Germany’s Bundesliga takes on Japanese flavour
Shinji Kagawa may have left Borussia Dortmund for English Premier League giant Manchester United this summer but his legacy lives on as an increasing number of Japanese players are playing in Germany.
No less than 10 of Kagawa’s countrymen are on the books of clubs in the Bundesliga. No other European league has so many Asian players.
Kagawa was not the pioneer – that accolade belongs to Yasuhiko Okudera who arrived in 1977 and stayed until 1986 – but he was something of a game changer. After the midfielder joined Borussia Dortmund in the summer of 2010 he opened the eyes of German clubs and fans to the depth of talent available in Japan.
It was not just the fact that he was signed for just US$440,000 and then sold to Manchester United for around US$18.7 million but more importantly, he was one of the league’s best players in the two seasons he spent helping Dortmund to successive titles.
“Kagawa was not in the 2010 World Cup squad but was fantastic in the Bundesliga,” said Takehiko Nakamura, general manager of Lead Off Sports Marketing. “He made clubs think more that there are young, talented and cheap players in Japan, and motivated them to scout the J.League closer than before.
“Additionally the transfer fees and salaries for those young players are often relatively cheap and make it more attractive for the German clubs,” added Nakamura who noted that close connections between agents in both countries is another factor.
Despite Okudera’s early success, it wasn’t until the new century that the Bundesliga saw an increase in arrivals from the east. Shinji Ono, Junichi Inamoto, Naohiro Takahara and then Makoto Hasebe had some success in the previous decade but the exploits of Kagawa helped turn a trickle from the J.League into a mini-exodus.
In 2011, national team players such as Shinji Okazaki and Hajime Hosogai arrived and were followed by younger talents who were not even members of the national team such as Yuki Otsu and Takashi Usami.
“After the success of Shinji Kagawa, a lot of clubs in Germany became interested in Japanese players and in my eyes that is the main reason why so many players move to Germany these days,” Usami, 20, said after his move to Bayern Munich last year. The attacker is now with Hoffenheim and was one of five of members of Japan’s this year Olympic team contracted to Bundesliga clubs.
Nakamura believes Kagawa changed perceptions of what Asian players could achieve.
“Kagawa is small and people were sceptical whether he could play in a tough league such as the Bundesliga, but he proved to be one of the best players. Also, many German clubs have praised the Japanese players’ attitude and professionalism on and off the field. They are usually easy to manage and they can often play in various positions which helps a coach build his roster.”
Felix Magath, the former boss of Bayern Munich, who worked with Atsuto Uchida at Schalke and with Hasebe at Wolfsburg, is a fan of players from the J.League.
“The Japanese are disciplined, hard-working and obedient toward the team,” Magath said. “What I focus on is how much a player works for the team – they have speed, technique and discipline.”
The flood of Japanese players into the Bundesliga is also boosting the Bundesliga’s profile in Japan.
“A lot of games are shown on television and because of the time difference some people get up in the middle of the night to watch the Bundesliga,” said Utsida. “There are always lots of journalists from home at our games reporting on German football and especially the Japanese players. The people in Japan like the atmosphere at the matches.”
While the Japanese are increasingly viewing Germany as their first port of call in Europe, South Korean players have more of an affinity with England. Ki Sung-yeung is set to become the tenth South Korean to play in the Premier League following his recent transfer to Swansea City.
There is still a Bundesliga contingent however. Cha Bum-kun joined Eintracht Frankfurt in 1979 and moved to Bayer Leverkusen four years later. Ninety-eight goals in just over 300 hundred appearances helped both clubs collect the UEFA Cup.
His son Cha Du-ri continues the legacy at Fortuna Dusseldorf, Son Heung-min is a striker with Hamburg while midfielder Koo Ja-cheol plays for Augsburg.