Created: Tuesday, 02 June 2020 Written by Alan Gibson

Costa Rican youngster Antonio Aguilar dreams of playing in Japan. Here is his story.

JSoccer interviewed a player who saw his opportunity to play in Japan cut short by the Covid-19 situation.


Antonio Aguilar is a name you might well have known by now. were it not for the Covid-19 outbreak helping put paid to a dream. The dream was to play professional football in Japan. The dream still IS, to play in Japan, but current events have conspired against Antonio and he is currently sitting at home - well, training at home - and waiting for things to blow over, and for the telephone to come to life.

Earlier this year Antonio had traveled from his home in Costa Rica to train with Azul C;aro Numazu, with a view to joining them for the 2020 J3 season. He trained and played with Japanese national team legends like Teruyoshi Ito (credited with the winning goal for Japan when their Olympic team beat Brazil in 1996 at the Olympics) and Masashi Nakayama (formerly of Jubilo Iwata, and Japan, and current TV personality in his own right), as well as against some familiar faces that Aguilar had grown up watching. For example, Junichi Inamoto played for SC Sagamihara against Azul Claro, with Aguilar lining up in the opposition. asked the Costa Rican a few questions, as he waited at home for the football world to re-open, so that he could have a possible chance to kick-start his fledgling career!

JSoccer: Tell us about your early life, and when you started playing football.

Antonio Aguilar: I was born and raised in San Jose, Santa Ana, Costa Rica, and I started playing football in the streets when I was 5 years. I played every afternoon with my neighbors after going to kindergarten. We played in a "cul-de-sac" (road with a dead end), so there wasn’t so much traffic to get in our way, and we used two rocks as goal posts! At seven-years-old, I was selected to play in the team at  my elementary school (Saint Paul), which is a bilingual school, where I also learned English. Pablo Araya, who was the coach, trained me in the basics and tactics of the game, and molded me from that early age. He was a really demanding and challenging
coach - a perfectionist - so it was really good to have him taking my reins at such a young age because he taught me to be competitive, to win, and of the importance of discipline. With Saint Paul school we participated in international tournaments like Schawn’s USA Cup in Minnesota, the Disney Youth Cup in Florida and the Volkswagen Junior Cup in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

JS: What drew you to football, rather than something else?

AA: I had started playing for fun and entertainment after school because it seemed the natural thing to do. Here in Costa Rica football is the main sport and, by far the most popular, so practically every kid plays it.

JS: Who were your heroes when you were young

AA: As a left-footer, and growing up as a defender, Brazilian Roberto Carlos is a player I loved. he could both attack and defend excellently, and had a scandalous left foot. Then there was the Italian, Gennaro Gattuso, especially because of his passion for playing the game, which is something I really identified with myself. Also Barcelona and Spain's Carles Puyol: for his leadership skills and his reading of the game from the back.

JS: You liked accomplished defensive-minded players, with a little bite, it seems! Are there any more favourites, a little further forward?

AA: Of course... Juan Roman Riquelme: his intelligence and movement in the midfield made him a nightmare for his markers, and I must mention a Costa Rican legend - Paulo Cesar Wanchope. He is one of a few Costa Ricans who have played in big clubs around the world (in England he was with Manchester City and West Ham United, while he also found himself in Japan - at FC Tokyo - at one point.  He also played in Spain, Argentina, Qatar and USA). He was able to maintain his form and was always in among the goals. He opened the doors for many Costa Ricans to jump to Europe after him. He is indeed a legend and I feel he deserves more recognition for what he did.

JS: Tell us more about your our football life so far:

AA: My professional aspirations really began when I was selected by a club called Aspire Football Dreams, directed by Josep Colomer. Colomer is the man credited with the discovery - in Rosario, Argentina - of a 13-year-old youngster who would go on to rule world football. Lionel Messi! (Although the man himself - Barca's former youth director - plays down his role in Messi's rise to the top, saying, "Leo Messi is a discovery of FC Barcelona," he said Barca's former youth director, who is now general director of Aspire Football Dreams.”). The organisation selected the Costa Rica's 50 best 1996-born players to join a one-week camp at FEDEFUTBOL - the complex of the Costa Rican national team. Club Sport Herediano were in attendance and made me an offer me to join the club. So, after the week-long camp I joined Club Sport Herediano's Under 15 section. I was 14 years old at the time. The coach at the club was Javier Vicente Wanchope - Paulo Wanchope's brother - who had a big influence developing my style of play, because he taught me to be more aggressive and to be able to play in various positions, I really respect him. After this, I was promoted to the Under 17 section at Herediano, where I was coached by Kenneth Paniagua, who was a really important player in this club's history. I feel he was a great coach, who pushed me to my limits, while developing my technique and my "gifted" left foot. I stayed and played for Herediano until the full adult reserve team (Alto Rendimiento).

JS: So what came after this early part of your life in Costa Rica?

