Ossie Ardiles: Yokohama a 'wonderful club' but Hernan Crespo can guide Al Ain to ACL title

Intrepid Argentine and former Marinos manager was part of the 'J-League revolution' that saw Japan emerge as a force not only in Asia but on the world stage too

Former Tottenham Hotspur players Osvaldo Ardiles, left, and Ricardo Villa before a match during the 2023/24 Premier League season. Reuters
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It was the first major club prize of the new millennium, celebrated in elite football’s easternmost corner. Yokohama F Marinos had just won the J-League title, a league championship that at that time divided into two parts, one for each half of the season. Their head coach acknowledged the applause and immediately declared: “This is just the beginning.”

That was mid-2000, the speaker Osvaldo Ardiles, one of modern football’s most intrepid, admired figures, a World Cup winner when he played for Argentina, and a pioneer, first as an ingenious midfielder and then as attack-minded manager through English football’s march from 1970s isolationism to its international growth in the Premier League era.

Few know the global game as thoroughly as Ardiles, who looks forward to Saturday’s deciding leg of Asian club football’s great showpiece, the Champions League final, with twin affections. His old club, Yokohama, are a goalless draw from lifting the prize for the first time in their history. But were Al Ain to reverse the 2-1 scoreline in Abu Dhabi, Ardiles’ compatriot, Hernan Crespo, would finally put an Argentinian name on the competition’s managerial honours board.

Ardiles’ varied coaching career straddled club football in England, Argentina, Mexico, Croatia and two distinct poles of the Middle East – Saudi Arabia and Israel – but he retains a special affection for Japan, where besides Marinos, he managed Shimuzu S-Pulse and Tokyo Verde to domestic knockout titles.

“I was there for eight years in all, coaching some of the biggest clubs,” he tells The National, “and it was really a very happy time overall. Yokohama F Marinos are a wonderful club, in a wonderful city.”

When he forecast that his J-League triumph of mid-2000 was “just the beginning”, it turned out he was being optimistic for the club, but he was also expressing a wider momentum across the sport in Japan. “At that time, what I call the ‘J-League revolution’ had already started,” he remembers. “The country’s football had come through its phase of creating a new league, learning from other leagues and [in the 1990s] bringing in the big stars, like Brazil’s Zico and Gary Lineker from England, and stars of management too, like Arsene Wenger.”

Ardiles, named the J-League’s Manager of the Year while at Shimizu S-Pulse, would be part of was Japanese football’s growing impact on international stages. “Japan’s national team started qualifying for World Cups, and the country’s club football got better, started to make more impact on the Champions League and getting a few players at European clubs, like Hidetoshi Nakata, and later, Shunsuke Nakamura, who was at Marinos in my time there.

“The transformation has been incredible. But it needed a bit of a culture change. The clubs were very professional, the players very willing to learn. But it wasn’t the same as working in a country soaked in football culture like Argentina, Brazil or Spain are.

“A great sportsman like Nakamura could easily have decided to use his excellent brain and athletic ability in baseball or another sport. It takes time to make that sort of change.”

Yokohama v Al Ain, first leg - in pictures

A generation on, Japan’s football is more visible, more successful on the global stage. Should Marinos claim their first Asian Champions League on Saturday, they would be the competition’s third different winner from the J-League in six editions. “And look at what Japan did at the 2022 World Cup,” adds Ardiles, once a strong contender to manage the national team, pointing to Japan’s group phase victories over Germany and Spain in Qatar 18 months ago.

Ardiles, 71, will be back in Japan this summer, in his role as an ambassador for Tottenham, the club where he played with distinction in the 1970s and 80s, and where he later managed. And, in a parallel Ardiles smiles at, a Spurs where a former Marinos coach is now in charge of the first-team.

Twenty-four years ago, Ardiles was the ex-Spurs boss hired to revive Marinos; now Ange Postecoglou is the former Marinos coach player acting as pathfinder for coaches who have made their reputation in the Asian Confederation – Postecoglou managed clubs in Australia ahead of guiding Marinos to the 2019 J-League title – and who has just completed a first, largely applauded season at Spurs, who will tour Japan in July.

Ardiles enjoys Postecoglu’s Spurs. “He’s been a breath of fresh of air there,” he says of a Tottenham who, despite the departure of Harry Kane to Bayern Munich last summer, have been more potent goalscorers than in their two previous, pre-Postecoglou, campaigns, and, after an eighth-placed finish in 2022/23, reached fifth place in the Premier League under their new manager, missing out on a Champions League place by only two points.

Ardiles would have liked to see Postecoglou’s attacking principles drive Spurs into Europe’s most prestigious club competition. He’d enjoy seeing his old club Marinos triumph in Asia’s. But if they do not, he’ll find compensation in seeing a fellow Argentinian, Crespo, rewarded for his astute work at Al Ain. “I got to know Hernan in London when he was there as a Chelsea player,” says Ardiles, “a good guy, who’s obviously doing a very good job where he is now.”

Ardiles spoke to The National at an event to promote Aguttes Auction House’s June 6 auction, in Paris, of The Golden Ball trophy won by his former Argentina teammate, Diego Maradona at the 1986 World Cup.

“That trophy made him very proud,” Ardiles said of Maradona, “because it was recognition that he was the best player in the world. He knew he was.”

They remained lifelong friends, through Maradona’s rollercoaster playing career and his time in management, which included taking Argentina to the 2010 World Cup. Maradona, who lived in Dubai for many years and spent time as manager of Al Wasl and Fujairah, passed away in 2020, age 60.

“He loved football, and had his heart and soul in the game, so being involved was so important to him,” recalled Ardiles. “Sometimes he was not always surrounded by the best people but he was extraordinary and, in my opinion, he was the best player ever.”

Updated: May 22, 2024, 2:49 AM