One-hit wonders. A light in a strange career, which wasn’t made of sparks and constant success. A sudden corner of attention in an otherwise normal trajectory. There are seasons or years like these ones, with players capable of rising to the occasion when it’s needed the most. Just think of sudden protagonists, who made the front cover for a certain period, without repeating themselves after that season.
“Lost Treasures” is a column that featured five episodes, all talking about these kinds of players in the history of J. League. To pick whom to feature in this column, we looked at all the Best XIs composed by the J. League committee at the end of every season and chose four players who made an enormous leap, just to rarely or not repeat themselves in the successive seasons.
Another specific detail: we picked just J. Leaguers, who enjoyed most of their career in the Japanese championship, albeit there have been two exceptions. It’s been some time since the last piece in this column. We enjoyed a trip on Memory Lane with Kengo Kawamata, who became a household name in the J.League after his stint with Albirex Niigata, although he never reached the same heights.
Today, instead, we’re gonna focus on a current player, who turns 33 in a few days and somehow, it’s a mixture of what Japanese football from the 2010s could have been and it hasn’t been. We often mentioned the “Platinum Generation” – the class from ’92 – as a collective hallucination. But no one represented this missed chance more than Yōichirō Kakitani, who’s two years older and – in his day – could move mountains.
Just like cherries blossom throughout the Spring, talents can easily develop and break through at Cerezo. Shinji Kagawa, Takashi Inui, Hiroshi Kiyotake, and Takumi Minamino – just to throw some names – did that in the pink side of Osaka. After Kagawa and Inui, Kakitani was supposed to big the next big name, having been with the club since 1994 and having experienced small tryouts with both Arsenal and Inter Milan.
Furthermore, Cerezo has this “mystic” connected to two numbers: the no. 13 and the no. 8. The latter was the most important, worn by “Mr. Cerezo” himself, Hiroaki Morishima, the beloved legend of the club and today’s chairman. Morishima played all his life with Cerezo, and he scored in the 2002 FIFA World Cup against Tunisia. After he retired, Kagawa took over his number. The same was done by Inui once Kagawa left for Dortmund, and Kiyotake continued the streak.
After having played the 2007 FIFA U-17 World Cup, Kakitani was tipped to be the next gem within Cerezo’s roster. Despite getting relegated, the club made it in time for him to debut in J1 on November 26, 2006. Kakitani was just 16. Cerezo needed three years to come back to the top-flight, but young Yōichirō had his fair amount of space for being a U-20. He scored in 2007 in J2 against Thespa Kusatsu and Kyoto Sanga.
Unfortunately, the space wasn’t enough to grant him a proper space to grow. Therefore, Cerezo opted to loan him for a long time. Furthermore, there were concerns about Kakitani’s lack of professionalism: he was late to training sessions, so much so that Lévir Culpi – the man behind many blossoming at Cerezo – couldn’t shy from this: “Shinji (Kagawa) and Yōichirō? Shinji has a stronger sense of responsibility, but both could become great players”.
Even his brace against Fagiano Okayama, in a period where he could actually break through, didn’t help when he got again late to practice. Culpi couldn’t handle it anymore, so Cerezo loaned Kakitani somewhere else. His destination? Tokushima. Back then, Vortis were far away from the chance of being promoted. J2 had no relegations, so it looked like the perfect chance to develop Kakitani.
Into the Vortis
Three men changed Kakitani’s trajectory. First, the captain at Vortis, Kazuki Kuranuki, who influenced him with his great work attitude. Secondly, Takeshi Hamada, who had a long stint at Cerezo – from 2001 to 2009 –, and had a personal relationship with Kakitani, followed him in his growth. But mostly, head coach Naohiko Minobe, a cult figure of those years in J2: Minobe had a great stint with Vortis and shaped Kakitani’s future.
