Celtic fans needed some convincing before they got behind new manager Ange Postecoglou last month after he joined the club from Yokohama F. Marinos.
The Australian’s first major signing, Vissel Kobe talisman Kyogo Furuhashi, hasn’t needed nearly as much time to win over the green-and-white faithful, and for good reason.
Friday’s announcement of the 26-year-old attacker’s transfer arrived like a bolt from the blue — a description Celtic fans might object to on moral grounds, even if it represents a welcome relief from the weeks of rumors that usually foretell the club’s signings. Yet it carries tremendous upside for all involved and may be one of the most important pieces of business involving a J. Leaguer that we see this summer.
For Furuhashi, the time for a move to Europe was approaching now or never. The 26-year-old would have been considered the “right age” for a Japanese player heading west no more than 15 or even 10 years ago, but now he is well behind the curve given youngsters in their early 20s and even late teens are regularly making the jump.
But his three seasons at Vissel — as well as an impressive 1½ seasons at second-division side FC Gifu, where he put the J. League on notice with his creativity and skill — have combined to produce a player who brought flair and excitement to the domestic game, earning him plenty of fans beyond his own clubs in the process.
“Thank you for always treating me warmly, kindly and sometimes strictly as you continued to support me,” a tearful Furuhashi told a crowd of 2,758 on Sunday during a farewell event held in his honor at Kobe’s Noevir Stadium.
“I’m incredibly sad to be leaving such an amazing city and club. But even after I go to Celtic, I’ll do my best, and I hope you’ll continue to support me.”
While Furuhashi’s late leap can be attributed in part to his decision to matriculate through Chuo University before starting his professional career, his European journey is still starting later than those of Meiji University graduate Yuto Nagatomo and “Keio Boy” Yoshinori Muto, who left FC Tokyo at 23 and 22 for Italy’s Cesena and Germany’s Mainz, respectively.
But with three goals in six national team appearances to his credit, there’s no better time than now for Furuhashi to establish himself in the Samurai Blue picture and fight for a spot at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
“I want to play in the World Cup, and in order to do that all I can do is keep producing results,” Furuhashi told the J. League’s official website last week before his transfer was announced. “I want to become a model for other players to follow, and while I’m getting results at Kobe I want to challenge myself overseas if I get a chance.”
Although Vissel had reportedly received offers from Holland’s PSV Eindhoven and Belgium’s Anderlecht for Furuhashi, Celtic is easily the most prestigious of the three thanks to its storied history and fanatical global following. The 51-time domestic champion is already well-known in Japan as the former home of Shunsuke Nakamura, who set the Scottish Premiership and the Champions League ablaze during his four seasons in Glasgow.
That’s not to say that Celtic fans can start dreaming of a Shunsuke-esque boost in uniform sales and hordes of Japanese-speaking tourists at Parkhead. Japanese soccer has evolved significantly in the 15 years since the former Samurai Blue star wore the hoops, and with dozens of the country’s players plying their trade in Europe’s top leagues, it’s no longer a novelty when one more makes the leap.
While Furuhashi’s arrival will almost certainly create more commercial opportunities for Celtic in Japan, their scale and duration will be tied closely to his results on the pitch. The reported £4.5 million ($6.19 million) transfer fee — a near-record for local J. League talent — is as strong an indication as any of how much the club values his abilities, which seem purpose-built for Postecoglou’s attacking philosophy.
“(Furuhashi) is a player of real quality and clearly someone I know well,” Postecoglou told Celtic’s official website. “I think he will add something special to our squad and I am sure the way he plays will excite our supporters.”
The versatile striker leaves Vissel on top of the J1’s scoring table, having netted 15 of the team’s 33 goals this season. Comfortable in any position up front — but most frequently used on the left wing or in the center — Furuhashi’s clinical finishing and superb technique have made him a favored teammate of Spain legend Andres Iniesta.
The friendship between the two is no coincidence, as Furuhashi’s August 2018 arrival from Gifu came just two months after Iniesta shocked the world by choosing Kobe as his new home following his exit from Barcelona, the club that raised him into a global icon.
On the field, Furuhashi took full advantage of the mentoring he received from Iniesta, and was always exactly where he needed to be to finish off the Spaniard’s assists.
Meanwhile, Furuhashi was signed to Sports & Life, the talent and consulting agency founded by Iniesta’s management team — a signal clear as day that his future would lead beyond the J. League.
“It’s sad to see one of our teammates leave mid-season, but at the same time, we’re very happy to see him improve even more and chase his dreams on the European stage,” Iniesta said at Sunday’s event. “Speaking for the club and my teammates, I want to thank Kyogo for his professionalism, respect and all of the hard work he’s done for the club.
“We will continue to support you from Kobe.”
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