Lost Treasures – Hiroyuki Taniguchi

One-hit wonders. A light in a strange career, which wasn’t made of sparks and constant success. A sudden corner of attention in an otherwise normal trajectory. There are seasons or years like these ones, with players capable of rising to the occasion when it’s needed the most. Just think of sudden protagonists, who made the front cover for a certain period of time, without repeating themselves after that season.

“Lost Treasures” is a column which features four episodes, all talking about this kind of players in the history of J. League. To pick who to feature in this column, we looked at all the Best XIs composed by the J. League committee at the end of every season and chose four players who actually made an enormous leap, just to rarely or not repeat themselves in the successive seasons.

Another specific detail: we picked just J. Leaguers, who enjoyed most of their career in the Japanese championship, albeit there will two exceptions. Today’s protagonist had probably the best J. League career among our picks, but he didn’t follow through the blasting start in his professional career.

He probably lingered towards a bright future, but he ended up having a regular trajectory. Certainly not infamous (he indeed featured in the top tier of Japanese football for 15 out of his 16 seasons played), but the premises lived up to something else, even brighter than his actual career.

The third player for this column is Hiroyuki Taniguchi.

Old footage from his pre-J. League days, featuring for the Yokohama F. Marinos youth team.

Growing together

Kanagawa Prefecture has been the playground of Taniguchi for his entire life, way beyond his career on the pitch. He was born in Yokosuka on June 27th, 1985 and he indeed featured five years in the youth ranks of Yokohama F. Marinos, who were back then one of the most prestigious teams of the league. Despite his long stint with them, the club didn’t feel promoting Taniguchi was a good choice.

In fact, the young midfielder was disappointed by this and opted for a radical, but nearby change. As today, Kawasaki Frontale are probably the best team around in J. League because of their performances in the last seasons, but they were a very different team back then. They played just one season in the top tier, in 2000, and were immediately relegated; after a long search, 2004 could have been the right year to come up again.

Taniguchi took the gamble and indeed was right to do so. In his rookie season as a pro, he didn’t play that much, but he became a part of that squad who would have then challenged the best teams in Japan. The club featured past and future Japan national team members – Naoki Soma, Shuhei Terada, Kengo Nakamura, Kazuki Ganaha –, a couple of talented Brazilians – Marcus and Juninho – and nonetheless the current manager, Toru Oniki.

Taniguchi started as a defender and that’s why he initially played less than forecasted. But then manager Takashi Sekizuka switched him to a “volante” role and the young midfielder finally flourished playing alongside Kengo Nakamura and Augusto. He scored five goals in 25 games, cementing his place in the starting eleven and even scoring in the final crazy matchday of ’05 season, when Gamba Osaka won the most incredible title ever at Todoroki Stadium.

There was decent hype for Taniguchi’s future, especially given that his role model was indeed Manchester United’s captain Roy Keane. But little did he know about his evolution, which would have brought him to become something totally different from the premises most of fans and pundits started. A rusty and gritty player was going to have the year of his life in a very unsual way.

2006: magic on the pitch

The season wasn’t magical just for Taniguchi, but also for Frontale. After a seventh place the year before, Kawasaki challenged the opposition for the title: Urawa Red Diamonds won in the end, but Sekizuka’s boys came short of five points and most of all scored 84 goals in 34 goals, which is a mesmerizing amount (they started their ‘06 campaign with a 6-0 home against Albirex and a 7-2 away triumph in Kyoto).

At the end of the year, two players made it to the Best Eleven: future role model Kengo Nakamura and Taniguchi himself. It wasn’t an accident if Juninho and Ganaha – 38 goals combined – didn’t make it and Taniguchi did. The no. 29 played a unique season, scoring 13 goals and winning the “New Hero Award” in J. League Cup, where he helped Frontale reaching the semifinals.

Taniguchi was in such a form that he scored a brace in a 4-2 away win against Kashima Antlers and another one later in the season, when Frontale lost 4-3 away at S-Pulse. Given his past as a central defender and his strength, Taniguchi appeared like a constant menace in the opposition’s penalty box and he indeed scored many goals because of such skills in his football-toolkit.

