text by Yoichi Igawa
It’s mid-September 2019 in Iwata, Shizuoka, and the weather is still warm and humid like mid-summer. The air-conditioned interview room with a nice view of Jubilo Iwata’s training pitch is basking in the warm sun.
After Krzysztof Kamiński enters the room, it feels even brighter due to the Polish goalkeeper’s natural smile and cheerful manner.
“Will it only take 30 minutes?” he said. “Well, let’s talk more as I have a lot of time today!”
As you can see, Kamiński faces everything keenly, and his footballing career began as a positive challenge.
“To be honest, I didn’t initially want to be a goalkeeper,” he confessed. “I started as a winger, but when I was 12 the coach urged me to play between the posts. I didn’t know why he asked me to do that, but I gave it a go and it was great fun! People around me praised my goalkeeping and I got into it.”
A mischievous child who “played lots of pranks” with his brother started aiming to become a professional goalkeeper shortly afterwards, something he achieved at 20 years old. After playing in the fourth division of Poland in his first two seasons, Kamiński stepped up in consecutive years and reached the first tier when he joined Ruch Chorzow, one of the most successful clubs in the country. His contract was set to expire in his third season there, which is when Iwata came calling. That was December 2014.
There weren’t many Polish players having played in Asia though, let alone the J.LEAGUE. Therefore, it took some time for him to make a decision. However, with his naturally positive personality and ardent persuasion from Jubilo, Kamiński determined to head to the Far East for the first time.
“(Toshihiro) Hattori-san (football director of Jubilo) told me their interesting project,” he said. “Although Jubilo were then competing in J2, it is a prestige club with great history and many titles. The club needed to win promotion and he asked me to help them. I couldn’t imagine being in Japan though, because it is very far from my country and I had only played in the Polish leagues, so I asked him to give me some time to think about it. During that time, I heard about the J.LEAGUE from people with more knowledge of the competition. They said there are many skilful players and that the standard of the league is high. I also wanted to live abroad and had never had the chance before. I think if you put yourself in a different culture and circumstances, you develop not only as a player but also as a person. With that in mind, I felt like, ‘why not try?’”
Right after arriving in Japan, Kamiński felt sure he had made the right decision. The club is well organised and everyone welcomed the new comer from Eastern Europe. His teammates, coaches, and others at Iwata have gladly helped him on the pitch as well as off it.
“It was my first time to live outside my country, moreover it is Japan, which has a very different culture to Europe. But there have not been any problems because people here in Iwata have been very helpful.
“One thing I can’t really get used to is this heat,” Kamiński laughed. “The first summer was especially hard for me. I’d never experienced such high temperature and humidity before. Now I’ve gotten gradually used it, but my face easily turns red in training sessions, which my teammates often play make fun of me about.”
While Kamiński is still struggling to adapt to the climate after four and a half years in Japan, he has otherwise completely adjusted to life in the country. When talking about his daily life, he looks very happy.
“Japanese people in general are very kind and helpful. When I was struggling in town, they would come over and offer to help. I also admire their culture, especially with regards to respecting others and their elders. It’s very safe, so my wife can go out by herself even at night. I actually got so used to it that when I went back to Poland my wallet got stolen from my shopping basket. That’s my fault, but it would never happen in Japan for sure.”
His wife is also Polish, but now cooks some Japanese food.
“She likes gyoza (Japanese dumplings) and we eat it once a week at least. Both of us love Japanese food like ramen, katsu-don, sushi, yakiniku as well as eel, the specialty of Shizuoka. One thing I can’t eat is natto, but I’m fine with umeboshi, which is good for recovery.”
Kamiński talked quickly and pleasantly until this point, but on his days off he was struggling to keep his spirits up on account of Jubilo having a very difficult season in 2019. That’s only natural considering the fact they were at the bottom of the league when we spoke. Even so, he was incredibly open to an interviewer he was only meeting properly for the first time. Why was that?
“When you are outside of your home country, as I’m sure you understand, you realise that you become more open. In different circumstances to those you are used to, you have to be open-minded. I think that is development. It was the right decision to come to Japan.”
