The Centennial Club – Kazuma Watanabe

You could say that perseverance is important in life, especially if you have a clear goal to achieve. There have been talented players incapable of expressing themselves at their highest level because they were incapable of exploiting their skillset at best. And there are also different cases, the opposite ones: players and men capable of getting the best out of their qualities, despite other may be more talented than them on paper.

There are several examples even looking at Japanese football. Shinji Okazaki isn’t glamorous and purely talented as Shinji Kagawa, but the former is playing in LaLiga at 34 years old after winning an EPL title in the most incredible story of the last decade, while the latter – former BVB and Man Utd player – can’t even find a gig in the Segunda División, despite being even three years younger than Okazaki.

Takashi Usami still got it, but his debut at a young age – his first pro-match came at 17 years and 14 days old – had tipped him to higher heights than to a third stint with his beloved club, especially after playing for four different German clubs. But there are less celebrated players – Junya Ito is the first example that comes to our mind – that might close their experiences with a better career-trajectory.

And then there’s a giant in numbers, who wore four different jerseys in J1 and featured in more than 300 games in the top Japanese tier. A player who didn’t steal any eye of a European scout throughout the years, having the same caps for the Japanese national team of Yusuke Minagawa and Tatusya Sakai (yes, one). Yet, he scored in every season of the 12 he played in J1, finding a way to be useful in every environment.

In a mild Wednesday night at the Ekimae Real Estate Stadium, Kazuma Watanabe has written a page in history: he joined that exclusive circle of players with 100 goals scored in J1. A brace on Sagan Tosu’s home pitch was worth of three points for Gamba Osaka, but also of a well-deserved moment of recognition for a J. League legend. Someone who has worked his way through the hearts of fans everywhere.

The long (and metropolitan) road

Born in the city of Kunimi (Nagasaki Prefecture) in 1986, Watanabe debuted in J. League in 2009. Before that moment, he attended the famous Kunimi High School and the football program at Waseda University, pushed by the examples running in the family. His older brother Daigo played more than 400 games for Japanese sides between J1 and J2, while his younger brother Mitsuki featured for seven seasons for YSCC Yokohama.

At his high school, he shared the attack line with other now-known J. Leaguers, like Sota Hirayama – someone who looked alike: Hirayama was tipped to be a generational talent – and Shingo Hyodo, who’s still playing in J1 with Vegalta Sendai. Watanabe even won the national tournament, before leaving for Waseda University, where his talent had a tangible impact: he scored 37 goals in 62 matches throughout those four years, with J. League clubs watching closely his development.

Yokohama F. Marinos won the race for this talent, assuring themselves what looked like a gem. In fact, the maiden pro-season of Watanabe seemed terrific, despite Marinos came only tenth on the table: he scored 13 goals (the first one came three minutes into his first game!), the second debutant to reach double digits of goals after Shoji Jo. He won the “Rookie of the Year” award and it seemed like Marinos hit the jackpot.

Who was going to stop them with such a talent? Even head coach Kokichi Kimura knew about it: “He’s complete, that’s the best about him”. The progress didn’t go unnoticed even on the national team: the only game that saw Watanabe with Japan was an insignificant qualifier match in Yemen, where though he played (and assisted Sota Hirayama, who scored a hat-trick).

His maiden season.

You would have expected more from him and in general from Marinos. Yet, his two successive seasons – this time under manager Kazushi Kimura, former legend of the Japanese national team in the 80s – didn’t show the anticipated confirm. Yes, Watanabe scored eight and seven goals, but he didn’t leave the mark. And when he had to discuss the renewal, many J. League clubs were looming to snatch him from Yokohama.

In the end, we were talking of a 25 years old-striker, still capable of scoring 28 goals in J1 over three seasons: not a bad score. And he indeed picked the right club for the second step, since Watanabe joined FC Tokyo for 2012. Back then, the club had just won the Emperor’s Cup and got promoted from J2, so they needed some options in the forwards department. Plus, they just changed their head coach.

Under newly hired Ranko Popović, Watanabe had his first real chemistry test with a manager: in his first year, he scored just six goals in J1, but then he got 17 in his second season for the capital-based side. Unfortunately, his performances weren’t enough to grant FC Tokyo neither a trophy nor a good place on the table: in two seasons, they came tenth in 2012 and eighth in 2013.

