Keisuke Honda’s globetrotting career leads to Australia

by Dan Orlowitz

Special To The Japan Times

Six weeks ago, Samurai Blue star Keisuke Honda announced that he had participated in his last World Cup and hinted that retirement was on the table.

On Wednesday, he praised Melbourne Victory head coach Kevin Muscat for convincing him not to hang up his boots.

“I was thinking of quitting my career after the World Cup, but luckily (Victory made) a great offer that changed my mind,” Honda told over 50 media representatives during his unveiling at AAMI Park. “(Muscat) is an ambitious person (and) I am as well, so I’m really inspired by him.”

But days before Honda landed in Australia, he had already found time to announce another sideline gig: general manager (and, if his own comments are to be taken at face value, a sort of “shadow head coach”) of Cambodia’s national team, currently ranked 166th by FIFA.

“I asked the Football Federation of Cambodia if I could be the national team’s head coach while still continuing to play, and they said they would make me an offer if I was serious,” Honda said in Phnom Penh on Sunday. “I won’t be able to attend every match (due to my commitments with Victory), but I want to be involved with Cambodian soccer as much as I can.”

That Honda’s resume is devoid of relevant coaching qualifications or experience appears to be of little concern to international media. Many organizations who breathlessly reported the story failed to note that the Southeast Asian nation’s head coach will actually be 30-year-old Felix Agustin Gonzalez Dalmas, an unknown Argentine who spent several years in Japan’s amateur leagues.

With the firm backing of his new employers (“He’s focused on his job here,” insisted Victory chairman Anthony Di Pietro), Cambodia became merely the latest fork along the winding road that is Keisuke Honda’s career. It’s a path that hasn’t always made sense, but has remained on-brand for one of Japan’s more outlandish athletes.

While some of his contemporaries such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic could be described as larger than life, Honda’s journey from Gamba Osaka academy reject to A-League marquee is arguably stranger than fiction.

That much is apparent from his Twitter profile, which lists “soccer player” below the fold after “social activist,” “entrepreneur,” “educator,” and, in case there was any suspicion of extraterrestrial origin, “human.”

Honda is not the first eccentric superstar to take Japanese soccer by storm: he shares much in common with Hidetoshi Nakata, the “Japanese David Beckham” who found fame and fortune in Serie A before retiring at just 29 years old after his third World Cup in 2006.

Both are known for their bleached-blond hair, bold fashion choices, antagonistic relationships with domestic media, and profound if sometimes eccentric comments.

Yet while Nakata’s luxury sake brand and an editor-at-large position at lifestyle magazine Monocle came post-retirement, Honda has been happiest when wearing several hats. His widening interests in philanthropy, childhood education and technology are reflected in the title of his e-newsletter, “Change the World.”

In recent years, Honda has placed an intense focus on his burgeoning global empire of academies and professional clubs operated under the umbrella of HONDA ESTILO, the management company owned by his brothers.

The agency’s holdings include the Soltilo Familia chain of soccer schools, which boasts 80 locations in Japan and around the world (including the Melbourne suburb of Heidelberg), as well as controlling interests in several soccer clubs ranging from Austria’s SV Horn to Uganda’s Bright Stars FC. He has also worked to build clubs from scratch, notably Cambodian first-division side Soltilo Angkor FC.

The list of Honda’s off-the-pitch advocacy goes on: he is a U.N. Foundation Global Advocate for Youth, has launched soccer clinics in developing countries across Africa and Asia, and recently teamed up with actor and musician Will Smith to form venture capital fund The Dreamers Fund.

“Keisuke is a very humble and giving person, and he’s got an opportunity to give something back,” extolled Muscat. But while Honda’s advocacy deserves praise, it has also drawn criticism from some circles that the 98-time Japan international has never been fully invested in his club career.

Indeed, most of his career highlights have occurred while representing his country and not during his time in Pachuca, Milan, Moscow, Venlo or Nagoya.

He’ll have a chance to improve that record in Melbourne with the defending A-League champions, while simultaneously developing Cambodia’s playing style via teleconference and working toward his goal of participating in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as an overage player.

“I always said to myself when I try new challenge. “Don’t be afraid of failure”,” (sic) he tweeted on Wednesday afternoon.

At the very least, in a month that has seen him touch down in five different countries, Honda has proven he’s not afraid of a busy schedule.