LONDON - Count Shinji Okazaki as one of those people who are having a hard time believing that Leicester City has actually won the Premier League.
“I still can’t believe it,” the Leicester forward said on Tuesday, a night after the Foxes captured the title thanks to Tottenham Hotspur’s 2-2 draw at Chelsea.
“If we celebrated on the pitch I think it would sink in, but we were at someone’s house when it happened, cheering on another team which is something we wouldn’t normally do.”
Okazaki watched the Tottenham game at teammate Jamie Vardy’s home with the rest of the Leicester players. Spurs had to defeat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge — something they have not done in 26 years — to keep their title hopes alive, but a late equalizer by Eden Hazard doomed Tottenham as the Leicester boys began celebrating the club’s first championship in its 130-year history.
Prior to Leicester, there had not been a first-time top-flight champion in England since Nottingham Forest in 1977-78.
“When the score was 2-0, I thought, ‘Oh, we’ll just have to get ready for the next game,’ ” Okazaki said. “But once (Chelsea) pulled one back I was like, ‘Come on!’ We were all watching it as if we were fans.
“When they scored the second, it was incredible. I couldn’t believe what was going on.”
Okazaki attributed the remarkable campaign under Claudio Ranieri to the humility and attitude of the players, none of whom were big stars going into the season — though that has certainly changed.
Leicester was 14th last season after staving off relegation, and was a 5,000-to-1 outsider before its improbable run began. Okazaki said none of his teammates are taking what they have achieved for granted.
“This club barely survived relegation a year ago, and we were made up of a group of players who weren’t guaranteed anything beyond this season,” Okazaki said.
“A lot of us hadn’t seen the light of day. So all the boys, including me, just put their heads down and went to work. No one moaned or complained. The manager allowed us some freedom on top of our basic plan, and it worked.
“The potential of a lot of our players came to the surface. Everything fell into place. But whether it will all come together in the future remains to be seen. It worked out this season, but no one can tell about next season.”
Okazaki is only the second Japanese to receive a Premier League winner’s medal after Shinji Kagawa with Manchester United in 2012-13. The Premier League title is also the first of Okazaki’s entire club career as he never won any silverware with Shimizu S-Pulse in the J. League nor with Mainz and Stuttgart in the Bundesliga.
Okazaki will bask in the glory for now, but has every intention of building on his success next season — just as he has done throughout his career, inch by inch.
“It’ll be a fresh start,” he said. “I can’t really think about it right now, but it’s what makes the Premier League interesting. There’ll be new heroes, and I hope I can be one of them. I want to make every day count, play in the Champions League and as long as I’m given the opportunity to show my worth, I want to keep repaying the club.
“I’ve never thought we won the championship because I was here. I am proud to be a part of this team, and I don’t really know about the 130 years of history at this club. Along with my teammates, the fans, the coaching staff, I’m just thrilled to have had a hand in this team winning a championship.
“It’s still unbelievable.”