There can’t be many situations in which the blurred line between football player and pop star is more clearly displayed than when a Japanese player moves overseas… (日本語版はこちら： http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/07/27/post47141/)
Screaming fans, streams of tears, commemorative merchandise: the send-offs arranged for Japanese footballers ahead of their transfers to average European teams are becoming an increasingly emotional experience and really need to be toned down a notch or two.
After a couple of months away for the World Cup we were thrust very quickly back into the J.League swing of things as Yoichiro Kakitani finally said farewell to Cerezo Osaka – the club everyone knew he would be leaving as soon as Brazil 2014 was out of the way (some more cynical observers may even suggest that while he had been there in body this season his mind was already elsewhere) – in an elaborate and highly choreographed display that was almost as long as the presentation of the World Cup trophy to the triumphant German team 36 hours earlier.
Kakitani is a fantastic talent who has been key to this Cerezo side but does his departure really warrant all of that outpouring of emotion? Yes, he had been with the club from a very young age but three years were spent in exile in Tokushima due to a poor attitude, and his only truly effective season was last year, when he was absolutely sensational. (It really is a shame that his dip in form coincided with the World Cup, as Kakitani of June 2013 in Brazil could quite possibly have dragged this year’s Japan side through Group C.)
This idea of him as a ‘young’ player with potential for the future also needs to be debunked. Kakitani is 24-years-old, as is Thomas Müller who has 10 World Cup finals goals to his name and is a world champion. James Rodriguez, the new flavour of the month after his sizzling displays in Brazil, is 23. Toni Kroos, the standout midfielder in a team of standout midfielders, is 24. Neymar is 22. Lionel Messi won four consecutive Balon d’Ors between the ages of 22 and 25. Gary Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and David Beckham were all 24 when they starred for the Manchester United side which won the treble in 1999.
I am not trying to dismiss Kakitani in relation to the very best of the best (and Gary Neville), but merely to illustrate that the idea of a ‘young player’ in Japan is vastly different to that in the rest of the world. 24 is not young, it is the peak age for many players and if Kakitani even wants to be considered as one of the top Japanese players he needs to be delivering results now, and consistently.
Transferring to Europe is the next logical step for him, and Basel, a club which regularly appears and performs well in the Champions League, is an intelligent choice. It is not an event which warrants such an overblown spectacle though, especially when Cerezo – and Kakitani – have underachieved so spectacularly this season.
The atmosphere at Kincho Stadium for the Kawasaki game was bizarre, and even though Kakitani was on the bench he for some reason joined the starting line-up for the pre-match photo, then everyone rushed to celebrate with him after Jun Ando opened the scoring, before he was back on the pitch at the start of the second half to place the captain’s armband back on Hotaru Yamaguchi. It all had the air of a testimonial or exhibition match, but it wasn’t; this was an official game that Cerezo desperately had to win.
The on-field action all took a back seat to what Kakitani was up to on the sidelines though. The fact that the team had surrendered their lead to go 2-1 behind and were a man down after Takumi Minamino’s petulant sending off didn’t appear to bother the nearly 16,000 fans who squealed in delight when their outgoing No.8 prepared to come on with seven minutes to play. “Yoichiro! Yoichiro!” spluttered the guy behind me, fumbling for his camera-phone. “Cool!” he drooled as Kakitani ran forwards unchallenged a couple of minutes later.
Even the ultimate defeat did nothing to dampen the mood, and Kakitani delivered the obligatory tearful speech (into a shiny pink microphone), received bouquets of flowers, and then circled the pitch to be showered with scarves (including from some of the Kawasaki fans; I’m all for the J.League’s well-mannered style of support but that’s outrageous. The sight of Frontale supporters with pink merchandise was ridiculous). The show even interfered with Marco Pezzaiuoli’s press conference with coach and journalists alike having to strain to hear over the ear-splitting PA announcements and pull-at-your-heartsrings music
I’m all for showing appreciation to those who’ve contributed to a club and wishing them the best of luck with their next challenge, but the festivities really needn’t be quite so dramatic. It’s a footballer transferring to a new club, not a SMAP concert or Disney parade (although anyone over the age of 10 who screams or cries at either of those events also needs to take a long, hard look at themselves). Thank those heading to pastures new, wish them well, and send them on their way. Ultimately the only players who really matter are those who will be lining up for you next week.