To understand how much that year might have been a fluke – at least in terms of performances for Taniguchi – just keep in mind that ’06 Best XI: it featured eight players who indeed played at least once for the Japan national team. Among the three who didn’t, two were Brazilians – Washington and Magno Alves –, leaving Taniguchi as the only one out of this equation.

In fact, despite many rumors and chances, Taniguchi featured just in the U-23 both at 2006 Asian Games and at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Both infamous campaigns, since the ’06 squad – with Hajime Hosogai, Yojiro Takahagi, Akihiro Ienaga, Toshihiro Aoyama and Sota Hirayama, let alone Keisuke Honda! – didn’t make it past the group stage, defeated by North Korea.

In Beijing, instead, the depth of talent – there were Shusaku Nishikawa, Maya Yoshida, Masato Morishige, Atsuto Uchida, Yuto Nagatomo, Shinji Okazaki, Shinji Kagawa, Tadanari Lee and the confirmed Hosogai and Honda – didn’t even win a game, collecting three defeats. On the hindsight, Taniguchi’s trajectory with Japan seems unfair: he was just twice on the bench, never playing a minute with the senior side.

If you think about it, two benches – against Yemen in an Asian Cup qualifying game and in a friendly game against Iceland, with a gap in between of three years – do not seem to make justice to his path in J. League. Just to put in perspective, Tetsuya Sakai has played one game with Japan. Yusuke Minagawa (!) played one game with the national team. It seems unfair.

Always there

Taniguchi stayed with Frontale for seven seasons in total, but in 2011 the rise of young players and the return in Japan of Junichi Inamoto pushed him to the exit. Back then, he didn’t have to look that much away to find a new solution, since Yokohama F. Marinos were more than happy to welcome him back. He was a solid element in the squad for both Kazushi Kimura and Yasuhiro Higuchi.

Unfortunately for him, he had to move again in 2013, when he found less space on the pitch in Yokohama. He opted to look up North, this time to Chiba: Nelsinho welcomed him on loan to Kashiwa Reysol. And even if he didn’t play that much – just eight games in J. League, 13 in total –, he faced a final chance of lifting a trophy, the 2013 J. League Cup won by Reysol against Urawa Red Diamonds, in a final where he indeed played.

Back to Yokohama, he took advantage of a nice lesson learned under Nelsinho, where he started playing back in a three CBs-system. That’s one of the reasons why Yoon Jong-hwan chose to bring the 29 years-old Taniguchi way South, since he joined Sagan Tosu in 2014. Initially he was just on loan, but he was so comfortable there that he decided to stay until the end of his career.

His goodbye in December 2019, surrounded by his teammates.

Sagan Tosu have represented a glitch in the system in the J. League’s last decade. They almost won it all in 2014, when they even led the table before Yoon’s departure, and then almost got relegated twice in the last two seasons. Probably there wasn’t a best team for Taniguchi to close the curtain on his career, since he featured in a stable way for four seasons before being moved to the bench (also due to injuries).

Taniguchi played just two games in his last two years as a player, but since he has been a strange football-wise profile in Japanese football, he even managed to score in one of those two games (a J. League Cup match against Vegalta Sendai). He closed with almost 500 games played as a pro, 350 of them were in J1 with four different teams. Now he’s entered Sagan Tosu’s staff and he seems pretty happy to help.

It would be ungenerous to call this career “underwhelming”, but surely premises led us to believe that Hiroyuki Taniguchi could have been a player who maybe would have leapt to Europe or being regularly called for Japan national team at least for one full cycle. Nothing of this happened and that’s why we might feel a bitter taste in our memory about his career; still, he surely enjoyed his time on the pitch and such a true professional will stay in our minds.

Thanks again for your following. Remember we had the first two episodes of this column back in April, talking about Mike Havenaar in 2011 and Daijiro Takakuwa in 2000. Only episode to go and we promise it’s going to be a tasty one. いつもお世話になっております!

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