The mighty archer

December 20th, 2020. A strange date, but also an essential one for Japanese football. While the last matchday of J2 League is going on, all promotions have already been assigned and the title is basically in the hands of Tokushima Vortis. Meanwhile, an apparently insignificant game between JEF United Chiba and Renofa Yamaguchi hides an important send-off for one of the legends of Japanese football.

It’s the 84th minute and Takayuki Funayama leaves the pitch to make space for Hisato Sato, leaving him with the captain’s armband and six minutes (plus injury time) to finish his career. Just a few minutes before, when Issei Takahashi scored the 2-0 in favor of the home side, he celebrated like Sato would do: run to the corner kick and the arm would grab the tip of the flag. Like he has done a lot of times, although not as many he’d have wanted for JEF United.

That day, the 4,853 spectators at the Fukuda Denshi Arena witnessed several goodbyes – also Tatsuya Masushima and Yusuke Tanaka were calling it a day –, but there’s no doubt that Hisato Sato represented the hardest departure to accept. A genuine character, who indeed got an homage in a video from several J. Leaguers and former team-mates, including the current head coach of the Japanese national team (we’ll get there).

The son of a ramen shop-owner – his father had a successful business in Saitama Prefecture, making his move to Chiba in the late 90s tough to crack –  didn’t probably think to come this far after a two decades-journey. And yet, here we are celebrating one of the greatest players J. League ever witnessed in his 27 years-history. For 21 years, Hisato Sato has been part of it.

Bend it like Pippo Inzaghi

Born in 1982, Hisato Sato grew up in Kasukabe, but he wanted to join JEF United Ichihara Chiba’s academy, a club that inevitably marked his career. He played in their youth ranks for several years, debuted for them when they were in J1 League and closed his career with the club. Back then, the trigger to fall in love with football was his twin brother Yūto, born in the same day (March 12th, 1982) and then beloved figure in Chiba.

While though his brother stayed with JEF for almost the entirety of his 20 years-career (he’s now the GM there), Hisato had to leave pretty soon. He featured for two years before moving on loan to both Cerezo Osaka and Vegalta Sendai, although the latter transfer became permanent in 2004. Once he overcame the Guillain–Barré syndrome he experienced in Osaka, he flourished as one of the finest strikers in Japan.

In 2004, when he was playing in J2, Sato scored 20 goals and gained another leap to J1, but with another club. He moved to Sanfrecce Hiroshima, but little did he know that the club would have meant everything in his career. It’s impressive looking back: in 12 seasons spent at the Hiroshima Big Arch, the striker had all but one years with double digits of goals. And that’s just in the league, where he still holds an astonishing score of 161.

Meanwhile, the rise in performances also meant something else: JFA was taking note of his development and Sato ended up being considered by Zico, Takeshi Okada and mostly Ivica Osim for the Japanese national team. Unfortunately, on that side, his time never came: Sato featured indeed at the 2007 AFC Asian Cup and played 31 matches for Japan, but he was never a clear starter. He had a last call in 2012, but he didn’t make the pitch.

Last but not least, he also scored the fastest goal in J1 League’s history.

There’s no home like Hiroshima

We’re used now to have Hiroshima’s name in the history of Japanese football, but it took a long time to bring this destiny to fulfillment. When the striker joined Sanfrecce in 2005 (with some struggles: he was really happy in Sendai), the club had as its best result a second place in 1994 and three Emperor’s Cup final losses, plus one relegation just three years before his arrival. It didn’t look at all like a successful club, but Sato’s acquisition changed this, steadily and gradually.

Sanfrecce had to go through more falls to understand what they were doing wrong. Sure, the no. 11 started scoring right away and making it to the Best XI on his maiden campaign in Hiroshima. Nevertheless, despite reaching the Emperor’s Cup final (another loss) and a Japanese Super Cup lifted in ’08, the club got relegated and needed a reboot: after Takeshi Ono, in fact, a Serbian head coach brought the change required to grow.

Sure, Mihailo Petrović was already in the dugout when Sanfrecce got relegated in ’07, but he was the man who developed an incredible amount of talents in Hiroshima: Tomoaki Makino, Ryota Moriwaki, Yojiro Takahagi, Tadanari Lee and Yosuke Kashiwagi. Despite being a less famous club, Hiroshima had a steady route for head coaches, retaining them for many years. Petrović was no exception and he rebuilt everything to get promoted in J1.

