Scoring an important goal obviously affects the outcome of a game. But it also sometimes changes the scorer’s career — as in the case with Japan and Fulham midfielder Junichi Inamoto.
His two goals in this past World Cup, a crucial second goal in Japan’s 2-2 draw with Belgium and the winning goal in a 1-0 win over Russia, paid off the hard work he put in at Arsenal the previous season. These brought him not only “confidence” but also a new club in the English Premier League, Fulham.
“Without those two goals, I wouldn’t have become what I am now,” Inamoto said in an interview with The Japan Times last month in London.
Last July, a few weeks after the World Cup, Inamoto moved across London from Arsenal to Fulham, also on a one-year loan from Gamba Osaka with the option of a three-year, permanent extension.
Inamoto appears to have come into his own after last season’s struggles in the Arsenal reserves.
He started off the season well for the Cottagers, becoming the first Japanese to play in the English Premier League after coming off the bench in the 69th minute against Bolton on Aug. 17. He then scored a hat trick against Italian club Bologna in the second leg of the Intertoto Cup final on Aug. 27, earning his side a berth in the UEFA Cup. He continued his good form scoring his first goal in the Premiership on Sept. 11 against Tottenham in his full time debut for Fulham.
“It would have been great if I had managed to keep that scoring rate going on like that. But I felt at the time that things wouldn’t always go that smoothly,” Inamoto said.
His feelings proved to be prophetic as he failed to maintain his early success and eventually lost his place in the first team.
“I scored goals in some early season games but I knew that these goals were coming largely from the confidence that I had gained in the World Cup,” the 23-year-old explained. “As I hadn’t played in the Premier League last season, this was my first taste of the league and I started to feel fatigue. I was paying for my absence from the Premiership last season.”
But the former Gamba boy began to show signs of recovery in the second leg of the UEFA Cup third round against Hertha Berlin on Dec. 11 when he came off the bench in the 62nd minute. In the following game at home against Birmingham City on Dec. 15, he was given another chance as a halftime substitute.
Unfortunately, Inamoto was forced to leave the game six minutes into the second half after being brought down by a heavy tackle from behind by Oliver Tebily.
The foul was worth a booking but the referee felt otherwise and kept his cards in his book. Inamoto tried to continue playing after receiving treatment on the sidelines. He soon realized that he couldn’t go on and limped off the pitch in pain. Fulham ended up losing the game 1-0.
“I was a bit surprised. I thought I had beaten him but he then tackled me from behind. I don’t remember it well as I felt so much pain. But I stretched the ligaments in my ankle,” Inamoto said.
“This is not my first major injury. I injured my knee twice previously. Once before the 1999 World Youth Championship and the second one came a year or two later. At that time, I had to sit out for three to four months. Compared to that, this one was not so bad — only four weeks.”
Should he have been booked for that foul?
“Yes. I actually thought something was wrong as no cards had been issued for fouls earlier in the game,” he said.
“But the refereeing standard here is quite different from that in Japan. The referees here (in the Premier League) don’t blow for fouls as often as they do in Japan and they often let the play go on.”
Did the difference in refereeing confuse him when he started in England?
“No, not really, because I have always been one of those who challenges hard,” Inamoto laughed. “So, after coming over here, I haven’t been whistled for as many fouls as I was in the J. League.”
What does he see as the main characteristics of the game in the Premier League? Many point out the speed and physicality of the game in England that distinguishes it from other leagues.
“I agree. I noticed the speed of play even when I watched Premiership games on television. But I’ve felt this speed more when playing and noticed the intense pressure that you have on the ball. The Premier League players give you very little time on the ball,” he said.
“It has taken me a while to get used to this. Even now, I sometimes feel this in the games. If you are slow to make decisions, you are forced to make passing mistakes or incorrect judgements in moves. Every single day is a lesson for me.”
There is another thing about the game in England that Inamoto found new — playing on wet pitches because of the amount of rain that England gets during winter.
“I am still trying to get used to the pitch conditions here,” he said. “When I played in Japan where you see pitches that are dry and in a good condition most of time, I didn’t have any problem in controlling the ball. But here pitches are often wet or in a poor condition and that makes it difficult to control the ball. It makes me realize that I still need to improve my ability to stop the ball where I want.
“You could say that most of the Japanese players have good technique. But I’m impressed with the European players. They probably have an advantage in that they get used to playing on these types of pitches and their ball-control is admirable.
“But playing conditions in the reserve league in England are poor. Arsenal’s reserve team pitch even has a slope. When you play there, you feel exhausted in the second half. I think I learned many things at Arsenal last season.”
In July 2001, Inamoto stunned the Japanese soccer world by signing for English powerhouse Arsenal on loan from Gamba. But he spent most of his time in the reserve league instead of in the Premiership. Inamoto managed to make two appearance each in the European Champions League and the English League Cup.
Although these were hard times for Inamoto, he worked hard with a positive attitude while training alongside some of the world’s top players such as Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Patrick Vieira. He learned something about the game there, which showed in his performance at the World Cup.
“To tell you the truth, it was tough as I couldn’t get playing opportunities at Arsenal. But even at the time, I told myself that was happening because I was not good enough. I just changed my way of thinking and tried to work harder, hoping that something good might happen later if I did so,” Inamoto said.
This kind of attitude reflects his personality — positive and persevering.
In his elementary school days, Inamoto had a long commute to train with the Gamba junior team everyday after school. It took him well over an hour and a half from his home in Sakai City, in south Osaka, to the ground in Suita City in the north. But Inamoto did it so willingly.
