They will walk out onto the field under a new manager and some of the world’s most high profile players, yet when Man Utd take to the field against Cerezo Osaka and Yokohama F. Marinos on July 23 and 26 most of the attention will be on one man, the side’s number 26, a man who was plying his trade in Japan’s second tier only four seasons ago.
by Matthew Hernon
Shinji Kagawa is set to cut his summer holiday short (he was due an extra three weeks because of international commitments) in order to be part of the Red Devils’ squad for their two matches in his homeland. Such is Man Utd’s appeal, the games would have no doubt sold out anyway, but with the former Cerezo man there the games take on an extra significance.
Teammate Patrice Evra sees a number of similarities with his friend Park Ji-sung, a player who was once awarded the Man of the Match award in a game he wasn’t playing in while on tour with the club in Korea:
“I remember we played a friendly against Japan for France and the Japanese fans went crazy whenever Shinji touched the ball,” the Frenchman told ManUtd.com. “It’ll be the same as when Ji was in Korea – I always used to joke with him that there is God, then the King of Korea, and then Ji-sung Park! I think Shinji will be the same.”
The financial benefits for the club are obvious, yet anyone who saw him play at Borussia Dortmund knows Kagawa is far more than a shirt seller.
The signing of Kagawa, whether they admit it or not, was undoubtedly a major factor in the club’s decision to come to Japan. It is, after-all, their first official tour here since 2007 (though they did play here a year later in the FIFA Club World Cup). Since then, they have played in countries like Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia on multiple occasions.
Japan perhaps no longer has the financial clout it once did, with no major European side having toured here since Bayern Munich in 2008. This summer, along with Man Utd, Arsenal will also play two games here – against the Urawa Red Diamonds and Nagoya Grampus – and the fact that both sides have a Japanese player in their squad (Ryo Miyaichi at Arsenal) seems no coincidence.
A tour like this, plus sponsorship deals with Japanese companies such as Kagome and Gloops will no doubt add further fuel to the fire for those cynics who believe Kagawa was signed purely for marketing purposes – you won’t go far in Tokyo without seeing his face on a billboard or name on the back of a fan’s replica kit.
The financial benefits for the club are obvious, yet anyone who saw him play at Borussia Dortmund knows he is far more than a shirt seller. A joy to watch at times, his intelligent link up play, ability to drift between the lines and deadliness in front of goal made him a crowd favourite at the Westfalenstadion. Hitting the net 21 times in 49 appearances, he helped the side to two Bundesliga titles and a German cup during his short stay there.
“One of the best in the world”
He has yet to hit those dizzying heights at United, despite winning the title in his first season. Hampered by an injury in November, he has been in and out of the side. When he did start games he looked bright early on before fading and being substituted in the second half. His former boss at Dortmund, the charismatic Jurgen Klopp, believes his talents are being wasted.
“Shinji Kagawa is one of the best players in the world,” Klopp said in a recent Guardian interview. “And now he plays 20 minutes at Manchester United – on the left wing! My heart breaks, I have real tears in my eyes. Central midfield is Shinji’s best role. [ed: for those with thick skin, check @evilkagawa on Twitter] He’s an offensive midfielder with one of the best noses for goal I ever saw.”
He was given more opportunities in his favoured position towards the end of the season and you could see his influence on the team grow. United looked much more fluid when he started behind Robin Van Persie and he is one of the main reasons why many fans are indifferent about whether Wayne Rooney leaves or not. Sir Alex Ferguson felt he needed a little more time to get used to the rigours of the game in England and that we would see the best of him in the 2013/14 season.
It’s David Moyes he has to impress now. The Scottish manager would probably have preferred to have given the Japanese playmaker a longer rest after what has been a tough post-season schedule that has included a number of World Cup qualifying and Confederation Cup games. In truth though, he couldn’t realistically leave him out of this tour, the fans are desperate to see their hero.
Kagawa and his Man Utd teammates are currently working closely with Kagome to promote the ReGeneration Challenge Project 2013-2015, which supports the reconstruction of the Tohoku region. To learn more go to kagome-cp.jp/manutd
Image © Manchester United