Japanese influx to Europe grows
Tokyo's Narita Airport has seen its fair share of soccer players pass through the arrival and departure halls over the years. It welcomed Japan back from a successful World Cup last summer and greeted the Asian Cup trophy in January. In the past few months, it has also seen a growing number of Japanese stars heading to Europe and Germany in particular.
Narita was still a year away from opening when Yasuhiro Okudera first made the trip in 1977. The controversial location of the new airport, still an interminable train ride from the city itself, ignited Molotov cocktail-fueled protests that delayed its first flight. By the time the control tower had recovered, the midfielder was long gone from the Asian radar and an established member of an FC Koln team that went on to reach the semifinal of the 1979 European Cup -- Okudera scored against eventual champions Nottingham Forest. He later moved on to play for Hertha BSC and Werder Bremen.
Okudera eventually jetted back to Japan where his experience and especially his European contacts helped the formation of the J-league in 1993. He pointed Pierre Littbarski in the direction of JEF United and more followed in the tricky footsteps of the spiky-haired star. Urawa Reds especially have had a Teutonic tendency when it comes to tacticians. The recent appointment of Zeljko Petrovic from Montenegro ends a sequence of four German coaches. 1990 World Cup winner Guido Buchwald led the club to its first title in 2006, Holger Osieck, now Australian boss, took over in 2007 and delivered the Asian Champions League. Gerts Engel and Volker Finke struggled to match those achievements and didn't last too long.
Finke is now Director of Sport at FC Koln (former FC Koln player Thomas Kroth now has a sports agency that is active in German-Japanese moves) and couldn't help bringing a taste of Japanese soccer back with him in the shape of international defender Tomoaki Makino. There are many more where he came from. No less than six players from the land of the Rising Sun have started Bundesliga careers since the end of the World Cup. Not to mention fullback Yuto Nagatomo signed with Inter Milan. But this is going to last longer than any current fad in Tokyo, as the standing of Samurai Blue blooms, so will the exodus.
That doesn't mean that there were no Japanese players in Germany before this new dawn. The likes of Shinji Ono and Junichi Inamoto have recent, and mixed, experience and national team captain Makoto Hasebe has developed into a very impressive midfielder for 2009 champs VfL Wolfsburg but this is on a different scale.
Hajime Hosogai has been signed by Bayer Leverkusen though will be loaned out to Augsburg, international right-back Atsuto Uchida is now with Schalke, Kisho Jano is a Freiburg player and the latest move was the messy transfer of Shinji Okazaki to Stuttgart from Shimizu S-Pulse.
And, of course, there is Shinji Kagawa. The 21 year-old didn't even go to the 2010 World Cup. The media, already aghast at terrible results in the buildup, was ready to slaughter then-coach Takeshi Okada for the omission but coming within a penalty shootout of a place in the last eight gave the boss hero status. That won't compare to what Kagawa could become in Japanese and German minds. And Italian too -- new Japan boss Alberto Zaccheroni wasted no time in selecting the former Cerezo Osaka midfielder upon taking the reins in the summer.
He, and Dortmund, have been quickly rewarded for their faith. The former European champion paid only 350,000 Euros for Kagawa before South Africa. Perhaps the paltry amount has helped him settle as it hardly raised expectations. He did that himself with a series of performances, goals and assists that helped the club open what looks to be an unassailable lead at the top of the Bundesliga. A broken metatarsal in the Asian Cup has robbed Jurgen Klopp of the player and ended what could have been the best debut season by an Asian in the big leagues since South Korean legend Cha Bum-keun wowed the Bundesliga and Eintracht Frankfurt back in 1979.
Cha's son Cha Du-ri (Celtic) is one of the best right-backs in Asia at the moment along with Iran's Hossein Kaebi (Steel Azin) and Uchida of Japan and now Schalke 04. It is testament to how the former Kashima Antlers star is able to defend solidly but get forward and cross the ball to great effect that the departure of the club's long-term Brazilian fullback Rafinha to Genoa is hardly mentioned in Schalke's dressing room these days. The former European Cup winner and Schalke coach Felix Magath speaks of his Japanese star in glowing terms.
The latest big-name star to head west is Shinji Okazaki. The international striker averages a goal every other game for the national team, a record that alerted Stuttgart. Still, the deal could be a turning point in football relations between the two nations. Shimizu S-Pulse claimed that they were not informed about the negotiations between the 2007 German champion and Okazaki despite the fact he was still under contract to the J-League outfit. S-Pulse posted the following official statement on their website.
"S-Pulse congratulates Shinji Okazaki on attracting attention from such an esteemed club and feels this is a great achievement. However, the announcement has caused S-Pulse some embarrassment, as its agreement was not sought before it was made," it said. FIFA eventually sanctioned the deal.
With the media back in the Land of the Rising Sun already grumbling about how cheaply German clubs were getting the best talent the country -- Asian champions and a member of the last 16 in South Africa don't forget -- the episode has only added to the disquiet. Questions were asked how it was possible that Korean clubs manage to secure fees worth millions of Euros for many of their players heading to Europe while J-League clubs were falling over backward to give talent away for free or not much more.
German clubs may find that in future, they may have to start pay the going rate for stars from the east. But such is the Japanese performance in the