Controversial, yet strong. Decisive, but not decisive enough. Yoshito Ōkubo starts a new life at F.C. Tokyo after a 4 year tenure with near neighbours Kawasaki Frontale, a team located just across the Tama River. Looking back at the transfer to Todoroki, it was a move that changed his career. In his first post of 2017, @NelloSplendor looks at a polarizing figure in Japanese football, and a player that will face a whole lot of scrutiny for a short move he made this winter…..
Winter 2009: a still relatively young Yoshito Ōkubo arrives in Wolfsburg. He’s the second Japanese player in that squad – Makoto Hasebe was signed in summer 2008. After several years spent with his two Japanese sides – Cerezo Osaka and Vissel Kobe – plus a stint with Real Mallorca in Spain, the winger is ready to test himself again.
At that time, Ōkubo was part of Okada’s group in the national team and he brought with himself a solid profile from Japan. Plus, the fact of having already had experience abroad cast him in a good light. Seeing him standing along then Wolfsburg boss Felix Magath – an iron sergeant, but also a manager – makes him look shyer than you think. His tenure in Wolfsburg will last only six months, just enough time to win a Bundesliga title and appear 13 times on the pitch for the Wolves.
Eight years later, after an adventure that could have closed the possibility of being more known, Yoshito Ōkubo is a star. At 34 years old, he built a reputation as centre forward during an electric spell at Kawasaki Frontale. But you know the funny thing? He’s going for the 2017 title with their closest rivals, F.C. Tokyo.
Life is strange, isn’t it?
It’s a long way to the top
Born in Fukuoka Prefecture and raised with Pelé and Maradona’s tapes, Ōkubo was destined for the athletics track because of his good results in that field. But football was always in his mind: in 2001, he signed for Cerezo Osaka, where he stayed until early 2005. After three double digit goal seasons, Ōkubo tried the Spanish experience, signing on loan for Real Mallorca. At the age of 22 – after debuting with the national team and being crowned as Best Young Asian Footballer in 2003 – it seems the right call.
The spell at Mallorca was fine, but not as convincing as Ōkubo had probably hoped for. Despite scoring five goals and getting six assists in one season and a half, Zico was ignoring him for the national team and the Spanish club didn’t sign him after the loan spell came to an end. He went back to Cerezo, but it was only after moving to Vissel Kobe that he found his mojo again.
But rather than resting on his laurels, Ōkubo then tried a second European adventure. His time at Wolfsburg can be misleading. Yes, they won the league, but he played only two out of his 13 matches as a starter and the Japanese forward was concerned about losing his spot in the World Cup squad. So he decided to go back to Japan, specifically Vissel Kobe, where managers tried him in different positions, as a side midfielder/winger, mostly on the left side of the field. That’s where Okada and Vissel saw him in at that point in his career.
But that was to change as, unbeknown to Okubo, a revolution was coming.
With Vissel Kobe incredibly relegated to J2, Ōkubo was still hoping to stay and help the club get back to J1 at the first attempt. The impediment to that plan was that his salary was very heavy on the club’s finances. So, with only one year left on his contract, Kawasaki Frontale were more than happy to welcome him. What Ōkubo didn’t know is that this transfer was to change his status in Japanese football history.
At that time, Ōkubo was still a way away from reaching 100 goals in J1 and many didn’t know how he could be effective in Kawasaki. On the other hand, his new side Frontale wasn’t so shiny: they had just achieved an 8th place in J1, being knocked out early in both cups.
Yahiro Kazama, the new manager who arrived in Kawasaki in place of Naoki Soma in April, played a spectacular brand of football, but he was lacking something. The missing piece was a good centre forward: Takuro Yajima scored just 8 goals, with Renatinho and Yu Kobayashi – two second strikers or even wingers – going double digits (14 and 10). Masaru Kurotsu wasn’t relevant anymore, Patric was injured and Rui Komatsu never scored.