“Am I persevering?,” Inamoto asked. “My experience from last year probably has made me persevere more than before. But when I commuted over a long distance to train at Gamba, I didn’t think it was hard at all. I went there because I wanted to and it was fun to go training everyday with my friends. When it comes to soccer, I never feel anything negative.”
Coincidentally, Inamoto has been guided so far by mainly French managers — Frederic Antonetti at Gamba, Philippe Troussier with Japan, Arsene Wenger at Arsenal and Jean Tigana at Fulham.
“I wonder if I should have gone to the French League,” he joked.
Has he been influenced by any of these managers?
“That’s a difficult question,” Inamoto said, “because it could be different depending on each situation and game. All coaches have different tactics and character. No one could think that Troussier and Wenger are the same type of person.
“Wenger was actually very quiet although he occasionally shouted during the game. Tigana is also quiet but can get excited more often during the game. But overall I felt their passion.”
Troussier is well known for having a hot temper. Did this help the players?
“We, the players, became more independent to think and judge what to do, not just to do as we were told,” Inamoto noted. “We added our own thoughts to what Troussier instructed us. The more we played, the more the players discussed among ourselves to solve each situation. I often saw the players in defense discussing their business. We were not following all what Troussier said in the end.”
Inamoto then added,”I think Troussier contributed a lot to the team, but I also think we achieved what we did by ourselves.”
With Gamba, Inamoto had to play in defensive midfield and was told not to come forward by then manager Hiroshi Hayano. But when he played for Japan, Troussier encouraged Inamoto to often come forward in attack from his defensive midfield position when he had the chance. He then scored two goals in the World Cup.
“I think coming forward to attack at times suits me. I like it,” he said. “But I am not saying I don’t like defending. I like doing both, defense and attack and I’d like to become a player who is capable of playing these two roles. In that sense, my style of play suits that of Fulham and England.”
Is that what manager Tigana expects from him?
“Yes, that’s right. I am expected to press in the center of the field, keep the ball and connect with the two forwards,” Inamoto said.
Unfortunately, his team has recently been in trouble, hampered by many injuries including Inamoto himself. Fulham stood in 16th place after the round of Premier League fixtures on Jan. 12, lying perilously close to the relegation zone and only eight points ahead of bottom-placed West Bromwich Albion.
“Our team is struggling at the moment in the Premiership, but we have good players and it is a team which has the potential to grow in the future. I think it’s a team I can develop myself in as a player,” Inamoto said.
Since the arrival of Inamoto, the west London club has been drawing a lot of attention from Japanese fans and media. The club took advantage of its marketing opportunities and made various Inamoto goods — a 2003 calendar with Inamoto and Tigana shaking hands on the front cover, Inamoto T-shirts and Inamoto mugs — all of which are lined up at the club shop in the Harrods department store, which club chairman Mohamed Al Fayed owns.
“That makes me feel a little uncomfortable as I am not a regular player in the team,” he said. “But I look at it as I have been given recognition. So what I try to do now is to play my game as much as I can.”
He added with a shy smile on his baby face, “But a mug with my picture on it . . . err, that’s a little embarrassing, isn’t it? You know, drinking a cup of tea with that mug!”
Apart from his special mugs, Inamoto has acclimatized to life in England. He has good relationship with his teammates and little trouble communicating in English. But there were some surprises at the beginning, he confessed.
“Before I came over here, I had heard that the food in England is not very nice (laugh). Actually it isn’t that bad at all. I probably haven’t been to a bad eating place yet,” he said.
“But the weather! I didn’t think it would be as bad as this,” he laughed again. “It was a surprise to me that there are no days that get sunshine in winter. It’s a little hard for me not to see the sun throughout the week. It also gets dark early in the afternoon and gets light later in the morning.
“When you see postcards, they always show sunny scenes with red double-deckers on them but in reality it is different.”
Inamoto admitted that he had never thought he would play abroad when he started playing soccer. But playing in the 1999 World Youth Championship in which Japan came second, made him more aware of life outside of Japan. Three years after that tournament he began a career abroad at Arsenal.
“I think it’s going pretty well. I’ve come further than I planned,” he said of his progress.
He’s sure of that, even after struggling through last season.
“When I moved to Arsenal, I knew I wouldn’t play too many games. I was prepared for that although I didn’t think I would be left out so much. That was a shame but I didn’t become negative or regret my decision. Overall I think my transfer (to Arsenal) was successful.”
What are his plans for the future?
“I have something in mind. I shouldn’t tell the public though as it might not help me,” he said.
“My current objective is to become a Fulham player on a permanent contract. If I can make it, I will then move on to another objective. I should clear my most immediate hurdle and recover from this injury first.”
After returning from injury, Inamoto will probably have a busy season — not only with his commitment to Fulham but also with Japan. The national team is scheduled to play almost once a month in 2003.
Inamoto had a talk with Zico last month in London when the Japan coach visited all the Japanese players playing in Europe.
“What the national team needs to do now is to play away from home. Since we proved our ability to some extent in the World Cup, we should improve our performances away from home,” the young Japan player said. “If we can play according to the schedule, I’m sure it will give us good experience. If I am called up, I’d like to join the team as often as I can.
“2002 was very satisfying for me. I worked hard for the World Cup, which had always been my major objective, and then scored two goals there. That was a good experience for me.
“I suffered this injury at the end of the year. But this may be a sort of warning that I should be alert and that you cannot expect something good all the time. I’ve got a feeling that I will have a good start to this. I will try my best and work hard.”
Inamoto does not appear to be rushing his progress and is content to establish himself step by step with strong determination. He is expected to be back in action as early as Jan. 26 to help his struggling team and move on to improve his game.
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