The Second Wave

Okay, we know it. Being “positive” and talking about a “wave” right now seems out of place – especially now that Omicron is taking the stage –, but they’re the most fitting terms for the situation. J. League will start in three weeks, and yet something significant has already happened: the Winter transfer market saw a record move and a tendency lying under the surface.

The record move happened for Chanathip Songkrasin, who joined Kawasaki Frontale from Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo for a rumored fee of 500 million yen (slightly more than 4M euro). That’s the biggest internal sum ever spent for an internal transfer and finally a sign of life by Frontale on the market, but the real deal is happening regarding the players leaving the country to join a European side, which… was pretty much a theme this Winter.

Celtic took the headlines by signing three Japanese players and announcing them in just one day, but Belgium witnessed a lot of arrivals from the J. League. Even Netherlands, Switzerland, and Portugal had some, testifying how the league has been able to produce interesting players for these B-tier leagues in Europe. And like we wrote in January 2019, Japanese football is ready for Phase 2 – we’d say maybe 3? – of its journey.

The First Wave

But when would we place this renowned “First Wave”? Someone might say after the 2002 World Cup, but the relevant moves in our opinion came between 2009 and 2011, the two years that witnessed Japan first having a good run in South Africa, then winning the Asian Cup with a completely new roster and manager. In those years, 2010 was probably the core of that development.

Just to resume the transfers from back then:

  • Eiji Kawashima, the newly appointed no. 1 of the national team, moved to Lierse in Belgium and he’s still playing in Europe at age 38.
  • Atsuto Uchida, a promising right-back, left Kashima Antlers to join Schalke 04, where he’ll become a cult figure already in his first season.
  • Yuto Nagatomo, energetic and charismatic left-back from FC Tokyo, said goodbye to Japan to join Cesena. Only six months later, he’ll sign for Internazionale and will stay there for almost 8 years, racking up more than 200 official caps with the club.
  • Yuki Abe, the underdog in the holding midfielder Japanese chain, moved to Leicester after the World Cup.
  • Shinji Okazaki proved his value under Takeshi Okada and then waited six months after the South African trip to sign for VfB Stuttgart.
  • Much quicker was Kisho Yano’s trip to Germany, although the now marquee player of Tochigi SC joined SC Freiburg with some expectations.

And this goes without considering neither smaller moves (Makino to 1.FC Köln, Hosogai to Augsburg, Inoha to Hajduk Split, Lee to Southampton) or three major transfers which though didn’t happen because of performances through a major int’l tournament:

  • Keisuke Honda moved already in 2008 to join VVV-Venlo and he had just signed for CSKA Moscow – playing in the UEFA Champions League – before the South African World Cup.
  • Two players who weren’t even in South Africa – Shinji Kagawa and Maya Yoshida – found their way anyway to Europe. The former by signing for Borussia Dortmund in one of the bargains of the century, while the latter by following the same route as Honda and joining VVV-Venlo in the Summer of 2010.
This goes without even mentioning the captain and legend Makoto Hasebe, who moved to Germany already in January 2008 and won a Bundesliga title already in the year after his arrival with VfB Wolfsburg.

How did it go, then? The reviews were mostly positive. Japan had two World Cups where they counted on these characters, who built a profile in Europe like not so many Japanese players could brag about in the past. Not everything had turned out perfectly – Kagawa’s career could have given us something different, Abe came back home due to homesickness, Uchida was rattled by injuries which cut his career short –, but the Wave worked.

But now it’s time for a second one.

Why this Winter matters so much

We were joking on Twitter once the Scottish League Cup was over, saying the brace scored by Kyogo Furuhashi didn’t just grant Celtic and Ange Postecoglou their first seasonal trophy, but it was also a sliding doors moment. Yes, because Furuhashi – well-known in Japan for his performances with Kobe, turning Vissel into a potential ACL-contender – took Scotland by storm in his first six months in Glasgow.

And that’s probably why Celtic felt the need of insuring themselves another three players, of which Reo Hatate seems by far the real bargain here. The former Kawasaki Frontale midfielder – can we call him “midfielder”? It seems a short description, given his ductility – showed off already what we can do, scoring his first goal against Heart of Midlothian and winning the “Man of the Match” award in his debut.

Nevertheless, Daizen Maeda represents another good prospect and Yusuke Ideguchi is fit for the role Postecoglou has in mind for him within Celtic’s line-up, but surely both their previous European experiences – interrupted by bad luck or injuries – might represent a possible hurdle to overcome. Hatate hasn’t these obstacles to get rid of. But that’s not just them.

Belgium had a ton of transfers from J. League: Koki Machida joined Union Saint Gilloise, Daiki Hashioka moved permanently to Sint-Truiden (and saw Shinji Kagawa becoming his teammate), Tsuyoshi Watanabe signed for KV Kortrijk, and most of all Tatsuhiro SakamotoCerezo Osaka’s offensive wizard – accepted the offer by KV Oostende (and already produced one assist with his trademark move).

To the Belgian contingent, you have to add:

  • Portugal, since Kyosuke Tagawa joined Santa Clara to become Hidetoshi Morita’s teammate (the former Frontale didn’t move to Hull City in the end).
  • Switzerland, where Ayumu Seko signed for Grasshoppers in Zurich, pairing with Hayao Kawabe.
  • The Netherlands, since Naoki Maeda moved to FC Utrecht on loan and was unfortunate to get seriously injured in his first game.
  • Australia – yes, Australia! –, since Hiroshi Ibusuki hasn’t faced the brightest of seasons, but joined Adelaide United and was rightfully celebrated.

But what’s next, with the Summer coming and maybe a different COVID situation at the end of the year?

Coming Up…

Omicron must be managed properly, but it’s not an accident if some nations already declaring the endemicity of the disease. This would bring normality back into place, and the market as well would of course follow. Some markets could do exactly what Belgian and Portuguese clubs are doing:

  • Eredivisie and Netherlands are following Japanese players – six of them are currently playing there –, but there’s space for further improvements.
  • Greece and the Super League haven’t still bet too much on Japanese players, but the Kagawa experience at PAOK could have reignited the interest on the market.
  • Switzerland as well should pursue this. Yuya Kubo had an excellent stint in the country with Young Boys, while Yoichiro Kakitani’s experience was something forgettable. Kawabe had six nice months in Zurich, maybe someone else could try?

Then the next step would be to colonize France. The Ligue 1 is considered among the Top 5 leagues in the Old Continent, but it’s clear as the sun that the championship isn’t as competitive as the other four. You can see it from the results on the UEFA competitions, the unbalanced context in the table (although Lille LOSC and Monaco have been able to win the title), the lack of growth of the league in the world.

But this also means that J. League – a league now far from France, but we’d say not so much in terms of competitiveness – can start selling players there. Toulouse had already two Japanese players in the last years – Shoji didn’t plan out as expected, while Onaiwu is doing his job in Ligue 2. There’s space for more and that’s the next target for this Phase 2 we’ve been talking about.

This will also open another chance: if the biggest talents are leaving, J. League will finally have space either for talented foreigners – whether they’re European or hopefully from ASEAN countries – or local gems – is it normal that Shion Homma is still in J2? Shouldn’t Kaito Taniguchi be in J1 at this point? In the end, this is just a step and Japan – despite the COVID-pandemic – seems ready for the next, at least at the club level.

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