After leaving his mark in Japan, Kevin Muscat is preparing for a new challenge in China. He speaks with KEEPUP’s Sacha Pisani after being named the new manager at Shanghai Port.
In 2021, Ange Postecoglou made a point of telling his replacement Kevin Muscat just how special a football club he was walking into at Yokohama F.Marinos.
Two-and-a-half years later, as Muscat departs with a J1 League title and a Japanese Super Cup under his belt to head for a new opportunity in China, those words have proved to be spot on.
MUSCAT TO CHINA: Aussie great joins Chinese champions
“I remember going through the interview process and then getting to the point where I thought I was a really good chance of getting the job so then I spoke to Ange,” Muscat recalled in an interview with KEEPUP.
“He said to me ‘mate, you’re about to join a very special football club’.”
“He (Postecoglou) couldn’t have been any more true to his words because I leave there and I go ‘mate what a special place that was’,” said Muscat, who has since been appointed head coach of Chinese Super League champions Shanghai Port.
“There’s nothing negative. We fought right to the death this season against all odds. Our supporters and club realise the challenges we had this year, so to be able to do that was just phenomenal.
“I walk away thinking to myself, I’ve continued for the next coach – I keep saying it’s a very special football club waiting for someone to come in and take charge.”
Muscat’s farewell was emotional. There were banners, flags and chants as F.Marinos fans paid tribute to the Australian legend, who oversaw a 3-0 AFC Champions League triumph over Shandong Taishan that sealed the team’s spot in the Round of 16.
During his time in the hot seat, he delivered a J1 League title in 2022 – their first since 2019, and the club’s maiden Japanese Super Cup this season. He did it playing a high-octane and entertaining brand of football.
Muscat is embarking on a new challenge with CSL giants Shanghai Port in China, but his time at F.Marinos is not lost on the 50-year-old, who oversaw two runners-up finishes in three years.
“We (Muscat and the club) had real positive talks (regarding a contract extension) through the back end of the campaign,” Muscat revealed.
“Probably more serious right at the end of the campaign. We had some frank discussions of what the future looked like.
“What I can say is that right from the president to the sports directors it was very friendly and amicable. Once I received all the information, I thought to myself the time I was there it was so great – we finished second, then first and then second.
“The support base is so knowledgeable. They recognised the challenges we incurred throughout that period. Unbelievable from a performance perspective.
“Then from a personal perspective it was gut-wrenching because they certainly made my wife, myself and family so welcome and looked after us. Accepted us as one of their own.
“To leave there with that intact. To leave there as one of only three coaches to have lifted the title and the only one to win the Super Cup. The outpouring emotion from both sides reflected that. One of mutual respect between us both.
“That’s a chapter that can remain as positive and as strong as ever.”
Muscat’s body of work in Japan not only yielded silverware, it endeared him to the F.Marinos faithful.
His high-tempo attacking football was even endorsed by Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola earlier this year.
“I say wow,” Guardiola said of F.Marinos with Muscat at the helm prior to July’s friendly in Japan. “They are dynamic in their process, the build-up, everything they do. I like it.”
Former Melbourne Victory boss Muscat has been following a path walked by his mentor Postecoglou but he has been doing things his own way while tasting success since replacing the now-Tottenham manager in July 2021, having guided F.Marinos to the J1 League title last season.
Muscat became just the third F.Marinos coach to win a J1 League title last year. While last season’s achievement was remarkable, his team’s effort in the face of adversity this term was a feat in itself.
Up until the penultimate round of the season, Muscat’s men went toe-to-toe with big-spending Vissel Kobe, who recruited former Manchester United, Chelsea and Spain star Juan Mata during the campaign, highlighting their spending power.
This was despite F.Marinos’ squad upheaval. The 2022 champions were decimated by key departures – 2022 J1 League MVP Tomoki Iwata (Celtic), Teruhito Nakagawa (Tokyo), first-choice goalkeeper Yohei Takaoka (MLS) and Leo Ceara (Cerezo Osaka) moved on. Marcos Junior (Sanfrecce Hiroshima) and Joel Chima Fujita (Sint-Truiden) also left during season.
This is not a club, even with City Football Group (CFG) investment, with the same financial muscle as likes of Kobe, Urawa Reds, Kawasaki Frontale and Nagoya Grampus. But despite all of that and injuries, Muscat got the club within a whisker of back-to-back titles while staying true to his identity.
“To win the J1 League is not easy. It’s bloody hard,” Muscat said.
“I arrived midway through when Ange left and that was a pivotal time. I got reminded of it a number of times when I was saying goodbye to people, ‘you joined us when we were in a difficult moment’.
