How Wenger’s old club signed a Socceroo in the space of one afternoon: ‘Is this a joke?!’

Mitch Langerak is Nagoya Grampus royalty and a history-making goalkeeper in the J1 League. Speaking to KEEPUP’s Sacha Pisani, the former Socceroo reflects on his Japanese adventure so far.

It was 2018 and Mitch Langerak had barely settled in Spain after joining Levante when he started getting phone calls about Japan.

Langerak had been playing for Stuttgart and was the number one, but the Bundesliga side had just signed Germany international Ron-Robert Zieler. They were to battle it out for the starting role.

“I’m not silly, I know the game so I said okay I’ll move on,” he recalled.

That is when a move to LaLiga came about. However, only four months into his Spanish adventure, Langerak became aware of interest from the J1 League.

“I didn’t know which club it was at the time. I just left it with my agent,” the Socceroo told KEEPUP.

“Then I get a message, and I had only been in Spain for four months – I hadn’t even settled yet. They’re like ‘yeah, the Japanese guys are coming today’. I was like, ‘what, here to Spain?’ They’re like ‘yeah, yeah they’re arriving today’. I was like, ‘what do you mean? I don’t really know what’s going on’. They’re like ‘be at this place etc’.

“My agent and I went down to this meeting. We were literally on the way in, saying is this a joke? Are we going to turn up to this place and they’re going to laugh at us because they played us and no one is there?

“So we turn up and there were five Japanese guys – club directors, the sporting director. We walked in and they were all in suits looking first class. We were like, okay it’s happening. They had everything there lined up for me. Videos, telling me about the club and the city, what to expect, where I would live.

“Basically, it was the most professional thing I had ever seen. Within that moment, I drove back home and said to my wife, ‘I think we’re going to Japan’. It happened over the course of one afternoon.”

Fast forward to 2023 and Langerak has established himself as one of the best goalkeepers in Japan’s top flight. It’s been an historic stint in the J1 League so far, having broken the competition’s clean sheet record twice.

He broke the record in 2020 (17) before eclipsing his own record the following year with 21 clean sheets.

“It’s been a little bit unexpected to be here for so long because I just assumed that I would come to Japan for one to two years and then go back to Germany or something like that,” the 35-year-old reflected.

“That’s what I thought would be the path. And then after one year, you’re like, ‘hang on, this is proper out here and it’s class’. The players you’re playing against and the level in Japan.

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“Basically the majority of the Japan national team I’ve played against here in the J1 League before they’ve taken that step into Europe. You talk about the guys like (Kaoru) Mitoma and (Kyogo) Furuhashi.”

Following in the footsteps of Wenger, Lineker & Kennedy

Langerak is Nagoya royalty as he walks a path taken by some of the game’s biggest names.

Before transforming the Premier League with Arsenal, Arsene Wenger was coaching the club, who boasted England great Gary Lineker and Serb legend Dragan ‘Piksi’ Stojkovic.

During his time in Nagoya, Wenger won the Emperor’s Cup (1995) and Japanese Super Cup (1996).

Only once in their history have Nagoya won the J1 League and that was back in 2010 when former Socceroos striker Josh Kennedy scored a league-high 17 goals to lead the team to an historic triumph.

Before Langerak arrived almost six years ago, Nagoya had not claimed silverware since 2011 (Japanese Super Cup).

But with the Australian on board, they ended their drought by winning their first Levain Cup in 2021.

“Basically, we’re among the top two or three biggest clubs in Japan,” Langerak said. “You feel that every stadium you go to.

“Every away game, our away section is huge. Our home stadium is absolutely massive. Apart from Dortmund and Stuttgart, it’s one of the coolest stadiums I’ve played in.

“We’re very lucky in Nagoya, we are a one-club city so everyone is behind the club. We’re backed and owned by Toyota. The company is here in Nagoya – the headquarters.

“You know it’s a big club. When we’re in away grounds and how we arrive, you kind of feel we’re the big boys.

“Unfortunately six or seven years ago, the club had a difficult period. I’d like to say I was part of helping us bounce back and get back to to where the club belongs and that’s right at the top of the table.

“Obviously with Josh Kennedy here in 2010 when they won it. He is an absolute legend at this club still to this day for what he achieved winning the Golden Boot.”

Making history in Nagoya

Langerak stands alone, both in the J1 League and Nagoya.

He is the first Australian and only the 13th non-Japanese player to reach 200 top-flight league matches in Japan.

Langerak is also the foreigner with the most appearances for Nagoya, eclipsing Stojkovic.

“I take a lot of pride in looking after myself in terms of preparation and recovery,” reflected, Langerak, whose three children were all born in Japan.

“I’ve missed two games in the 200-something I’ve played. I think I was the fastest to ever reach 100 games and 200 games in league history. That’s a really cool thing.

“I put a lot of emphasis on being on the pitch and staying there.

“I didn’t really think about the foreign record but to break that is really cool. Hopefully I can continue building on that.”

The secret behind his Japanese success

Langerak has taken his game to an entirely new level in Japan.

It has attracted interest from Europe, but he has never considered leaving Nagoya.

So, what has been the key to his consistency?

“It’s probably a culmination of factors. Getting to an age now where I’m definitely confident in my abilities of what I can do and can’t do,” he said.

“What I always tell the younger goalkeepers, and this also goes for field players, understand what you’re capable of and what you’re not capable of. If you’re poor in this area, don’t allow yourself to get into that situation.

“If you’re a field player and you can’t play with your opposite foot, you’re obviously going to limit getting into those scenarios. The same for me, I’m aware of what I’m very good at. I’m aware of where my weaknesses are but I try not to let my weaknesses come into play in a game.

“That confidence of playing regularly and understanding it’s all about doing the right things consistently.”

And the veteran has no plans of slowing down.

“I think since being in Japan, my love of playing and building towards something at the end of each week, that passion is growing,” Langerak added. “I want to continue that.”

An eight-time Australia international, Langerak has not played club football in his homeland since Dortmund prised him from Melbourne Victory in 2010.

The A-Leagues graduate “absolutely” wants to return Down Under before retiring.

“That is something I want to do. I want to come back in play in the A-League no question. When that is, I don’t know,” he said.

“But absolutely, that is something on my horizon and something I do think about and do plan towards.”