Thomas Vermaelen is doing just fine in Japan ahead of return to action
Ex-Barcelona and Arsenal star talks life, representing Belgium at the Olympics, and football in a new country amid COVID-19, as J.League set to reopen this weekend
But not even that wealth of experience could have prepared Vermaelen for the year he’s had – or hasn’t had, perhaps.
On Saturday (4 July), the 34-year-old Belgian international will lace up his boots for the first time since 23 February as the J.League first division finally restarts – the second major sport to reopen in Japan following Nippon Professional Baseball, which got under way on 19 June.
Vermaelen and Vissel Kobe, captained by his former Barca team-mate Andres Iniesta, will host Sanfrecce Hiroshima in one of nine J1 games to be held this weekend. The league had shut down shortly after the first week of matches, with the coronavirus breaking out nationwide.
Speaking exclusively to the Olympic Channel, Beijing 2008 Olympian Vermaelen explained what it’s been like as a foreign professional athlete coping with COVID-19 in the host country of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
“You miss the games - the competitiveness of games - and you do that for longer than you’ve ever done." - Belgium and Vissel Kobe defender Thomas Vermaelen to Olympic Channel.
"Of course you have a couple of weeks off for the holidays which is necessary, but this was like all of a sudden, you’re without football, this competitive spirit for a long time". he added.
"And you feel that you need that. This was the challenge, coping with that.
“I’ve been spending my time at home, spending it with the kids and family. I think it’s been difficult for everybody, spending a lot of time in the house. Keeping myself fit and playing with the kids, do some homeschooling with the kids.
"It was a busy time - but totally different than what we’re used to”.
Kicking-off vs coronavirus
As with most sports leagues around the world, the J.League will reboot amid various restrictions in line with the government’s anti-virus playbook.
The league assembled a joint task-force with baseball including the nation’s top infection experts and produced a 70-page manual in dealing with coronavirus ahead of this weekend. No fans and very few media will be allowed at the stadiums, initially.
Before the resumption, a total of 3,070 tests have been conducted on every player, coach, and team official across the J.League’s three divisions – turning out zero positive results.
And now comes the hard part for those who will be on the pitch like Vermaelen. Having lost four months of the season, they must squeeze in 33 league games and two cup competitions by year’s end and for Kobe, also the Asian Champions League whose fixtures have yet to be announced.
The former Gunners skipper said recovery will be the name of the game in getting through a condensed campaign.
“In my experience in England where you play a lot of games, recovering well - that’s the key”, he said. “Mentally it will be a challenge, too, because you have to be prepared mentally to perform once every few days. You need to spend the free time you have in recovering and don’t do silly things.
“It’s strange to play with no fans or less than you’re used to. But as a professional you still have to make sure you perform. It may influence your game but if you’re a professional, you have to make sure to play well”. - Vermaelen
Feeling at home in Asia
Vermaelen has been in Japan for almost a year now and says he and his family feel very settled in Kobe, on and off the pitch. The center-half turns 35 in November and his current contract could potentially be the last of an illustrious career.
He plays for the J.League’s best-funded club, who, in 2019, became the first team in Japan to surpass 10 billion yen ($93m US) in season revenue, with the likes of Vermaelen, Iniesta, Sergi Samper and until last year, Lukas Podolski.
“People outside think it’s very difficult to come here and adapt to Japan but the people are very helpful here - at the club, outside the club”, Vermaelen said. “For me it was very easy. I also like the different culture Japan brings. I quite like that, to learn new things, experience new things.
“I’m very happy here”.
The two-time FIFA World Cup defender still recalls his Olympic experience 12 years ago as “something special” when Belgium narrowly missed out on the podium, losing to a Ronaldinho-led Brazil in the bronze-medal game.
As a resident of Japan now, Vermaelen is keen on watching the Games in the summer of 2021 as a spectator - after what he hopes will be his last hurrah for Belgium at the European championships, which, like Tokyo 2020, was also postponed.
“I would love to go and watch. The Olympic Games is a very special event held once every four years. If it’s possible I want to watch the athletics. I experienced it in 2008 when I was lucky to watch athletics as well, and something like that is always nice to see". - Vermaelen.
“I think it was disappointing for everyone with the national team [that the Euros] was postponed because I felt like we were ready for it as a team. Also personally I was ready for it.
“It’s disappointing it’s delayed for one more year but it doesn’t mean I’m going to make a decision now for something which will happen in a year’s time. I’m still available for the national team and will try to perform there”.