As Japanese soccer fans prepared to ring in the new year on Friday night, the festivities began early with a volley of signings by Celtic that lit up the night sky all the way from Scotland like green-tinted fireworks.

The first: Yokohama F. Marinos striker Daizen Maeda, the J. League’s joint-top scorer last season and one of its most charismatic talents.

The second: Kawasaki Frontale midfielder Reo Hatate, who represented Japan alongside Maeda at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics and secured his first Best XI selection in the league.

And the third: Gamba Osaka midfielder Yosuke Ideguchi, who at 25 still possesses the tools that saw him heavily involved in Japan’s qualifying campaign for Russia 2018.

The three are now bound for the legendary Scottish club that has experienced a revival under former F. Marinos boss Ange Postecoglou, whose side lifted the Scottish League Cup last month and is now well-positioned to chase archrival Rangers for the first-division Premiership title.

Friday’s announcement was a win on two fronts for Celtic fans. Not only do these players possess immense talent and plenty of upside, but the fact that their moves were finalized before the official start of the January transfer window is a clear sign that Postecoglou has the backing of the club’s board to build a squad as he pleases, even if that means an audacious triple-signing from the league he conquered in 2019.

“Clearly I am well aware of their attributes and I think in bringing all three to the club we are bringing even more quality, personality and energy to the squad to work with the players who have done so well for us already this season,” Postecoglou told Celtic’s website.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the team’s two goals in the cup final against Hibernian were scored by the Australian coach’s bombshell signing of the summer — ex-Vissel Kobe striker Kyogo Furuhashi, who has tallied a stunning 16 goals from 25 appearances since arriving in Glasgow.

Just as another Japanese player who dazzled in green-and-white hoops — legendary midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura — opened the doors for his fellow countrymen to make their way to Europe, Furuhashi’s early success at Celtic has inspired his peers to make a similar leap.

“Because of how well Kyogo Furuhashi is doing, and also in the past when Shunsuke Nakamura played for Celtic, there is a lot of interest (in the club) in Japan,” Maeda told Celtic TV in his first official interview at the club.

“When I met him during national team duty, I asked him about Celtic and he was telling me lots of good things about it, so I’m really looking forward to it.”

If there is a player among the trio most likely to match Furuhashi’s appeal with Celtic fans, it is undoubtedly Maeda, who boasts plenty of charisma to go with his blistering speed and ruthless finishing abilities in the box. The 24-year-old — whose 23 goals were enough to share last season’s Golden Boot with Frontale striker Leandro Damiao — will likely be the fastest to adjust, having spent a year under Postecoglou at Marinos.

“I’m going to play as recklessly as I always have,” Maeda wrote in his farewell message to F. Marinos supporters. “I’m off to visit the ‘Boss!’”

Hatate, the only one of the trio to have not played overseas, will be valued by Postecoglou not only for his technique with the ball and keen passing sense, but also the versatility that saw him start the season at left back, transition to his usual place at left wingback and be named to the league’s Best XI as a forward — his registered position.

Reo Hatate of Japan in action with Jesus Vallejo of Spain during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in August 2021. Hatate is one of three new J. league players headed to Glasgow to play for Celtic in 2022. | REUTERS
Reo Hatate of Japan in action with Jesus Vallejo of Spain during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in August 2021. Hatate is one of three new J. league players headed to Glasgow to play for Celtic in 2022. | REUTERS

Although he has just two years of pro soccer to his credit, both were spent as a starter in a talent-stacked Frontale squad that rolled to its third and fourth league titles. Hatate’s collegiate career is nothing to sneer at either, from his Rookie of the Year award and three Best XI selections in the Kanto University Soccer League to repeated trips to represent Japan at underage events such as the prestigious Toulon Tournament, the Asian Games and the World University Games.

“If I hadn’t chosen to join Frontale, I wouldn’t have experienced as much as I have in my first two years since graduating,” Hatate said in his farewell statement. “I’m so glad that I’ve played for this team and I’m thankful to everyone at the club for treating me so warmly.

“As a player and a person I want to challenge myself to grow (at Celtic) and I will be grateful if Frontale fans continue to think of me.”

