In October 2008, I flew from Buenos Aires to Tokyo and, in a state of jet-lagged numbness, watched five matches in 10 days. I saw a lot of attractive, organized soccer, much that was technically correct. However, after a while weary appreciation slumped into exhausted grouchiness as I waited for somebody, somewhere, to do something different, to smash the neat conformist patterns and disperse the fog into which my brain had sunk.
Only one player rose above the predictable -- the young right back Atsuto Uchida. He was raw, he wasn't as technically accomplished as most of the other players in the national side, and his final ball was occasionally wild. Japan won neither game I saw him in -- a 1-1 friendly draw with UAE and a 1-1 draw in World Cup qualifying against Uzbekistan -- but he had an energy and a verve, a willingness to take risks I didn't see from anybody else in that 10 days. Thirty months on, Uchida will become the first Japanese player to play in a Champions League semifinal as he takes to the field for Schalke 04 against Manchester United.
I'm not claiming any great credit for having picked him out -- after all, he was already established in the national team, having first been called into the squad as an 18 year old, and besides, for every relative unknown a journalists sees and underlines in his notebook who goes on to make it, there are at least a dozen who don't. I mean rather to highlight him as an example of the new mentality of Japanese player.
I've written here before about Japan's "android football," and I make no apologies for again quoting the Bosnian Ivica Osim, who was forced to resign as Japan coach in 2007 after suffering a stroke. "In Japan, you have to understand the way they live their lives," he said. "There is always somebody above them and you always have to ask somebody because he always knows more than you. Their biggest problem is -- and this was my feeling when I was working there -- that there is no risk, there is no improvisation in Japan, and football can't exist without that.
"And also players were so afraid of the coaches that they didn't want to do anything on their own initiative. I had the feeling that players could go into the box, get in front of the goal and then stop and ask me what they should do: should I shoot at the goal or pass the ball away? The most important thing in Japan is to make them think with their own heads, not with somebody else's."
Uchida, at 23, is part of the new generation that has grown up never knowing a time before the J-League (founded in 1991) existed. For him -- and for the likes of Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Yuto Nagatomo -- football is not something that has been learned from without; it has always been there, and so has been assimilated and is being expressed in a more individual way. That said, a conversation between Honda and Japan's most successful footballing export, Hidetoshi Nakata, broadcast by Asahi TV shortly before the World Cup, in which the older player speaks of the need to be more selfish and individualistic, suggests the old mentality retains a powerful hold.
Moving to Europe, as Uchida did last summer, must also help, giving Japanese players a broader soccer education. "I had to get used to the football in the Bundesliga," Uchida said at Monday's prematch press conference. "It's one of the best leagues in the world and the term 'physicality' has a very different meaning over here than it does back home. It's far more robust."
Uchida and Nagatomo were key to Japan's success in the Asian Cup in January, and Uchida was just as important to Schalke's surprise victory over Internazionale in the quarterfinal of the Champions League. In the first leg in particular, with Inter playing a narrow 4-3-1-2, he and the left back, the Ghanaian Hans Sarpei, ran Inter ragged. Schalke's coach Ralf Rangnick, who replaced Felix Magath a little under a month ago, is one of German football's tactical modernizers, somebody who pioneered pressing long before it was fashionable, but he is already a big fan of the fullback. "It's just great fun to watch him every day," he said. "He's going to be a very important player for Schalke over the next few years."
At the 1994 World Cup, the Republic of Ireland manager Jack Charlton, a far more astute tactician than his bluff manner and habit of forgetting names suggested, remarked, quite casually, that fullback was the most important position in modern football. It was generally regarded as being just another Jack-ism, another one of his quirks, but the 17 years since have proved him right (anybody who doubts Charlton had a brilliant tactical mind should listen to his punditry during the 1980 European Cup final, in which he is so perceptive so early it feels as though the fates have given him an advance copy of the script).
Inter's narrowness, and the unwillingness of any of Inter's front three to track back, allowed Uchida and Sarpei to surge forward unchecked, overlapping Jefferson Farfan and Alexander Baumjohann, who remained fairly narrow on the flanks. That in turn denied Inter the numerical superiority it craved in the center, while still permitting Schalke an element of attacking width. The result was a stunning 5-2 win. Inter's use of Nagatomo at leftback in the second leg at least checked Uchida to an extent, but Inter retained the same 4-3-1-2 and, without attacking width, Uchida was rarely called upon to defend.
Against United he will face a very different threat. United has tended to play 4-4-1-1 in Europe this season, with Wayne Rooney dropping deep to support the midfield, Park Ji-sung on one flank and either Nani or Antonio Valencia on the other. It's not inconceivable, though, that United could play a 4-3-3 in Gelsenkirchen, with Rooney on the left and probably Park on the right. Either way, both Uchida and Sarpei will have a direct opponent rather than space in front of them. Although Raul could cause United problems if he drops deep into the space occupied by Ryan Giggs and Darren Fletcher, this looks another game likely to be decided by the battle on the flanks. Can Uchida and Sarpei have the sort of impact they had in the quarterfinal, or will the presence of United's wide men force them back?
Either way, at 23, as an attacking fullback in an era that demands them, Uchida could be a highly significant player for years to come. It may be that the leader of this new Japanese generation is not Honda, as many thought it would be, but Uchida.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.