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Japanese footballers: primed for success, home and away

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Groomed by the domestic football circuit, the players move on to foreign shores to transform themselves into goal-scoring machines

Japanese football stars may not be household names in India, but their heroics in the ongoing FIFA World Cup in Russia have caused fans all over the world to stand up and take notice.

The Japanese playmakers have emerged on to the international stage from the J1 League, the country’s domestic football circuit. Indian fans do not follow its fortunes like they track the English Premier League (U.K.), Bundesliga (Germany), La Liga (Spain) or Serie A (Italy), as the J1 League matches are not often telecast here. Indian fans also have little access to information about Japanese strikers, unlike the case of Brazilian forward Neymar, whose move from FC Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain in 2017 hit the headlines.

Indians have failed to pay more attention to the talent in Japan despite the 61st-ranked country qualifying for six World Cups in a row since 1988 and being closer to us than Europe. However, the performances of Japanese players in the J1 League and World Cups have caught the attention of European team managements. In a move certain to set off a wave of Spanish interest in Japanese football, J1 club Vissel Kobe signed Barcelona former captain and Spanish player Andres Iniesta for its 2018 season.

A masterstroke

Iniesta, a critical part of Spain’s campaign at the World Cup, will play in the league under the captaincy of three-time German World Cup striker Lukas Podolski. Iniesta’s signing is a masterstroke by Kobe, the club is owned by Barcelona shirt sponsor, Rakuten, a Japanese online company. Barcelona fans and current pros can be expected to keep track of the player in a new league on a different continent.

Even before this breakthrough, European clubs had opened its doors to Japanese internationals. Though Japan Football Association’s 23-member squad is drawn from the J1 League talent pool, some of them have gone on to foreign shores to transform themselves into goal-scoring machines. The players include Shinji Okazaki, who plays for Leicester, Maya Yoshida (Southampton) in the English Premier League, and Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund) in the Bundesliga.

Seven members from Japan’s current team have contracts with clubs in Germany (ranked 1), two each in England (12), Spain (10), and France (7), and one each in Mexico (15) and Turkey (38). The remaining eight are registered with J1 clubs, many of them are set to return for a high profile national league, with a former La Liga star under the spotlight.

Captained by midfield general Makoto Hasebe, Japan last week rewrote football history by becoming the first Asian qualifier to beat a Latin American nation in a World Cup competition. The technique and tenacity of the Japanese footballers were on full display during their group games against Latin American powerhouse Colombia and African giant Senegal. Courageous performances laced with finesse and fitness against higher-ranked Colombia (16) and Senegal (27) has placed the Asian team in a strong position to stretch Poland (8) in the last group tie and qualify by finishing among the first two in the four-team Group H. Player agents will be more excited about business in Japan after the thrilling win by the Blue Samurai over Colombia (2-1) and a hard-earned come-from-behind draw against Senegal (2-2).

Great exposure

Emboldened by the European exposure, the fresh batch of the Blue Samurai is brushing shoulders with players like Colombian forward James Rodriguez (Real Madrid player loaned to Bayern Munich) and Senegalese player Sadio Mane, who plays for Liverpool.

Takashi Inui, an influential playmaker in both games, is a prized catch for Real Betis in the La Liga. Kagawa’s value in Germany, Okazaki’s rating in England is now likely to soar. Clubs such as Leicester and Borussia Dortmund might also compete with each other to sign more members from the team. A prime example is 34-year-old Hasebe, who has been contracted to German club Eintract Frankfurt.

World Cup veteran Keisuke Honda, 32, is giving young forwards in the squad tough competition with timely goals. He plays in the Mexican league for Pachuca since 2017 after spells with CSKA Moscow and AC Milan. The current World Cup form will extend his professional career in foreign lands.

J1 clubs with ambition like Vissel Kobe have taken steps to make sure that pro football remains in the news long after the Blue Samurai returns from its Russia mission. Either way, home and away, Japan and J1 are on the winning side.

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Printable version | Dec 15, 2019 7:44:53 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/japanese-footballers-primed-for-success-home-and-away/article24256750.ece

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