Hiroki Sakai only played a quarter of his club’s matches in J2 in 2010, but two years on he’s on his way to Europe and has his sights set on a regular berth in the full national team…
On Sunday 7th March, 2010 I was at Hitachi Stadium with just over 7,500 other people to see Kashiwa Reysol beat Oita Trinita 2-1.
Both teams were getting their seasons underway in J2 after being relegated in 2009, and each handed out seven J2 debuts as they looked to rebuild.
Hiroki Sakai was not among those making his first appearance in the second division – in fact he was still yet to appear at all in the J.League and would only go on to play in nine of Reysol’s 36 games as they romped to the title and an instant return to the top flight.
Two years later, however, and the explosive right-back has a J1 winner’s medal, has impressed at the Club World Cup, appeared for the full national team, and now earned a move to Europe.
I interviewed him towards the end of last season, and while he admitted that a transfer overseas would be hard to turn down, he didn’t seem sure that he was good enough.
“I want to aim for the highest level. If there was a chance I would of course want to go but I am not yet at that level,” he said.
“The team is good now so maybe that’s why I am able to perform well. During tough times I also want to see how much I can help and pull the team through. This I don’t know yet.”
His displays for a struggling Reysol team at the start of this season demonstrated that he can still perform when things aren’t going to plan, convincing Bundesliga side Hannover to part with €1 million for his services.
While Sakai may not have rated himself that highly, the Santos head coach Muricy Ramalho was clearly impressed after the semi-final of last year’s Club World Cup.
“Reysol were very good on the right flank,” he said after Sakai had capped another strong performance with a goal against the Copa Libertadores champions.
“Sakai was prowling that side so I had to adjust a few things,” Ramalho continued.
“He is a young player, very intelligent. This is, I think, his first season. I am sure he is learning a lot of things and if he can be patient he can do very well in the future.”
I spoke to Jorge Wagner about Sakai’s transfer after Reysol’s recent 4-2 win over Omiya Ardija, and he feels the 22-year-old’s move will be a huge loss for the Sun Kings.
“We have [Daisuke] Nasu and [Tatsuya] Masushima who can play at right-back, but Sakai has a very good understanding with Leandro [Domingues] so we will miss that combination,” he said.
While concerned for Reysol without Sakai, Wagner is convinced his teammate will be successful in Germany.
“He’s a very strong player – like a Brazilian full-back.”
This is perhaps not surprising, with Sakai having spent a period on loan in Sao Paolo with Mogi Mirim.
As well as improving on the pitch, Sakai told me last October how he used that opportunity to mature.
“I felt I had to get integrated into Brazilian culture. I had to forget and shed my Japanese culture and mix into the culture of Brazil,” he explained.
“When I went to Brazil if I didn’t try to integrate and just focussed on playing then in other situations away from training I would feel stress.
“By jumping straight in and trying to integrate that meant I didn’t feel stress when I was playing as well. That way I could concentrate on playing at a consistent level.”
I mentioned recently the pitfalls of not embracing your new surroundings after a move abroad, and Sakai’s understanding of this should stand him in good stead in Germany.
Next on his to-do list is the Olympics, after which he will surely be focusing on taking Atsuto Uchida’s right-back spot for the Samurai Blue.
When I asked him to compare himself to Uchida he highlighted the Schalke player’s experience overseas.
“I feel that he can play well against foreign players because of the fact that he plays abroad,” he said.
Sakai now does that, too, and judging by his success over the past two years it is hard not to see him making the position his own sooner rather than later.