It is October 28, 1993, a date indelibly stamped on the memory of every football fan in Japan. At Al-Ahly Stadium in Doha, Qatar, the Japanese players are lying helpless and broken on the field. Just moments earlier, Iraq, Japan’s opponents in a match they had to win to be sure of qualifying for the 1994 World Cup, had scored from a corner on the stroke of full-time to level the score at 2-2. As the sound of the final whistle faded into the desert sky, so too did Japan’s hopes of dining at football’s top table for the first time.
“The Agony of Doha,as the episode became known, has never been forgotten. Japan would rally to book their place at the next World Cup, four years later in France, and have not failed to qualify for the finals ever since. But among the casualties of the Doha debacle was a man who would never get the chance to show his talent on the biggest stage of all. For 36-year-old Ruy Ramos, symbol of Japanese football and the heartbeat of the side, his last chance to play for the national team at the World Cup had gone.
“It’s hard to put it into words how I felt,Ramos says, sipping coffee in an Aoyama cafe 13 years later. “When the game ended it felt like I didn’t have a soul. I felt dead inside. I couldn’t think about anything, other than asking God why he had let it happen.
“I thought about giving up football. I just didn’t want to play any more. I didn’t even want my son to play football. I wanted to go away and live on an island, away from everyone.ﾓ
Defeat is difficult for any sportsperson to accept, but for Ramos a moment’s introspection could be excused. The road he had travelled was, after all, very different from that of his team mates.
Born in Rio de Janeiro, one of six children to a widowed mother, Ramos arrived in Japan as a 20-year-old with a contract to play for the Yomiuri club in the Japan Soccer League. The decision to move, he says, was borne purely out of necessity.
“I came because it was what my mother needed,he says. “I had five brothers and sisters, my father had died and it wasn’t easy finding work.
“When the invitation came it was a way to help my mother. That’s all there was to it. I didn’t have any preconceptions of Japan. I really had no idea what was waiting for me here.ﾓ
He was soon to find out the hard way. “At first I found it very difficult because it was really hard to communicate,he says. “The Japanese are very reserved, unlike Brazilians, who are very outgoing. At first I didn’t think I’d last very long here. I just wanted to go back. I couldn’t get used to the food, and the language was difficult. If there was something I wanted to say, I didn’t have any means of getting the message across.
For all Ramos’s communication problems off the pitch, he could at least express himself on it. But even that was taken away when he was suspended from playing after an altercation during a league match shortly after making his debut in Japan. The length of his ban ﾐ one year ﾐ tested Ramos’s determination to the limits.
“There was some confusion on the pitch,he says. “I was running behind the Japanese player but I didn’t lay my hands on him. They gave me a year’s suspension just for that and I couldn’t accept it. I knew it was wrong.
“There was a lot of pressure on me. Some of the Japanese wanted me to leave but I told them that I was going to stay because I believed in myself. Not all the players on my team, but some, were looking at me after the incident as if to say, ﾔGo away, gaijin. We don’t want you here.’
“I knew in my mind that I was right and that the suspension was unjust. I knew I needed to help my family back home, so there was no way I was leaving. I knew I had it in me to be a success in Japanese football.ﾓ
And a success he certainly became. Having persevered through language difficulties, an alien culture and the ban that kept him out of the game for so long, Ramos returned to establish himself as one of the greatest players Japan has ever seen. Now fluent in Japanese and the star attraction of the domestic league, things were also going well in his personal life. It was not only Ramos’s love affair with his new home that was blossoming.
“A friend of mine introduced me to a woman,he says. “I think he had a crush on her. At the time I was on the front cover of a soccer magazine and he said to her, ﾔI know this guy. He’s the most famous football player in Japan at the moment and I’d like to introduce you. Do you want to come with me and watch him playing in a match?’
“She said no. Every day he’d keep asking her and she always said, ﾔNo, I’m not interested in football and I’m not interested in foreigners.’
“One day his friend met her on the train on the way home. He told her there was a game the following day near her house in Kanazawa and asked her to watch it with him. Rain had been forecast and she said to him, ﾔI’ll go if the weather’s fine, but not if it rains.'”The next day it turned out sunny, so she had to go. After the game he introduced us, and it was love at first sight. She was actually trying to get him off her back but in the end she couldn’t get out of it because of the weather. I think it was destiny.ﾓ
Seventeen years later, Ramos and the reluctant spectator, Hatsune, are still together.
“In my wife I’ve got a friend who I trust completely, and in whom I can confide everything,he says.
“She’s just an amazing person: very pure, very intelligent. She’s really helped me a lot all the way, someone whose opinion I really value. She’s always been a guiding influence in my life.ﾓ
That influence extended to one of the biggest decisions Ramos has made both professionally and personally, when, aged 32, he took out Japanese citizenship.
The move opened the door to international football, but Ramos insists that career development was not foremost in his thinking.
