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München calling

7 Jun 2011(Tue)

So the eagerly-anticipated full international debut of Takashi Usami will have to wait until at least tonight after Japan’s new number 25 watched 90 goalless minutes against Peru from the bench last Wednesday, but the 19-year-old has still managed to dominate the headlines throughout an otherwise uninspiring Kirin Cup week thus far. Once all remaining t’s have been crossed and front vowels umlauted, Usami will join German giants Bayern Munich – initially on loan, with a view to a reported €1.5 million permanent deal next year – ahead of the squad’s pre-season training programme in July. Few, if any Japanese players have ever attracted quite as much attention from quite as early an age.


Fast-tracked through the Gamba Osaka youth system, coaches that had already produced five Europe-bound internationals (Junichi Inamoto, Masashi Oguro, Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, Michihiro Yasuda, and Akihiro Ienaga) quickly rated Usami as the best yet. Despite missing the cut for Alberto Zaccheroni’s Asian Cup squad, previous Bayern coach Louis van Gaal admitted to Sport Bild back in January that the Kyoto-born attacking midfielder had been invited for trials in Munich. His employers in Osaka refused, but such a categorical statement of intent made his transfer as inevitable as the disturbance caused to millions of workers, sleepers, and other innocent bystanders by politicians’ loudhailers ahead of every Japanese election.


Gamba president Kikuo Kanamori confidently told Football Japan last November that the jewel in his club’s crown, then 18, would complete his footballing development over the remaining two years of his contract before boarding a plane to make the next, logical step come January 2013. It will come as little comfort to fans, then, that Kanamori’s optimism was only misplaced by about 18 months. Many will mourn yet another mid-season departure; one that potentially derails Gamba’s title challenge effectively just a third of the way into what was supposed to be the first full year with Usami as main man. But while the timing is unfortunate and adds weight to the argument for a European-style August-to-May season, transfers like this are unequivocally a good thing for the sport in this country as a whole.


It is almost surreal to recall the uncertainty with which Japanese football was surrounded as the national team touched down in South Africa exactly one year ago. We weren’t quite sure of it then, but star midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura was on the verge of being dropped; the 31-year-old still hopelessly out of form despite returning home to Yokohama F Marinos after six unhappy months at Espanyol. Many had reached the easy conclusion that Japan’s players still weren’t ready for La Liga, but in truth, Nakamura was past it. Eight years the former Celtic hero’s junior, Keisuke Honda warned a new generation who had grown up with the J. League that aiming to be the best in the country was no longer sufficient. After starring for Russian side CSKA Moscow in the UEFA Champions League against Sevilla and Internazionale, Honda was now suddenly earmarked to play a pivotal – and hugely successful – role at the World Cup in Nakamura’s stead.


The tournament was a coming of age. Like girls and boys standing awkwardly at opposite ends of the hall during a school disco, neither the Japanese players nor their potential European suitors had previously had the balls to take the plunge. Now, the latter knew that the talent was ready and willing. Honda’s star was quickly usurped by Shinji Kagawa, who had only travelled to Africa as 24th man but lit up the Bundesliga for half a season with eventual champions Borussia Dortmund. After his unfortunate metatarsal injury during the national team’s victorious Asian Cup run in Qatar, the baton was carried to yet greater heights by Yuto Nagatomo at reigning club world champions Inter, and Atsuto Uchida through to the Champions League semi-finals with Schalke 04.


The trickling outflux of talent became a stream during the winter transfer window – to the point where it is fringe internationals like Ienaga and Yasuda who are now being picked up by the second-tier clubs and leagues. The successor to Shinji Ono at Feyenoord, where the Shimizu S-Pulse midfielder became Japan’s most prominent export in the mid-2000s, is 18-year-old Ryo Miyaichi – a hugely exciting winger who joined parent club Arsenal straight from high school without any J. League, let alone international experience. A single year older, Usami will now enjoy similar benefits in learning directly from the Bayern school at an early stage of his fledgling professional career.


So where does this leave Japanese domestic football? If we accept that players with the ambition and ability to succeed in the top European leagues will be most desirable for the national team, then the J. League must unavoidably aspire to be an exporter of talent. Although the economic situation has admittedly changed considerably in Brazil, there remain a maximum of four national leagues worldwide where the best local talent will stay out of choice. Though fans may be disappointed with a 21st-century reality that sends their favourite players home for international matches alone, the benefits of the exporter model will be considerable. For a start, the successes of sempai like Kagawa and Nagatomo will inspire today’s teenagers, for whom first-team opportunities can only be increased by the exports; simultaneously, clubs will be forced more than ever to invest in youth programmes. Another peculiar advantage is that the abnormally competitive nature of the league – perhaps its biggest charm over the two decades since its inception – will only be perpetuated if champions sell up before evolving into dynasties.


Much of this will be of limited appeal to the clubs individually, but even then the bigger picture must be considered. Their current, highly generous model of standard release clauses for bids from overseas can be evolved into something altogether more economically advantageous. €1.5 million for Usami is still peanuts by European terms but at least represents a near-fivefold improvement on the €350,000 for which Cerezo Osaka were compelled to release Kagawa. One senses that there should be plenty of room for further, ideally quick manoeuvre.


And, given a few years, the pool of experienced talent able to return and give something back to the J. League will be exponentially larger. Perhaps, if the clubs have profited sufficiently from their transfer dealings, then Honda, Usami et al might be tempted home while still at, rather than past, their playing peak. Attendances and standards should rise as a result, while as sempai and then as coaches, the older stars can directly inspire and mentor ever more privileged generations of successors. The developments thus far this decade represent another genuinely desirable step within the rapid rise of the league; in the short term, it must get weaker to grow stronger.

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