In his decade-long career as a football player, half of which was spent in India, Japanese striker Ryuji Sueoka made a name for himself by scoring goals and setting up his teammates with some remarkable flicks of his boot. Even after his retirement, his boots continue to leave a mark, although of a different kind.
Now a second division coach in Japan, Sueoka doubles up as a cobbler and fixes broken shoes, which he sends to underprivileged children in India and a few other countries. The 36-year-old forward has played for some of India’s top clubs, including Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, Pune FC and Dempo.
It was in 2009 when he was with Bagan that he first came across a roadside cobbler. “A kit man saw my broken boots and he brought them to a cobbler in Kolkata. It was 2009, when I played for Mohun Bagan during my first season in India. I was impressed with the skills of the cobblers and, at the time, I thought I should bring this skill to Japan,” Sueoka told The Indian Express via email.
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Professional footballers dropping by at a cobbler to fix their shoes is unheard of, especially since they get the playing kit from their sponsors or the club.
But following that chance visit in Kolkata, Sueoka would frequent cobbler shops wherever he played, especially in Goa where he spent a majority of his playing days — from 2010 to 2013 for Salgaocar and Dempo. He would spend hours at those shops, observing the men at work and trying to learn.
After retiring in December 2015, he signed up for a proper course. “Honestly, I wanted to learn the art in India but I didn’t have much time and courage. So I learnt it in Japan. It was costly because I learnt in a school for a few months,” says the Yamaguchi native, who was voted Player of the Year in 2011, when he guided Goan club Salgaocar to the I-League title.
After finishing his course, Sueoka worked with a few cobblers to fine tune his skills. Now, he has his own little place where he gathers broken boots from far corners of Japan, repairs them and sends them not just to India but also to other countries such as Cambodia, Bhutan, Thailand and Jordan.
His project was recently the subject of a FIFA documentary, which put Sueoka in the spotlight. His day job takes up a major chunk of his time, which means he can’t devote as much time to repairing boots. But Sueoka says he has been in touch with his Japanese friend who manages a school for poor children in a village near Delhi, where he hopes to deliver his products.
Recently, he also sent a consignment via express mail to Cambodia. “Now I am with Ehime FC in the J-League second division so I don’t have much time to repair boots. But I have a project to send used footballs and football kits to poor kids in other countries. I’m gathering a lot of used football kits from Ehime FC and our kids. My objective is that Japanese kids connect with children from other countries and learn their culture,” he says. “I recently sent it to Cambodia and I will definitely send to India, Bhutan, Thailand and Jordan for poor kids. If I have free time, I want to repair broken boots and send them to poor kids.”