“That period was difficult because they lost a great leader and mentor but we actually propelled and fought. We pushed Kawasaki right to the death for the remainder of the season.
“Then the second season, we actually recruited well and then recruited well in the summer. To win it, it’s so hard. You look at Kobe, this is their first title. A lot of things went their way this season and good luck to them but they’ve chased that tirelessly with bankrolling it too.
“But this season, I kept saying it and I think it galvanised us. In the end, we didn’t have full-backs available for many games – maybe a third of the season. Centre-backs getting operated on, people breaking their jaws. It was just frightening and it actually galvanised us.
“There was a sense with the guys who could step out there, players before them had sacrificed and sacrificed to the point where they got injured. So, for us to continue the challenge all the way to the second last game of the season. It was an almighty effort.
“That’s the first thing I did say to them – we have a big emphasis on bringing your strengths. Identify your strengths more so than the negatives. Saying goodbye is not a strength of mine so I didn’t stay up there too long.
“I really felt a sense of belonging and part of something. I couldn’t have imagined the fans and everyone really – from the chairman, the warmth in leaving was far greater than the warmth of arrival.”
While Muscat tasted glory in Yokohama, it was the small things that left a big impression on the ex-Victory captain and head coach.
“Success is always measured in trophies and that will remain forever but the team spirit we built there,” he said.
“I recall back to young Riku (Yamane) getting his debut against Kobe against all the odds. How he was received after the game and how grateful he was when he came to say goodbye to me in my office. That was probably the most emotional football discussion I’ve ever had.
“Those small moments where you start to realise you’re building something that’s stronger than just football.
“(Ryo) Miyaichi – another moment that galvanised the squad. When he got injured while away with the national team. He hadn’t been called up for so long then he does his ACL for the third time.
“The way that galvanised the team and fans. I think he was well on the way to retiring and decided to continue. Then this year, in one of his first games back he scores the winning goal against Kashiwa (Reysol) at home in the 96th minute. Just to see the reaction of everybody – the staff, the playing group, the fans. Those moments made me realise this is a very special football club.”
Now, a new challenge awaits Muscat in China.
He had been heavily linked with the Rangers job in October before the Scottish giants opted for Belgian Philippe Clement.
There was also interest from elsewhere but Muscat was solely focused on F.Marinos’ title challenge before Shanghai Port came calling.
“There were two or three opportunities throughout the season where I was contacted about certain clubs,” Muscat said. “There was only really one who I did speak to and the rest I didn’t speak to because I was invested in trying to win a championship.
“Then seeing the challenges we were going through and people sacrifice themselves and getting injured, I didn’t think it was right.
“Then towards the last couple of games, this opportunity arose. The truth is, I didn’t speak to them. I rejected speaking to them for quite some time. And then at the end, I had a discussion with the sports director, likewise the team manager, general manager and even the president.
“They outlined what’s happened in the last four or five years. It was a frank and honest discussion. They outlined where they want to go in the next three-four-five years. It sounded like a project I wanted to be involved in.”
Muscat replaces Spaniard Javier Pereira, who ended Shanghai Port’s five-year wait for a CSL trophy this year but departed after just nine months.
Shanghai Port, formerly known as Shanghai SIPG where Sven-Goran Eriksson and Andre Villas-Boas previously coached, are headlined by former Chelsea and Brazil star Oscar.
The 32-year-old won two Premier League titles and the UEFA Europa League before stunning the world when he left London for Shanghai in a reported £60million (AUD $113m) deal back in 2017.
During his time with the Chinese club, he has celebrated two CSL titles while finishing second on three occasions.
Former Socceroos star Aaron Mooy also spent two years with Shanghai Port between 2020 and 2022 after leaving Brighton and Hove Albion in the Premier League.
Muscat added: “They approached me initially based on what they’ve seen. Based on the football I’ve been playing. Discussions were around that.
“It’s going to give me a good opportunity to implement our football as a group.”
“This is the way we’re going to approach this and the way we’re going to play,” he continued. “It’s because I want to win. I want to win another title in another country.
“Playing our football gives us the best chance to do that. There’s going to be challenges but so be it. The greater the challenge, the greater the learning.”
Muscat already has history with Shanghai Port, having gone up against them during his time as Victory boss.
He oversaw a 2-1 Champions League triumph against the Chinese giants in 2018 having also celebrated the same result against an Eriksson-led Shanghai Port in 2016.
Asked if they remembered those matches, Muscat replied: “Oh yeah.
“They do remember the games. Obviously with Marinos we played against Shandong too. They were quoting games I don’t remember being involved in.”