On 25 November, Cerezo Osaka officially announced the departure of Levir Culpi at the end of the season. This is the 3rd time he leave Osaka, and he will not come back again, at least as a manager.
Levir Culpi, a 60 year old Brzillian, has managed several big clubs in Brazil and used to be seen as a promissing manager along with Luiz Felipe Scolari, Vanderlei Luxemburgo, and Nelsinho. He once became a candidate for Seleção manager, although he couldn’t because he stated he wouldn’t use Romalio. He became the manager of Cerezo Osaka three times, as we see below.
1st Term (1997)
In 1997, Culpi came to Osaka for the first time. Then J. League employed 2 stages system. Cerezo Osaka under Culpi won 7 matches and lost 9 matches in the first stage, and won 9 matches and lost 7 matches in the second stage. Although it might not be very bad result, the club decided to change manager at the end of the season. The then president Kenji Onitake told media “We couldn’t agree on conditions so the club won’t renew his contract.”
In part, it might be because of financial problem. Cerezo Osaka has not been constantly well off. Cerezo has been sponsored by some big companies. Yanmar has been the main sponsor (Cerezo Osaka was Yanmar Diesel Football Club before joining J. League), and Nippon Ham has also supported Cerezo since the club was formed. But this year, another big sponsor Capcon decided to withdraw.
2nd Term (2007-2011)
Because of its financial conditions, Cerezo Osaka used to acquire many veteran players who already passed their peaks. Then, in Osaka, Gamba Osaka had been flourishing so young prospects usually chose to join Gamba academy. Until the second term of Levir Culpi, Cerezo academy produced only a few good players, including Yoichiro Kakitani and Takeshi Hamada (now at Tokushima Vortis).
Culpi came back to Osaka in 2007. In that year, Satoshi Tsunami, a former Japan international, assumed the position but he couldn’t achieve results. He couldn’t even see through the talent of Shinji Kagawa, who joined the club in 2006 along with Kakitani and then was used as a defensive midfielder. The club decided to sack him and bring Culpi back to Osaka. The person in charge of this move was general manager Satoshi Kajino. Kajino had played during Culpi’s first term, and he can speak Brazillian fluently and communicate with Brazillian people, including Gilmar who also played for Cerezo Osaka during Culpi’s first term and for Brazillian national team, and now is the agent for a lot of famous players.
Cerezo Osaka relegated to the J2 League in 2006. Given that Cerezo had not been rich, the club decided to reinforce its youth system. A major policy was establishing “Hanasaka Club.” It was the initiative by Isao Miyamoto, a former Yanmar Diesel player and now the managing director of Cerezo Osaka Sports Club (academy). In that system, supporters fund money, for example, for sending youth players abroad to play matches against foreign clubs and nutrition education. Recently, Hanasaka Club gradually achieves success. Players who enjoyed the benefits from it, including Hotaru Yamaguchi and Takahiro Ogihara, got named to the national team.
Culpi, in part thanks to these achievements, could make the team much stronger. He is really good at recognizing young talents. And he has courage to use young players patiently. He is also a good motivator. So, in his second term, a lot of young players flourished, and as a result, Shinji Kagawa and Takashi Inui left the club for Europe. Culpi also could realize potentials of players who couldn’t fully exploit them in the club they then belonged, such as Teruyuki Moniwa and Akihiro Ienaga. Ienaga joined RCD Mallorca after he made impact in Cerezo Osaka.
Cerezo decided promotion to the J1 League in 2009. In the first year, while Kagawa left the club in summer, one top (Adriano) and the “3 shadows” (Inui, Ienaga, Kiyotake) functioned and the club got qualification for ACL. In every summer since 2010, Cerezo lost key players (Inui in 2011, Kiyotake and Kim in 2012). Under that difficult conditions, Culpi somehow managed to achieve results. But in 2011, he stated his intention to leave the club because he felt “the time to go back to Brazil and spend with family has come.” Culpi departed Osaka, while every supporter missed him.
3rd Term (2012-2013)
I thought it would be the last goodbye, but it turned out that I was wrong. Cerezo made contract with Sergio Soares as his successor, but under the conditon that Cerezo lost several players due to the Olympics, he couldn’t make it. So the club decided to sack him and asked Culpi to come back to Osaka once again. Culpi then had thought he wouldn’t accept any offers unless it’s special (in part because he wanted to finish his book named “A Lucky Fool”). And it seemed the offer from Cerezo was “special” emotionally and financially.
In his third term, Culpi not only helped the club avoid relegation in 2012, but also he made young players such that they were named to national team. In 2013, Yoichiro Kakitani, Hotaru Yamaguchi, and Takahiro Ogihara gained experience to play for Japan. And thanks to these young (and handsome) players, a lot of new fans became come to the stadium (Recently the word “Cere-jo” has been sometimes used by media. It literally means “Cerezo Girls”).
Cerezo Osaka made an announcement that Culpi and his staff would leave at the end of their contracts. This time, it seemed not because of his family problem. The reason, as the president Mr. Okano reportedly told him, was that the club had a plan to change its “philosophy.” What philosophy? I don’t know. If any, it is to show attacking and attractive football, and constructed by Levir Culpi. Culpi has spoken out “if we get 3 points, 1 win and 2 defeats is much better than 3 draws.” I think that is what Cerezo has been pursuing. And the club won’t change that stance. Then, why did the club decide not to renew the contract? The “philosophy” Okano said seems to be about money, not football.
The Way Ahead
The club, in searching for the next manager candidate, firstly approached Hiroshi Nanami. Nanami, a 40 year old former Japan international, is a TV commentator now. I believe he will someday become a good manager, but at this moment, he has no coaching experiences, so many supporters thought he was not the right one. Eventually, Nanami turned down the offer.
The next candidate is Ranko Popovic. Popovic has managed several clubs in Japan and now is a FC Tokyo boss. He is known to favor attacking flowing football, like Cerezo do. Several media reports said the club already reached agreement with him. Popovic has to leave Tokyo at the end of season but wants to stay in Japan, while Cerezo needs competent (but not so expensive) manager. So, in a way, the offer was one which satisfied both demands. Popovic is not a bad choice (I can’t say good because I don’t know his football very well), but I think many supporters have some questions about what the club sought to do.
Saturday’s match against Kashima Antlers was the last home match of the season and for Culpi. At the goodbye ceremony, he cried in public without hesitation. He says Cerezo is like a family. I agree with him. He is not Japanese, he came from far distant country, and he can’t speak Japanese well although he spent several years here. But he is like a father. Cerezo supporters love his personality, his smile, his jokes, and of course his football. We will definitely miss him. I just want to say thank you to him from the deepest of my heart, shouting aloud “LEVIR CEREZO!!”