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The journey of Yuriko Saeki, the head of Japanese football

The Japanese Yuriko Saeki came to Spain in 1992, at the age of 18, for her father’s work. Within a few weeks of landing in the capital, as he adjusted to his new life, one of his main concerns was to find a soccer team where he could play for a while. It occurred to her to ask the Madrid Football Federation if they would sign her up for the coaching course. I didn’t know if they accepted girls. “I don’t understand what the problem is,” the director told him. “Oysters, in this country I can still live,” he thought. And he stayed. He got it right. Because throughout these 30 years she managed to coordinate all of Villarreal CF’s women’s football and now she will definitely return to Tokyo as the executive director of football for the Japanese league. You will have to wait a little longer. Covid-19 got in the way of his return trip. Japan still has some restrictions and flying there now from Spain, for example, means isolating yourself for at least two weeks.

On March 12, Yuriko was elected by the J.League, Japan’s domestic competition, as the head of the football and social action department. He exercises the role teleworking from Villarreal with meetings at dawn because the confinement measures of most of the countries of the world prevented him from completing his return. She explains it by video call, with a tone closer to her vocation as a coach than to the formality of an executive of one of the great world firms. She is a team player. His mobile illustrates the effort that telecommuting takes him: he only sleeps an average of four hours a day. The time distance with Japan has disturbed his sleep.

Yuriko Saeki, with her notebook, during the training course she did in Madrid, shortly after arriving in Spain, in the early nineties.

In these three decades of work he toured the bowels of Spanish football. She was coach of the CD Puerta Bonita first team in 2004, then in the Third Division, and became coordinator of Villarreal women’s football. An eternal journey of almost 10,000 days in which she captured dreams that she believed were unrealizable, she met very different jobs, several cities, different colored jerseys and dodged all kinds of obstacles to return to the starting point as an architect of Japanese football. His experience in LaLiga Santander and the soccer rapprochement between Spain and Japan also made it possible. Now he will be in charge of leading the sports competitions of the J.League.

Her journey is comparable to that of the protagonist in the Studio Ghibli fantasy film Spirited Away, a young woman who is separated from her parents and goes on an excursion to discover herself. Yuriko is Japanese, but she was born 46 years ago in Tehran (Iran) because her father, who worked for an airline, traveled all over the world. The first time he touched a soccer ball was when he was six or seven years old, “in the first or second year of primary school”, when one of his classmates brought a black and white leather one to school. “I found it super nice,” he says. “It was one of those that hurt because they are hard and heavy,” he recalls. That day he learned to play soccer. “The main sport in Japan was baseball, more difficult to play. The regulation is more complex and you need a certain technique to start ”, he reflects. Soccer, on the other hand, was easier. “Two cans to make the goals, do not touch the ball with your hand and put it between the two cans.” Oliver and Benji didn’t even exist then.

Yuriko Saeki, interviewed by TVE in 2004, when she assumed the position of coach of CD Puerta Bonita, then in the Third Division.

Yuriko Saeki, interviewed by TVE in 2004, when she assumed the position of coach of CD Puerta Bonita, then in the Third Division.

She had to convince the coaches of the Nagazumi, a club in the city of Fukuoka in southern Japan, to let her play with the children. There he gave his first touches. “The physical difference was noticeable over the years and in the end you feel like a guest. I didn’t feel like playing with them so much and there weren’t so many women’s teams ”. He gave up football in high school: “Society, culture and my situation did not allow me to play. Less with girls ”. But in 1992, another job change for her father deposited her in Madrid and there she was reunited with the ball. He looked in the Yellow Pages and called the Madrid Federation to ask if there were any teams near his home. “The poor woman who picked up the phone was not clear. My Spanish was very bad. I had to go there. I don’t even know how I got there ”, he remembers. Quickly, they gave him three or four options. He started playing with some 18-year-old girls, improved his Spanish and decided to bet everything on the sport he loves. “I wanted to make a living from this,” he says. At 18, he carefully considered all of his options. She couldn’t be a player and, in addition, women’s football was much further from being professional than it is now. Referee was not interested. She wanted to get the title of coach.

He asked the Madrilenian Federation again, because “I was 18 years old, a woman and a foreigner.” Could I take the course? “Machismo generates that even in women,” he admits. The director told him that the only requirements were to be 16 years old and to know the language. “She was the only woman, of course, and the youngest,” he says. He coincided in the course with soccer greats such as Luis Enrique, Luis Villa or Paco Buyo. “Many were planning their careers after player. I hadn’t had that option. ” In 94, her father, Toshio, and her mother, Sumako, returned to Japan and she decided to stay in Spain. “When he was posted there again, my father asked me what I wanted to do. The answer did not surprise him. He already knew it, ”he recalls.

Yuriko Saeki, in violet, at La Elipa, where she played her first matches when she arrived in Spain in 1992.

Yuriko Saeki, in violet, at La Elipa, where she played her first matches when she arrived in Spain in 1992.