“I received an offer to play in Hong Kong, where football was professional and the money was good,he says. “But I couldn’t take my wife away from Japan because she was an only child. If I took her away I knew I’d have to think about her parents when they got old, so I chose to stay in Japan.
“I knew I didn’t ever want to go back to Brazil and I didn’t want to leave Japan. At that time I was starting to make money, things were starting to get better and my team mates were beginning to respect me more.ﾓ
Upon hearing the national anthem reverberate around the stadium before playing his first match in the blue strip of his adopted country, Ramos was left in no doubt his decision was the right one.
“I could feel the shivers going down my spine with emotion,he says. “It gave me goose pimples.
“After going through the year in which I was unfairly suspended, being asked to play for the Japanese team made me feel that at last I had got justice. Despite the suspension, I’d stuck it out in Japan even though everyone knew that I’d received an invitation to play in Hong Kong.
“After about three years, people had really started to respect me because I’d stuck it out and kept playing. By then they already liked me and I liked Japan too. I even liked Japanese food.
“But I never expected when I took Japanese citizenship that I’d be asked to play for the Japanese team. That wasn’t the reason I did it. I did it because I knew that I was going to stay here until I died.ﾓ
But accepting citizenship to a new country is not just about looking forward to the future. As a new identity is born, the old one must die.
The financial difficulties that had brought him to Japan in the first place have long since disappeared, but have his feelings for the country of his birth faded with them?
“I go back to Brazil once a year, (usually) in January,he says. “But when I’m there I feel like a fish out of water. Here, people know who I am but wherever I go nobody bothers me. Everyone likes me, everyone respects me, and people come up to me in the street and say, ﾔHi Ramos, how’s it going?’
“But when you arrive in Brazil, it’s completely different. Wherever you go, you’re worried that you’re going to be robbed. You feel tense and it makes you feel depressed. Just getting into my sister’s car I start to worry that we’re going to get held at gunpoint. So whenever I’m in Brazil, after about two or three weeks I can’t wait to come back.ﾓ
For the Japanese public, Ramos’s assimilation was completed a long time ago. Playing professionally into his forties, he is widely acknowledged as one of the finest players Japan has ever produced.
It is often said that those who see Japan clearest are those who come from the outside. So from his vantage point as a Brazil-born Japanese icon, a man who professes to have “Brazilian blood and a Japanese soul,how has his adopted home changed since he arrived?
“It’s evolved a lot, culturally and economically,he says. “It can be very difficult dealing with the Japanese because they don’t like to talk straight. They tend to go around the point in circles. I’ve noticed that this has started to change and they’ve also started to accept foreigners more than before.
“When I first came here, they would think that a foreigner had come to take the place of a Japanese person. It’s as if they had a wall around them, but this wall has started to crumble.
“A 25-year-old Japanese person today has a completely different mentality from someone back in my time. They’re much less closed off. Back in my time all they’d have to do is see a foreigner and they’d start running.ﾓ
But Ramos also warns that the pace of change should be tempered with caution.
“You’ve got to remember that Japan is an island,he says. “It can only evolve up to a certain point. After that it can’t evolve any more. Sooner or later there will be nowhere left to expand.
“Everyone’s afraid of earthquakes and, at the same time, everything is expanding. There are places where you can’t expand. God decides where you can build.ﾓ
Ramos’s career is also moving upwards.
As the current manager of J.League club Tokyo Verdy, it is his task to shape Japan’s footballers of the future and ensure they do not suffer the same fate he did that night in Doha.
He, like the Japanese public, has never forgotten that match against Iraq. But for all his talk of giving up football amid the disappointment of missing out on the 1994 World Cup, Ramos could still see the bigger picture.
“Both teams went for a meal after the match,he says. “The three players involved in the (second) goal told me that we deserved to win. At half-time, they were told by Uday Hussein, Saddam Hussein’s son, that they would get sent to the front line in the war if they didn’t win. He was a devil.
“When they came out for the second half they were a different team. I have never had that kind of pressure on me to win.ﾓ
Such tales of gallantry in defeat are commonplace in sport. An athlete who can accept defeat, after all, is one who puts himself in a better position not to do so again.
But not so common is the complement Ramos repaid to his Iraqi opponents 10 years later, travelling to the country to visit his former opponents just three weeks after US-led coalition forces invaded in 2003.
“When I visited their houses they were still there, but they were barricaded in,he says. “I saw bombs exploding, and a telephone company was blown up right across the street. On my last night there, I heard lots of gunfights going on. I had to hide in the bathroom and curl up.
“I brought three of the players from the 1993 match back to Japan for five days to make a TV program. It was the three players involved in the (second) goal and it was because of them that I didn’t get to play at the 1994 World Cup in the United States. Even though I missed out on the World Cup, it was nothing compared to what they [the Iraq players] had to put up with.ﾓ
If anyone can appreciate how the wounds suffered by “the Agony of Dohaare mere scratches in comparison to life’s greater struggles, it is Ruy Ramos.
Story by James Donaghy
From J SELECT Magazine, March 2007