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Haraguchi charts path for eventual move to Europe

by Andrew Mckirdy

Staff Writer

While more and more young players look to Europe for a soccer education, Urawa Reds midfielder Genki Haraguchi is enjoying the benefits of home schooling.

This summer has seen a further exodus of promising talent from the J. League, with 19-year-old Takashi Usami moving from Gamba Osaka to Bayern Munich and Kashiwa Reysol’s 21-year-old Yuki Otsu on the brink of signing for Borussia Monchengladbach without either having appeared for the full national team.

At 20 and with a reputation as one of Japan’s best prospects, Haraguchi would seem the obvious candidate to join them. When the offer of a contract extension until 2014 with Urawa came his way last month, however, the Saitama native had no hesitation in putting pen to paper.

“I’ve been with Urawa Reds since I was a junior high school student,” Haraguchi said at the club’s training ground earlier this week. “I was brought up through the system playing for the junior youth and youth teams, and you could say that I want to pay them back. Since I broke into the first team I haven’t done anything of any real consequence, and I want to achieve results and win titles with this team.

“Of course, if I’m asked if I want to go to Europe, then I have to say yes, and I’m also keen to get there quickly. But I also feel that I will be able to grow sufficiently as a player in the J. League. That’s what I want to do.”

If his performances this season are anything to go by, Haraguchi will have no shortage of suitors when the time comes. Five goals tell only part of the story of a player who has improved immeasurably over the past six months, and a fierce desire to go further suggests there is more to come before the year is out.

“It makes me very happy to see that all the hard work and effort I have put in on the training ground is bearing fruit, but I’m not finished yet and there is still plenty of room to grow,” he said. “I’ve got better in a lot of areas, but if you look at the numbers you can see I have scored more goals and played more minutes than I have before. I think that’s proof of the improvement in my game.”

The manner in which Haraguchi’s goals have been scored also highlights a growing confidence, with his equalizer in last Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Gamba — a bullet header after muscling past former national team defender Akira Kaji — a case in point. But with former Urawa firebrand Zeljko Petrovic now in the manager’s seat, perhaps it is no surprise.

“I’m learning a lot from him,” Haraguchi said of the Montenegrin, who has coached in Portugal, the Netherlands, Germany and England. “He’s a manager who will fight to the very end and never gives up. Tactically he also brings what he knows from overseas, and he tells us a lot about how things are in Europe.”

But Haraguchi had more than just Petrovic’s words for motivation against Gamba last weekend. With Usami opening the scoring for the Kansai side in his first game since announcing a six-month loan to Bayern as of July 15, Haraguchi was determined to crash the party.

“Usami is a great player, and even though he’s a year younger than me he has been able to leave his mark on the J. League,” Haraguchi said. “For me he’s a real incentive. I don’t want to lose out to him, and because of that we spur each other on to work hard and succeed. Usami scored the first goal and that made me feel like I had to score one too.”

For all Haraguchi’s personal success this season, however, Reds still find themselves further adrift of the leading pack than ever. Japan’s best-supported club seemed set for a period of domination when it won its first J. League title in 2006, but not even subsequent 2nd-, 7th-, 6th- and 10th-place finishes could prepare the Saitama side for its current league position of 15th.

“I don’t know what the reason is,” Haraguchi said. “When we won the league we had great players like Washington, and we don’t have that type of player here now. But I hate it when people think that’s the reason why we’ve slid down, and I want to help get us back up there.

“Now there has been what you could call a change of generation. Of course the veterans still have a lot to offer, but players who have come through the academy like myself, Naoki Yamada and Shunki Takahashi are at an age where we have to come to the fore and drive the team on.”

Given Urawa’s problems over the past five years, the path toward redemption is unlikely to be a smooth one. As far as Haraguchi’s personal progress is concerned, however, the player himself has it all mapped out.

“Of course I want to play in Europe, for sure,” he said. “In order to do that I want to improve here, get into the national team and then make the move overseas.”