Machida Zelvia's climb to their maiden J-League first-division season has been far more than the typical rags-to-riches promotion story, with manager Go Kuroda leading the way in an unprecedented transition from nationally known high school coach to instant pro success.

The Sapporo-born 53-year-old Kuroda coached Aomori Yamada High School for 28 years, eventually turning the team into perennial national championship contenders. At the end of 2022, Kuroda and Machida took a bold punt on an unheard-of collaboration that spawned a chorus of critics, but which has so far paid off.

The intensely competitive Kuroda said he was undaunted by those who doubted his appointment.

Machida Zelvia manager Go Kuroda (2nd from R) congratulates his players after a win over Roasso Kumamoto sealed their promotion to the J-League first division at Egao Kenko Stadium in Kumamoto on Oct. 22, 2023. (Kyodo)

"Quite the opposite, they energized me to get back at them," said Kuroda, who took a side that finished 15th in the second division in 2022 and led them to the J2 championship in overwhelming fashion.

Zelvia topped the table for almost the entire season and secured the title by 12 points.

"I wanted to open the door to the possibility that a high school coach could succeed," said Kuroda, whose passion for football led him to abandon his job in the hotel business after just three months to begin coaching at Aomori Yamada in 1995.

The small 18-member team he took over was rife with underage smokers, but Kuroda's commitment turned the program around.

"I learned what growing pains were, turning zero into one," said the coach, who one summer drove the team's bus some 7,200 kilometers over 36 days, without an air conditioner, in order to find opponents across Japan.

Aomori Yamada High School manager Go Kuroda (2nd from L) speaks to a player during the national championship final against Ryukei Kashiwa High School at Saitama Stadium on Jan. 14, 2019. (Kyodo)

In his final seven years, Aomori Yamada reached the national championship final five times and won three of those.

His proteges include former Japan and Getafe midfielder Gaku Shibasaki, 20-year-old Paris Olympic hopeful and new FC Tokyo captain Kuryu Matsuki as well as Chile-born winger Byron Vasquez, who last summer made a "taboo" local move from fellow capital and J2 rivals Tokyo Verdy to play for his former master at Zelvia.

"He's never let me down," said Vasquez, who recalls Kuroda visiting his home in Saitama north of Tokyo to speak with his parents, a gesture that clinched the youngster's desire to go to school in distant Aomori, the northernmost prefecture on Japan's main isle.

Kuroda has developed a style of communicating with his pro players that he calls "lesson-like," employing succinct PowerPoint presentations that painstakingly avoid repetition to maintain maximum interest.

"If I don't speak out on things that make me uncomfortable, I am not qualified to be a leader. I can't stand not getting my message across," said Kuroda, who in turn demands his charges listen to instructions and stay on the same page.

Those failing to do so, even the club's highest-paid imports, do not play.

"His management ability is akin to that of a corporate manager. He'd do a good job if he were to head one of my group companies," said Susumu Fujita, the founder of tech firm CyberAgent which acquired Zelvia's management rights in 2018.

Machida Zelvia players and manager Go Kuroda (5th from left, front row) celebrate promotion to the J-League first division after their final home game of the season at Machida Gion Stadium in Tokyo on Oct. 29, 2023. (Kyodo)


There was some lost sleep when Machida neared promotion last term but Kuroda successfully got his side over the line, setting a precedent for amateur managers with professional aspirations.

"Going forward, I think someone else will take on this type of challenge, thinking 'I can do it, too,'" said Kuroda, who is in no hurry to rest on his own laurels.

"I have no intention of fighting for (J1) survival whatsoever. We'll aim for the top end of the table and with any luck, go for the title. I'll be pushing my players."

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