AA: In January of 2015, at the age of 18, I made the move to Houston, Texas because a Costa Rican agent offered me a chance to play for Houston Dynamo's Under 23 side, and for the Houston Baptist University NCAA Division 1 team (pictured above, photo supplied by the team). During my time in Houston Dynamo the coach was Isac Doru, who has become like a father to me, and he is the coach who I credit as having taken my football to a different level. He has really helped me grow, in terms of tactics, training methods, and mentally. This is something that I feel is very important in the game these days - a strong mentality. He always pushed me to do better and constantly reminded me of how fortunate I am to be a strong left-footed defender who is gifted technically, and able to also play as a holding midfielder - that is something rare in the game today, and I am hoping it will propel me to a career after this Covid-19 problem has settled down and life has returned to something resembling normality. I next moved to Western Illinois University NCAA Division 1 to play at a higher level and I stayed there until Isac Doru contacted me to tell me that a Japanese J1 club was looking for a player in my position and similar to my characteristics. He was due to join that club as Sporting Director after his contract with Yokohama F.Marinos was done, but Shonan Bellmare - yes, that was the team - decided to assign one of their ex-player to the role that Isac was expecting to move into. thus making our arrival at the club, impossible. So Isac moved to the Indian Football Federation and I moved to AD Guanacasteca - the strongest, and best second division club in Costa Rica.

JS: So Bellmare didn't quite work out as hoped? But you stuck around in Japan...

AA: Because I seem to have impressed some people at Bellmare, and armed with the recommendation of Isac Doru, I was contacted by Yasushi Imatoki - a well known agent in Japanese football with more than 30 years of experience. He had brought Arsene Wenger to Nagoya Grampus in 1995, as well as furnishing that team with Dragan Stojkovic, Joshua Kennedy and Milos Bajalica (who I had the opportunity to meet in Japan in 2018, with him kindly telling me that I reminded him of Gattuso - a solid left foot - and that I should be playing as a holding midfielder rather than as a centre back). Thanks to Mr. Imatoki I had the possibility to return to Japan to train with Azul Claro Numazu. I’m very grateful to him for giving me that chance.

JS: Tell us more on your time in Japan, your thoughts on life here, and what you saw, and learned.

AA: In my time at Bellmare I was really impressed with the culture and how advanced Japan is in terms of technology and society in general. The feeling of tranquility and harmony all around you is something I really liked. Also at Bellmare it was great to be able see how a J1 organization works: their level of professionalism and the facilities... professional football in Japan level is of a high level. The ability of all players impressed me, and it was good to see some important talents in J1 that might not otherwise be getting international recognition, like, for example, Chanathip Songkrasin at Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo. He is good enough to play anywhere in the world, in my opinion, and it is great that J.League has given him the chance to shine.
At Azul Claro, there was also a great atmosphere and a lot of young players like me, willing to learn. The level in J3 is very good - similar to the level in the second division in Costa Rica - but with a difference in the intensity and quickness of the game. In Japan the tempo is completely different - fast, skillful, rarely a chance to breathe! I was impressed by the experienced players like Teruyoshi Ito and Masashi Nakayama - players that are real legends playing alongside me. It was a special feeling, for sure, that I will never forget.

JS: Having spent this time in Japan, are there any big differences in coaching methods compared to other countries you've played in? How about the fans?

AA: For me, the main difference between the Japanese coaching methods and, for example, a standard Latino manager's style is that Japanese coaches always expect intensity, speed, and simple two touch play in most of the exercises done in training. Also there is a lot of focus on passing and running, rather than shooting or crossing.
As for the Japanese fans, they are really respectful and very kind. I received gifts after games, and fans who wanted autographs or a photo were always very courteous. In Costa Rica the fans are very demanding and it would be very rare to find a fan giving a player any kind of gift!

JS: Any comments about the type of players or play you saw in Japan?

AA: In general Japanese players seem very disciplined in every aspect of the game, tactically astute, and for me it was always hard to find a gap between the lines playing as a midfielder. The players are very agile and quick, and very accurate with short passes. They take every training session and game very seriously, and prepare well. I was very impressed. I feel that Japan does not get enough recognition of how high the level of football is there. In general a Costa Rican/Latino player is more aggressive without the ball and creative with the ball, trying to do different things rather than following set patterns. Also, compared to Japanese - and here is something we hear often - Costa Ricans and other overseas players are generally more physical, and always ready for a duel.

JS: So Japan was an all-round good experience for you?

AA: Yes indeed. it helped that I came across Ryo Matoji - the Sporting Director of Azul Claro Numazu - who was raised in Barcelona, Spain -  so we talked a lot about football in Spanish in my time there, and he helped me in training and everyday life.
The only problem I had in Japan was that I couldn’t find my usual Mizuno Morelia football boots in my size! For me they are the best boots on the market. I’m a big fan of these leather boots. I’m a size 11, and the biggest size I could find in Japan was size 10. I bought a size 10 because I was in desperate need but I soon developed blisters that just got worse and worse each time I put the boots on! I was in pain every minute of training! I ended up giving those boots to my best friend as soon I got back to Costa Rica, because they were his size!

JS: We look forward to the time that you get another chance to play in japan and wish you the best in your future in the game.

Note - after showing the interviewee this text he was insistent on being humble and not blaming the Covid-19 situation for his lack of opportunity! "I must accept that the coaches at Azul Claro didn’t like my style of playing and preferred another style of central midfielder; me being more of a destroyer/holding midfielder, while he seemed to he may prefer otherwise! I am still young, with things to improve and I will find a team that needs my type of player, eventually!


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