While Urawa Reds storm up the J. League table after a disastrous start to the season, one former player is quietly rebuilding his own reputation abroad with slightly less fanfare.
For Shinji Ono, just seeing regular first-team action in a European league is a triumph in itself. Ono, once the golden boy of Japanese soccer after making the 1998 World Cup squad at the age of 18, found his career at a crossroads at the beginning of this year.
The midfielder returned to the J. League with Reds at the start of 2006, hoping to regain form and fitness in time for the World Cup after a 4 1/2-year spell with Feyenoord in the Netherlands.
Ono’s time in Rotterdam had soured following a hugely successful debut season that brought him a UEFA Cup winner’s medal, but his move back to Japan could not provide the cure for a career stalled by injury, inconsistency and bad luck.
Ono played just 11 minutes at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, and although Urawa won its first J. League championship the same year, the midfielder played only a cameo role as injuries again took their toll.
Ono then stated his intention to dominate the J. League in 2007, setting his sights on winning the player of the year award for the first time, but such bold ambitions looked borne out of bullish optimism rather than serious reality.
The whole country seemed to agree that Ono was washed up, and a series of frustrating displays throughout the season offered little to suggest otherwise. Ivica Osim used 44 players during his 14 months in charge of the national team. Not one of them was Ono.
Reds manager Holger Osieck said before the 2007 Club World Cup that he was looking for Ono to fill the boots of injured playmaker Robson Ponte. He played just 17 minutes.
One of Japan’s most gifted players looked finished, his career on the scrap-heap while South Korea’s Park Ji Sung, another who had moved from the J. League to a big Dutch club, showed the world what Ono could have been while ripping defenses apart at Manchester United.
Then, at the start of 2008, a club from one of Europe’s strongest leagues came knocking on Urawa’s door.
VfL Bochum is not one of Germany’s traditional powerhouses, but after protracted negotiations due to concern over his fitness, Ono was finally given an unlikely second chance to make it in Europe.
He seems to be grabbing it with both hands.
Ono set up two goals in his Bundesliga debut in February as Bochum notched its first-ever away win over Werder Bremen and, although he has started the club’s last few games on the bench, he looks to have found a club that has faith in him.
That could be the key to Ono’s rehabilitation.
Osieck never looked fully convinced of the midfielder’s abilities, and often left him off the team even when fully fit. It is inevitable that a career so badly ravaged by injuries would test a player’s mental endurance, but Ono has looked especially fragile in mind as well as body.
He may well thrive away from the goldfish bowl of a Japanese audience that knows what he could have been.
Talk of a recall to the national team is still a long way off, but it is easy to forget that he is still only 28. If Ono makes the most of his second chance, his story may yet have one final twist.
Life as Japan’s national team manager cannot be easy for Takeshi Okada.
As if it’s not bad enough that his predecessor Ivica Osim’s image is flashed up on the stadium big screen at every match the Bosnian attends, Okada now has another former Japan boss casting a shadow over him.
Zico’s excellent work with Fenerbahce has not gone unnoticed in Japan.
In the wake of the Turkish side’s Champions League win over Chelsea last Wednesday, one Japanese sports daily ran a story speculating that the Brazilian might return to his old job should Okada fail to cut the mustard.
Such talk seems harsh on Okada, not to mention unlikely.
As bad as the defeat in Bahrain was, Okada has lost only one game in the short time he has been in charge. A defeat in Japan’s next game against Oman would be catastrophic, but with all World Cup matches taking place in the space of one month, there would be no time to make a change.
The JFA has given Okada the job. Now they must let him get on with it, and stand or fall by the results.