The Godwinger

Football isn’t always fair. When we talked about J. League on this blog, we mentioned how a certain group of players has only a few caps with JNT (one example we made was about Takuya Nozawa, former legend of Kashima Antlers). Today’s protagonist is a former MVP in J1 League, yet he featured only three times with the Samurai Blue. And he did so because his career has been particular, to say the least.

At 25 years, his career seemed already over at a certain level. He had already played for his childhood club, where he shared the youth ranks with Keisuke Honda and Masaaki Higashiguchi, just to throw a couple of names. He featured in Europe with a decent Spanish side; he had some chances with the national team, never really impressing. And even at the club level, he struggled to find his place in the world.

Can you really overcome the expectations of younger days? Sometimes it’s hard, but Akihiro Ienaga learned it on his skin, letdown after letdown. After some disappointments and with the rise of a new generation of players, he seemed forgotten, out of our attention radars. Instead, the last five-six years of his career have been incredible to witness.

When he turned 30, Ienaga actually began to live his golden days, which might still very well be in front of him. Especially if he’ll keep playing like he’s been doing in the last 18 months.

Osaka, back and forth

We wouldn’t be here talking about Ienaga if it wasn’t for Gamba Osaka. The club always felt there was something special about the kid: in fact, the young Akihiro got his first bite at the professional world in 2004, when he was just 18 years old. The dream came true on June 26, 2004, when Ienaga found the net in his first and only match of that season: the winger grew up in Osaka by staying four years in blue and black, winning also the 2005 J. League title.

Unfortunately, that team relied a lot on the stellar form of both Yasuhito Endo and Takahiro Futagawa: Ienaga couldn’t just warm the bench, so he was loaned first to Oita Trinita for a couple of years, then to Cerezo in 2010. He was becoming a strange player, more of a wingback rather than the figure we’re used to know now. But those three years produced some results.

First of all, Ienaga deubted with the national team in ’07, but a European gig was up for grabs. Plymouth Argyle tried to sign him in ’09, but Ienaga didn’t meet the requirements to get a work permit in UK; luckily for him, someone in Spain wanted him. Mallorca brought him to Europe after the wonderful season with Cerezo, but his adventure in LaLiga lasted just one year. It’s incredible how quick that cometh went by.

Ienaga stayed under contract for the Spanish side until 2014 (he will play seven more games there), but in February 2012 he was already on loan at Ulsan Hyundai, in South Korea. Just five months later, he came back to Osaka, where everything began: despite Gamba Osaka found new heroes (e.g. Takashi Usami) and suffered a relegation to J2, Ienaga was there for them, even refusing J1 offers to stay in his old club.

The real deal

Just when Gamba got back to J1 and they were about to start a season that would have in the end crowned them champions, Ienaga moved to Omiya Ardija, in what many would have considered a step down. At least in his first season there, it was proven to be exactly that: at 28 years old, after some games with the national team and some time in Europe, Ienaga found himself again relegated, with Ardija descending to J2 after a decade in J1.

It could have been the end. Many players would not have been able to come back from this, especially since both Vissel Kobe and Gamba Osaka were ready to sign him in 2015. Ienaga didn’t matter: he renewed his contract and pledged to bring back the club to the top-flight. He kept his promise true: he won monthly MVP Awards back-to-back and scored 11 goals, helping Omiya being crowned champions in J2 (their first title ever).

But it won’t go further than that, right? Not even close. Ienaga was able to perform at the same level in J1, with the olympic calm of who embraced his role and inner strengths. The no. 41 had found his position on the pitch, the way he wanted to play and how to benefit both his career and the success of the team. He scored 11 goals again and brought Omiya to their best ever finish in J1, fifth (really close to ACL spots).

2016 was a magical year for Ardija: they had an emerging head coach (Hiroki Shibuya), interesting players (Izumisawa, Mrdja, Esaka, Mateus) and absolute surprises (remember the performances of Yokotani that year?). They even came close to the Emperor’s Cup final. But at this point, Ienaga probably understood he wanted to give himself another shot at the big stage, which is why we’re talking about it today.

The prophet

Somehow it’s strange: Akihiro Ienaga signed for Kawasaki Frontale in 2017 and changed their history forever. Probably he was able to do it not only because he was a solid winger and fitted piece of the puzzle for Toru Oniki, but also because he learned more than enough about struggles without being ever involved in all the story behind Frontale, made up to that point of slips and sudden losses at the finish line.

It might be just an accident, but Frontale changed their trajectory after his arrival. Ienaga played just 21 games in his first year with Kawasaki, but they finally won the J1 title. In 2018, he did even better, taking the MVP Award for himself in the back-to-back completed by the club. But what impressed us the most is that Ienaga is playing way better as today than in his MVP campaign.

In the best season ever by a professional team in Japanese football’s history, the winger wasn’t just a member of the orchestra. He and Kaoru Mitoma were probably the main reasons why Frontale destroyed their opponents in 2020 (and why they keep doing that this season). Ienaga scored 11 goals in 29 games last year; now he’s already bagged five in just ten games. And the second goal of the brace in the Tamagawa Clasico was pretty evident about the level he’s playing at right now.

Experience helps, especially when you have been a golden boy, covered and pushed by the expectations and the hype about your potential. Nevertheless, Ienaga is turning 35 years old in a few weeks and he’s offering us the best football he’s ever played since he was a young prodigy. It’s like he brought every disappointment with him, processed them and now he’s a calm and composed star, more than comfortable in freezing the game with his stealthy pace.

We know it sounds a little bit out of the blue, but we hope that Japan will homage this great player. Ienaga featured just three times as a Samurai Blue between 2007 and 2011, when times were drastically different. Maybe the EAFF could be a proper timing to bow our heads to an incredible tale of redemption and resilience, which came true thanks to Ienaga’s unique talent.

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