All changed with the arrival of Ōkubo in Kawasaki: At first, the former Vissel Kobe man was fielded as a winger, giving some results. But the real deal came against Kashima Antlers in July of that year. Kazama put him as a centre forward and goals began flow like the water in the Tama river. At the end of the year, Ōkubo had netted 33 times in 45 matches in all competitions. Kawasaki finished in 3rd place and with it secured qualification for the 2014 AFC Champions League. In addition, Ōkubo was named top-scorer and – for the first time – in the J.League Best Eleven.
Things got even better for Ōkubo: he continued his scoring rate, retaining the top-scorer title and a place in the Best XI for 2014 and 2015. In 2016, he didn’t keep any of those awards, but he first reached Hisato Sato and then overtook him as all-time top scorer in J1 League. Still today, he holds that record with 171 goals, of which 82 – almost 50% of his full production – were scored in Kawasaki.
No. 13, though, didn’t just score goals – he reclaimed his spot in national team. Despite then coach Zaccheroni’s refusal to call him up during the qualifying rounds, the Italian manager decided to take him to Brazil for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. A smart choice, because a scorer like Ōkubo – in his prime – could have been useful. The story of that summer was that of a goal against Zambia in a friendly game and then an atrocious miss against Greece. But the fact remained that Ōkubo had still got back to the national team.
Back on domestic soil, the YoshiMeter was a nice tradition for Kawasaki Frontale fans, capable of updating the goal-count every time Okubo hit the back of the net (I’ve even witnessed this live at Ajinomoto Stadium for the 2016 Tamagawa Clasico against F.C. Tokyo).
Still, there was a standing problem: despite his goal-form, Kazama’s wonderful, entertaining football and some kids having the time of their lives – from Oshima to Kurumaya, passing through Eduardo, Taniguchi and Yu Kobayashi – Kawasaki didn’t win any silverware. Kawasaki finished 3rd, 6th, 5th and 2nd place between 2013 and 2016; they reached 2016 Emperor’s Cup final, but eventually lost to Kashima Antlers; they featured once in AFC Champions League, but only to be knocked out in the last sixteen.
Kazama left Kawasaki at the end of 2016 to go and coach Nagoya Grampus in J2 and (some say) to pursue coaching Japan at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, while Ōkubo’s profile was as controversial as usual. Suspensions, a couple of red cards and several clashes with other colleagues (especially the last one in Omiya-Kawasaki of September 2016 was pretty amusing). Departure was probably the last option left.
In Japanese football, switching between rivals isn’t so rare: several players have been instrumental both for Gamba and Cerezo Osaka or for F.C. Tokyo and Tokyo Verdy. But you know when you’re a big star, moving to a local rival can’t go unnoticed.
Before the 2016 season was actually over, Yoshito Ōkubo announced he intended to leave Kawasaki at the end of the season, signing for closest rivals F.C. Tokyo, a team that had, overall, a pretty average season. But Tokyo were looking for some reinforcements and during the winter they operated well in the market; They re-signed Kosuke Ota from Vitesse Arnhem, resolved the GK problem by transferring in Akihiro Hayashi from Sagan Tosu, plus they got some interesting and creative players from other squads (Nagai from Nagoya, Takahagi coming back from South Korea). And they’re expecting another step up from young talents under manager Yoshiyuki Shinoda, players like Nakajima, Muroya, Ogawa and Hashimoto.
You can say – without a doubt – that F.C. Tokyo are going to be a “dark horse” in the title- race as they begin 2017 without any continental schedule. And also because they’ve a 82 goal-scorer in their ranks now – especially pertinent since Ryoichi Maeda’s last few years haven’t been great (in 2016 he scored only six goals in J1 League: the lowest scoring season of his since 2002).
This will be probably the last chance of winning silverware for Ōkubo. Yes, because despite the fact that his name is recognized all over Japan, the 34 year old-striker remains (domestic club) trophy-less. He won a Bundesliga with Wolfsburg, but he has admitted in the past that he doesn’t feel it like it is his. Apart from that trophy, he has never won anything at club level. To resolve that, he made the decision to go across the river Tama and strive for that elusive J.League crown.
Will it work for Darth Scorer? We don’t know, but 2017 it’s going to an interesting time at Ajinomoto Stadium.