Yoshito Okubo’s career may not have followed the course it seemed destined for when he burst onto the scene at the start of the decade, but a move to Wolfsburg gives the striker the perfect opportunity to make his belated mark on European soccer.
Okubo is set to tie up his transfer to the German club on Tuesday, beginning his second crack at a foreign league after an unsuccessful stint at Real Mallorca from 2005-06.
A poor haul of five goals in 39 games combined with injuries and bad luck spelled the end for his time in Spain, and the experience proved costly.
After missing out on a place at the 2006 World Cup, Okubo returned to Cerezo Osaka in search of rehabilitation, his reputation dented and his pride bruised.
Relegation with Cerezo and a spell in the international wilderness followed as then-national team manager Ivica Osim shaped his side for the 2007 Asian Cup, but Okubo did not sit around feeling sorry for himself.
His form for Cerezo brought a move to Vissel Kobe, and the relative calm of a mid-table side provided the perfect environment to re-establish himself as one of the most decisive finishers in the country.
A recall to the national team for its first match after a fourth-place finish at the Asian Cup suggested Osim may have regretted not taking Okubo to Vietnam. Osim’s successor, Takeshi Okada, has further nurtured his return to the fold by making him a mainstay in the team.
Now, with a move back to Europe, the circle is complete, and there is ample evidence to suggest Okubo can make the most of his second chance.
The J. League has proved to be a useful refuge for stalled European careers, but unlike Shinji Ono, who returned to Urawa Reds from Feyenoord before leaving again for Bochum, Okubo is going back a better player than he was the first time around.
Okubo also has the peace of mind of moving to a team that really wants him. Wolfsburg is one of the few Bundesliga clubs where one man — Felix Magath — runs the show, eliminating the potential for differences of opinion between coach and general manager.
The presence of compatriot Makoto Hasebe should also help Okubo settle in, and signing for one of the league’s stronger sides — Wolfsburg is currently in ninth place — is easier than being thrown straight into a relegation dogfight.
But if the cards seem stacked in Okubo’s favor, the previous experiences of his striking countrymen should be warning enough.
Atsushi Yanagisawa, Masashi Oguro and Akinori Nishizawa all floundered in Europe, while Naohiro Takahara’s success at Hamburg and Eintracht Frankfurt pales in comparison with that of midfielders Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura.
But that mold must be broken sometime, and of the current crop of Japanese strikers, Okubo looks best-equipped to do so. Unlike many of his peers, the 26-year-old has a direct eye for goal and a selfish streak that allows him to exploit it.
One area where he has disappointed over the past year, however, has been his national team partnership with Keiji Tamada. The pair have often looked on different wavelengths, but if Okubo can learn to adapt to a club where he is not the star, he may bring a fresh perspective to the blue shirt.
Returning to Europe after such a chastening first experience is a brave thing to do.
If Okubo can rise to the challenge and achieve what no Japanese striker has managed so far, the rewards will be on offer for everyone.
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