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Firebrand Okubo targeting title at new home Frontale

by Andrew Mckirdy

Staff Writer

Yoshito Okubo is looking forward to a new challenge after joining Kawasaki Frontale ahead of the new J. League season, but the fiery forward is not about to tone down his style just because of a change in surroundings.

Okubo arrived in Kanagawa last month on a transfer from Vissel Kobe, calling time on a six-year association with the Kansai club after losing last season’s battle to avoid relegation on the final day.

Okubo’s loyalty to Vissel ran deep after the team welcomed him back from an abortive six-month stint in Germany with Wolfsburg in 2009, but after relocating to the Kanto region for the first time in his career, the 30-year-old now finds himself with revised ambitions for the coming season.

“To be honest I really didn’t think I was going to leave Vissel, and the move took me by surprise,” Okubo said at Frontale’s training ground earlier this week. “But I began to think of it as a new challenge. Frontale were very keen to sign me, and I thought they had players capable of winning the title, so I decided to join.

“The team’s goal is to win the league or one of the cups, and my personal target is to score 15 goals. I believe we have a very good chance of winning the title. If I didn’t think that, I wouldn’t be here.”

After finishing eighth with a young squad still finding its feet under manager Yahiro Kazama last season, Frontale could certainly use someone of Okubo’s experience. The Fukuoka native has played for clubs in Spain and Germany as well as racking up 54 appearances for the national team, but his desire to make a contribution remains as strong as ever.

“What I can bring to the team is goals,” he said. “Scoring goals and helping to set them up. I don’t feel any kind of pressure- I’m just here to do what I can do. I’m an older player and I have a lot of experience, so I feel a strong sense of responsibility. But I don’t feel any pressure at all.”

Pressure is certainly something Okubo knows well having been involved in several relegation battles with Vissel, but the Kansai club’s luck finally ran out on the final day of last season. Vissel began the campaign with high hopes after making a string of eye-catching signings, but Okubo paints a picture of a dressing room pulling in different directions.

“It didn’t come together,” he said. “The team wasn’t united. Everyone had their own separate ideas and objectives, and that meant everything fell apart on the pitch. A weak team has its own particular atmosphere, and it all fell apart.

“It wasn’t really such a big surprise that Vissel went down. We were involved in a fight against relegation every year, and we always survived only by the skin of our teeth. Really it was just a matter of time before it actually happened.”

The team was not helped by the dismissal of manager Masahiro Wada after only eight matches, with caretaker Ryo Adachi making way for Akira Nishino only for the axe to fall again four games before the end of the season.

“We were all surprised that Wada was fired so quickly, and we felt that he could have been given more time,” said Okubo. “Then Adachi came in for a few games before Nishino took over, and from then on we thought we would do well.

“Then when Nishino was fired it shook us all up. We all said that we wanted him to stay, but he was still fired and that had the biggest impact on the team. If Nishino had stayed, I don’t think so many players would have left at the end of the season.”

But with the Vissel soap opera now firmly behind him, Okubo is free to concentrate on the future. The forward still harbors ambitions of reviving an international career that saw him start every game for Japan at the 2010 World Cup, but current manager Alberto Zaccheroni has so far preferred to look elsewhere.

“I’ve been called up once by Zaccheroni, but now he is really beginning to settle on the players that he wants to use,” Okubo said. “I don’t know if I’ll get another chance. If I do well here, then there is always the possibility that it could happen. I would certainly like it to.”

If Zaccheroni does decide to call on Okubo, he will be getting a player with a character unlike perhaps any other in the Japanese game. The forward’s fierce temper and stinging rebukes for referees, teammates and managers alike have landed him in hot water over the years, but Okubo makes no excuses for his behavior.

“People always say that I am not like a typical Japanese,” he said. “Japanese people are usually quiet and don’t have much of an attitude, but if I don’t let things out then it irritates me and makes me angry. If I keep my emotions to myself, then the stress builds up.

“I’ve been like that ever since I was little. But rather than that being a bad thing, I think it actually helps me. That’s my personality and I would never try to change how I play. If I did, I wouldn’t be me.”