“That’s a very good question,” Krzysztof Kamiński replied. “But I’m not sure of the reasons either.”
Why has Poland been able to consistently produce such good goalkeepers?
There are many Polish keepers playing regularly for prominent European clubs, including Wojciech Szczęsny at Juventus, West Ham’s Łukasz Fabiański, Bartłomiej Drągowski of Fiorentina, Łukasz Skorupski for Bologna, and Union Berlin’s Rafał Gikiewicz. Also, looking back a little further, one of the heroes of Liverpool’s famous Champions League triumph in 2005 - the so-called ‘Miracle of Istanbul’ - was Jerzy Dudek, another Polish keeper who saved Andriy Shevchenko’s double blitz in the final minutes and then made great saves in the penalty shootout, inspired by Liverpool legend Bruce Grobbelaar.
In the J.LEAGUE too, Kamiński was first choice for Jubilo Iwata for several years, while his compatriot Jakub Słowik immediately became the No.1 after transferring to Vegalta Sendai in July 2019.
That’s why I asked the question. Kamiński honestly replied, “not sure”, before considering the matter with me – leaning forward a bit and sitting straight, staring with cobalt blue eyes, as he continued to speak.
“In Poland, many people complain about falling behind in terms of youth development,” Kamiński said. “So I guess those conditions are not the reason. Additionally, in recent years most young players admire Robert Lewandowski and goalkeeper is not a popular role. But I think goalkeeper is an individual position, and if there are good coaches, good keepers can be produced. In comparison to outfield players, goalkeepers can be improved by individual training, perhaps a lot.”
A nice coincidence occurred at this point.
Poland has a great football history. The national team took third place at the World Cup in 1974 and 1982, as well as winning gold and silver at 1972 and 1976 Olympics, respectively. I wondered if the legendary goalkeepers who starred for the national team during the ‘Polish Golden Era’ might have inspired the following generations, and included this question in my list. Kamiński delightedly revealed that he was coached by one of them - Józef Młynarczyk, who shone at the World Cup in 1982.
“When I was called up to the U21 national team, Młynarczyk was the goalkeeper coach,” Kamiński said. “In my country, he is acknowledged as one of the two greatest goalkeepers along with Jan Tomaszewski, who played at the World Cup in 1974. In club football, Młynarczyk won the European Cup with FC Porto in 1987 so he is admired not only in Poland but also in Portugal.
“He was a great coach too. His demands on the players were extremely high, and we had to work very intensely. But thanks to that, despite the training camp only being two weeks long, I improved a lot. His instructions are still alive in me. Although he taught me goalkeeping, what I remember most from his teaching is how to use my brain - anticipating the flow of the game and the direction of the ball, keeping my concentration at all times. For goalkeepers, that is very, very important.”
When a specific sport flourishes in one country or area, there tends to be an inspirational figure - a role model in another words. For instance, it is said that there are many top-level tennis players like Novak Djokovic in the western Balkans because of the influence of Monica Seles. Also, in Japan, Midori Ito has inspired many figure skaters to go on and become first-class competitors. Could that also apply to a certain position? Kamiński agrees with the hypothesis.
“Yes, I think so,” he nodded. “Everyone knows Tomaszewski in my country, a true legend. The match against England in the preliminary round of the 1974 World Cup, which Poland won due to his fine performance, is the most famous football game in my country. Maybe some Polish players have chosen the position, thanks to the influences of him, Młynarczyk and so on. And us, Polish goalkeepers have been trained with traditional but refined coaching methods across successive generations, which has made us better and better.”
That includes Kamiński and Słowik in the J.LEAGUE. Though there are not many players from Eastern Europe in the league, the two Polish keepers are thriving (at the point we spoke, at least). Concerning this situation, Kamiński helped, “a little bit”.
“When Słowik was approached by Vegalta Sendai, he contacted me and asked some questions,” he said. “I don’t know about Sendai, but I told him honestly what I had learned about the J.LEAGUE and life in Japan. That it’s a high-level league, that there are kind people, nice food, and a fantastic culture.
