Soccer

Melbourne-born soccer coach Arthur Papas has plied his trade in the far corners of the globe. Will his current stint in Japan set him up for a prominent future on the world stage? By Engel Schmidl.

Soccer coach Arthur Papas

Melburnian Arthur Papas coaching in Japan.
Credit: Kagoshima United FC

When I first phoned Arthur Papas for our interview, he apologised via text for not taking my call: “Sorry I’ve missed your call. Have ended up in the office due to a contract talk with a player.”

Papas – who was approached about the top job at Melbourne Victory last year but told the club he intended to remain overseas for the time being – is busy preparing for his first season in charge of Kagoshima United FC, an ambitious club in J3, Japan’s third tier of professional soccer.

The born-and-bred Melburnian wakes each day and looks out his window at Sakurajima, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, which overlooks Kagoshima, a city of 600,000 people on Kyushu, the most southerly of Japan’s main islands. “It blows smoke every day, and sometimes you see these little explosions go up in the air. It’s amazing to see,” Papas, 41, tells The Saturday Paper.

Kagoshima United kicked off its season this week against Gainare Tottori, losing 3-2 in added time. Despite the round one loss, Papas is excited about his chance to build something special. “It’s one of the stronger J3 clubs on and off the field,” he says. “The club’s building new training facilities and developing an infrastructure to help the club grow. It’s a younger group of people behind the club wanting to take it up the ranks to J2, and hopefully even J1 at some stage.”

The club’s badge features Sakurajima blowing ash and smoke. The area’s fecund soil supports green tea production and the rearing of cattle for high-quality wagyu beef. Papas is hopeful it will be fertile ground for his new team, too.

Before joining Kagoshima in December 2020, Papas spent two years at one of Japan’s biggest clubs, Yokohama F. Marinos, where he worked under former Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou as part of the team that steered Marinos to the J1 title in 2019 – a momentous achievement for Postecoglou and a proud moment for Papas.

Kagoshima allows him to step out of Postecoglou’s benevolent but sizeable shadow and further enhance his name as one of the people to watch in Australian soccer. “I loved it at Yokohama for two years and being with Ange, but I’ve found a good project here,” he says.

Papas grew up in a soccer-mad household. His dad took him and his brother to South Melbourne Hellas matches from a young age, watching the likes of Ange Postecoglou tear it up in the old National Soccer League.

“That’s where I developed a deep connection and love for the game,” he says. “It’s all we would talk about at home. I looked up to my brother Manny, and his passion for the game rubbed off on me.”

Papas remembers waking early to watch European soccer on TV. The great AC Milan team of the late 1980s – replete with Dutch masters Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard – left a big impression, as did the Netherlands national team of that era. The Dutch school of soccer has significantly shaped his philosophy.

“I wanted to understand the how and why of what makes a team great,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in the mechanics of what happens on the pitch.”

Papas was a handy young player but, by his own admission, never bound for glory. A string of knee operations ended his career at 25. “My brain was always a lot quicker than my body, which is probably why I moved into coaching so early,” he says.

As a voracious student of the game, Papas completed his first coaching course at 16. He now holds a bachelor of applied science in exercise science, a master’s degree in sports coaching, and the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) pro coaching licence. His injury woes spurred him on to become a well-educated coach.

“I think many of [my injuries] could have been avoided,” he says. “Those exact injuries inspired my educational path to ensure I gained the knowledge to avoid my players breaking down the same way I did. That’s why my coaching path went so much deeper than the conventional coaching course.”

Ten years before Kagoshima, Papas first made a name for himself as the 30-year-old coach of Oakleigh Cannons FC in the Victorian Premier League. Coming off an average season, Oakleigh plucked Papas from relative obscurity at the Australian Institute of Sport. The VPL is a rough and tumble place. The turnover of coaches is high and clubs are impatient for success. The general response to his appointment was bemusement. But those in the know knew better.

In 2008, Football Federation Australia technical directors Robert Baan and Han Berger had identified Papas as a potential elite-level coach after he had attended a training course there. He accepted the role of AIS men’s soccer scholarship coach in 2009 and relocated to Canberra to work under Dutch coach Jan Versleijen and former Socceroo Gary van Egmond.

In the 2011 season, Papas coached Oakleigh to equal first on points, just pipped by Green Gully on goal difference and losing to the same team in the grand final. The rookie was named the league’s coach of the year.

After Oakleigh, Papas had a short spell with A-League club Newcastle Jets as part of the firsts coaching team and leading the youth side. However, his true adventure would begin when his old mentor, Dutchman Rob Baan, summoned him to India. “I still speak with Rob frequently, firstly a fantastic football mind, but more importantly, a caring and wonderful human being,” he says.

Baan had moved on from Australia to become the technical director of the All India Football Federation. Papas ended up as the national under-23 team coach and head coach of Pailan (now Indian) Arrows, the Indian National Youth team that played in the I-League. Under Papas, they achieved their highest results. After his time with India’s under-23 team, he took on the head coach role with I-League club Dempo Sports Club.

“India gave me so much more self-belief about what I was doing,” he says. “I had only recently started working at a professional level. I wanted to test myself in difficult conditions to see how much I was willing to sacrifice to pursue my vision. Off the field, it was sometimes challenging; seeing the poverty made me appreciate how lucky I am and how good we have it in Australia.”

His coaching has taken him to far-flung corners of world soccer, working in India, Saudi Arabia, Belgium and Japan, and stints back in Australia. I ask Papas if the scarcity of roles for young coaches in Australia is why he has pursued so much of his career overseas.

“Not necessarily,” he says. “I’m passionate about football and coaching, but I also love travelling. I’m fascinated with the world. I’ve been able to travel and experience different parts of the world while doing a job that I love. It’s such a great challenge to coach in foreign countries. It’s without a doubt a more testing experience to impart your ideas and philosophies.”

Australian coaches working overseas are rare – successful ones, rarer still. Kevin Muscat and Tony Popovic, both successful in Australia, were sacked by their European clubs in the past few months. Harry Kewell was recently sacked from Oldham Athletic in Football League 2, England’s fourth tier.

Young, Australian and without an illustrious playing career to speak of, Papas is kicking uphill against a stiff wind in the world of professional soccer. He’s unperturbed.

“It’s a blessing to me on a personal level because it means nothing has come easily, and nothing ever will,” he says. “Every door has been kicked down rather than graciously opened. Over and over again, I’ve had to prove myself.”

Right now, Papas is focused on taking Kagoshima United up the ranks of Japanese soccer. But beyond the ash and smoke of Sakurajima, he glimpses a future in soccer’s heartland. “It’s possibly clichéd to say, but I think I have my dream coaching role now,” he says. “I don’t have a dream team or club, but I have a vision of coaching in Europe one day. I don’t know when, but it’s definitely something I will achieve at some point in my career.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 20, 2021 as "Rising from the ash".

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Engel Schmidl is a writer and co-founder of sports culture website Shoot Farken.