Photo/IllutrationCho Kwi-jea, center, manager of J.League’s Shonan Bellmare, gestures during a match against Oita Trinita in May. (Shinnosuke Ito)

Shonan Bellmare manager Cho Kwi-jea, who guided his J.League team to its first league cup title in 2018, has been suspended in response to allegations of power harassment against players and staff.

The men’s professional soccer club, based in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, called a team meeting on the morning of Aug. 13 before a practice. Kiyoshi Makabe, chairman of the club, and its president, Naohito Mizutani, along with other management staff, told the players about the decision to sideline Cho until further notice.

Cho, 50, who is in his eighth year as Shonan’s manager, guided his team to the 2018 Levain Cup. He will not be involved in the team’s activities including practices until the J.League completes its investigation of the allegations.

Kenji Takahashi, one of the club’s coaches, will fill in and take command of the team, which plays in the league’s upper-tier J1 division and currently is in 11th place.

Cho has been praised for his skill in improving players through relentless practices.

However, anonymous tips to the Japan Football Association and testimonies from multiple people involved in the club have brought Cho’s overbearing and oppressive style of coaching that involves physical and verbal violence out in the open.

On May 26, after his team lost 4-1 to Vissel Kobe at Noevir Stadium Kobe in the capital of Hyogo Prefecture, Cho took out his anger on several players who slipped during the game.

He picked out a defender who wore a pair of soccer boots with interchangeable cleats to improve traction on the soft turf.

Cho yelled at the defender, “You are wearing those (nonslip boots) and still slipping!”

Then he kicked at the shoes.

Eighteen players on the roster were in the stadium’s waiting room when the incident occurred, along with several coaches and management officials including Makabe and Mizutani, according to sources.

On another occasion, Cho threw a magazine during a meeting with players in a coaches' room in the team’s clubhouse.

During the team’s training camp held in Fukushima Prefecture in July, a player felt bothered by a problem with his left knee during a practice.

A team trainer was about to check on the player. But Cho stopped the trainer and continued the practice session.

Immediately after that, the player tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) of his left knee, which will take eight months to heal completely.

In August 2018, Shonan lost to Kawasaki Frontale in the round of 16 of the Emperor’s Cup. During a practice session held immediately after the defeat, Cho, out of the blue, ordered several players to stop practicing and said, “Keep standing right there!”

The scolded players, as well as the other players, didn’t totally understand why Cho told them to remain standing still.

During the last season, three players were unable to attend practices. They were among those who were transferred from Shonan to other teams at the end of the season, according to sources.

The three were diagnosed with “overtraining syndrome,” one after another, in a roughly three-month period.

The club never offered an explanation to the players why the three stopped coming to practices, according to sources.

Yuki Tanaka, a doctor and head of the Sports Internal Medicine Japan, said, “Symptoms of overtraining syndrome are very similar to those of depression. It requires a high-level judgment even for a medical specialist to distinguish between the two.

“If three players from one team are diagnosed with overtraining syndrome over such a short time, the team is very likely to have some kind of problem,” Tanaka pointed out, in reference to the Shonan case.

The J.League has launched an investigation into the allegations that Cho and other Shonan coaches have harassed players and team staff over a period of several years.

Cho and other coaches have allegedly belittled the personalities of those targeted. The allegations suggest that their coaching style pressured them mentally and drove them into a bad emotional corner.

League officials will conduct thorough interviews with coaching staff, players and top officials of Shonan Bellmare.

The officials will also look into a possibility that the harassment was a systemic problem of the club, in which Shonan had been well aware of Cho’s behavior, yet failed to take the proper corrective measures.