Montenegro Unlikely Stepping Stone for Japanese Footballers

Yesterday I saw two interesting reports that Montenegro has become an unlikely gateway for Japanese footballers looking to gain access into European leagues or to maintain their chances of becoming a professional footballer. Both reports I read were identical so one obviously just copied the other. The better one appeared in the Daily Mail. It claims there are 40 professional Japanese players, playing in 22 clubs in the Balkan country that has a population of just over 600,000. A total of 140 Japanese players have so far played in the Former Yugoslav Republic.

FK Adrija a newly formed club based in the capital Podgorica was formed by Pedja Stevovic who played in the lower leagues in Japan. Stevovic is the club’s president and there are several Japanese on its management board as well as three players on the pitch and one Japanese assistant coach. He is the mastermind behind bringing Japanese players to Montenegro. In his own words, he said, “Japan produces between 7,000 and 10,000 players a year. They can’t all find a place in the competitions, the Japanese first division has only 1,500 players. Those who do not make it either give up football or try their luck abroad.”

The potential possibilities this gateway could open for Japanese players to be successful can be huge, especially as a lot of Eastern European players make their way to more well-known leagues such as Germany.  Taku Ishihara and Kohei Kato are two examples of players who have taken the journey to Montenegro and then moved on to other European leagues.

Taku Ishihara moved from Tokushima Vortis - after appearing only once – to sign for Mladost Podgorica. From Podgorica, he eventually ended up in the lower German leagues turning out for Erzgebirge Aue, Saarbrücken and Neustrelitz, however according to his playing statistics on Wikipedia he only managed to play a total of 42 games in his career scoring 3 goals which don’t indicate a very successful career.

Kohei Kato is an example of this route into professional football for Japanese players working. Currently playing for Bulgarian side Beroe Stara Zagora but to get here he has navigated a worldwide path. Starting out at Argentine based Buenos Aires Sacachispas Fútbol Club but not playing any first team games, then returning to his native Japan to playing 29 times for FC Machida Zelvia. The fact he only managed to participate in 29 games points to things not quite working out for him there either.

At this point, his career veered back onto an upward trajectory by taking the Montenegrin route offered to play 61 times for Rudar, before transferring to Poland, and finally onto his present club in Bulgaria. These two examples show how a little known Podgorica based club are keeping Japanese players hopes of becoming professional alive while at the same time opening pathways to European leagues that many players around the world crave.

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