The Lost Prince

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry has done many things in his life. He was mostly an aviator, first for commercial flights and then featuring in French aviation throughout the second World War. He died mysteriously in 1944, with the wreckage of his aircraft found just in 2000. Nevertheless, he was a writer, and he composed one of the most-known novellas in the world, “The Little Prince”.

The story depicts a small prince, traveling through different planets, searching for the meaning of life. It looks like a children’s book but indeed touches on topics for grown-ups, especially how to mature when life puts you to the test. If you came to this point and you’re wondering what a French novella has to do with Japanese football, just bear with us (although ties between literature and J. League haven’t been a first here).

There’s a passage in the book: “I should never have listened to her – he confided to me one day –. One should never listen to the flowers. One should simply look at them and breathe their fragrance”. We all graciously smelled that odor of potential and promises by the Platinum Generation of Japanese football – our class of ’92, the one that should have granted Japanese football the second leap on the international stage.

At 30 years old, none of them is exactly having the time of his life. Takashi Usami went to Europe twice to only come back to Gamba and get injured. Yoshiaki Takagi ended up in the second tier and only next season he’ll finally play in J1 with Albirex Niigata. Ryo Miyaichi had devastating injuries which prevented him from having a brilliant career. Ken’yu Sugimoto is having a terrible final third of his career after some glory with Cerezo Osaka.

In the end, Gaku Shibasaki might have been the best of them looking at his European results, but… it doesn’t feel like it. Once his name was official among the call-ups by Moriyasu and confirmed his second World Cup trip, many Japanese fans weren’t happy. But why the heir of Yasuhito Endo became an uncomfortable presence in our football lives?

The Golden Boy of Japanese football

Born in the small city of Noheji, in the Aomori Prefecture, Shibasaki’s character probably followed the quiet vibe of his hometown. When he was 16, he enrolled in the famous Aomori Yamada High School, which has produced so many talents at this level throughout the last few years. His school lost the 2010 National High School Championship against Yamanashi Gakuin University, but his name was already in the notes of some J.League clubs.

Kashima Antlers got there first, announcing the signing of Shibasaki in January 2010… for the 2011 season. Nagoya Grampus and Dragan Stojkovic try hard to convince him but got no luck: people were openly tipping him to be the heir of Mitsuo Ogasawara at Antlers. Things started really strange with Oswaldo de Oliveira, the Brazilian manager of the hat-trick of titles between ’07 and ’09: he wanted to try Shibasaki… as a right-back.

When Jorginho took Oswaldo’s place in the dugout, Shibasaki found more pitch time and even the first trophy, being the decisive man in the J.League Cup final against Nagoya Grampus, scoring a brace to grant Antlers the title. Shibasaki was already the vice-captain in his sophomore season, and he won the Best Young Player Award at the J.League Awards of 2012.

More and more, comparisons with Yasuhito Endo – the all-time most present player for the Japanese national team – were drawn. This happened while more accolades came: the first featuring in the J.League Best Eleven in 2014, the no. 10 inherited by club legend Masashi Motoyama in 2016, the whispered interest by AC Milan – following the arrival of Keisuke Honda to the Rossoneri.

The key event to have a ripple effect on this career were in December 2016. First, Kashima Antlers overcame a tough path and beated both Kawasaki Frontale and Urawa Red Diamonds in the last edition of the J.League Championship to win the title. Then, as representatives of the J.League in the 2016 FIFA Club World Cup, Kashima Antlers just shook the world.

As we learned, it’s not unusual for the hosts to go the distance in this competition, but Antlers did more. They defeated Auckland City, Mamelodi Sundowns, and then Atlético Nacional – with the first-ever PK assigned through VAR – to reach the final against Real Madrid. When Antlers faced the Galacticos, no one expected that much from them. It was already a gain to play such a game.

Instead, Antlers put up a fight. Real went ahead, and then Gaku Shibasaki appeared. A brace between the first and second half put Kashima in front, and – to this day – Antlers are the only non-UEFA and non-CONMEBOL side to have ever been a FIFA Club World champion for a few minutes. Then Cristiano Ronaldo (and referee Janny Sikazwe) changed the narrative towards Real, but Gaku Shibasaki won the Bronze Ball and stood beside CR7 and Luka Modric.

