Soccer / J. League

Veteran defender Gotoku Sakai returns to Japan because of Vissel Kobe's 'vision'

Kyodo

While Gotoku Sakai had planned to continue his career in Europe, the former Japan international said Friday he decided to return to the J. League with Vissel Kobe after being sold on the club’s “vision.”

The 28-year-old right-back, who played eight seasons in Germany with VfB Stuttgart and most recently Hamburger SV, practiced with his new teammates in Kobe following his introduction as Vissel’s latest big-name signing midweek.

The club, managed by former HSV boss Thorsten Fink, recently added Belgium defender Thomas Vermaelen to a squad already containing Barcelona great Andres Iniesta, fellow former Spain star David Villa and German World Cup winner Lukas Podolski.

Speaking after practice, Sakai explained the reasoning behind his Vissel move.

“I agreed with Kobe’s vision. By playing with some of the world’s top players, I felt there is opportunity for growth,” said Sakai, himself a former HSV captain.

Despite the deep pockets of their owner, e-commerce giant Rakuten, Inc., Vissel are fourth from the bottom in the 18-team J. League first division ahead of their clash against the Urawa Reds on Saturday.

Sakai, who retired from international duty after last year’s World Cup, will be looked upon to immediately help reinforce a defense that has allowed the second-most goals in the league this season.

“I hope to share the experience I gained in Germany, but I think I can get a lot done by approaching things with the mindset of an underdog,” he said.

Podolski, who has missed most of the season due to illness and injury, said Friday he was happy to be back with the team after returning from Germany.