Soccer | From the Spot

Keisuke Honda risks cheapening legacy

by Dan Orlowitz

Even in the prime of Keisuke Honda’s career, there have been few in the Japanese soccer community who could claim to have a good understanding of what was going on in the mind of the enigmatic midfielder.

After a series of increasingly erratic tweets in the last week, that number may be down to one: Honda himself.

The former Samurai Blue star, who has been without a club since leaving Australia’s Melbourne Victory last summer, tweeted out offers of his services to two prestigious European clubs struggling with injuries and poor results.

Perhaps owing to the time he’s dedicated to philanthropy, Honda extended the generosity to Manchester United, who are currently 10th in the Premier League with a mediocre 2-3-2 record.

“Give me an offer. I don’t need money but I need to play with great team and great team mate!” Honda tweeted to the English superclub on Friday.

Two days later, the target of his pitch was Italian first-division stragglers AC Milan, where Honda arrived as a heralded No. 10 in January 2014 and departed in disappointment just three years later.

“I have always wanted to help you. Call me when you need me!” wrote Honda.

The 33-year-old has a reputation for shoving as many irons in the fire as he can find. His management company runs soccer schools across the world as well as several clubs — in addition to overseeing his various business and charity efforts.

His groundbreaking announcement last summer that he would take over as volunteer general manager — essentially a shadow head coach — of Cambodia’s senior and Olympic national teams was met with adoration by Japanese fans, but hesitancy from outside observers who questioned whether or not the dead-ball maestro was qualified to run two national sides despite not possessing any coaching licenses.

Honda pushed back at the time, claiming that the current licensing system was unnecessary and in need of drastic overhauls.

One year later, he’s still trying to sway a public that isn’t entirely convinced.

“I want to say it again and again — you don’t need a license to become a professional manager,” tweeted Honda on Sept. 14.

“The system is no longer aligned with the profession. Should you need a license to become a professional businessman?”

The tweet ignited a firestorm, with many responses noting — among other things —that most businessmen have college degrees.

Even for a player who has struggled to avoid injury, the drop-off experienced by Honda since leaving Milan has been surprisingly steep. His 10-goal season with Mexico’s Pachuca kept him fresh for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, but his year in Australia — hailed as a breakthrough moment for the country’s A-League — was underwhelming.

Honda has long insisted that he has no plans to return to Japan, reiterating on a Sept. 16 television appearance that he’s looking for a European first-division club where he can earn regular playing time and work his way into Japan’s team for the Tokyo Olympics as an overage player.

Honda appears unlikely to step on a pitch again until at least January, giving Japan head coach Hajime Moriyasu at most a few months of footage to consider when he makes his overage selections.

Honda’s conduct cuts a sharp contrast between himself and the player who arguably influenced him the most — former Japan great Hidetoshi Nakata, who abruptly retired in 2006 and has all but disappeared from the soccer scene.

While Nakata gave up the sport because he no longer enjoyed playing, it’s clear that Honda’s passion for soccer is still there — even if what he wants to do remains unclear.

Honda has long rejected suggestions of a return to the J. League, but as he approaches what’s clearly the closing stage of his career he should perhaps reconsider his lofty ambitions and instead focus on making a positive impact in a domestic league running perilously low on local stars.

While he might consider such a retirement tour to be below him, it would be a more fitting way to close out his storied career than waiting for a call from Old Trafford that’s unlikely to ever come.

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