Japan coach Takeshi Okada’s stated aim of taking the Blue Samurai to the World Cup semi-finals has taken a bit of a battering in recent months, with an underwhelming run of results culminating in Wednesday’s 3-0 defeat to a second-string Serbia side in a friendly game in Osaka.
“We can expect nothing from his team at the World Cup, to say nothing about reaching the last four,” warned Japanese TV commentator Sergio Echigo ahead of the game. “The national team is facing a crisis.”
Thank goodness, then, for Keisuke Honda.
With Shunsuke Nakamura’s career on the wane after a disappointing spell at Espanyol prompted an unscheduled return to formative club Yokohama Marinos, the stage is set for Honda to become the new golden boy of Japanese football. The 23-year-old playmaker arrived in Europe in January 2008 when he joined Dutch side VVV-Venlo. Relegated from the Eredivisie in Honda’s first season, VVV bounced straight back up in 2008-2009, with Honda plundering 16 goals in 36 matches and being named the second division’s player of the year in the process.
Having starred for VVV in the first half of this season’s Dutch championship (scoring a cracker against FC Utrecht in August) he was signed by Russian heavyweights CSKA Moscow for a reported fee of €6 million in January and now forms part of a fearsome forward line that also includes Serbian speed merchant Miloš Krasić, 19-year-old Russian schemer Alan Dzagoev, Chile winger Mark González and Czech international forward Tomáš Necid.
Left-footed, like Nakamura, Honda is likewise a skilled dead-ball technician and earned himself the nickname Keizer Keisuke at VVV for his set-piece potency. The Keizer’s most recent victims were Sevilla, who were dumped out of the Champions League at the last-16 stage after Honda’s second-half free-kick at the Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán deceived goalkeeper Andrés Palop to earn CSKA a 3-2 aggregate victory. Honda had earlier teed up Necid for the Russians’ opening goal and his strike took the Moscow club into the Champions League last eight for the first time in their history and also made him the first Japanese player to score in the knockout stage of Europe’s premier cup competition.
“I didn’t expect to score because I thought the keeper would get it, but the ball was a bit wet and maybe that surprised him,” said Honda, whose marketability in Japan owes as much to his trusty left foot as his bleached hair and razor-sharp cheekbones. “Perhaps I got a bit lucky but a goal is a goal. I took a risk in the transfer to CSKA because there is always a risk in any move – but I think I made the right one.”
CSKA fell to Inter in the quarter-finals this week and the next big challenge facing Honda is a World Cup group in which Japan will confront the Netherlands, Denmark and Cameroon for a place in the last 16. The chances are that Japan will fall short of Okada’s lofty semi-final objective, but the nation’s expectations are a burden that Honda will have to get used to.