Though Ideguchi is just half a year older than his two fellow signings, he feels a generation removed. The Gamba Osaka product was named the J. League’s Best Young Player of 2016 and earned 11 appearances for Vahid Halilhodzic’s Samurai Blue in the following year.

His unforgettable goal in one of those games — a rocket from outside the penalty area after muscling off several Australian defenders during a World Cup qualifying win — is one that Postecoglou won’t soon forget, as he was standing in the Socceroos technical area at the time.

But the Fukuoka native flew too close to the sun with his 2018 move to Leeds United, which saw him loaned to second-division Spanish side Cultural Leonessa and miss out on the World Cup after struggling to earn playing time. A severe knee injury during his subsequent loan to Germany’s Greuther Furth further derailed Ideguchi’s European journey, and he has not returned to the brilliance of his early seasons since rejoining Gamba in the summer of 2019.

While Ideguchi’s initial appearance on Celtic’s radar may have come as a surprise, he is in many ways a perfect fit for the team’s current needs in central midfield, and his aggressive defensive pressing and ability to force turnovers are well suited for Postecoglou’s style. His recent form may raise eyebrows, but Ideguchi’s potential ceiling — if he rediscovers his 2017-era form — should be enough to convince Celtic fans to let Postecoglou chip out the elephant he sees in Ideguchi’s marble block.

“My first attempt to play overseas didn’t go well and through that disappointment I felt my lack of ability,” Ideguchi said in his farewell message. “This time I want to work hard and perform well, so I can deliver good news to Gamba’s supporters.

“I wouldn’t be who I am without Gamba Osaka; this club is like a family to me. Thank you for taking care of me for the last 12 years. … I dream of coming back again one day.”

Although Postecoglou’s focus will be on the many ways that his new signings can contribute on the pitch, Celtic’s front office will have its hands full with the marketing potential of four Japanese stars on its roster. The club is uniquely suited to the challenge, having first launched a Japanese homepage back in January 2006 as Nakamura took Scotland by storm.

That site was relaunched last fall in the wake of Furuhashi’s arrival, along with a Japanese Twitter account that has already crossed 39,000 followers — ninth-highest among European clubs with such profiles.

Commercial deals are all but certain to be in the works, even if the made-for-YouTube moment — Postecoglou and Maeda lining up against F. Marinos in a packed Nissan Stadium during a lucrative preseason tour of Japan — may not be feasible until 2023 due to the uncertainties of pandemic-era travel.

If there is disappointment to be found in this deal it is the low transfer fees — a reported $1.1 million for Ideguchi, $1.7 million for Hatate and somewhere north of the latter figure for Maeda — that represent yet another potential failure by J. League clubs to negotiate higher amounts for their players.

Frontale and F. Marinos fans, in particular, would be justified in feeling as though their clubs have been robbed in broad daylight, especially when their respective transactions are compared to the $6 million fee Vissel earned for Furuhashi just six months ago.

The undervaluing of J. League players in the European transfer market is a longstanding issue, one that will require clubs to grow stronger backbones and demand more — whether that’s bigger transfer fees or potentially more lucrative sell-on fees — in return for parting ways with their best young talent.

But Frontale and F. Marinos’ loss can still turn out to be Japan’s gain if even one or two of Celtic’s three new signings succeed. A 52nd domestic title would give Maeda, Hatate, Ideguchi and Furuhashi a chance to test themselves in the Champions League and remind the world that the J. League — as well as Japan’s high schools and universities — are more than capable of producing players worthy of that grandest of stages. And perhaps the next time another big-name club comes calling, its J. League counterparts will feel confident enough to take a firmer stance at the negotiating table.

With more Japanese players than ever in Europe but relatively few competing in marquee competitions for elite clubs, Postecoglou’s fearsome Far East foursome could, as Nakamura did 15 years ago, herald the start of a new renaissance.

And if that turns out to be the case, there will be plenty more fireworks to come.

Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou celebrates with Kyogo Furuhashi after winning the Scottish League Cup final at Hampden Park, Glasgow, Scotland, on Dec. 19. | REUTERS
Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou celebrates with Kyogo Furuhashi after winning the Scottish League Cup final at Hampden Park in Glasgow, Scotland, on Dec. 19. | REUTERS

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