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More to Europe than meets the eye for players moving abroad

by Andrew Mckirdy

Several players have returned to the J. League from frustrating overseas experiences this winter, but until Japanese soccer begins to appreciate the diversity of the European game, more are likely to come unstuck in the future.

National team defender Masahiko Inoha ended a six-month spell with Croatia’s Hajduk Split to sign for Vissel Kobe last week, saying he had “never suffered so much torment” after rows over payment and conditions. Fellow defender Tomoaki Makino has sought a season’s refuge at Urawa Reds after a miserable year with FC Cologne, striker Kisho Yano has returned to Albirex Niigata from Freiburg, and a host of other players spent the final day of the European transfer window frantically scrabbling for a fresh start.

While all this was happening, attacking midfielder Shinji Kagawa burst into life with Borussia Dortmund, refinding the form that defined his brilliant debut campaign in Germany last season. Many other Japanese players have proved they can thrive overseas in recent years, but many have also made the mistake of viewing every European club in the same light without regard for the myriad differences between them.

Inoha’s transfer to Split is a case in point. The defender won the J. League title twice after joining Kashima Antlers from FC Tokyo in 2008, and after establishing himself with the national team over the first half of last year, the then-25-year-old announced his intention to raise his level further by moving to a European club.

His destination, however, was a curious one. Inoha joined a Hajduk side starved of success in a league light years behind the continent’s traditional centers of power, and if the aim was to use Croatia as a stepping stone toward bigger things, its remoteness from the European mainstream was always going to make that difficult.

But Inoha is not the only player whose transfer judgment has been called into question in recent years. Keisuke Honda joined Russia’s CSKA Moscow on a four-year deal just six months before the 2010 World Cup brought him a worldwide audience of suitors, while goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima followed up his four appearances in South Africa with a transfer to lowly Belgian side Lierse. It did not take long before both were looking to move again.

Of course there is much to be admired in players leaving their comfort zone, and there are surely positives to be taken from even the toughest of experiences. A European substitutes’ bench is not necessarily worse for development than regular J. League action, and after six months on loan with the world’s best at Bayern Munich, former Gamba Osaka prodigy Takashi Usami should emerge as a better player.

But the view that simply anywhere in Europe is an improvement on the J. League is a myth that many are learning the hard way. Top talent will always be drawn to the biggest leagues, but two decades of steady progress in Japan means players should consider the merits of home before settling for anything less.

Inoha and Makino deserve credit for cutting their losses and returning rather than drifting further down the European food chain, and there is nothing to say they cannot use the opportunity to regroup and try again in the future.

If improving as a player is the objective, it seems the grass is not always greener on the other side.