When Massimo Ficcadenti took over, it seemed that Watanabe’s adventure in Tokyo was at the end: the Italian manager opted to give more space to a young Yoshinori Muto, but Watanabe suffered from shaky performances and the Brazilian striker Edú looked more effective (scoring 11 goals against the three by Watanabe). It was time to leave and move South.

The glorious Rakuten rollercoaster

In Tokyo, Watanabe understood though something important: he couldn’t be just a no. 9. He had to add some variety to his skills, so he started also featuring as a second striker. Already in Tokyo, he had to play alongside Tadanari Lee or Lucas; he brought this lesson with him, although the first months in Kobe showed some sign of incompatibility with Marquinhos. And yes, Rakuten Group had just bought the club.

In a new environment and under his new manager – his second lucky match on the pitch, former Kashiwa Reysol head coach, Nelsinho Baptista –, Watanabe found an adjustment once Kobe acquired Leandro from Kashiwa Reysol. The Brazilian and Watanabe found a way to play a two ways-football, with both acting as a no. 9 and a second striker. It’s not an accident if Watanabe scored eight goals in 15 games of the second stage of that season.

With a 20 goals-season in all competitions – a performance he didn’t provide since his rookie year in Yokohama –, the no. 19 took the reins of the club and became captain. Vissel Kobe actually built something valuable in 2016, just before Mikitani opted to splash the market without tomorrow. When Nelsinho had to explain why he picked the forward for the captaincy, the Brazilian coach promoted Watanabe as an example for his leadership.

At 30 years old, he seemed to have finally found his home. And it’s not accident that Vissel had the best season of their history in the top tier: they started slowly in the first part of the year, but then they steered to a magnific second stage, coming runners-up in that stage and seventh overall in the table. They defeated all the top teams from that season – Kawasaki Frontale, Kashima Antlers and Urawa Red Diamonds – without lingering.

The duo formed by Watanabe and Leandro scored 31 league goals that year; if you add the contribution of Pedro Júnior – another eight goals –, Vissel seemed on the good route to becoming relevant. Then the Vissel project took another direction the year after, when they started looking at super-stars, instead of keeping the moment with a clear project. Once Nelsinho got sacked in August 2017, Watanbe understood it was time to leave. Again.

It’s not over

Watanabe scored indeed four goals in 19 J1 games in 2018, but he played those matches mostly as a substitute and was clearly on the way out. Just like the two previous times, clubs from the top tier were anyway eager to see him joining: Gamba Osaka had the best of others, thanks to a strange swap, sending Shun Nagasawa and some money the other way. Once he joined Gamba, Watanabe didn’t lose any time and scored on his debut.

This time, for Watanabe, it was different. Gamba looked confused on the direction to take for the future – they had (and have) a good amount of talent, but they seemed hardly capable of keeping it around – and many players changed in the last two years under Miyamoto. Especially on the offensive department, where Hwang Ui-jo, Ryotaro Meshino, Keito Nakamura and Hiroto Goya left, while Kazunari Ichimi hasn’t returned.

In this young and changing environment – where Takashi Usami and Patric returned to reminisce brighter days –, Watanabe has been a third or fourth choice among forwards, but he has the experience to stay in the roster and still be useful. He scored just six goals between 2018 and 2019, but some of them have been crucial. He hasn’t lost his touch, despite the age is weighing on him, like on almost every aging athlete.

He has been able to be matched up with all the forwards in the squad: whether it’s Adailton, Usami, Patric or the youngsters, he can play with them. And in 2020, Gamba actually benefit a lot from his presence: Watanabe scored crucial goals in Nagoya to get an away draw or another win @ S-Pulse. He then another firing period, scoring four goals in five games and having an impact on both games in Sapporo and Saga.

There’s an Italian song called “Il mio secondo tempo” (“My second half”), which has these lyrics:

“I’ve got through, I’ve overcome the half of my journey / And I must hurry because there’s my second half

And I don’t want to lose it / Because I feel like it’s just the beginning

But it’s my second half and I wanna enjoy it / Because I deeply hope it’ll be wonderful”

But that’s the point: Watanabe doesn’t have to hope anything. He knows he’ll get something out of these final years. He has been a top professional, playing more than 400 games in all competitions in his career; now he holds his record, which will stay with him forever. And he might have more moments with this jersey, playing J1 football.

Could it be the only division that he’ll ever play in? We want to find out, because the best might yet to come.

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