SAITAMA – Last year was one to forget for both Urawa Reds and Tomoaki Makino, but the national team defender believes 2012 will be a different story after joining the fallen Saitama giants on a season-long loan.
Urawa, Japan’s best-supported team and J. League champions in 2006, began preparations for another campaign in the first division over the weekend, with everyone at the club simply happy to be there. Reds avoided relegation to J2 only on the final day of last season, with defeat in October’s Nabisco Cup final rubbing salt into the wounds of a club that has been in steady decline since winning the Asian Champions League in 2007.
For Makino, 2011 was hardly a bed of roses either. The 24-year-old left Sanfrecce Hiroshima for German side Cologne in January after making the 2010 J. League team of the season, only to find that life in the Bundesliga was not what he had anticipated. Makino made just eight appearances for the Rhine club, prompting Cologne general manager — and former Urawa boss — Volker Finke to seek a solution with a 12-month loan deal with his previous employers.
With the turning of the calendar wiping the slate clean, Makino is confident the arrangement can benefit both parties.
“There are a lot of players here that I knew beforehand, so already it feels quite natural for me,” he said at Urawa’s training ground over the weekend. “Urawa Reds are the standard-bearer club of Japanese football. The image I had before I came here was that this is Japan’s big club, and it needs to get back to the level that it belongs at.
“This is the biggest club in Japan, so we need to be up fighting among the top positions. We want to make sure this is a season that doesn’t leave us all disappointed.”
Despite the unfamiliar surroundings, Makino should feel right at home at Saitama Stadium. Former Sanfrecce manager Mihailo Petrovic has been chosen to lead Urawa into the new campaign, and Makino says the appointment was key to his own arrival.
“I know the manager very well, and for me this was a very big thing,” he said of the Austrian, who left Sanfrecce last season after 5½ years in charge. “Petrovic helped me to grow as a player, and that is something that will stay with me.
“So for me to be able to work with him again makes me very happy. He is my manager, but we are very close. He is like a father figure to me.”
There was no such familiarity for Makino to fall back on during his time in Germany, however. The defender made only a handful of appearances under manager Frank Schaefer in the months following his arrival, but when Norwegian Stale Solbakken took over in the summer, even a place on the bench slipped beyond his reach.
“I wasn’t able to show what I could do over the course of a year,” Makino said. “I felt a bit lost in German football. Solbakken had a very difficult philosophy and he wanted to play direct football. I wasn’t able to live up to that, and that was very disappointing for me.”
But that does not mean Makino is prepared to turn his back on Europe for good.
“I know that being there for a year was a long time, but I haven’t given up on it yet,” he said. “I still want to challenge myself and that’s what I intend to do. I took a lot of positive things from my time in Germany. It’s not something I can explain in words, but hopefully it’s something I can express on the pitch.”
Makino will have to stand out at Urawa if he wants to secure a return to Europe, but then catching the eye has never been much of a problem. The attack-minded defender’s flamboyant style has always been as much a part of his game as his rampaging runs forward, with Sanfrecce’s elaborately choreographed goal celebrations the product of his fertile imagination.
“First of all I want to contribute to the team and get results,” he said. “Playing with teammates who I had a great relationship with at Sanfrecce was something that gave me a lot of pleasure personally, and I can’t wait to play in front of the Urawa Reds fans. I want to put on a performance for them.”
The goal celebrations, however, will have to wait.
“It would be nice to do that,” he said. “But first we have to get results.”