It’s not often that a brother and sister manage to captain their countries at water polo. However Japanese men’s captain Toi Suzuki has followed in the footsteps of his illustrious sister Kotori, who not only led Japan in the water, playing three FINA World Championships (2015, 2017 and 2019) but now coaches the Shumei University national champion women’s team. At just 23, Toi Suzuki has the weight of a nation on his shoulders five months out from a home World Aquatics Championships.
It was the FINA World Junior Men’s Water Polo Championships in Kuwait City back in 2019 that I first experienced Toi Suzuki’s many attributes — taking a pass at centre forward to score, devastatingly driving into goal and scoring twice against Australia from two metres and from the deep left in a remarkable match won on the buzzer.
It was team-mate Yusuke Inaba who negated Australia’s equalising goal with two seconds remaining, playing the ball to himself on the restart and rocketing in a missile from halfway for the 11-10 victory.
Photos: Getty Images
Suzuki was barely 18 when he rose to international prominence, playing the 2018 FINA World Cup in Berlin, finishing seventh.
His three recent internationals were in front of capacity crowds in Perth last month in a drawn series with the Aussie Sharks, where he was the captain of a team minus a handful of European-based players.
At 23, with a World Cup, Junior Worlds, Summer Universiade in Naples (5th place in 2019), the Tokyo Olympics for 10th place, the FINA World League Super Final in Tbilisi, Georgia for fifth place in 2021 and ninth position at the FINA World Championships in Budapest last year, Suzuki is well placed to command his captaincy for many years to come.
Especially since the World Aquatics Championships beckons in July as a home series at Fukuoka, followed by the Doha version in February 2024 and the just-announced Singapore edition in 2025.
“I have been in charge of the captaincy since the head coach changed after the Tokyo Olympics. The Japan team is made up of players with a wide age range, so, I was entrusted with maintaining good relations with experienced players and young players,” Suzuki said.
It’s a long time since his friend’s father invited him to the water polo pool in his native Yamagata. Since then he played for the Shumei Eiko High School Water Polo Club, graduated to the Nippon Sports Science University Swimming Club — winning four Japanese collegiate titles — and last year won the Japanese crown with Kingfisher74.
Like many national team players, he now plays in an overseas club — Ydraikos in the Greek league.
“It's my first time playing (club matches) abroad. Being able to play in the world's top Greek league is a good experience for me and for Japan. I think my speed and agility are working in the Greek league as well. Our team also scored a lot on the counter. Sometimes it doesn't work with my physical things and power.”
Japan is renowned for its counter-attack style of play with its lighter and more agile athletes, which is quite disruptive against the European heavier style.
“The Japan team is working on a super-aggressive pass-line defence, which is called ‘Japan Press’, to capitalise on our speed and agility. In addition, I believe that we produce a speedy game development and bring out the charm of water polo.”
As mentioned earlier, the team has a new coach as previous head coach Yoji Omoto has stepped up into an administrative role and former leading player Yoshinori Shiota — a competitor at the FINA World Championships of 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2011 and assistant coach from 2017 until 2021 — led the team to 10th place at the Tokyo Olympic Games.
“A few players have retired and the age of the team has also rejuvenated. The head coach has also changed, but Shiota is trying to take over the mindset and concept of former head coach Yoji Omoto and make water polo even more attractive,” Suzuki said.
When asked if the team gained anything publicity-wise from Tokyo 2020, Suzuki said:
“Unfortunately, there were no spectators at the Tokyo Olympics because of the COVID-19 regulations. At the World Championships in Fukuoka, we have a responsibility to have a lot of spectators come to watch the games. In order to make water polo famous in Japan, we have to achieve good results. Japan national team has never been in the top eight in a world tournament, so we are aiming for top eight or higher in Fukuoka.”
Japan will be involved in the World Aquatics World Cup in April, followed by an intense training period ahead of the World Aquatics World Championships in July.
Suzuki has one last request: “Please pay attention to the Japan national team!”