It’s the new decade. It’s the new National Stadium, the sparkling gem of Tokyo. The Olympics will be here in a few months. He’s ready, and his team is ready. Thorsten Fink and his Vissel Kobe side walked onto the pitch in front of more than 50,000 people in downtown Tokyo and grabbed the Emperor’s Cup 90 minutes later.
While most Germans knew that Lukas Podolski was on the pitch for the final (some may even know he scored), Fink, the long-time Bayern man, was really the one who saved it all. That was the first national trophy for the “Cows” side in any shape or form. Not bad for a coach who came in a season marred by turmoil.
Righting the ship
When Fink came in June 2019, Kobe was struggling to survive. He became their third manager in two months. Spanish manager Juan Manuel Lillo was brought in to help utilize Andres Iniesta, but that wasn’t working out. The quick replacement of Takayuki Yoshida, who was let go by the team less than one year before, managed just one victory in seven matches. And all of that happened with three World Cup winners on the squad in Iniesta, David Villa and Lukas Podolski.
The side dipped as far down as 15th place in the J1 League, one spot above relegation playoffs. Not a place that the big names were used to.
“It was difficult to unify the team and to motivate people to battle against relegation. An Andres Iniesta is used to playing for titles, as are Podolski or (Thomas) Vermaelen,” said Fink. After some big signings in July and August, including Vermaelen, Kobe found results started coming, including four victories in the last five matches of the season.
“Back then we had to work some magic to get the team playing against relegation. We had to give them a goal, that was my aim when we were playing for mid-table. We put that message out and towards the end of the season we were better,” said Fink.
They wound up in eighth place, meaning David Villa would end his career on a positive note.
From Europe to Japan
Fink, 52, certainly made a name for himself on the pitch, going from SG Wattenscheid 09 and Karlsruher SC before helping the mighty Bayern Munich lift trophy after trophy. The Dortmund native was a late substitute in the 1999 Champions League Final, and his mis-timed clearance lead to Teddy Sheringham scoring the first of two Manchester United stoppage time goals for the stunning victory. Fink though did earn a Champions League winner’s medal following the 2001 final, even though he did not appear in the match. Overall, though, Fink made 150 first team appearances for the rekordmeisters.
After injuries brought the midfielder’s playing career to an end, he bounced around Europe, coaching several sides. He brought FC Ingolstadt 04 to the second division in 2008, before getting sacked for poor performances in 2009. He moved south to FC Basel and won the Super League and Swiss Cup in 2010, winning the league and another Super League title in 2011. He served as the Hamburger SV coach until things eventually soured after less than two full seasons, then a few months at Cypriot club APOEL. He spent two and a half seasons with Austrian power Austria Wien, then back to Switzerland with Grasshoppers, both of which ended terribly.
But this new gig in Japan is already proving well in many ways for Fink. “I’ve only heard good things about the quality of life in Japan so this is a super experience for me. I also came here because I want to win titles, and fortunately that has already happened,” he said.
Coming to terms with it all
Fink seems to have found his stride again in Japan, though. With the Emperor’s Cup in hand, they moved along to the Fuji Xerox Super Cup one month later. Like most Super Cups, this was supposed to be the final tune-up before both teams began their 2020 campaigns. Nothing wild, nothing crazy, but do things right to get a good start. Plus there’s another cup on the line.
More than 50,000 fans showed up once again in the chilly air. The match had all kinds of insanity: team goals, cheeky goals, and a penalty shootout that saw nine straight misses. Hotaru Yamaguchi’s successful shot in the ninth round gave the Cows their second trophy in as many months. Fink kept his cool throughout the match, in what he would later call a “great advertisement” for the Japanese game. Hands in pockets for much of the match, exploiting Yokohama in the first half, just holding on in the second, jubilation in the dog pile at the end.
“There’s a good atmosphere, strong tactical football that is fast. I really like it here,” said Fink.
And Kobe did it without Podolski, who moved back to Turkey after the Emperor’s Cup victory. But he wasn’t concerned about that.
“One or two youth players will get a chance. You have to give young players a chance when older players leave and they should grow into their role,” said Fink.
But there was going to be no celebrating for Fink and Kobe after they left the confetti-strewn pitch. With that Emperor’s Cup victory, Vissel Kobe had a match in the Asian Football Confederation Champions League in a few days. One can never be too comfortable in the suit.
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