“He responded that he would give it serious consideration, and ultimately did move to Sendai. When we played against each other in August for the first time, he said, ‘You were right. Well, actually, it’s better than I expected. I enjoy the life and football here. Thank you!’”
“I think the standard of the J.LEAGUE is higher than the Ekstraklasa, the first division in Poland,” Krzysztof Kamiński said. “Japanese midfielders in particular have good skill, vision, and creativity – they are much better for sure than Polish midfielders in general.”
“I would tell anyone who asks me the same I was told by people with good knowledge of the J.LEAGUE when I was thinking of moving to Japan: come here with a serious attitude and be ready, because the level of the J.LEAGUE is very high.”
Kamiński compared the J.LEAGUE, where he spent five years, and the Ekstraklasa, his country’s top league. During his time in Japan, he also learned many things.
“In Poland, there are not many teams that try to build up from the back. Most of them, including the teams I played for, still mainly play long balls aimed at physically strong forwards. On the contrary, many J.LEAGUE sides play a modern passing game, so I need to have good skill with my feet. I feel I have improved a lot in that regard since I came here.”
The J.LEAGUE consists of 18 teams which, “mainly play possession football with an attacking mindset, which is enjoyable for the fans and players”, he continues. Regarding the fans, Kamiński also has a positive impression.
“In Europe, the fans – and people in general - don’t hold back if they are frustrated. Although Polish fans are not so aggressive, they speak up when they want to. Therefore, when a team loses or performs badly the players are criticised.
“But in Japan, many fans encourage the players all the time, even after bad results. The supporters of Jubilo must have had a lot of frustration due to our results and performances. We have, of course, heard boos from the stands sometimes, but most of them show their support as the 12th men. I really appreciate that.”
But that sort of affectionate attitude could spoil the players. “Maybe, it could,” he replied and continued speaking fast. He seems to be a person who likes to think and talk at the same time.
“Generally, I think Japanese players are mentally weaker than European players. In Europe, professional footballers are always under pressure from fans, the media, rivals, coaches and so on - both in a good way and a bad way. Because of that, they become more resilient in order to overcome the pressure and improve themselves. On the other hand, there is not such pressure in Japan. That could have a negative effect, such as spoiling the players, but the players can perform freely with less pressure. I think both are true and the players with weaker mentality need more support than criticism. So I don’t think we can judge which fans are better.
“That could apply to the playing styles too. Japanese players tend to pass the ball when they could shoot, which sometimes attracts criticism. But if the receiver is in a better position, the decision is correct. And the fans enjoy attacking football based on passing and moving, so I think that is also fantastic.”
Kamiński is a big fan of the league and has some favourite players.
“Kengo Nakamura from Kawasaki Frontale,” he names first. “I can’t say we are friends as we haven’t talked properly, but I always feel a sort of affinity with him because he looks like a very friendly person. We played against each other but I regard him as a teammate in a broader sense. Kosuke Nakamura of Kashiwa Reysol can speak a bit of English and we talked a few times. He is a good goalkeeper with big potential.”
For foreign players the language barrier is always a challenge, but Kamiński is actively learning Japanese in order to further understand the culture. On vacation he often goes on domestic trips with his wife, and the destinations are “more local” because they want “to feel the real Japan.”
“Of course, Tokyo or Kyoto are fantastic,” Kamiński said. “But the places I remember most in Japan are the smaller towns. Once we visited a potter’s atelier in Shikoku, which was a great experience for both of us. The artisan has devoted himself to making potteries since his youth, and was a positive man who was smiling all the time and very proud of his profession. I remember clearly the passionate way he showed me how to make one.
“I think professional footballers are similar to him in terms of their attitude. The potter does what he loves, it’s not just a job. This is the same for me. I love football, which is fortunately my job. We live in a dream. The dream where I can continue to do what I love came true.”
Though it was “not easy” to make pottery for the first time using a potter’s wheel, Japanese people told him his work “looks very nice” with “typical Japanese kindness,” he smiled.
***After this interview, Kamiński lost his place between the posts and eventually left Jubilo Iwata for his home country in February 2020***