Shinji Okazaki has never been the most naturally gifted of players, but his willingness to learn and work hard has seen him climb steadily through the ranks and all the way to the top of the Premier League… (日本語版はこちらです)
He may only have scored four goals so far in the league, but Shinji Okazaki has quietly made himself a key player for Leicester City as the unfancied Midlands side continues to keep pace with the usual suspects at the top of the Premier League.
The 29-year-old has appeared in 21 of his side’s 23 games so far, and has established himself as Claudio Ranieri’s preferred option to partner Jamie Vardy in attack. Okazaki’s swift acclimatisation to English football has been so impressive that last season’s top-scorer Leonardo Ulloa has been consigned to a bit-part role, while Leicester’s record signing Andrej Kramaric was last week sent out on loan to Hoffenheim for the remainder of the season.
The seamless way in which Okazaki has adapted to the demands of one of the quickest and most physically demanding divisions in the world is a credit to the player and his mentality, and perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise considering the way in which he has steadily developed over the past decade since earning his debut as a raw 19-year-old for Shimizu S-Pulse in December 2005.
Okazaki has never scored more than 15 goals in a season and may lack a little of the finesse of many other Japanese exports, but his willingness and ability to contribute to the team is an asset hugely appreciated in England, and is one that he has worked hard to capitalise upon.
Back in 2010, ahead of the World Cup in South Africa, I attended a round-table interview with Okazaki at Shimizu’s Miho training ground, and it was clear then how driven he was to make a success of himself.
“It’s my character, if I don’t do that then it is not me,” Okazaki said of his penchant for chasing down seemingly lost causes on the pitch. “I have done it from when I was very young.”
As well as making the most of his strong points, the 24-year-old Okazaki also stressed an awareness of his deficiencies and a desire to improve upon them.
“I am not particularly good at sprinting, I was better at marathons and longer races – stamina is one of my strong points,” he said. “I had an inferiority complex about my speed [at school] so I worked very hard to improve it. After becoming a professional I understood what the physical coach told us and I realised I was able to improve.
“Every year I choose one thing to improve; to use my body or work on my technique. At the beginning I felt that I wanted to improve my speed, right now I want to improve my physical condition. I consulted the physical trainer about this so I can compete with the best in the world.”
Bit by bit he has climbed the ladder to a point where he is doing that on a weekly basis, and his eagerness to learn is showing no signs of letting up. This isn’t just restricted to activities on the pitch, and throughout the season he has made a commendable effort to conduct interviews in English, despite still being far from fluent.
Standing in front of a camera and facing questions – on the record – in a language you are still getting to grips with is no mean feat, but overcoming those nerves and putting yourself in a position to go it alone without the help of a translator can reap huge rewards. It is no coincidence that the players who have worked hardest to converse in another language – Maya Yoshida, Keisuke Honda, Makoto Hasebe – have been the most successful at carving out careers overseas.
This open-minded approach also has its roots in Okazaki’s initial footballing education, with the Hyogo native praising his high school coach back in 2010 for stressing the importance of individuality.
“My teacher said that personality was vital and combined with your football performance. Many of the best J.League players are great characters. The teacher told me that personality equals football – I have a lot of respect for that teacher.
“Every third-grade high school student had to select a key word and I chose ‘samurai’ because at that time the movie The Last Samurai was popular. I suggested the word and everybody agreed with me. I like that word. It conjures up many images, but I think it means you should never give up mentally – you should keep a strong mind. People all have different images but if we are well led and never give up then we believe we can win in the end. I want to become a samurai of football.”
If he can help his side to a sensational Premier League title this season then Okazaki will undoubtedly have achieved that aim, and the openness with which he has thrown himself into his overseas experience should serve as an inspiration to young players – and, indeed, young people in general – in Japan who want to do something outside of the norm.