Stefan Ishizaki Won’t Go Home

“Ishi längtar hem till AIK!”

May 8th, 2006 is the first time Stefan Ishizaki hears those words. He’s playing right wing in a match against his former club AIK (pronounced ah-ee-kwa) and he’s losing. The AIK supporters chant at him twice. Once after their first goal; again after their second. It feels more mean-spirited the second time. One spectator calls it “scornful.”

“Ishi is homesick for AIK!”

AIK is the Swedish club where Stefan began his career, the club where he spent his first four years, and the club he left behind in 2004. And the AIK fans aren’t about to let him forget it. Not after the first goal; not after the second. Not in the seasons to come.

“Ishi is homesick for AIK!”

Stefan doesn’t know it yet, but that’s a refrain that will follow him for the rest of his career.

 

Stefan Ishizaki is the kind of player who occasionally performs miracles. Here’s a miracle: once, six minutes into a game against Örebro, Stefan spied the goalkeeper out of position. He booted the ball as hard as he could. It sailed over the defense. It sailed over the keeper. It landed in the goal. Six minutes into the match, Stefan scored — from his own half of the field.

Stefan is sweaty by the sidelines when I first meet him, just finished with practice for the day. He’s out of breath. I let him catch it. Stefan’s polite but blunt, with this endearing way of standing side-by-side with you while he talks. I feel like he’s about to drape his arm around me. I feel like he’s going to groan when he hears my first question, about that Örebro goal — a question I’m sure he’s been asked a hundred times before.

If he has he doesn’t show it. Stefan stutter-steps into his answer, grasping for the words — much like you or I would, when telling a story for the first time.

“It was a crazy thing,” he starts, then stops, then starts again. “It’s that feeling, when you hit it on the volley and you don’t even feel like you hit the ball. You hit it so cleanly…” For a moment he’s lost in a memory, back on that field in Sweden.

Then Stefan snaps out of it with a smirk and some understated braggadocio. “And that’s exactly what I did.”

 

Stefan Ishizaki was born in Stockholm and signed by AIK in 1999. That year he played only two games, the second being the Svenska Cup final, which AIK won. Stefan was a child. He was 16 years, 364 days old. He was the youngest person to ever win the Cup.

At the time it felt larger-than-life. “Just to play with the first squad was a big deal for me,” Stefan recalls. “To get to play in a Cup final in our home stadium — that was the biggest thing in my career so far.”

But his key takeaway from AIK wouldn’t be any single moment – it was a mentor. “His name was Nebojša Novaković,” Stefan tells me, tackling that tongue-twister with ease. “He was a fantastic player.” If imitation is a form of flattery, Stefan’s was shameless. “He played as an attacker and I played as a right winger, but still:  what good players do, you try to mimic.”

By 2004 Nebojša was assistant coach and Ishizaki was ready to move on. He jetsetted around Europe for two years, playing in both Italy and Norway. In 2006 he returned to Sweden but not to Stockholm. Instead Ishizaki landed in Borås, a city brimming with both youth and fashion, and he laced up for IF Elfsborg.

“Mostly, they played my kind of soccer,” Stefan tells me. “A lot of passing and possession, not too much lying back on defense and countering.” That’s why he chose Elfsborg over any other Swedish team — and why he chose it over a return to AIK. “I needed a place where I knew I would play. Week in, week out, playing good football.”

It’s at Elfsborg that Stefan finds his groove. In Norway he complained of not getting enough playing time. At Elfsborg he worms his way into the starting line-up. What looked like a disappointing end to international ambitions turns out to be kismet. Ishizaki’s arrival sparks something in the team, just as the team does for him.

“All the newspapers and media ranked us like number 8, number 7 in the country. But my first year there, we won the league.” Ishizaki’s 10 goals and 4 assists are at the heart of a sea change for Elfsborg. But he’s quick to credit his teammates: “We had a squad of 12 to 14 guys that were really good, but the rest were just a bunch of young players. So with little means we did really well that first year.”

In the seasons to follow he’ll chalk up 46 goals and 58 assists. He scores from above, he scores from a crowd, he scores behind his back. When Elfsborg takes the league championship again in 2012, it’s Stefan’s goal against Åtvidaberg that seals it.

But his success only serves to rile up his former fans — the fans from his years at AIK.

On March 8th, 2006, Ishizaki steps out onto a familiar pitch: Råsunda Stadium, home of AIK, the very arena where he first got his start in professional soccer. Except Stefan’s no longer wearing the home jersey — he’s suited up for Elfsborg. It’s the prodigal son’s return, but with little chance of forgiveness.

At the time Elfsborg and AIK are Swedish superpowers, locked in a battle for the very top of the Allsvenskan rankings. The game is destined to be hard-fought. By the end of the first half the score’s still stuck at zero. It takes 75 minutes for anyone to muscle ahead — and when the breakthrough finally comes, it’s at Elfsborg’s expense.

