VVV Venlo may have taken its eye off the ball when it opted not to sign Shinji Kagawa.
But the Dutch second-division side cashed in on the sale of both Keisuke Honda and Maya Yoshida, and chairman Hai Berden says the club is happy to continue offering a stepping stone to Japanese players hoping to make it big in Europe.
Thailand-based striker Robert Cullen also played for Venlo, London Olympic attacking midfielder Yuki Otsu is still with the club and Berden has been combining other business with a scouting mission in Japan to find young talent looking to replicate the success enjoyed by Honda.
“I see Venlo for the Japanese as a stepping stone. Stay there 18 months or two years and then move to a bigger club. I think it is easier to start with a smaller club than a big club,” Berden told Kyodo News in a recent interview.
“Venlo is in a good location,” he said, explaining that the southeastern city is close to Dusseldorf and its huge Japanese community.
“The Dusseldorf-Venlo area is huge for the settlement of Japanese companies and residents so players like to be in that kind of region because they can go to Japanese restaurants and have many friends. They can feel comfortable in that area,” he said.
“The second thing is that VVV is not a big club and I make it clear to players that when you go to Europe it takes quite a long time to adapt to our living style, culture and it is better to do that with a small club because then at least you can play. If you go to Chelsea, you might not even make the bench and will be outside of the team. But when they come to VVV they can learn, they can understand our culture and our system and our language, then after that they can make the next step.”
Honda, now with AC Milan, joined VVV in January 2008 from Nagoya Grampus on a recommendation from his former Nagoya boss Sef Vergoosen and made a major impact before moving to CSKA Moscow and Milan.
After experiencing relegation, Honda, made captain, scored 16 goals the following campaign to help get VVV back into the top flight and was voted MVP of the second division that season.
Berden says he was immediately impressed with Honda, who became known as “Keizer Keisuke” (Emperor Keisuke) among Venlo fans, and is not surprised the bleach-blonde Japan international has gone from strength to strength.
“To me he (Honda) was like (Dutch legend Johan) Cruyff. From the beginning I compared him with Cruyff because as a personality, not only a football player, he has a goal and does everything to achieve that goal,” Berden said. “If you have that attitude with all the skills he has, then you will know that you will be a top player.
“When we won promotion he was the captain, the boss on the pitch. When I compare him with Cruyff, Cruyff always was willing to fight with authorities about what happened with the team and with the players and you can see with Honda he is doing the same. He stands for the team and that is why they accepted him as captain. I was impressed with him from the beginning.”
So how did Kagawa slip through the net and end up at Borussia Dortmund and now Manchester United?
Then-manager Jan van Dijk did not show much interest in either Kagawa, who at the time was injured, or Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima, who currently plays for Standard Liege in Belgium.
Berden said he had been very impressed by Kagawa but left the call to van Dijk.
“When a coach says he is not sure, you have to trust him because he has to work with the players,” said Berden. “One bad game can give the wrong impression. They (Kawashima and Kagawa) also could have come to Venlo, but it didn’t happen and so after that we decided to take Cullen and now we have Otsu.
“I think players should not stay with Venlo too long and what we always say in the beginning that for Japanese players is that it is good to stay for two years. That was the case with Keisuke and Maya. We realize they won’t stay for long because in the end they want to make a step up.
“For us it is good because we can also make a profit from a transfer if everything works out as we expect. It doesn’t always work out but so far we have had a good nose. Japanese are very interested to go to Venlo because they see there are chances.”
Berden said he was keen to give something back to Japan and with some of the profit made on the sale of Honda, Venlo built a “soccer court” in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture. Another is being planned for Nagasaki, the hometown of Southampton defender Yoshida, Japan’s London Olympic team captain.
“We could make some money on the transfer of Honda and also Maya,” said Berden. “We were lucky to get these players so I thought we could give something back. I talked with the Japan Football Association and I said we would like to give them something back for the young players, especially in places where soccer has to be developed like Kanazawa.
“It is an area that doesn’t have much football. Now with Maya we are considering to give a second court and make it in Nagasaki where he was born and lived. I am a frequent visitor to Japan and I like the people so I know that if you take something you can give something back.”
Berden declined to name names when asked who he has been impressed with after taking in a handful of games so far on his trip here but hopes to have a new recruit to join up with Otsu after the end of the Japanese season.
“When I am here I am taking in several matches and looking for potential players, young players that are not established and under 20,” he said. “In Holland the salaries are quite high on average and one of the requirements in Holland is that you have to prove quality and show that they have played for one of the national team levels and there is a salary bottom. You have to give a minimum salary and it is about €220,000s for under-20s but above that it is double.
“That’s not in every country but it is one of the requirements in Holland. That is why you have to look for a certain level and quality of player. Normally we have two Japanese players at our club but now we only have Yuki and we are looking to take one at the end of this season, an attacking midfielder or forward.”