 2009. With three wins and two draws from the opening five fixtures, the former travel to Shimizu seeking to maintain their undefeated record this season.
Ghotbi's host side, however, are hoping to build on their recent run of form, which has seen them come up with two consecutive 1-0 victories. "Both teams are in good form so we are expecting a classic derby this time around," Ghotbi said. "The atmosphere in J-League is colourful and enthusiastic and we have arguably the stadium with the best surface in the league. So we can play good combination football and maintain a good pace."
A new start in Japan
In the wake of Iran's quarter-final performance in last year's AFC Asian Cup in Qatar in January, Ghotbi called time on his two-year tenure in charge of Team Melli and took the S-Pulse reigns. "Even before moving to Japan I believed J-League is the best professional league in Asia with ambitions to become one of the best in the world. After working in Asia for over a decade, I was interested in working in Japan. I accepted the S-Pulse offer as they shared my vision in developing a global club," he said.
It proved a challenging start when he arrived last year, with nine players leaving the club in the close season - Japanese international striker Shinji Okazaki the most notable. The difficulties were not helped by the devastating earthquake and tsunami of 11 March, which placed a heavy burden on S-Pulse and the entire J-League competitors.
Despite all the hardship facing him, the coach admitted that he drew inspiration from the Japanese people and the way they defied the natural disaster with integrity and dignity. “The tsunami has given me a stronger sense of purpose and commitment to Japan. Inspired by the people, we put in some wonderful performances and finished the first half season in sixth place. Although we had to settle for tenth at the end of the season, it was not that disappointing given our depleted line-up and growing injury list.”
A mix of new and old
As the J-League’s youngest side, S-Pulse is blessed with a series of exciting starlets to complement the old heads, like former Japan internationals Shinji Ono and Naohiro Takahara. Catching the most attention is teenager Hideki Ishige who won last year's AFC Youth Player of the Year awards after steering Japan to the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Mexico.
"All of Japan is waiting to see how Ishige will perform in the season," Ghotbi said. "He set up the winning goal in his debut last Wednesday in the Nabisco Cup against Niigata and this evidently raised everyone's expectations."
With their Australian import Alex Brosque also in among the goals, the S-Pulse boss has even set his sights on winning silverware. “We may be the unfancied side in the league, but we will strive to win the top prize,” he stated firmly.