Japan will kick-off their EAFF East Asian Cup campaign against China PR this weeekend and with no European-based players in the squad most of the attention will be on 23-year-old Yoichiro Kakitani, who is finally set to make his first appearance for the national side.

by Matthew Hernon

Widely regarded as the most exciting talent in the J-League, he has reportedly attracted interest from a number of German clubs, including Champions League finalists Borussia Dortmund, after a string of exhilarating displays for Cerezo Osaka. It’s been quite a turnaround for a player who just a couple of years ago looked set to be yet another wasted talent.

Perhaps it was a case of too much, too soon. Japan’s best player in the 2007 FIFA U17 World Cup in South Korea, where he scored a stunning goal from near the halfway line against France, Yoichiro Kakitani was seen as his club and country’s golden boy, a player with the skill, imagination and confidence to go right to the top. Within two years though, things started to unravel. While fellow youngsters at Cerezo, Shinji Kagawa and Takashi Inui, flourished, Kakitani’s form dipped dramatically. With his attitude constantly being called in to question, he fell further down the pecking order and after a fall-out with Brazilian coach Levir Culpi he was sent out on loan to J2 side, Tokushima Vortis.

“Honestly speaking, I don’t think I was ready to be a footballer,” he tells Weekender. “The way I was acting it was completely unprofessional. Luckily I got a lot of support from a variety of people who helped me through it and now I am in a much better place. That doesn’t mean I am completely satisfied with how things are going, there are areas that I still need to work, particularly my body strength.”

While he can still frustrate his boss at times, attempting something extravagant when he should go simple, Kakitani is clearly maturing both as a player and a person. Now that Japan has qualified for the World Cup, a call-up will surely come soon. Joint top scorer in the J-League, he has been the division’s stand-out performer so far this season, yet there was no grumbling despite the fact that he was constantly overlooked during Japan’s World Cup qualifying campaign. He knew that if he was patient his chance would come and now as the country go into the East Asian Cup without their star players, the onus will be on Kakitani to produce something special.

Is Yoichiro Kakitani the ‘new Kagawa’?

Playing in a similar position, comparisons with Shinji Kagawa are inevitable. Starting out professionally at the same club, Kakitani is the owner of the iconic number eight shirt at Cerezo that was once worn by the Man Utd player. Both are light, quick-footed, intelligent footballers with tremendous vision and a magnetic first touch. Culpi, the man responsible for turning Kagawa from a defensive midfielder to an attacking one, believes Kakitani is capable of following in Kagawa’s footsteps and becoming a success in Europe.

“Right from the beginning it was evident that he (Shinji Kagawa) was going to be an important player,” Culpi tells us. “On top of his terrific energy and skills, he also had a fantastic attitude and that is why he has been so successful. With Yoichiro it has taken a little longer, but he is now on the right path. If he continues scoring the goals and making the assists that he is, he can reach the same level.”

In order to do that, you feel that the 23-year-old needs to move to Europe and prove himself against the very best. He doesn’t appear to be in a huge hurry to leave his homeland though. Earlier this year he was quoted as saying that Barcelona were the only club in the world who could tempt him away from his current club, however, it would appear that these words were taken slightly out of context.

“That’s not what I meant,” he says. “What I was trying to say was that I am not thinking about moving abroad right now. My focus is on Cerezo, I am working hard every day to help make this club as successful as possible.”

So it appears likely that Kakitani will still be around for the remainder of the current campaign. Beyond that, in spite of what he says, it seems certain that he will move on. A player of his immense pedigree deserves to be playing on a bigger stage. No doubt speculation will intensify even further if he can put in some match winning performance against China PR, Australia and South Korea in next week’s EAFF East Asian Cup.

European Soccer Digest Presenter Manami Ui, also speaking to Weekender, on Yoichiro Kakitani: “I think of all the current players in the J-League, Kakitani would be the most likely to succeed in Europe. There are a number of exciting young players in the division right now like (Yuya) Kubo and (Genki) Haraguchi, but I feel Kakitani has that something extra special. He is great to watch and it will be interesting to see how he fares for the national team.”

Photo: Sean Carroll