“If you can’t get a starting spot here, you won’t go anywhere. I want you to think about why you came here”. Minobe used Kakitani right away but demanded application on the defensive side of things. Furthermore, he wanted unity. Once, after a Vortis win, Kakitani – who stayed on the bench the whole game – didn’t join the huddle: “I didn’t stand this kind of attitude. We’re a team only if we do all together”.
Kakitani started to come earlier to practice, with the help of a friend like Hamada: “I remember that I woke up with him every day. Yōichirō wanted to know more about preparation (from Kuranuki) and his own muscles. He seemed to enjoy learning more about himself”. It worked: Tokushima ended 2009 in the ninth position, reaching eighth the successive season, and missing by three points the third place in 2011.
Meanwhile, Kakitani became the vice-captain at Vortis, to deputy Kuranuki whenever he wasn’t available. He played 101 games with Tokushima over 2.5 seasons, scoring 14 times and providing 16 assists. In the end, the gamble played by Hitoshi Nakata – back-then the Technical Advisor at Vortis, and former Cerezo Osaka coach – to purchase Kakitani worked: “He’s by no means a bad boy, he’s serious about football”. Words that Yōichirō never forgot.
When the time to return to Osaka was official, Kakitani recognized how he was lacking something Tokushima provided. Minobe reminds that time: “His heart finally caught up with his football skills. I didn’t raise him, but I surely helped him develop what’s been always there. This sport can’t be played alone. A team exists only where there’s trust”. A lesson that would surely come in handy for his return to Osaka, in a team that changed a lot from the last time he was there.
Back in (Pink and) Black
When he came back in 2012, Cerezo Osaka lost both Kagawa and Inui for European opportunity. Kiyotake would have left six months later; Minamino was starting to feature for Cerezo. Furthermore, the club also lost Kim Bo-kyung, the talented South Korean who signed for Cardiff City after the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Cerezo needed someone to step up. And that someone was Kakitani.
Back in pink, Kakitani scored 11 goals in 2012. Lévir Culpi, who was back in Osaka to replace Sérgio Soares, acknowledged the changes in his profile: “I have this special feeling. He’s a sweet guy. I remember when I reprised him for the mistakes he made. But now, he understands the tactical side of things and he’s been able to implement that on the pitch. I’m happy I have the chance to coach him again”.
European clubs were moving forward: after snatching Kiyotake, 1.FC Nürnberg tried to purchase also Kakitani. He seemed sure to go, but then stayed, moving to the no. 8 from the initial no. 13. At the opening ceremony of the pre-season, he’s the talk of the town: “When Morishima told me he wanted me to wear the no. 8, I almost cried. I wanted to try overseas football, but the words of Morishima-san made me change my mind”.
Furthermore, Culpi switched him to a striker in a special 4-2-3-1. This unlocked Kakitani at his highest form: he was able to play closer to the goal, but also to open opportunities for his teammates when in possession. The result? 21 goals in J1, the interest of several European clubs (BVB, Fiorentina, Bayer Leverkusen), the Best Eleven spot, and the cementing of a cult hero status with Cerezo.
But even more: Japan opened its door to Kakitani. Alberto Zaccheroni couldn’t ignore his form, so he called Kakitani up for the 2013 EAFF E-1 Championship, where the Cerezo Osaka striker played a pivotal role to win the title (including a brace against South Korea in the final and decisive game). He also scored in a friendly game against Belgium in November. He seemed done for a ticket to the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Everything went to plan until the Summer of 2014. Kakitani stayed in Osaka, quoting the need of keeping his mojo: “I have four chances of winning a trophy, I hope to lift one of them”. Furthermore, he could play with Diego Forlan, who just signed for Cerezo that Winter. Unfortunately, things started to tumble, although signs were ignored. It took 11 matches for Kakitani to find his first goal, and the squad struggled. It will be the prelude to a surprising relegation.
With Japan, things won’t go better in Brazil. Kakitani scores in a pre-WC friendly against Costa Rica, but his spot in the rotation has been assigned to Yoshito Okubo, who got the call after having the time of his life with Frontale. Kakitani gets relegated to the bench, playing just four minutes against Ivory Coast and 21 minutes against Colombia. Japan get knocked out in the Group Stage.
