November 27, 2021. The night is taking the stage at the Saitama Stadium, where Urawa Red Diamonds have just played their last league match in front of home fans. They lost against Shimizu S-Pulse in stoppage time, but there’s time to heal: Reds are always in contention for the Emperor’s Cup (and they’ll win it). But now it’s the moment for some goodbyes: Urawa-legends like Tomoya Ugajin and Tomoaki Makino have paid their respects to the fans, being emotional about the ending of this journey together.
Nevertheless, the main stage is reserved for someone else: when the two defenders are done talking, it’s time for the captain to speak. He’s 40 and he played for other clubs (even having a European stint), but his football story is inevitably tied to Reds, where he spent 14 seasons. When he takes the stage, he’s surrounded by all the trophies won by Urawa Reds throughout his stay.
The picture itself is impressive, but the crowd looks at the man more than at the silverware. He’s stayed through thick and thin, and he’s tied to the most successful stints of the club’s history. Even in his last year on the pitch, the new manager Ricardo Rodríguez relied on him from time to time. Tears are hard to hold back, too much is going on through the protagonist’s mind.
In our mind, Yuki Abe has been the other half of another excellent J. Leaguer, Kengo Nakamura (who retired last year). Both midfielders, both excellent interpreters of the game in Japan, both with a story almost cut halfway with the national team. But if Nakamura never went to Europe and stayed loyal to just one team for his whole career, Abe has been able to be fundamental in more environments, silently tailoring a leading role for himself wherever he went.
Since the times he joined JEF United Chiba Ichihara, the holding midfielder proved to be a key piece for any technical project lingering towards greatness. And after almost 900 games as a professional player, Japanese football must pay its homages to Yuki Abe and the career he had.
Just a Chiba boy
Born in Ichikawa in 1981, Abe fell in love immediately with football: he was kicking his father’s pillow to get him up and make him play with him. His older brother was a hurdle sometimes, but had a deep affection towards the game, in a decade – the 1980s – where football wasn’t big yet in Japan. The arrival of professionalism came just on time in 1993 to let the young Yuki pursue a career in football.
For an Ichikawa-born boy, JEF United was the aim. In fact, Yuki enrolled within their youth ranks since 1994 and then followed through for 12 years, reaching the first team in 2000. Nevertheless, he indeed debuted in 1998, becoming the youngest player to ever feature in J1 (16 years and 333 days). Those first years became a learning experience, but the real leap came with a new manager.
When Ivica Osim took the helm of JEF United Ichihara, the Serbian manager named Abe the captain, although he was just 21. It was a sign of trust, despite the team heavily relying on veterans. It worked though because JEF started improving: Abe grew both as a leader and as a player, becoming the set-pieces taker, an art he mastered throughout his career. Abe himself credited Osim with this growth, transforming him into a polyvalent player.
While JEF reached the top half of the league – they came third twice and fourth twice between ’01 and ’05 –, the club also celebrated the first trophies: in a back-to-back manner, JEF won the J. League Cup in ’05 and ’06. In the first edition, Abe even scored a fundamental brace in the semifinals to bring JEF to the last act, won at PKs against Gamba Osaka. In ’06, Abe scored the second goal to close the deal against Kashima Antlers.
The midfielder even featured twice – always in ’05 and ’06 – in the Best Eleven of J. League. This meant as well something else: it was time for a new adventure. When the new defending champions of the country called, Abe could just say yes.
The English Journey
A transfer worth 350 million yen brought Abe to Saitama, the missing piece to launch the assault to continental glory and solidify the national one. In his three years-and-a-half, the midfielder had another presence in the Best Eleven, won the AFC Champions League in 2007, and received the Citizen’s Honor Award from his hometown. He finally broke through in the national team as well, playing the 2010 World Cup in South Africa as a back-up.
But Europe called and it was a huge wave coming after Japan’s performances on the international stage. Four members leaped to the Old Continent in the six months after the World Cup, with Abe being among those, signing for Leicester City way before their rise towards the Premier League title. Other clubs were interested – for example, VVV-Venlo and Feyenoord –, but Abe chose a division where he could have learned a lot.
In fact, playing in the Championship – with hard pace, lots of clashes, a tackling league, and a huge number of games (at least 48 per year) – helped Abe get stronger. Despite 18 satisfying months under the guide of different managers – from Paulo Sousa to Nigel Pearson, but mostly Sven-Göran Eriksson –, Abe suffered from homesickness and needed to come home to stay closer to his family.
It’s a shame, because Leicester City just braced the Thai ownership when Abe opted to come back home. He was the chairman who brought home the Premier League title four years later: who knows if Abe would have made that squad (some of those heroes were already featuring). Nevertheless, Abe closed this chapter and came back to rewrite the chapter he left halfway.
As soon as he re-signed for Urawa Red Diamonds, it didn’t take too long for the newly appointed head coach Mihailo Petrović that Abe was the designated captain. Up to recently, the Austrian coach said it better to explain this concept: “When I evaluate a player, I first look at his humanity and then his qualities as a player”.
Abe became a pillar for Reds, achieving special records (like playing 100 league games in a row: he was the 12th player to do so, but only the third among non-keepers). With his guidance, Reds brought home another AFC Champions League, two further Emperor’s Cup, a J. League Cup, and a Suruga Bank Championship title.
Even in darker times – if they’re “darker times” for a successful club like Urawa Reds –, when different managers followed through after Petrović was let go, Abe represented one of the anchors the environment could count on waiting for technical stability. He’s the least celebrated midfielder in that wonderful range of interpreters J. League produced in the third millennium.
We had Kengo Nakamura, who never went to Europe though. We still have Makoto Hasebe – with whom Abe shared the Urawa-link, although the two played together just for one year –, who’s teaching football in Frankfurt at the age of 37. Yasuhito Endo is still up and running, without missing his clear objective of being relevant despite being 41 and forced to leave Gamba to pursue some pitch-time. In some ways, Yuki Abe is connected to all these figures, and he’s yet different from them.
He didn’t share the same spotlight, international recognition, or silverware, but he made a name for himself despite missing these features. He did it by just working, exporting the Japanese game for a (brief) stint in Europe, and gathered an immense sense of respect from everyone involved in the growth of the Japanese game. And when we mean “everyone”, we literally do mean it.
His future has been already defined since he’ll join as a youth coach for Reds from this season and he’ll be as well an adviser for the JFA. In his final speech, Abe tried to hold back emotions, just like he didn’t allow opponents to go past behind him on the pitch.
But when he talked, he couldn’t escape from one takeaway: “When (Urawa Reds’) officials, players, field staff, and fans and supporters really become one, anything is possible. I’m still wondering if that’s the case”. Surely, he gave the best possible example throughout his career.
This has been the tale of Yuki Abe, but remember we celebrated as well other retirements from 2021: you can see the full article here.