FRANKFURT — It’s fair to say that if Junichi Inamoto had begun his European adventure at Eintracht Frankfurt instead of Arsenal his star would probably be shining that much brighter now.
A stepping-stone start at a smaller club than Arsenal would have been far more beneficial for a young Inamoto seven years ago.
But in 2001, Arsene Wenger saw enough in Gamba Osaka’s young and dynamic defensive midfielder to bring him to London, this ahead of his star performances at the 2002 World Cup.
Inamoto couldn’t be blamed for his move to Arsenal — when Wenger comes calling what young player wouldn’t want to sign? — but it proved devastating to a career that promised so much more.
The rot set in as he kicked his heels on the Gunners bench and the nickname bestowed upon Inamoto — “T-shirt” — suggested he was seen as little more than a shirt-selling commodity.
Since then, Inamoto’s has been a checkered career. His summer move to Frankfurt in the summer made it seven clubs in seven years for the Japan international, even though he’s only just turned 28.
After Arsenal came Fulham, where he fared better despite injuries, West Bromwich Albion, League 1 side Cardiff on loan and then back to West Brom.
With his playing career in English soccer sputtering to a halt and his place in the Japan national team no longer assured, Inamoto moved to Turkey with Galatasaray in the middle of 2006. His performances there piqued the interest of Japan coach Ivica Osim and then Frankfurt, which signed him on the eve of the Asian Cup finals.
It was telling that Inamoto opted to train with his new club instead of joining the national team in Southeast Asia. Inamoto knows he isdrinking in the last-chance saloon with regard to his European career.
The early signs for Inamoto in Germany are promising. He has found a regular spot in the Frankfurt starting XI and in a recent German League match against Hansa Rostock that The Japan Times attended, he appeared to have gained the respect of the fans. A call up by Osim for Japan’s friendly matches against Austria and Switzerland duly followed.
The Japan Times, along with a select group of journalists from Japan, spoke to Inamoto at Frankfurt’s Commerzbank Arena prior to the Hansa Rostock match to find out, among other things, whether after years of drifting in Europe one of Japan’s most exciting talents will finally find himself in Frankfurt.
How did your move to Frankfurt come about?
I heard about it just before the Turkish season ended. At that time I was still talking with Galatasaray about the possibility of my contract being extended. I was glad to get the offer from Frankfurt. I had no hesitation in joining.
What’s your first impression of your new surroundings?
All I knew about the club was that Takahara was playing! I now know the city of Frankfurt and I have some kind of image of the club. I’ve been (here) before for the Confederations Cup (in 2005). The club’s facilities and environment are excellent and I felt happy to be here.
How is Frankfurt different to Turkey and England?
The system is more rigid here. For example, the way of life is just how I thought German people would be. The Germans are more neat than the English and that’s similar to Japanese!
Takahara already being at Frankfurt must help?
I’m a newcomer to the team, so I thought his existence would help me a lot. But it turned out it wouldn’t because he left the team to play in the Asian Cup! (laughter). It would be nice if German people became more interested in Japan by watching us playing together because no Japanese pair have played before in the Bundesliga.
Is it difficult to assimilate?
In the sense of getting used to a new team, this is the sixth team for me to join as a newcomer, so that was no problem. Neither was the communication. I can’t the speak German language much, but many guys speak English.
Are you studying the German language?
Yes, I am. With our new Mexican player (Aaron Galindo).
What’s the atmosphere around the team like?
As opposed to my image of German people in general, my teammates are very friendly, probably more than my teammates were in England. So I quickly made friends with them.
It’s been said you want to play volante (defensive midfielder).
When the coach explained the team’s system to me, he told me this season he’ll use one or two players in the center of midfield and I told him I’m good there.
For Japan against Colombia, you played top-shita (just behind the forwards)
Ask Osim about that! (laughter).
So you play better when you are not in that position?
Osim had his plan. In that game (against Colombia), I didn’t have much practice time before I was told to play there. I guess he tried something because he’s a no-nonsense coach. I enjoyed playing there, to show one of the options of the way I can be used. But my strength is playing in midfield.
Frankfurt’s playing style is not much different than Osim Japan’s, is it?
I don’t know. I was called up by Osim only once. I only practiced under him about one week. I’d like to play for him when I have chance, and learn under him.
Did you watch the Asian Cup?
