Like a Fine Wine

Ranzan is a municipality which lies exactly at the heart of the Saitama Prefecture. It’s a place where you bleed red, but not the physical one we’re thinking of. It’s another kind of blood, the one tied to the main football reality in the region (and we’d add one of the most important in Japan): Urawa Red Diamonds. Back in the early 2000s, though, we were not witnessing yet the powerhouse we’ve come to know today.

Among the kids in youth sector – to make some examples: club legend Tomoya Ugajin, but also Shunsuke Tsutsumi and Yoshiya Nishizawa –, there was one who lived through the first wave of trophies (2006-07). He didn’t break through the first team, but he had some slight chances to appear on the pitch. The ‘07 season was the one where he debuted with the red jersey, the year of the first ACL title in the history of the club.

He made his maiden appearance in J1 on August 15th, entering the field in stoppage time in an away win at Gamba. He did the same in another away win a week later, this time against Ventforet Kofu. His last (and most relevant) appearance with Reds was on October 20th: 45 minutes in the second half against JEF United Chiba. Little did he know this was going to be his last game in the top Japanese flight.

In fact, our protagonist left Saitama the season after to never come back. He became a J2 drifter, changing a lot of teams, but always finding his spot. And while the years went by, his best performances are coming to him. This isn’t probably the career Junki Koike thought for himself, but he surely did the best he could to transform it into a pleasant ride throughout the last decade.

And it’s incredible how, at 34 years old, he’s enjoying the best season of his long career. 15 years after sharing the bench in a FIFA World Cup match against AC Milan (alongside Shinji Ono, Masayuki Okano and Tadaaki Hirakawa), he found his place in the football world. And there might be space even for something more.

Globetrotter

When Koike said goodbye to his childhood club, he began a long ride through J2’s developing landscape. He first joined Thespa Kusatsu (no, there was no “Gunma” back then) on loan, playing one of the craziest J2 seasons ever, which featured 54 (!) matches. Koike featured in 49 of them, leaving him on the market as a good asset to sign. Once he left Saitama for good, Mito HollyHock wanted him on the roster.

There began a strange round of teams to play for: two years in Ibaraki, two years in Tokyo for Verdy, two more spent this time with Yokohama FC. And then, the final destination of these eight years: JEF United Chiba. In this time, Koike spent most of these years being a starter, even evolving his game: with Verdy, he played as a wing-back; in Yokohama, he featured on the right flank.

The only hick-ups? The first season at Verdy – hick-up… he played anyway 23 games – and JEF itself. In fact, under the guidance of Takashi Sekizuka, Koike started his first six games, but then disappeared from the radar, appearing just four minutes at home against Kamatamare as a sub and 14 minutes in a home defeat against S-Pulse. Once Sekizuka was dismissed (and replaced with… Shigetoshi Hasebe!), Koike’s fortunes hardly changed.

When Koike accepted a loan to Ehime FC – a small club, constantly at risk of occupying the bottom part of the table –, it seemed over. It became instead his breakthrough.

Renaissance

Maybe Koike needed a small environment, fully trusting his experience (he was 30 at that time), to actually reboot his career. Under Shuichi Mase, the winger played 32 games and Ehime opted to keep him around for 2018, making the move permanent. With the change of manager – Kenta Kawai became the head coach in 2018 –, Koike featured with several roles in the 3-4-2-1: wing-back, trequartista, even right-back in a four-CBs line-up.

Ehime was a small island of happiness, without too much pressure, because the key goal was avoiding relegation: that’s it. That was already a success; surely, it reminded the kind of vibe Koike felt probably in his first season in J2 with Thespa. Instead, the goals with Verdy, JEF, Yokohama FC must have been different, producing severally different consequences.

Once Verdy wanted him back in 2019, Koike brought these experiences, his ductility, and this inner strength to the club. And it’s strange, because in these three years since his return, Verdy haven’t done any step forward since almost clinching back promotion to J1 in 2018 (when Lotina brought them to the promotion/relegation playoffs, lost against Jubilo Iwata).

They kept developing young talents, squandering though most of them in meaningless seasons. In this scenario, Koike became their most important player: he scored 16 goals in 2019, with even two hat-tricks (!). He kept his performances at a certain level even in 2020, but he improved in 2021: he matched the 16 goals-mark, and he might go even further in the last 180 minutes.

What if…

Tokyo Verdy are probably the biggest disappointment of the last 2-3 years in J2. They shouldn’t push by promotion every time – FC Tokyko looks in bad shape and obtained anyway more than Verdy –, but it’s surely a shame that they’re not capable of exploiting all this talent. Having Ryuga Sato, Rihito Yamamoto, Koki Morita, Yuan Matsuhashi, Mahiro Ano, Seiya Baba (and potentially Rikuto Hashimoto) isn’t for everyone.

All these kids need some guidance: Koike turned into a senator, but also into their best player. Haruya Ide, Yuhei Sato and Jaílton Paraíba are not consistent, while Ryoya Yamashita and Ryota Kajikawa are not enough to change a club’s destiny in the second tier. The no. 19 is truly the saving grace of a club that would have risked a relegation race in 2021 without him. His goals were worth of 13 points (!), and even played as a striker!

But what if it’s time for Koike to enjoy his final prize? Can he be a factor in J1? Could he be there to seal a wonderful career? In the end, Koike reached 450 matches in J2 this month and he bagged 71 goals in the league’s all-time list, overcoming even Hulk, Juninho and other historical scorers in the history books. It seems like the winger deserves a second shot at the top-flight.

We’d also add that, while Verdy don’t look at all like a possible contender for playoffs in 2022 (not like this, not with Hori on the bench), many J1 would be lucky to have him in the rotation (Jubilo, Kashiwa or Vortis, if they survive in first tier). Maybe it’s time to make another leap, this time in time: it’s time to erase that afternoon in Chiba as the last time Junki Koike stepped onto a J1 pitch.

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