Kolkata may have marked the start of Arata Izumi’s journey in Indian football, but it’s in Pune that he found a home during his stint with Pune FC (2009-15) in the I-League.
Come 3 October, Izumi will step out once again at the Balewadi Stadium in Pune, donning the colours of FC Pune City, to play against Mumbai City FC, this time in the Indian Super League (ISL) beginning 1 October. It marks his return “home” after a splendid show for Atlético de Kolkata last year.
“Pune is extremely close to my heart—this is where I have played most of my football, so I know the conditions well,” says Izumi. “This is a homecoming for me. Walking into the ground with my daughter Yuna would be a dream come true.”
Pune failed to make it to the knockouts in the past two ISL seasons, finishing sixth under coach Franco Colomba in 2014 and seventh under David Platt in 2015 (in a league of eight teams, where the top four make the cut). In April, Pune brought on board Antonio López Habas as coach, after the Spaniard helped Kolkata win the title in the first season, while finishing as semi-finalists in the second.
Izumi’s signing is hardly a surprise, for Habas knows what the utility player brings to the team. His five goals in 11 appearances last season saw him finish at No.8 on the scoring charts, despite often coming on as a substitute. To put things in perspective, top-scorer John Stiven Mendoza Valencia of Chennaiyin FC scored 13 goals in 16 appearances last season. Izumi finished second on Kolkata’s goal-scoring list behind the seasoned Iain Hume (11 goals in 16 appearances).
Those five goals put him at No.3 among the Indians, behind Mumbai City’s Sunil Chhetri (seven goals) and Chennaiyin FC’s Jeje Lalpekhlua (six goals).
“Antonio has been a great coach to work with. His vision and approach towards the game is extremely dynamic, and he keeps the team on its feet in a way that really infuses fresh energy into all of us. Antonio joining Pune made my decision easier,” says Izumi. The team attended pre-season training in Spain that ended on 11 September.
Despite having an Indian father, Yamaguchi-born Izumi had never had the opportunity of visiting the country until 2006, when financial constraints and the lack of a contract saw him turn up here. He signed on for East Bengal.
A culture shock awaited him. Whether it was the people garlanding him at the airport, the cacophony of Kolkata or the meagre facilities at the club—it was all a far cry from his previous stints at the Albirex Niigata Singapore FC and the Mitsubishi Mizushima FC in Japan.
“It seemed like no one realized that I had come just for a trial. When the cameras started flashing, I turned back to look whom they were clicking,” he says.
It was only after joining East Bengal that season that Izumi slowly came to terms with his new surroundings. “While going for my first training session, I remember the driver twirling a red flag through his window. I didn’t figure what he was up to, but soon learnt that this was his personal beacon while he darted through signals and traffic. Being associated with East Bengal has these perks in Kolkata!” Izumi laughs.
The next two seasons with the now disbanded Mahindra United in Mumbai were frustrating, with injuries hampering his progress. Izumi settled in at the newly formed Pune FC in 2009.
He became an instant hit with the Pune crowd, who finally had their own football club. An organized and professional approach at the club, alongside buoyant teammates, gave a boost to Izumi’s career, and that season, the debutant team finished third in the I-League.
Izumi picked up a fan following in Pune that few players in India have. It was there that he met his wife, Shweta, who was then working as a part-time physiotherapist at the club.
They got married in 2010, and around the same time, Izumi considered switching nationalities to turn out for the Indian national side. After struggling with the legal system for two years, he finally got Indian citizenship in 2012 and, in 2013, made his debut for India during a friendly match against Palestine.
“It’s highly amusing these days at the airport—they look at me, my Indian passport, the name on it, and then stare back at me,” Izumi says.
After a stint with Mumbai FC last season in the I-League, Izumi will now return to the city where it all started for him. There’s another mission at hand though, and going by his own experience, this one should be in the bag.
“I’m convincing my mother to move to India as well so that she can watch my daughter grow. I want my child to be brought up in a culture that has the best of both the worlds, Japanese and Indian. Her decision should be easier than mine though—she loves baking cakes and you can expect an Arata’s Café in Pune in the near future,” Izumi says, smiling.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.