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Utaka eager to strike up bonds at FC Tokyo

by

Staff Writer

FC Tokyo striker Peter Utaka admits he is pinching himself at the thought of playing alongside all-time J. League top scorer Yoshito Okubo as the capital city club goes in search of its first-ever title.

“Yoshito says to me, ‘Oh Uta, I can’t believe you’re here,’ and I say, ‘I can’t believe I’m playing with you too,’ ” Utaka told The Japan Times at Tokyo’s training ground earlier this week.

“We were contenders for top scorer in the league last year and right now we’re together. Let’s keep working and maybe in the near future we’ll both be up front together. Then we can both give the defenders a big headache.”

Tokyo reacted to last season’s disappointing ninth-place finish by revamping its attack over the winter, bringing in Okubo from Kawasaki Frontale and snapping up former Nigeria international Utaka on loan from Sanfrecce Hiroshima days after the new season began.

Utaka, who finished as the J. League’s joint-top scorer with Vissel Kobe’s Leandro on 19 goals last season, has yet to start a game for his new club as he works toward regaining full fitness. But the 33-year-old has already scored three goals in just two substitute appearances, and his budding partnership with Okubo shows signs of exploding into life.

“I think he’s an amazing striker,” Utaka said of Okubo, who has scored a record 172 top-flight goals and topped the J. League scoring charts for three straight seasons from 2013-15. “I think he’s the best striker in Japan. You can’t doubt that. Somebody winning top scorer three times in a row, it’s not easy. When I won it, I know the pressure. So for him to win it three times in a row is big. He’s a legend.

“We always try to talk. He wants to play with the team, play lots of one-twos. So we always talk like, ‘how do you want the ball?’ and ‘how do you want me to move?’ and stuff like that.”

Utaka arrived in Japan with Shimizu S-Pulse in 2015 and stood out in a team that went on to be relegated, earning himself a loan move to then-champions Sanfrecce. The striker impressed in Hiroshima despite the team’s indifferent results last year, but the club was unwilling to meet his demands for an improved contract.

“At the end of the day, this is football and we didn’t agree on some stuff,” said Utaka. “I didn’t train for more than a month. There were a lot of clubs that came but weren’t interesting for me, then when FC Tokyo came I was like, ‘OK, it’s a good team.’ There is a lot of competition in the team but it’s a good team and it’s a big chance for me to continue my career in Japan.”

Japan is just the latest career stop for a player who has plied his trade in several countries, topping the scoring charts in both Belgium and Denmark and playing alongside former Barcelona players Fabio Rochemback and Seydou Keita in China. But Utaka has had to earn success the hard way, and he admits that leaving Nigeria as a 16-year-old to join Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb tested his resolve.

“It was very difficult because I didn’t know anybody,” he said. “Everything was completely different — no family, no friends, nothing. The language wasn’t English so it was hard to adapt. But at the end of the day, when you are very ambitious, nothing stops you from achieving what you want to achieve. That’s what kept me going, because I wanted to be a very good football player that people remember.”

Utaka’s older brother, John, starred for Lens and Rennes in France before joining Portsmouth in the Premier League in 2007. The brothers got the chance to play together for Nigeria during Peter’s seven international caps, but Tokyo’s new signing has no desire to pull on the Super Eagles jersey again.

“I don’t want to get back to the national team — I’ve already rejected their call,” he said. “It was my dream to play with my brother and Nwankwo Kanu, (Obafemi) Martins, Yakubu (Aiyegbeni), (Joseph) Yobo. I achieved my dream. I played with all these players on the national team, so why would I go back again? I think I should give the young boys the chance to represent the country.”

Instead, Tokyo will receive Utaka’s undivided attention, and the striker believes his new club can achieve big things.

“This is football and everything is possible,” he said. “We will keep working hard, and then at the end of the season we’ll see where we are. But at this moment, we’re taking it game by game.”