And that’s when it happens: that’s when those words first ring out from the crowd.

“Ishi längtar hem till A-I-K!”

 

“I remember the chant back in 2006,” says Magnus Grund. He’s a longtime member of Visby Gnagare, an AIK supporters group. Magnus was there for the first chant, and it turns out he was there for the second.

“We traveled from Gotland, Sweden’s largest island on the east coast, all the way to Borås – just to see our beloved AIK.” The trip took three days and two ferry rides, so it’s understandable that Magnus made an immediate beeline for the nearest bar.

“My group was sitting outside a pub close to the arena,” he tells me, “when we spotted Stefan stepping into his car. And a couple of us just started chanting…”

As for Stefan’s reaction? “When he drove by he smiled,” Magnus says. “He gave us a fast nod and a thumbs-up.” In 2006 the chant’s still an innocuous joke. It hasn’t yet snowballed — but Magnus and his friends are doing their part to push it along.

Stefan will hear it again in 2009, in a frustrating 0–0 tie with AIK. He’ll hear it from other teams entirely, as in the 86th minute of a humiliating 5–0 loss to Malmö. Eventually Stefan’s teammates get in on the joke, teasing him with the chant as his name is announced for the starting lineup.

In 2011 Ishizaki is subbed out of a game against AIK. Whether due to exhaustion or old habit, he accidentally walks toward the wrong bench — his former team’s bench. It’s too perfect; the crowd eats it up. And then they launch into a familiar song, a song with staying power.

“The chant is a friendly tease,” an AIK fan tells me. I’m on their message board, trying to pin down the feeling behind those words. Turns out they aren’t sure either. “We don’t chant it to players we don’t like,” adds another, then: “I think?”

But elsewhere on the internet, things get ugly. One AIK supporter calls Stefan a traitor. Another states, matter-of-factly, “Ishizaki is not a respected man in AIK these days.” And a particularly fervent fan, under the pseudonym “Smurf,” commands his peers to stop pining for their long-lost winger. “We are AIK,” he snaps, “not an abused wife who keeps taking the idiot back.”

AIK fans are of two minds about Stefan. But his haters really hate. For them, the analogy Smurf offers is both tasteless and apt: Ishizaki’s detractors do come across like a lot of heartbroken lovers, each in their own stage of grief, none yet having found acceptance. Why? Where does it come from? What makes this part-time miracle-worker so divisive?

Over the noisy din of the forum, an answer worms its way out. “[Ishizaki] was one of the players who left the team directly after our degradation,” writes a fan. English isn’t his first language, although he speaks it well, and “degradation” isn’t the word he’s looking for.

It’s relegation.

 

“We got in a bad trend. And it just snowballed.”

Stefan’s telling me about 2004, his last year at AIK and the year the wheels came off.

Relegation isn’t something American sports fans have to worry about, but it’s a cold reality in Europe. Relegation is when a team does so poorly they’re demoted to a lower league. They’ll face financial hardship and roster changes, and if they ever want to be on top again they’ll have to fight their way back up. The system has its benefits but it’s also heartbreaking. The Lakers just finished a bad season. Imagine if next year they weren’t in the NBA at all.

2004 was AIK’s bad season. In their final game, a goal from Ishizaki lifted AIK to victory. Out of 26 games it was only their third win. AIK was doomed to be relegated, shunted down to the second-rung Swedish league, the Superettan.

“I felt that my career was just taking off,” Ishizaki admits. “I’d just played in Italy and done quite well there. I didn’t want to go down to Superettan.”

But Stefan is well-aware of how his departure looked to the fans: “Some people felt as if I left the team when they needed me the most.”

 

I can’t tell if it’s a touchy subject, so I save my best question for last. But it turns out I didn’t need to worry. Stefan’s happy to talk about what the chant means to him.

“It’s a great feeling,” he insists. “It means I did something well there, and they still appreciate me.”

If you were to palm a globe like a basketball, with your pinky on Stockholm, your thumb might just reach LA. That’s where Stefan is now. In eleven games for the LA Galaxy he’s already chalked up two goals and two gorgeous assists. And he’s only heard the chant once, from a lone AIK fan, while warming up for the Galaxy’s home game against Club Tijuana.

Interviews after practice are typically short – a quick quip about the upcoming game, maybe an update on injuries, in-and-out in two minutes. Ours has run much longer. But as we’re wrapping up, Stefan is still reflecting.

“Two, three years ago, I didn’t think that my career might actually end someday,” he tells me. “You have it in the back of your head somewhere, but it’s not really your focus.”

He looks across the field. “But now I feel it coming a little bit closer. Winning is becoming more and more important, every year.”

Ishizaki doesn’t sound homesick to me.

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