Spanish melancholia

With this grade of success at the FIFA Club World Cup, many clubs looked into Shibasaki’s profile, especially from Spain. After six years, the midfielder is still there, but… looking at Shibasaki’s career in Spain, it can’t be a coincidence that he gradually moved to lower teams instead of progressing. And all started by moving to a drastically different environment compared to Aomori or Ibaraki.

Shibasaki joined in fact Tenerife in Segunda División, but the first cracks in his fragile character started to show. We always said how Antlers have formed tough, grit-and-grind players (Yuma Suzuki is the last on the dynasty). Instead, Shibasaki showed some problems at adapting in Tenerife: Japanese and Spanish reports indicated at the time how the midfielder wanted to leave immediately after arriving, with anxiety clouding his settlement in Spain.

Nevertheless, his stint was pretty successful. Tenerife reached the playoffs and even if they couldn’t get to LaLiga, Shibasaki did. He signed for Getafe, which were the side that defeated Tenerife in the playoffs. Shibasaki felt ready for the challenge, and he showed immediately some good signs: he scored against FC Barcelona in September, being the first Japanese player to have scored against both Real Madrid and the Catalan side.

At that moment, we probably felt that the transition from Yasuhito Endo to another great no. 7 in the midfield was done. Unfortunately, everything changed in the blink of an eye: Shibasaki was first injured for three months, and then got back only to find less pitch time under manager Pepe Bordalás. After a second season spent mostly on the bench, he felt leaving was the right choice.

Surely, his Spanish improved without a doubt, but it’s incredible how one of the most talented players of his generation will one day account for a career mostly in the second Spanish division.

One thing, though, is to leave. Another is to find the right environment. Picking a fallen giant like Deportivo La Coruña probably didn’t help. Fallen back in the second tier, Deportivo got a second relegation and Shibasaki had to change again club. He signed for Leganés, where he ensured himself a three-year contract to play again in Segunda División. And who knows if he’ll get a renewal next June.

Weight of Expectations

Coming from a quiet place like Aomori and having a shy, tranquil soul, Shibasaki probably couldn’t handle the expectations we had about him. Being Endo’s true heir is a hard burden to bring, and you gotta be cool to manage it. At 30 years old, Shibasaki’s career feels stuck. He’s got a nice run in Europe, more than many other Japanese players could say, but it seems an understatement given the starting point.

In fact, even with Japan, the 2018 FIFA World Cup was a tournament to be remembered. Despite the struggles with Getafe, his performances in Russia were highly praised by neutral fans. His pass for Genki Haraguchi’s goal against Belgium is a testament of what the former Antlers could have been. Even in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, Shibasaki seemed to be a solid anchor for Japan.

But then Hajime Moriyasu changed and even overweighed the disappointment we felt. If a player isn’t exactly thriving in the second Spanish tier, why should he be involved with Samurai Blue? It’s not 2010. Instead, Moriyasu kept on calling him (Shibasaki was the captain in the last friendly), and the no. 7 has been used 37 times by the manager under his tenure (the third-most present player after Minamino and Haraguchi).

Unfortunately, Shibasaki’s performances do not grant at all this consideration. Maybe we’ll be surprised in Qatar, but what he used to be a shiny diamond to polish for the future of Japanese football turned out to be a beautiful dream from which we’ve all been waken up. He looked like a “Lost Prince”, who’s been fading gradually from the spotlight despite a clear talent in his foot.

This brings us back to the novel by Antoine de Saint Exupéry. In one of its passages, it’s written: “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them”. You must wonder if the golden boy Japanese football witnessed was indeed just a mirage the old Gaku has now to explain to everyone else and himself.

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2 thoughts on “The Lost Prince

    1. Dear Sebastiano, sorry for the delayed answer. Unfortunately, things haven’t planned out properly for Shibasaki, but thanks for your comment!

      Like

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