Earlier this week, Australian club Melbourne Victory pulled off one of the biggest transfers of an Asian player moving to another AFC league in many years with the capture of Japanese superstar Keisuke Honda.
Barely twelve months removed from playing with AC Milan and fresh off a World Cup where he scored as Japan came agonizingly close to reaching to the quarterfinals this is a player if not quite in his prime then not that far off it.
The 32-year-old’s arrival immediately catapults the Victory into favouritism to win their domestic title and more than that gives them a legitimate shot of matching the glitzy foreign signings that have done so much to propel other leagues forward when the club enters the Champions League again next year.
Fox Sports Asia this week sat down with the Victory coach, Kevin Muscat, for this exclusive chat where we talked about the impact of that headline signing, the club’s ‘unscratched itch’ in trying to lift the continental title as well as growing interest in the coach himself from some of the region’s leading nations.
Fox Sports Asia: Kevin, thanks for taking the time to speak with Fox Sports Asia. Let’s start with the huge news this week of the signing of Keisuke Honda – just what does it mean for the club and for the A-League more broadly?
Kevin Muscat: I think it’s a real statement of intent from the club and amongst our members and fans there’s been a lot of excitement.
It’s a coup for the club and the league and certainly allows us to better equip ourselves when we are in the ACL next year and that was a factor as well.
FSA: How long did the talks go on for in terms of trying to get the deal over the line?
KM: The process really began with the FFA earmarking a few high profile players that might be interested in coming to the league and with no disrespect to the other names on the list he was the one that really stood out for me.
For me, it was a decision made purely for football reasons and with not any commercial or marketing aspects and obviously I knew all about his qualities.
So from there we started speaking with his brother, who is his manager and also a very knowledgeable football person, and two days later they were in Melbourne to meet us.
It was refreshing that most of our talks were simply about football – how I like to play, what our goals and ambitions were and I spoke many times with Keisuke on the phone and via Skype and we really hit things off well and found that we shared common goals and from there things just progressed quite smoothly.
FSA: There has been some surprise though with the announcement that he will also take up a role with the Football Federation of Cambodia – did that catch you off guard and is it a distraction?
KM: No, not at all and I was well aware of everything that’s been discussed right throughout the process where there was a real level of trust and respect from Keisuke and his management and vice-versa and our relationship is second to none.
I think maybe people are reading too much into the situation because it’s not the norm and then everybody has an opinion on it but maybe we need to think that the norm can actually be improved.
In his spare time, Keisuke wants to give back to football and do that in Cambodia after he established a relationship there during his time with the national team.
Naturally his priority is with us but he’ll travel to Cambodia during some international breaks and at other times talk on the phone or Skype in terms of passing on knowledge and giving back to the game is something he feels passionate about so I don’t have a problem with that at all.
FSA: Obviously, such a high-profile signing increases your chances both at home and in Asia – do you think this will help turn Victory into a real contender in the ACL next year?
KM: During our conversations I could see how driven by success he is and he could see that from my end too and the ACL is certainly a big part of that.
I’ve been driven by that itch that I haven’t been able to scratch completely and we’re looking forward to doing well next year.
When you consider that Australian clubs are so heavily disadvantaged in terms of having to travel massive distances three times compared to just once for the other teams to come here and then also squad sizes and budgets and the difference there I think my results as a coach in the ACL have been very positive and this time around we are confident of doing even better.
FSA: Those performances both in the A-League and the ACL have caught the attention of other clubs across Asia and your name has been frequently linked with jobs in Japan, China and elsewhere – is a move to one of those leagues something that would interest you?
KM: That kind of interest is always flattering and goes hand-in-hand with having success and certainly I’m still motivated to keep growing and testing myself at as high a level as possible.
I’ve been involved in four championships here at the Victory, the last two as manager, and at some point I’d love to try my hand in Asia and pass on that experience I’ve gained.
You look at a nation such as Japan and their football is at a very high level and those kinds of challenges certainly excite me as we’ve seen during our time in the ACL where we get to play and test ourselves at a higher level.
FSA: It’s been a slow start in terms of results for another Australian coach in Asia with Yokohama struggling in the J.League under Ange Postecoglou – what have you made of things with a coach you know well there?
KM: That initial process is always a difficult one but no doubt everyone watching from afar and locals too can see what the end product will look like when the project gets closer to completion and he’ll do a good job for sure.
FSA: Finally, the ACL quarterfinals are almost upon us – is there one club you see as favourites for the title?
KM: In recent years Japanese football has been very strong so you certainly can’t rule out Kashima but having said that Jeonbuk has also really impressed and then you have the Chinese clubs with the unpredictability of their foreign players so I think it’s really quite open at this stage.