Takashi Usami 20 Midfielder Gamba Osaka (on loan at Hoffenheim)
Before he became, somewhat bizarrely, involved with Plymouth Argyle in the late noughties, Yasuhiko Okudera blazed a trail as the first Japanese footballer to play in Europe.
Okudera arrived at FC Köln after being spotted by Foals coach Hennes Weisweiler whilst on tour with the sporting arm of the Furukawa Electric Co Ltd in 1977 and over the next ten years, would be a regular face in the starting lineups of the aforementioned Köln, Hertha and Werder Bremen.
His legacy was guaranteed, but it took time for Japanese players to really break through in Germany. Junichi Inamoto and Naohiro Takahara enjoyed reasonable success during brief stints with Hamburger SV over the last decade, but the meteoric rise of Shinji Kagawa at Borussia Dortmund over the last few years has occupied the thoughts of many.
To suggest that Kagawa’s impact at Dortmund scrambled the scouting networks of Germany’s top clubs would perhaps be a little unfair. Nonetheless it’s worth noting that during 2012, no fewer than 10 Japan born players were involved with Bundesliga clubs. During the intervening thirty years from Okudera’s 1977 arrival and 2007, that number stood at a total of three.
So is that a reflection of Japan’s improved standing within world football, or just a host of clubs wanting in on whatever Dortmund were doing?
“"The Japanese are disciplined, hard-working and obedient toward the team. They have speed, technique and discipline." That’s how the now jobless Felix Magath summed things up a little earlier this year, and his comments support a growing attraction for all things Nippon in the Bundesliga.
In late 2010, Bayern Munich were extremely impressed by Gamba Osaka’s 18 year old attacking midfielder Takashi Usami. Despite being named as the J-League’s best young player, Bayern decided against the outright purchase of Usami in June 2011, and instead opted to take the player on a season long loan, with a view to purchase.
Training regularly with the first team, Usami was given some game time and managed three Bundesliga appearances for his new club. While not an absolute standout performer, Usami did ok in three matches against Wolfsburg, Werder and Stuttgart, in which he was on the winning side each time. A series of good displays for Bayern’s second team bode well for the young man, and while it wouldn’t be fair to suggest that Usami could have done no more, he had certainly performed adequately for a young player making his first steps at a new club on a new continent.
Sadly for Usami, performing adequately was never going to be enough for a club which ended the season being stung badly by a second consecutive title win for Borussia Dortmund, and a heartbreaking European Cup final defeat at the hands of Chelsea. A strong and lively midfield where widemen Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben were ably assisted in attack by Toni Kroos, Luis Gustavo and, on occasion, Thomas Muller and David Alaba, and with Mitchell Weiser and Emre Can already well regarded within the club competition for places at the Allianz Arena was always likely to be tough, to the point of near impossible. Long before the big money purchases of Javi Martinez and Xherdan Shaqiri were completed, and well in advance of Matthias Sammer’s elevation to the sporting director role, Takashi Usami’s services were declared to be no longer required and the player was informed in February that he would be allowed to return to Osaka.
While a return home and the chance of megastar status in his native Japan may have appealed, he had no intention of returning home just yet. Having made the move to Germany, Usami confirmed in several interviews that he was determined to seize the opportunity to make it in the Bundesliga. Talks were held with a number of clubs alerted by Munich’s decision and while Fortuna Dusseldorf appeared to be the destination of choice for a long while, the chance of first team football with Hoffenheim proved the most tempting.
What is clear now, is that the experience of training regularly with such a high calibre of player at Munich has clearly worked in Usami’s favour. A diminutive, but effective midfielder, he started the season well and has looked dangerous linking midfield with attack. However, it takes more than the odd piece of skill or neat pass to win a game and Marcus Babbel’s ushering out of the door has suddenly made a place in the first eleven at Hoffenheim a little more difficult to secure.
Ultimately Takashi Usami has been a little unlucky over the last year. He has done what he can, when asked, but the task of breaking into Bayern Munich’s team was a mammoth task for any player, not just a young hopeful from Japan. These are certainly testing times for the 20 year old, but his determination to learn the language as well as make an impact in Germany is admirable.
It might not be immediate, it might not be in Germany, but we’ll wager that Takashi Usami will enjoy a very successful career as an important player for club and country.
"Really gifted and was unlucky to land at Munich when they've been so badly bitchslapped by rivals. At any other time he'd have cruised through into the first team but the bar has been raised higher than Usami can currently reach" - Jeff Livingstone (IBWM)
D Stick at it, keep working, you have the talent to succeed