‘The jewel in Gamba’s crown.’
‘Perhaps the most talented player the club has ever produced.’
The accolades heaped upon 17-year-old Takashi Usami were serious enough even before the Gamba Osaka forward had ever kicked a ball in professional competition. Outstanding performances last year both in Gamba’s J. Youth Cup winning side and in the AFC U-16 Championship for his country elevated Usami to the national footballing conscience, and fuelled no doubt by the information era – clips of his skills on YouTube have attracted tens, and even hundreds of thousands of viewers – the news of his promotion to the professional ranks as a second-year high school student earlier this year was greeted with nationwide anticipation. Had there been any Japanese football fans under whose radar he was still yet to fall, this will surely no longer be the case after a week in which he scored on his full debut (at just 17 years and 14 days old – a club record) in the AFC Champions League, earned his first ever J. League appearance against two-time reigning champions Kashima Antlers, and signed a lucrative sponsorship deal with German sportswear giant Adidas.
Of all this attention, however, it is the noise coming from within the club that is the most significant of all. The J. League may only be 16 years old and Gamba Osaka may have had their problems establishing roots in the community, but the recent success enjoyed on the field by Akira Nishino’s team has been built on the foundations of one of the finest youth academies anywhere in Asia. Alumni include Junichi Inamoto of Eintracht Frankfurt and former Japan captain Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, who have gone on to bigger and better things in World Cups and in Europe, while the current first team squads of both club and country have the Gamba school to thank for the likes of Michihiro Yasuda and Hideo Hashimoto. For his coaches to mention Usami in the same breath as these players already – let alone suggest he is the best of all – is a staggering vote of confidence in the teenager.
We can but hope that that the player himself, and the fans and reporters that follow him, will remember to keep their feet on the ground. Masakiyo Maezono was the first and probably the best example of a Japanese footballer falling victim to the ‘star system’, but even without outside pressures, the development of young footballers is a notoriously tricky business. Satoshi Nakayama was once set to be the next big thing after finishing as top scorer in the 2002 Toulon U-21 Tournament and delighting Gamba fans with a series of match-winning goals, but he eventually only ever scored ten times in exactly 100 J1 appearances, and now finds himself playing out his peak years with Roasso Kumamoto in the lower reaches of the second division. In England, the name of Federico Macheda will live long in Manchester United folklore after the Italian 17-year-old’s contribution to the Premier League title this season, but only time will tell as to whether his tale will read along the same lines as Ryan Giggs or as Mark Robins.
For the time being, however, Usami’s chances are surely as good as any. Akira Nishino may be unlikely to copy Sir Alex Ferguson’s cheeky phone call to Fabio Capello about a place for Danny Welbeck in next year’s World Cup, but one senses that – like the Scot – there are few managers better equipped to help young players learn their trade domestically. Nishino’s experience and faith in youth is coupled with a humourless, professional discipline, and while Japan coach Takeshi Okada may have responded to news of Usami’s debut goal with an emotionless ‘oh, right’, his willingness to call up seven players aged 22 or under for the forthcoming Kirin Cup and World Cup qualifiers suggests that the chances will be there if young prospects prove ready to take them. It is impossible to know how Usami’s career is going to pan out just yet, but for fans of Gamba and of Japanese football, it will surely at least be a lot of fun finding out.