Since returning to J1 League, Kyoto Sanga have been a surprise package. In Cho Kwi-Jae’s second season at the helm, Sanga have earned 20 points from 17 games so far, as they occupy ninth in a competitive mid-table. Leading the line for Kyoto Sanga is a 38-year-old Nigerian talisman. A man for any season, even the ones closing his career.
He didn’t miss his chance even last Sunday, when Kyoto Sanga were hosting Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo. An important 2-1 home win was sealed with another goal from him, scored after getting a rebound once Sugeno saved his first attempt on goal. It was the ninth goal of his season, the first back in J1 after five years from the last time.
Peter Utaka is a cult-hero in Japanese football; Utaka has appeared for numerous Japanese sides throughout his career, including Shimizu S-Pulse, Sanfrecce Hiroshima, FC Tokyo, Tokushima Vortis, and Ventforet Kofu.
Donning his trademark headband, Peter Utaka’s footballing journey has seen him play across three continents; represent his country and score upwards of 200 goals over a career-spanning two decades. And it seems this isn’t over any time soon.
From Nigeria to the world
Born in the hilly city of Enugu on February 12th, 1984; Utaka’s development began at the University of Nigeria, Nsukku (UNN). However, with domestic top-flight opportunities being limited; Utaka would travel to North Africa for a trial with Egyptian club Ismaily SC, but the trial would conclude without a contract offer.
Not long before the turn of the century in 1999; Peter Utaka – at the tender age of 16 – would leave his homeland to join Dinamo Zagreb. Curiously; around this time, another striker arrived in Croatia as he aimed to relaunch his career in Europe – ‘King’ Kazuyoshi Miura.
While Kazu left Dinamo following 12 appearances; Peter Utaka remained in Croatia, but was unable to make his first-team debut. The striker found his breakthrough in Belgium, first with second-tier side Maasmechelen and then at KVC Westerlo.
Following three years with Westerlo, Utaka joined derby rivals, Royal Antwerp, while finishing as the top scorer in the Belgian second-tier with 22 goals. But it’s in Denmark where Utaka achieved even more. Odense’s four years witnessed Utaka’s living through European football and 2012 was a significant year in Peter Utaka’s career, as he embarked on what became a decade-long foray into Asian football.
By joining Dalian Aerbin in January, Utaka hit the ground running, breaking a Chinese Super League record for goals scored in consecutive games (11). However, Peter Utaka was Beijing Guoan’s record signing at the time – arriving on a 2,000,000 Euro fee in July 2013. Unable to replicate his previous goal scoring rate and moved on loan to Shanghai Shenxin.
When it didn’t work out, it was time to approach Japan. January 2015 is when then-31-year-old Peter Utaka first introduced himself to J. League football – having only faced Japanese clubs previously in Asian Champions League matches – as he arrived at Shimizu S-Pulse.
During his brief stint in the Shizuoka Prefecture, Utaka regained his goalscoring pedigree, striking nine times in 29 appearances. However, this would not be enough to see Shimizu S-Pulse avoid the drop, as they finished second-last in the 2015 J1 League campaign.
While his team’s predicament was not ideal, the Nigerian striker still flourished in a struggling side. This encouraged then-newly crowned J1 League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima to bring Utaka in on a loan-deal ahead of their title defence in 2016. Utaka impressed throughout his second season in Japanese football, by finishing the 2016 J1 League campaign as joint-top-scorer with Leandro from Vissel Kobe.
Following his debut campaign in Hiroshima, Sanfrecce moved to secure Utaka’s services on a permanent basis in March 2017. Incredibly though, soon after signing, Peter Utaka was sent on loan to FC Tokyo for a spell in Japan’s capital city. Utaka made 33 appearances across all competitions; scoring 10 times, however, wasn’t enough to stay in Japan. In fact, Utaka left… only to return later in the story.
Free agent to goalscoring free-for-all
For the first time in Peter Utaka’s career, he was a free agent. After having been contracted to a multitude of different teams, Utaka wished to continue his footballing journey, even while most at a similar juncture would’ve been inclined towards retiring. At 34, Peter Utaka returned to Scandinavia by signing a short-term deal with Danish side Vejle Boldklub, which lasted until Summer 2018. In his short stint, Utaka featured in six matches, and failed to score.
It seemed the end of his career, being 34 and having left Japan. Instead, that Summer, Utaka came back to Japan and snatched a deal with Tokushima Vortis gave Utaka a footballing lifeline, as he signed for the side guided by Ricardo Rodriguez. After Utaka scored six in 18 games to secure Tokushima the eleventh place in his debut J2 League campaign, another move had been lined up.
And to a special place like Ventforet Kofu, who finished two places above Tokushima in ninth. The club signed Utaka on a short-term deal in July 2019, but the Nigerian striker was the perfect fit for Akira Ito’s masterpiece. Peter Utaka was able to rediscover his prolific form in the Yamanashi Prefecture, scoring 21 goals in 41 games across all competitions, and showing peak athleticism in the process.
Save the best for last
Finally, Peter Utaka would arrive at his current club, Kyoto Sanga, in January 2020. While the 2020 J2 League season would look significantly different due to the COVID-19 pandemic; Utaka’s goal scoring ability did not change, as he found the back of the net 22 times in 40 games.
For a 36-year-old to be hitting those numbers in appearances alone is astounding, let alone scoring in just over half of them. While Kyoto Sanga finished eighth in the J2 League that year, Utaka’s form showed no signs of letting up, ahead of 2021.
Alongside recently appointed manager Cho Kwi-jae, Peter Utaka aimed to guide Kyoto Sanga to the J1 League. Peter Utaka made 40 appearances out of a possible 42 games, contributing towards 30 goals (20 goals and 10 assists) and becoming Player of the Month in April 2021, as Kyoto Sanga clinched the automatic promotion spot behind winners Jubilo Iwata, and four points ahead of 3rd place Ventforet Kofu.
Today, 38-year-old Peter Utaka is Kyoto Sanga’s top scorer so far in the 2022 J1 League campaign with nine goals in 19 games, as Cho Kwi-jae looks to secure safety in Kyoto’s return season. Japanese football is no stranger to witnessing age-defying talents; just to make an example, Yasuhito Endo is still bossing the J1 pitches at the age of 42 with Jubilo Iwata.
However, Peter Utaka is not a homegrown talent. He is an exception to the rule for many and has revolutionized not just Japanese football culture as a result, but also how the rest of the world views players above 30. Utaka’s love for the beautiful game is made evident when he plays, as he often outpaces centre-halves who are 10-15 years his junior.
Peter Utaka has not only cemented himself in Asian football history, but football folklore in its entirety.
We want to thank Austin Benson for writing this piece. A 18-year-old journalism student with Glasgow Clyde College, Austin writes for the Hamilton Academical FC and featured for the football publication “Heart and Hand”. You can find him on Twitter at @BornasCross.