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Strikers looking to blaze new goal trail in European leagues

by Andrew Mckirdy

Ryoichi Maeda will be disappointed that his proposed move to West Ham United broke down last weekend, but the growing overseas interest in Japanese strikers is nevertheless an encouraging sign for the national team.

Jubilo Iwata forward Maeda failed to win a deal with West Ham after spending three days training with the London club, but fellow national team strikers Tadanari Lee and Mike Havenaar have both left the J. League for European teams this winter. Lee joined English Championship side Southampton while Havenaar signed with Dutch first-division outfit Vitesse Arnhem, and although both clubs are hardly among the continent’s elite, the transfers are far from insignificant given Japan’s dismal record in producing strikers capable of making their mark abroad.

From Akinori Nishizawa’s brief stint at Bolton Wanderers to Masashi Oguro’s struggles in Italy with Torino, the list of failures is extensive. Naohiro Takahara could be considered the exception after his goals earned him the nickname “Sushi Bomber” during five years in Germany with Hamburg and Eintracht Frankfurt, but even he did not enjoy the same level of success as midfielders like Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura.

That distinction between provider and finisher highlights the traditional strengths and weaknesses of the Japanese game. Skillful midfielders with the technical ability to set up chances have never been hard to come by, but strikers who can be relied on to put the ball in the back of the net have always been in shorter supply.

The national team has had to shoulder the burden over the years, with former manager Takeshi Okada so unwilling to place his trust in a recognized forward at the 2010 World Cup that he fielded an attacking midfielder, Keisuke Honda, as the focal point of the attack. Maeda, Lee and Havenaar have all been given a chance in current manager Alberto Zaccheroni’s team, but as yet no one has been able to make the position his own.

All three, however, certainly have the talent to do so. Lee has improved immensely since leaving Kashiwa Reysol for Sanfrecce Hiroshima in 2009, while Havenaar also impressed last year by scoring 17 goals and making his international debut while playing for a Ventforet Kofu side headed for relegation.

West Ham fans will miss out on the chance to enjoy Maeda’s refined touch and intelligent movement, but he remains an outstanding player and it is no surprise that he showed up on the Londoners’ radar in the first place.

Of course it is not only the individual qualities of the strikers in question that has made them such an attractive proposition for European clubs. The J. League still remains a rich hunting ground for cheap talent, and when 26-year-olds with international experience like Lee are among the bargains on offer, who can blame them?

But a change in perception has also aided the prospects of Japanese strikers abroad. Where once Asian forwards were considered too small physically to hold their own, a succession of players from Takahara to Sunderland’s 187-cm South Korean Ji Dong Won have helped to explode that myth.

After years of doubt, Japanese strikers have earned the chance to prove themselves overseas. Now it is up to Lee and Havenaar to make the most of that opportunity.