“To peak”: if you look at whichever dictionary you can find, it defines it like “reach a highest point, either of a specified value or at a specified time”. What’s peaking in a footballer’s career? Well, it really depends on which kind of trajectory you’re following. If you play in a rising football movement and aim to Europe, that “peak” might be featuring with your national team. Maybe in a World Cup?
Not many Japanese players have done that, let alone actually featuring in a World Cup match. But among their names, there’s someone who might surprise you. He had just 19 caps with Japan (with two goals. One of them sealed of one of the greatest comebacks in Japanese football’s history…), but the last appearance came on a Winter afternoon in Bloemfontein, South Africa.
The team – back then coached by Takeshi Okada – was trying to manage the 1-0 advantage over Cameroon in their debut at the 2010 edition. They did and, to do so, Okada used one of his three changes to field a certain player, a striker, to sub out a worn out Yoshito Ōkubo (in the days he was playing as a winger).
He wasn’t young anymore or promising. He hadn’t had a single season with double digits of goals (and still hasn’t). Actually, he’s the only player who ever featured in a World Cup while wearing an Albirex Niigata jersey. He took the stage for just eight minutes plus injury time and that game was the last he ever played for Japan.
Nevertheless, he was on a plane for Europe a few weeks later, to Germany, where he lived through 18 forgettable months in Freiburg. He came back to Japan and faced a tactical metamorphosis, becoming… a right-back. Given how he wasn’t scoring at all, it didn’t matter. He played for Nagoya, he came back to Niigata and then found a new groove in the least expected place in J2: Tochigi.
That no. 12 on that cold South African afternoon was Kisho Yano, who’s now 37 years-old and he’s playing the best football of his life.
The Niigata connection
Born in 1984, Yano was born in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka, a florid Prefecture for football talents. In fact, he ended up being among the Designated Players by J. League for 2002 and he was going to be registered for Shimizu S-P… no, Júbilo Iwata. He never wore that shirt, because in the end he joined Kashiwa Reysol in 2003, where he stayed for three seasons before their relegation to J2.
Back then, Albirex Niigata saw an opportunity and snatched the young Yano to join their club. Yano stayed five years in orange, playing 152 league games and scoring 30 goals. He was even converted from center-forward to right wing, but his profile was popular among head coaches of the national team. First Ivica Osim brought him to the 2007 AFC Asian Cup, then Okada surprising everyone by calling him up for the World Cup in 2010.
He was established in Niigata, even taking over captain duties at times in 2010. At 26 years old, Yano seemed to have found a certain stability, but an opportunity presented itself to make “the leap”. And to any championship, but to Germany’s Bundesliga, the same championship where Shinji Kagawa just moved to Borussia Dortmund a few weeks ago. Probably he couldn’t pass on a chance like that.
Freiburg and back
Unfortunately for Yano, his experience in Germany was bleak in sporting terms. For a championship and a country that has clearly established itself as the best landing spot for Japanese players among the “Top 5” leagues in Europe, it went bad and fast. The mastermind behind the move was agent Thomas Kroth, who already took care of bringing Kagawa and Makoto Hasebe to Germany.
By mere association, probably Freiburg thought of making a good deal. By the words of back then-sporting director, Dirk Dufner, there were solid expectations: “With Yano, we’ve assured us the striker we wanted just before the transfer deadline. He’s a who has consistently proven his scoring qualities in the top Japanese division over the past few years”.
It just didn’t work: despite the club had a quiet season – in 2010/11, Freiburg finish mid-table –, Yano featured in just 15 games, starting twice and never playing a full match. Oliver Sorg retained his spot as the head coach, but even when Freiburg changed manager, Yano’s faith remained on the bench. The new coach? Christian Streich, one of the most legendary characters in European football right now.
When he started the first six months of the successive season without playing any minute, Yano understood it was time to go. They almost found an agreement with FC Aarau in Switzerland, but negotiations broke down. Yano was explicit: “I wanted to do this experience, but I need to play and I feel in Japan I might have better chances to do so”.
Niigata for love, Tochigi for real
In fact, Yano came back to Niigata, playing for Albirex for one season. Unexpectedly, he signed for Nagoya Grampus in 2013, finding a spot in one of the biggest clubs of the league. Despite this change, things were deteriorating in Nagoya, since the reign of Dragan Stojković came to an end and results plunged (Grampus fans remember with pleasure those times).
But after Stojković and Akira Nishino took over, the former Gamba head coach found a way to stretch and revolutionize Yano’s career. After a string of injuries hit Grampus in the right-back position, Nishino thought of Yano, who wasn’t working as an option next to Joshua Kennedy up front. Somehow, it worked: Yano wasn’t the best right-back in the league, but he played a lot in that position.
When Nagoya incredibly got relegated, Yano opted to come back again to Niigata. He stayed there three more years, reaching the 350 games-mark in J1 and keeping his place also when Albirex dropped as well to J2. He was good enough to retain a spot in the second division, so he opted to join another club: Tochigi SC.
What we though it would have been the end of his glory days actually became the chance to show that, yes: Kisho Yano still got it.
An elixir of youth
You witnessed many players just relaxing towards the end of their careers, satisfied from what they had throughout 10-15 years of football at the top level. Despite Yano played in a World Cup, in Europe and had 350+ games in J1 under his belt, he found the motivation to show everyone he wasn’t done, at all. And probably the marriage with Tochigi was the most fitting to do that.
Under the guidance of “Master of Resilience™”, Mr. Kazuaki Tasaka, Tochigi SC just avoided relegation in the last match of the 2019 season. After coming back from J3 with a lot of struggling, Tochigi needed a new leader on the pitch. The all-time J2 top scorer, Masashi Oguro, just saw his contract expired and never came back. Tochigi SC often relied on former JNT members: not only Oguro, but also Alex or Futagawa.
Yano did exactly that and the match with Tasaka was perfect. The no. 29 came back to playing up front, using his old tricks: post-up game, physical challenges, duels in the middle of the field. It worked: Yano collected seven goals in 37 matches, the highest tally of goals in a single season since… 2009, the year before leaving Niigata for Germany and his European chance.
But now there’s something more: where there’s experience, there’s also confidence. And that’s what Yano exudes: he’s the embodiment of Tasaka’s philosophy of a “grit-and-grind” version in football, with this chirurgical 4-4-2 shaping up Tochigi’s tactics. This year, Tasaka has going even further, by playing Yano as a lone striker and Juninho to pair him up. A downgrade from the heroics of wonderboy Takahiro Akimoto last year, but it’s working.
We don’t know if Tochigi will be able to escape relegation again (four drops to J3 are many to avoid), but they’re surely doing their best to avoid it. Yano is contributing even more: he scored already four goals in 17 matches, skipping just one game and featuring for 1341 minutes on the pitch. He could even be on his way to the first-ever season with 10+ goals. At 37!
Whatever might happen, it’s incredible how that guy from a cold South African afternoon saved the best for last.