WORDS: RICHARD GODDEN
Emerson Thome had the character and footballing traits that earned him a place in the hearts of fans wherever he played and, during two seasons in Japan, with Vissel Kobe, the man nicknamed “The Wall” for his defensive stoicism became a local hero. He relives his enriching career finale…
Emerson, most of our readers will remember you from the eight years in England, but you actually finished your career playing in Japan between 2005 and 2007. That’s quite a big challenge to take on in your final years as a footballer, don’t you think?
When Vissel Kobe came in for me, that’s exactly how I saw it myself – a chance to take on one last challenge, playing football in a place that was so far away. Mentally, it was a huge thing for me and my family to prepare for, but I really appreciated my time there. The club was full of good people and the quality of the football, believe it or not, wasn’t that bad; I know I wasn’t young at that stage or as quick as I used to be, but that’s what made it such a good challenge. I got to test myself in a different kind of football at a different level.
The quality of the football there was good and it has continued to improve. As you’ll know, there are a lot of Japanese players abroad now, many of them in Europe, and they are doing quite well. English supporters have been impressed with Shinji Kagawa at Manchester United.
Did the fact that Brazil won the World Cup in Japan a few years earlier ensure players from that part of the world were well received?
I don’t think that was the main thing. Japan has a massive colony back in Brazil, probably the biggest gathering of Japanese people outside of Japan, so the link between the two countries is strong. And a lot of Brazilian people go to work in Japan.
I also remember an experience from the early part of my career, when I was still in Brazil. We had three or four young Japanese lads in our squad during a break in the season, and some of them would stay for six months or a year. This has been happening for years, with many Japanese players going across to Brazil as a kind of learning trade.
Football aside, what was it like to live in Japan?
In terms of quality of life, it was excellent. I think it’s a nation full of people with a good work ethic; that is just in their character. If you go there to do your best, like I did, you will be welcomed. There was the odd person who I felt wasn’t very keen to see a foreigner in the country, but mainly the Japanese people were very welcoming. I think it helped that I was a footballer as well – and one who had played for a few big Premiership teams.
Image courtesy of Vissel Kobe
So I enjoyed it a lot, as did my family. My daughter was just a young kid of five, and she went to a good international school and made good friendships out there, as did my missus. And myself, too. The other players and staff at the club made me more than welcome. I offered them my knowledge and my experience; they repaid me with good relationships and the boys were always willing to listen. That made my two years much easier.
The language barrier must have been huge, though…
To be fair, I couldn’t read anything – it was impossible without letters! So it was difficult to learn it, but I picked up a few bits of the language mainly just from how the boys expressed themselves. Through their emotions and actions, they helped to show me how they felt about certain things. I could only really speak a few words and very rarely could I make dialogue with them in Japanese. But I mixed it in with some English, as a few could speak that, and with the Brazilian link there were one or two of them at the club and some staff who could speak Portuguese. That made my life pretty easy!
Who were the other Brazilians at Vissel Kobe during your time there? The J-League certainly attracted a fair few during its formative years.
You’re right about that. The Japanese League was brought up by a few former Brazilian internationals, with players like Dunga, Zico, Bismarck, Cesar Sampaio and Jorginho, just to name a few. Toninho Cerezo, who Italian football fans may remember, also went there as a manager. The guys we had at Vissel Kobe weren’t famous, at least not to European football fans. There were two boys who have been back in Brazil since then, and one who made a bit of a career for himself in Asia.
The league didn’t just attract Brazilians, either; Michael Laudrup had a short spell with Vissel Kobe in 1996 and ‘97, which must have been a huge boost for the league?
He brought in a proper image for the league, if I can say that. But, more than anything, I think he was an inspiration for the players, since he was one of the top European stars of his generation. He was such a tremendous player. I spoke to some people who knew him out there and they said what an influence he was on the young Japanese players. More than being just a brilliant player, he was a great professional and a good man as well.
During the 2002 World Cup the English press painted your average Japanese football supporter as, well, a bit of a nutter! How did you find them, especially in comparison to the fans in England?
England supporters are football fans through and through – it goes through their veins. In Japan, they have had learn to love football because it’s quite a new sport for them. Professionally it’s 30 years old at the most, and the biggest sport is baseball. But when the Japanese like something, they throw themselves into it head on. And that definitely applies to appreciating a sport; I really felt that. They showed great commitment to us, travelling across the country, buying the shirts and giving us support every day. And when they like a player, they do anything to make them happy – they have big hearts. They’ll do anything to show their love and appreciation to the players.
Dare I ask if they appreciated you?!
They were smashing with me, absolutely terrific. The relationship was great, they were so caring and showed great concern for me. I remember when I broke my metatarsal at the beginning of my second season and I was out for three months – all of the fans were saying, “Emo, when are you coming back? We need you, we love you!” I really felt a part of the family. That made that hard time pass by very quickly.
I knew they loved you anyway after watching a YouTube video of your last game for the club (below) – what an incredible reception!
It was a great farewell that said to me, “Thank you so much for everything you tried to do for us.”
Before the game, the owner came to thank me and held a meeting with the staff at the club, where everyone said farewell. Then he asked me if I would be keen to receive a goodbye after the match: I told him it would be nice, and I expected a bunch of flowers after the match, maybe a little goodbye, and that would be it. But the club had a big party for the end of my career, I couldn’t believe it! There were highlights of my career on the big screen in the stadium, the fans stayed at the end to sing my name, there was a big banner. It was something really amazing. The chairman and owner said some words on the pitch, thanking me for the good things I’d done for the club and how I’d helped them to move forward.
The link is still there – I left something there and the door is always going to be open to me if I want to do something with my managerial career or something like that.
Do you think you will go back?
Well, I will never say never to anything in life. As much as I’d like to maybe come back to England, when you’re leaving some part of your heart somewhere, you never shut the door on it.
And, lastly, do you think Japan will ever be a contender for a World Cup? So far the quarter-finals has been the limit for the Blue Samurai.
I think, when they understand the potential that is there… You see, when I was there I felt they lacked faith in themselves, especially with the physical side of the game. Otherwise they have all the ingredients, not to be the top of the ladder, but a good contender at the World Cup.
The biggest thing they’re missing is involvement with the European clubs – they’re like Australia and South Korea, very far from our eyesight and not getting these opportunities to test themselves. But we should pay more attention to their league and the quality they have out there. There are always good players coming through the ranks and sooner, rather than later, they can be a big team at a World Cup.