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  • Writer's pictureJack Twohill

"Treated like a rockstar" - Mauk on life in Japan and aspirations for Australian football

While less prestigious than the J-League, the Japanese second division, or J2, has developed into one of the best leagues in Asia. With the race for promotion heating up, Front Page Football had the opportunity to catch up with former A-League Men and current Fagiano Okayama midfielder Stefan Mauk to discuss the 2023 campaign, life in Japan, and his willingness to beat the drum for football back home.


You only have to look at the exploits of Mitch Duke at the World Cup for evidence of the talent in the Japanese second tier. Over the last few years, the competition has gone from strength to strength, typified by second-tier Ventforet Kofu winning the Emperor's Cup in the 2022 rendition of the 102-year-old national competition.

Fagiano Okayama's Stefan Mauk. (The Asian Game)


Mauk's Fagiano is currently knocking on the door of the J2 promotion playoffs, sitting four points off sixth-placed Júbilo Iwata in 11th. Fagiano is set up for an exciting march towards the promotion places. Stefan Mauk has adjusted to the style and pace of Japanese football since he arrived in 2022 and is enjoying his most productive season in appearances, match minutes, and output since moving to Japan from Adelaide United.


Mauk has played 14 matches for Fagiano this season, averaging 85 minutes per match and playing his usual midfield role, striker, and winger. Mauk's output has increased since fellow Australian and Socceroo Mitch Duke departed the club. He has scored three goals and added one assist whilst contributing 0.9 key passes per game. Mauk indicated how Duke's presence last season helped him ease into the Japanese lifestyle, which has led to a more significant role with Fagiano as an attacking utility, deployed at times as a centre-forward and winger in 2023.


"It's been quite good. Having Mitch Duke here last season was a good transition coming to a new country and especially when you come to Asia," Mauk told FPF.


"When you go to Europe or America, it's quite similar. There might be a new language, but Western Countries are often very similar. Coming to Asia is eye-opening in terms of the way they do things, especially in a smaller city in Okayama. I arrived during [the] lockdown, and there were only ten or twenty foreigners in the city, so to become a minority was quite confronting."

Mauk was viewed as a huge loss when he departed Adelaide, as he was a notable contributor in his last season with the Reds. He scored three goals while providing two assists in his previous half-season in Australia. Mauk also served as the tenth captain in Adelaide's history, first being given the honour for the 2020/21 season and serving as club captain until his departure last year.


His departure was felt by Adelaide fans, players, and coaching staff alike. However, Mauk conceded it was time to test himself in a different environment, wanting to go back overseas and push the limits of his potential. Mauk provided a detailed insight into his decision to leave the Reds and the attraction of Fagiano in 2022.

"I really wanted to challenge myself overseas again. I moved to Holland when I was younger, and it didn't work out. The older you get, the harder it becomes to get to Europe, and financially it's not as incentivising," Mauk said.


"I looked at moving to Asia when I received a message from an agent who let me know a team in J2 were interested. When he told me it was Fagiano, it made it a little bit easier as Mitch Duke was already here. Also, I saw Japan as a safe environment for my football development to continue as they have become a powerhouse in Asia."


It's hard to ignore the J-League's rise. Since its inception 30 years ago, the league has transformed from a largely semi-professional and amateur sport in Japan to an entirely professional game, with the national team qualifying for the last seven FIFA World Cups and sharing hosting duties with South Korea in 2002.


According to Statista, football's profile in Japan has strengthened, with the sport making up 20% of the country's sports viewing, second only to baseball. This rise has culminated in Japan's finest footballers breaking into Europe's elite competitions, with the domestic competition gathering speed, prestige, and recognition. When the J2 League was established in 1999, Japan added ten more fully professional teams as its system expanded.


Today, 22 teams compete in J2, with two teams to be relegated to reduce the league to 20 by 2024. The football revolution in Japan is well documented, and Mauk has now had first-hand experience. He reflected on the league's set-up and how players are treated in Japan, revealing what he would like to see the Australian system adopt.


