SAITAMA – Urawa Reds will be disappointed if their pursuit of this season’s J. League title comes to nothing, but attacking midfielder Tsukasa Umesaki has survived enough setbacks in his career to know that the bad times can be just as important as the good.
Reds head into this weekend’s fixtures third in the table, six points behind leaders Sanfrecce Hiroshima and three behind Saturday’s opponent Vegalta Sendai with six games left to play. Urawa’s title challenge has come as a surprise after escaping relegation only on the final day of last season, but the 2006 champions’ capacity for self-destruction has still not been fully exorcized.
A 2-1 home defeat in the previous round of matches against already relegated Consadole Sapporo — whose demotion was sealed in record-fast time the week before — has threatened to derail Urawa’s challenge, and Umesaki is determined to make amends.
“There are only six games left, and against Sendai we are facing a direct rival for the title, so if we don’t win on Saturday then I think it’s over for us,” the 25-year-old said at Urawa’s training ground earlier this week. “The Consadole game was very important, but we lost it. It was a difficult defeat to take, but now we just have to move on.
“Before the season started, I didn’t think it was possible to be in the position we are in now. Last year we were fighting against relegation. We had expectations at the start of the season, but I didn’t think we would be battling to win the championship.”
If Urawa’s title bid has been unexpected, however, so too has Umesaki’s contribution. A dismal run of injuries since joining the club from Oita Trinita in 2008 has seen the Nagasaki native spend more time in the treatment room than on the pitch, but after missing only one league game and scoring five goals so far this season, his persistence has finally been rewarded.
“It’s very fulfilling,” he said. “I’m looking forward to every game, and it feels like I am in an environment where I can improve as a player every day.
“To be honest it has been difficult, but what I’ve been through has made me what I am today. I think it has made me stronger, but it has also made me more gentle. In the past all I thought about was producing results, but that’s not my priority now. If you play football to feel enjoyment and pleasure, it allows you to relax and play without stress. My outlook has become more positive.”
Umesaki does, however, admit his injury struggles left him with doubts along the way.
“When you come back from injury, you can’t just pick up from where you left off and play at the same level,” he said. “But you still have an image in your mind of the way you played before. That gap between what your brain wants to do and what your body can actually do is the most frustrating thing to deal with.”
Given the time he has spent out of the game, it is difficult to equate the Umesaki of today with the teenager who burst onto the scene with Trinita in 2005. An international cap and a six-month loan move to French side Grenoble followed before Umesaki had even celebrated his 20th birthday, and he admits the pressure was hard to handle.
“I was 19 and I was only in France for six months, but it was the first time I had lived on my own and I didn’t speak the language,” he said. “It was also the first time I had to do things like cook for myself, and all that meant that I couldn’t concentrate on my football.
“I was also 19 when I played for the national team, and that feels like something long ago in the past. But I was lucky to have had that experience. It would be very difficult for me to get into the national team now, but I’m working hard here every day with that aim in mind.”
Umesaki clearly has a wise head on young shoulders, but he knows there are no easy answers for the next generation of Japanese talent looking to make their mark overseas. The winger may not have followed the textbook career path, but regrets are the last thing on his mind.
“If you go to Europe when you are young, it gives you the chance to get used to life over there,” he said. “But the J. League is at a good level, and it is also possible to get a lot of good experience by staying here. Personally, I think you have to win something in Japan before you can think of playing abroad.
“I’ve had good experiences and bad experiences, but all those experiences have shaped me and so none of it has been a waste of time. I appreciate everything that has happened to me.”