In the 2003/2004 season the first great opportunity came. One that led her to the pages of the newspapers. She was the second coach of CD Puerta Bonita and, after dismissing the first coach, they offered her the position. Like Chihiro in the movie, Yuriko had learned the trade and embarked on an adventure. She became the first coach of the Third Division. It lasted only four games (one win, one draw and two losses). The team had three other coaches that year and lost the category. But she received a call from Atlético de Madrid to take over the women’s team. Something that he had ruled out in other clubs on several occasions. “Tercera División for me had been a ceiling in men’s football. At least I saw it that way. ‘Oysters! Look how far I’ve come, ‘he thought. I was already satisfied. And now one of the greats of Spain with a women’s team was coming to look for me. Why not?”.

She went through Valencia CF and received an offer from Villarreal CF, but not to be a coach. “Only 1% of those who try can live on that,” he reflects. He thought it was very nice to be near the grass, but that maybe he wouldn’t be able to live off football as he wanted. They hired her for the football administration department, although in the second year her vocation did not forgive her and she got into the coaching staff of Juvenil A, who played the Honor Division. At the third, he began to lead the women’s team. He did it for eight seasons until he took over the entire section.

Yuriko Saeki, in 2002, with Luis Enrique, a partner in the coaches course.

Yuriko Saeki, in 2002, with Luis Enrique, a partner in the coaches course.

Two years ago she joined the J.League as a member of the executive board in an external capacity. I had a voice, but no vote. And this course, the vice president of the organization, Hiromi Hara, proposed him to be on the list of candidates for the new term, which began on March 12. To ensure transparency and that the decision-making process is not airtight, the J.League hires an external commission that evaluates 50 candidates per position. Yuriko was appointed Executive Director, only below the President, Vice President and CEO. The organization itself contacted Javier Tebas, president of LaLiga, who congratulated Yuriko personally.

Yuriko Saeki, third from the left in the middle row, with Villarreal CF's Youth A.

Yuriko Saeki, third from the left in the middle row, with Villarreal CF’s Youth A.

“There are very few companies in Japan with women in executive positions, very few,” Yuriko says. “Out of 56 clubs in the top three divisions of our league, there is only one female president,” he adds. “In the J.League there are many. The management has a very open mind. They have studied and worked outside of Japan. Here is a culture that is still difficult to change ”, he assures. “Football is so global that the people who work in it have a different mentality.” With that obstacle overcome, Yuriko now tries to haggle against the pandemic that annoys the entire planet.

Yuriko Saeki, second from left, with representatives of the J.League and clubs from the third division of Japanese football, in the Villarreal CF sports city.

Yuriko Saeki, second from left, with representatives of the J.League and clubs from the third division of Japanese football, in the Villarreal CF sports city.

The covid-19 prevented him from being able to appear at the J.League offices in Tokyo. “My meetings start at 12 at night. I do everything by telecommuting, ”he says. In these months he had to participate in important decision-making such as resuming or postponing the competition (which is already being played with the presence of some fans). And you already imagine, in addition, part of the legacy you want to leave. He dreams of promoting the new elite U21 league in his country. “I think all the leagues in the world have it as a pending issue. There are many players with a future selection who cannot find a competition that corresponds to them, ”he shoots. The terms in this Japanese organization last two years and a president can be re-elected only four times. President Mitsuru Murai, who also proposed Yuriko as part of the team, has just started his last term. That’s why Yuriko doesn’t know what her next adventure will be in two years. At the J.League they look forward to it, like Toshio and Yumako who can already say that their daughter will finally return to Japan.

Exchange (not only) technology

The J.League was one of the first world football competitions to sell its rights exclusively on OTT platforms (streaming). That was one of the main aspects in which LaLiga was able to learn from its Japanese counterpart.

The story of Yuriko Saeki exposes the closeness and exchange of experiences between Japanese and Spanish football. Three years ago LaLiga began to develop an international project, with international offices and delegates in every corner of the planet. One of the eleven offices of the organization, based in Singapore, led by Iván Codina, LaLiga director in this region, covers all activity in Southeast Asia, Japan, South Korea and Australia.

In Japan, LaLiga has a delegate who is in charge of promoting the brand. “It is the most important country in the region for us,” Codina explains by video call. “The profile of Japanese is very given to associate it with our brand: gastronomy, art, culture, football. They like our country a lot, ”he explains. Spain plays with an advantage there, in the J.League, Japan’s domestic league, Andrés Iniesta plays and there David Villa and Fernando Torres retired.

LaLiga has an agreement with the J.League to exchange experiences and have information about the fans of that country. “It is a relationship that has transcended the leagues and federations. Companies, agencies, the media, all have understood the importance of the relationship between the world of sport and that of business, ”explains Codina. “Japan has the most developed competition in the entire region,” he says.

From LaLiga they indicate that soccer is already the first sport in the Japanese market for those under 35 years of age. “It displaced baseball,” Codina says. This enhances the interest of brands and television operators, another reason why LaLiga wants to be in Japanese territory. “We need to be there to detect opportunities that would otherwise elude us.”

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