"It's always hard to replicate what other countries do, but the one thing for me is promotion and relegation. It makes every three points sweeter. Look at what the J-League has done. It's not an old league; only 30 years old. With the model of Australian football suggested to become similar to the J-League, the A-League is slowly getting there, but talk is cheap," Mauk said.


"It's crazy how they treat players here; people stop you for photos, [and] you're treated like a rockstar when you're a professional athlete. They're so excited to see you. I visited a school of kids, probably Year 3 to Year 6, and they were over the moon. I didn't think they'd even know who I am."

 

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Mauk in action for Fagiano Okayama. (Twitter: @StefanMauk)


Whilst Mauk has moved away from the Australian game, it has not stopped his passion and commitment towards football back home. Even whilst serving as an A-League Men captain, he has always been an outspoken supporter of Australian football, which isn't always easy.


Whilst all can appreciate the talent and passion he demonstrates on the pitch, Mauk's inquisitive nature and approachable manner off it and on social media made him a relatable character to many supporters of the A-Leagues. His appetite to debate the big topics in Australian football has steadily increased since his move overseas. However, Mauk maintains his vocal nature was there from the beginning.


"I think it has made it a little bit easier being away, but I felt before I left, I was always a little bit more vocal. I guess the older you get, the more comfortable you become with doing that," Mauk added.


"I want what's best for Australian football. I became a fan first before I became a player, and I think it's important to have players expressing their opinions. I enjoy having hard conversations with people on Twitter, but for me, it's never anything personal."

Mauk's unparalleled connection to Adelaide and the Australian game has not been lost since beginning his Japanese venture. An Adelaide City junior before moving to the Australian Institute of Sport in 2011, Mauk still considers himself a local of the city he once represented, tuning in regularly to Adelaide United matches to stay informed about the club he once led.


With the Reds falling short of an A-League Men's Grand Final birth in 2022/23, being defeated by eventual champions the Central Coast Mariners, their former captain shared some considered thoughts about Adelaide United's season, the club's direction, insights on club identity, and where they need to improve for 2023/2024.


"It was disappointing to see them lose in the semi-finals against Central Coast, who were the better team over two legs, and you saw in the Grand Final how hungry they were to win. But also it's quite positive. [In] the last three years, Adelaide have made it to the semi-finals. Working on a smaller budget and blooding young players is what I know the club wants to do, but also you want to win as well," Mauk said.


"They probably hit a little bit of poor form at the wrong time. I think they need some players who have a little more aggression, something that was lacking in the semi-final. But under Carl, they're doing unbelievable whilst instilling values to promote from within."


Back in Japan, Fagiano Okayama remains ambitious about achieving promotion into the J-League heading into the final twenty games of the season. A recent 1-0 loss through a Junki Kanayama own goal against second-placed Oita Trinita hasn't hampered the belief at Fagiano. They pushed incredibly hard for promotion in 2022, finishing third in J2 but falling 3-0 to Montedio Yamagata in the first round of the promotion playoffs.


Mauk shares the ambition to see the club play in the top tier of Japanese football for the first time in its history. He also has personal targets regarding his output for the team.


"I spent last year adapting, which has really helped me this season. At the start of the year, I set out a personal goal to score ten, and I've scored three so far, with a few chances turned away by some good keeping and the post on three or four occasions. That's all a part of it," Mauk said.


"Our aim from the start of the year was to get promoted. We need to get into that top six as it's a bit easier this season, as you don't have to face any J1 teams to be promoted through the playoffs. This club is ambitious, they want to get promoted, and for me, I want to play in J1."


Fagiano will look to bounce back from their recent dip in form against Ventforet Kofu this weekend, which has recently seen them lose back-to-back matches. A win could see Fagiano within a point of sixth-placed Júbilo Iwata.


With his recent run of good form, the club will want their experienced players to help push them over the line, with Stefan Mauk looking to play a crucial role in the back half of the J2 season.


Click here to read more of FPF's coverage of Aussies abroad!

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