Masaya Okugawa might be the next star of Japanese football.
It is hard to tell though as he is only 19 and played just nine professional games.
Despite his inexperience Red Bull Salzburg’s new signing leaves Kyoto Sanga with hype and expectation on his young shoulders.
He is one of Japan’s great hopes for the future.
Technically Okugawa is an excellent prospect, a wide attacker of pace, skill and trickery, but he is still incredibly raw.
Just 18 months ago he was little more than a whisper on the closeted grapevine of Japanese youth football.
His freakish technique – taking corners with both feet, ambidextrous long range shooting, lighting quick feet – made him one to watch. The feeling was that if he learned to share his individual quality he could become a very interesting player.
Few thought his progress would be so rapid.
Okugawa started 2014 as a junior member of the Japan U-19 squad and ended it with rumours linking him with transfers to major European clubs.
His emergence was one of very few positives in a horrible year for Japan.
The senior national team crashed out of the World Cup in Brazil at the group stage.
The Under 16 and Under 19 youth sides both lost in the quarterfinals of the Asian Federation Championships, failing to reach their respective World Cups.
In contrast Okugawa enjoyed a spectacular 2014.
In January he caught the eye of several European scouts as Japan won the Valentin Granatkin Memorial tournament in Russia.
— GoldenALEX (@xGoldenALEXx) February 13, 2014
By the summer he was being closely followed by Liverpool and Bayer Leverkusen among others.
The game that did most to raise his profile came in September as Japan beat Australia 4-3 at the ASESAN U19 Championship in Vietnam.
He scored twice, assisted once, conceded a penalty and generally caused panic in the Australian defence every time he had the ball.
As the AFC U19 Championships in Myanmar began in October Okugawa was as one of the most closely watched young players in Asia.
The stage was set for him to showcase his talent. But things did not run quite according to plan.
He started the tournament on the bench and played only 72 minutes before getting injured. Although he appeared in just two games he was one of Japan’s star performers.
They missed him badly in a physical quarter final as a brutally cynical North Korea kicked them out on penalties. Japan dominated possession, created numerous chances, but couldn’t kill off their obdurate opponents.
This is a familiar story for the Samurai Blue. Japan national teams, at all levels, are comfortable with the ball but indecisive in the final third, and have a tendency to pass themselves to death.
The disappointments of 2014 asked serious questions about Japan’s football culture.
It is twenty years since the J.League was formed and Japan have made startling progress in that time.
But while their players are technically adept Japan have struggled to turn that into a definitive advantage at international level. They are laudably committed to passing football but must make that addiction become part of a winning habit.
Bluntly, Japan need to be sharper, more proactive, more ruthless.
They must start to finish teams off – can they develop a killer instinct in the future?
Hopefully attack-minded initiative-takers like Okugawa can provide solutions to their attacking inertia.
He is one of the best dribblers to have come out of Japan in recent memory. When he gets into full flow he is frighteningly quick with the ball at his feet.
But it is worth remembering the fate of two similarly feted Japanese dribblers who made teenage moves to Europe.
Takashi Usami and Ryo Miyaichi were members of Japan’s so-called ‘Platinum Generation’ who played at the 2009 Under 17 World Cup in Nigeria.
Usami left Japan in June 2011 to join German giants Bayern Munich. He is the only Japanese player to appear on a Champions League final team sheet but is now rebuilding his career with Gamba Osaka after two disappointing years in Germany.
Miyaichi meanwhile has just been released by Arsenal after failing to live up to the startling start he made to his career in Europe during a spectacular loan spell with Feyenoord in Holland in early 2011.
Unlike his forebears Okugawa has not signed for a member of Europe’s elite. He is following a recent trend among Europe-bound Japanese players in joining a less glamorous club.
Salzburg offer the chance for a calm adjustment to European football.
The fact that Takumi Minamino, a Japan U-19 teammate, is already at the club will ease his acclimatisation. Minamino is the latest wonderkid from Cerezo Osaka and was the J.League ‘Rookie of the year’ 2013.
Okugawa has selected a sensible club and Salzburg have done well to get him. The moves suits both parties. Do well in Austria and the chance to move further up the European food chain always remains.
The interest from Liverpool was earnest with Brendan Rodgers a confirmed admirer of the technique of Japanese and South Korean players. The UK visa laws would have made a transfer to England difficult for Okugawa but East Asia remains a market Liverpool are actively scouting.
Okugawa is expected to start his Salzburg career with their feeder club, FC Liefering, in the Austrian ‘Erste Liga.’
Salzburg, and the other clubs in the Red Bull axis, have made significant efforts to recruit and nurture talented young players – something that clearly appealed to Okugawa.
“After the first discussions with representatives of the club, I was sure that Red Bull Salzburg is the best option for my development. I had the feeling from the beginning that my personal aims were very well understood and my prospects of playing in Europe are appreciated. I therefore believe I can develop really well here,” he said on signing.
Japan will hope that is the case.
They cannot afford to keep having their best youngsters crash and burn in Europe.
If Okugawa excels the ramifications would be massive. But until he proves himself at senior level his attacking potential remains conjecture.
Neymar of the Old Capital
Okugawa is a self-confessed Neymar freak. He is the owner of the twitter the handle @0414Neymarlove.
There are similarities in the way Okugawa glides past opponents to the effortless acceleration Neymar shows for Brazil and Barcelona.
From his early teenage years Okugawa has grown used to this comparison.
Football media in Japan have nicknamed Okugawa the Neymar of the Old Capital – a reference to the history of Japan’s former capital Kyoto.
German language publications, reporting the transfer rumour ping-pong that preceded the Salzburg deal, dubbed him the Asian Neymar.
This is obvious and lazy flattery.
Okugawa clearly has talent but to compare him to Neymar at this stage of his career is unfair.
His performances should determine his nickname not his twitter account.
For now, any stylistic comparisons should remain restrained.