When they came back to J1 in ’09, players began to leave for bigger environments, but the 3-4-2-1 implemented worked a treat and they came fourth on the table, granting themselves a first time-trip to the AFC Champions League. And if you’re wondering who scored the first goal to book their first ever win on the continental stage, look no further than the usual suspect.

When Petrović left in 2011, there were probably some concerns regarding the club’s future: will they be able to match these performances without their head coach? Luckily, the board made back then the decisive choice to bring some titles in Hiroshima. The missing piece of the puzzle was Hajime Moriyasu: the new head coach – who featured 14 years for the club and in the technical staff for some time – was crucial to U-turn the whole situation.

In 2012, Sanfrecce broke the curse and won the title-race against Vegalta Sendai: it was the first major title for the club, but it was just the beginning. And while Moriyasu has been an institution for Hiroshima, the same goes for Sato, who’s been there every step of the way. If there was going to be a Mount Rushmore of the club near the Hiroshima Castle, the four figures would probably feature Moriyasu, the Morisaki twins and the striker himself.

Although titles are important, personal accolades surely helped: Sato regained his way to the J1 Best XI in 2012, winning the MVP Award and the top-scoring title (without forgetting the Fair Play Individual Award, clinched by Sato three times). The kid the fans were skeptical about – back then, Hiroto Mogi and Shunsuke Maeda seemed promising prospects – became one of them, winning the fans over and overcoming any doubt.

Most of all, in how many competitions did he score for Sanfrecce? Try to make a list:

  • J1 League
  • J2 League
  • Emperor’s Cup
  • J. League Cup
  • Japanese Super Cup
  • AFC Champions League
  • FIFA Club World Cup

It’s a long one. Maybe we’re missing just the Suruga Bank Championship.

Scoring roads, take him home

After getting the J1 all-time scoring record for a few weeks – he matched and overcame Masashi Nakayama’s 157 goals, but he was then surpassed by Yoshito Okubo –, Sato opted to leave Hiroshima at the end of 2016. Despite the requests to stay, the striker joined the Nagoya Grampus, who just went under a change in the dugout, hiring Yahiro Kazama to bounce back from their first relegation ever.

In J2, the rollercoaster Grampus didn’t fit Sato as much as Hiroshima. Sure, he was the vice-captain and one of the most expert members of the team alongside captain Seigo Narazaki, but the style of play who led Okubo to top the all-time scoring chart didn’t work for Sato. He scored just five times in the second division, despite playing 28 matches; once promoted in J1, he almost didn’t see the pitch.

That’s probably why he felt it was time to close the circle and come back to where it all began. JEF United Chiba are a good pun to talk about for J2 followers, but Sato really believed it could have been the time to repay the club by bringing it back to J1. Furthermore, he would have again a chance of playing with his brother Yuto, who was the captain of the club at that time.

Unfortunately, it didn’t go as planned both personally and for the squad: JEF were a disaster in the last two seasons despite changing manager, while Sato – at this point, a 37 years-old forward in a pretty crowded offensive department – just could find too many minutes and scored four goals in 31 matches over two years. It’s like Hiroshima had already taken the best the no. 11 could ever offer on the pitch.

The legacy

He’s the second all-time scorer in J1 (at least until Shinzo Koroki won’t find five more goals), the all-time scorer in the J. League Cup and he’s for now in the Top 25 of both J1 and J2 scoring lists. He had a streak of 193 games without a yellow card (from ’09 to 2015) and a run of 12 seasons with 10+ goals in J1. It’s not certain if we’ll ever witness another character like him, especially in an era when J. League is sending its talents abroad.

His role model as a player has always been Filippo Inzaghi, the Italian striker who made his name known all over the world with the AC Milan jersey (Sato named one of his dogs “Pippo”, like the no. 9). And you can see some common traits between them: both didn’t have majestic technical skills, but their spatial awareness in the penalty box, their absolute devotion to physical preparation (Sato played more than 700 matches in his career) and their instinct for scoring helped them having a career over the top.

Maybe we could even say that Sato had a slightly better technical base than Inzaghi, although the Italian striker is surely more known all over the world. Nevertheless, the Japanese striker left a mark bigger than his career: there are so many goals that could tell his story and trace a profile of his skills that you could not probably even choose one. But after this season, it’s all over.

We can’t deny we were hoping to see Sato still playing for one more year, maybe trying to look for a J3 gig, but he probably felt fitting to see his career ending in the place where it started. Who knows what will await for him in the future: he had nice words for everyone who has been ever involved with him throughout his career, but it’s gonna be fun discovering who Hisato Sato is going to be off the pitch.

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