After such a disappointing World Cup and with the situation as it is at Cerezo, a frustrated Kakitani decides to take the leap toward Europe. The choice is FC Basel, a team regularly playing European football from Switzerland. When asked why now, Kakitani goes direct to the point: “I was disappointed I couldn’t show (in the WC) the power of Japanese football. I don’t regret the decision; I’ve spoken with many people about it”.
When thinking about Basel, Kakitani laid out a clear plan: playing in Switzerland, learning the language as fast as possible, and winning titles with the club. His contract runs until June 2018, so there was some time to settle in Switzerland. It seemed it could work out: he scored on his second appearance against Zurich, then against Young Boys at the end of August. His first UCL game is at Santiago Bernabeu against Real Madrid.
But in general, whether it’s form-related or the click with head coach Paulo Sousa, things are not going well. Out of the matches in all competitions, Kakitani will feature in just 20 games, mostly from the bench, scoring seven times (four of them will come in the Swiss Cup). Once Sousa leaves for Florence and Urs Fischer comes in to replace the Portuguese, things are turning for the worst.
He starts (and scores!) in the opening match of the league in 2015-16, but his time seems to have run out in Basel. Fischer doesn’t see him, and the few opportunities in the cup are not exploited by the Japanese. Furthermore, FC Basel have Breel Embolo developing in the same position. In the end, just like Icarus, Kakitani flew too close to the sun when it wasn’t the best time to do so. It was a disappointing experience, full of injuries and letdowns.
Lost in Transition
Once Kakitani lost both the national team and his European opportunity, returning to Osaka seems the logic step. Cerezo are stagnating in J2, incapable of climbing back to J1. This part of his career is though less interesting, despite the fact that Kakitani finds his redemption arc. He comes back to Osaka, Cerezo reach again J1, and they win their first trophies ever – the 2017 J.League Cup and Emperor’s Cup, plus the 2018 Japanese Super Cup.
Nevertheless, Kakitani can only have flashes of what he used to be. On his day, he’s still capable of enlightening the pitch with certain plays. Both Yoon Jong-hwan and Miguel Ángel Lotina found ways to build around him, but other players felt more fundamental for the destiny of Cerezo Osaka. Nevertheless, Kakitani closed his third stint at Cerezo in 2021 with 308 games (sixth all-time) and 75 goals (third, behind Morishima and Nishizawa).
His passage to Nagoya seems a sign of time flying. He had a nice first year – scoring five times in J1, nine in all competitions –, contributing in a title, with Grampus lifting the J.League Cup. In that final against Cerezo Osaka, the opponents head coach Akio Kogiku recognized his role: “Kakitani? He continues to be a player to fear. You can feel his technique and his skills”.
When he scored the “Goal of the Season” – again, against Cerezo Osaka, in one of the last matches of the season –, Kakitani was celebrated. Yoshito Okubo, who was among the ones who adviced him to follow the European dream, was mentioned by Kakitani: “Yoshito-san gave me the strength to bury that one. I admired him as a player, and I’m glad he was on the pitch to share that moment with me”.
2022 hit Kakitani hard. It’s the first time since 2006 – his rookie year – that he ended a J1 year without scoring. Yes, he notched one in the J.League Cup, but one goal in 29 matches… feels gloomy. Losing Massimo Ficcadenti for Kenta Hasegawa didn’t help at all. Incredibly, that “falso nueve” position didn’t help at Nagoya. Grampus never had a real no. 9, except for Jakub Świerczok (who then got suspended).
Kakitani is still active, and – who knows – maybe he’ll gift us some wonderful moments in 2023. But you can’t shy from feeling like his career was a major “What if” in Japanese football. While his future must be written, the past can’t be changed. How many of you would have bet to see Kakitani both in Russia and Qatar? Here we are. Instead, like a ghost with a major light, he’s leaving the main stage. With a lot of questions on what we’ve just witnessed.