No. It wasn’t shown in Germany.
Is playing in Germany going to help you to be called up for the national team?
Yeah. But unless I make appearances in games, I won’t be called up. That was not the case with Zico. It would be great that I improve enough to constantly play for 90 minutes and get a call from Osim.
So, what’s the goal for team this season?
Our goal is avoid the relegation playoffs and stay in this division. For myself, playing every game is my goal.
Did you know the Iranian player (Mehdi) Mahdavikia before you joined Frankfurt?
No. I haven’t played against Iran so often. I have just watched their games. He is good at dribbling in space, so I need to make quick passes to let him play comfortably.
In our team, many players like dribbling in from both sides and one of our focuses during practices is attacking the flanks and centering the ball quickly.
What are the big differences between Turkish and German soccer?
Galatasaray is one of the big teams in Turkey, so basically the opponents play defensively and use counter-attacks and I played alone in middle. My job there was spraying the ball around. That’s a lot different to the Frankfurt playing style.
The level in Germany is higher than that of Turkey. My role here is play a little bit more up front. Playing at a higher level is a big step up and a big experience.
How do you look back on your time in England?
The experience of playing in England for five years gave me some confidence. They move the ball forward extremely quickly and this is rare in the world. The switch between offense and defense in Premier League is the quickest in Europe.
How about the way teams prepare for a game in Germany compared to Japan and other countries?
German players practice harder.
In England, we seldom had two-a-day sessions. I sometimes wonder why Premier League players have so little practice but are so physical on the pitch. Maybe they don’t eat as many potatoes as you would think they do! (laughter)
Have you experienced the so-called “Germanic spirit? when being tackled?”
Not really. I haven’t played here that long. But they play hard and aggressively go for the ball. This is something you don’t see much in Japan or the J. League.
Is the Frankfurt team different to what you thought?
I expected a more speedy approach in games . . . the team is less aggressive than I expected. They play solid soccer by passing the ball around.
It was the same in Turkey and I like this playing style, using solid passes.
Do you think you fit the team better than other teams you played for before?
I don’t know yet. Because the team plays me in games, I think I fit this team. Since I came here, I have the positive image for Germany and German people and I feel comfortable playing soccer here. There are no problems with the environment and my goal is to play well here.
Have you done sightseeing in Frankfurt?
Yes. There are a lot of nice buildings compared to Turkey (laughter).
Takahara took me to a Chinese restaurant in the suburbs. We’re going to visit a German food restaurant whose apple wine is famous, but basically I don’t go out alone. I stay home because I’ve been pretty busy. We have training twice a day during a week and I have German language classes in the afternoon.
Which food do you like best, Turkey, Germany, England?
Definitely not English food! (laughter) Turkish food is good and so is German food. I feel that way because of my experience in England.
What’s the atmosphere like when playing away matches?
I really notice the difference to home matches. Almost all the fans at the stadium unite to cheer for their home team. That was not the case with England.
Do you see any big differences between Germany and Japan at youth level?
There are bigger and nice stadiums here, but I don’t think it’s much different. Although I can only talk for Gamba Osaka’s youth set-up, kids there have chances to play next to Gamba players.
Japan has a good youth environment now and it’s very similar to Germany. As far as I know from my experience in the Premier League and Turkey, Japan has a better environment than those two.
What’s the standard of Germany’s youth like?
I don’t know about here, but there are a lot of good young players in Turkey. At Galatasaray, we played practice games with youth or Under-20 teams and I saw a lot of good players.
Here, we rarely play a game or practice together with younger players in different categories.
There are some Japanese players heading overseas without the experience of playing in J. League. What’s your opinion on this?
In my opinion, it’s very good to go abroad to play soccer right after graduating high school. It’s also positive to go into the J. League and become a starter there, then get called up for national team before going overseas.
I think young players should have the experience playing overseas. Maybe some young players think the J. League’s level will not improve and head overseas early.
It’s been six years since you played in Japan. What is your long-term goal?
I have a three-year contract including an option for the final year. It’s up to my performance here as to which team I transfer to in the future. I hope to grab a chance to transfer to better teams such as Bayern (Munich) or Schalke (04) by playing well here.
In two games I played so far, I was replaced midway through the game. I need to earn the confidence from coaches enough to play 90 minutes. Those two games were the first I played against the Bundesliga teams. They were a little different than I expected before . . .