Yasuhiko Okudera: Japanese football’s first overseas pioneer

Yasuhiko Okudera: Japanese football’s first overseas pioneer

THERE IS A JAPANESE PHRASE which translates roughly to “the frog in the well knows nothing of the great ocean”. A general interpretation is that those who do not experience the world have no knowledge of it, and thus cannot learn from it. When Yasuhiko Okudera made his debut in 1970, this proverb applied very neatly to Japanese football. Underdeveloped and insular, the sport was still yet to make inroads on the national psyche and its amateur league was of a poor, disorganised standard.

Now, the Samurai Blue are a regional superpower, qualifying for the past five World Cups and at one point breaking into the top 10 of the FIFA rankings while the J1 League has been graced by international stars.

Okudera, a man whose name will likely receive a flicker of recognition on British shores only to the people of Nottingham and Plymouth, was the man who catalysed this transformation. He was, so to speak, the first frog to leap from the well.

The town of Kazuno, Akita Prefecture is not an obvious starting place for one of football’s most intrepid journeys. With a population roughly half the size of Scarborough, much of the town is covered with forest due to its place within the Towada-Hachimantai National Park. But it was from this remote northern Japanese farming town in the summer of 1970 that a young student set out on a 400-mile journey to the bright lights of Tokyo with a high school diploma in his hand and a ball at his feet.

Working for Furukawa Electrics some 25 miles from the centre of the capital, the 18-year-old Okudera was a keen footballer and represented his company’s team in the amateur Japan Soccer League. Initially a bit-part player for the club, by the time he reached his 20s he had played 24 times in three seasons, scoring eight goals from an attacking midfield position – enough, in the early 1970s, to earn his first Japanese international call-up.

Soon establishing himself as one of the stars of the Furukawa Electric team, Okudera enjoyed considerable success in his home country, winning the league, Emperor’s Cup and Super Cup in his eight-year spell, cementing his status as an international.

But with the game in Japan remaining strictly amateur – despite the PR boost of an Olympic bronze medal at the 1968 Games in Mexico City – Okudera’s chances of ever making a living from the sport he loved remained slim, and he continued to work for the electrics company with football providing his weekend respite.

It was not until 1977 that opportunity came calling for the then 25-year-old, as the Japanese national team was taken on a tour of Germany by manager Hiroshi Ninomiya. As part of Ninomiya’s attempts to raise the standards of the Japanese game, he sent his players to train with Bundesliga clubs around the country. Okudera packed his boots and headed westward, to link up with FC Köln.

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Köln’s manager at the time was the legendary coach Hennes Weisweiler, a man known for unearthing precocious talents. In 2005, the city’s national sports academy dedicated its coaching training centre to him after a managerial career of four and a half decades which brought into being the playing careers of Jupp Heynckes, Günter Netzer and Berti Vogts among others. Though he passed away in 1983, the coach’s memory lives on today through the club’s famous mascot, Hennes the billy goat.

In 1977, though, it was Okudera who had caught Weisweiler’s keen eye. After a number of training sessions with the Bundesliga side, the Japanese midfielder had proven himself as a player of some talent, and Weisweiler offered him a contract. At first, Okudera was unsure. No Japanese player had ever played professionally before, and at 25 it was doubtful whether he would have time to develop his game to reach the desired standard. His family was uneasy about him quitting his job at Furukawa Electrics, and the company did not want to lose him.

In the end, the Japanese FA decided that it would be in the nation’s footballing interest to have a player plying their trade professionally abroad; Okudera’s family was convinced, and the electric company agreed to keep his position open in case he failed to make the grade with a £75,000 fee agreed in compensation.

At five feet and nine inches and one of only two non-Germans in the Köln squad, Okudera was at first something of a figure of fun at the club. He was unused to the demands of professional sport, and his mental strength was questioned; more often than not, he would pass the ball to the first player who called for it rather than take the initiative to influence the game on his own.

In time, Okudera learned to look after number one. He made his debut against Duisburg only a few weeks after signing his first professional contract. Thrown into a team of internationals such as Dieter Müller, Herbert Zimmermann and Hannes Löhr, it was the future Germany number one Harald Schumacher who made the biggest impression on the match by saving a penalty in the opening minutes. Köln won 2-1.

Okudera went on to make 24 appearances that season, scoring six goals along the way. In fact, back-to-back goals in the final two games of the season helped clinch only the second Bundesliga title in the club’s history. Soon after, he featured in the club’s first DFB-Pokal final win.

The 1978-79 season was not as successful as Okudera’s debut campaign, but it came to be significant for him on a personal level. It was the first season of the career of Pierre Littbarski, the future German international with whom Okudera would become close friends and eventual colleagues. It was also the year Okudera announced his nation’s footballing arrival not just to Germany, nor to Europe, but to Brian Clough.

Köln’s league success the season before meant that Weisweiler’s men had qualified for the European Cup, and the Germans were in the competition to win it. Victories against Íþróttabandalag Akraness of Iceland, Lokomotiv Sofia and Rangers saw Okudera and teammates through to the semi-finals, where they met Clough’s Nottingham Forest.

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The first leg in Nottingham was one of the games of the tournament. Early goals from Müller and Belgium forward Roger van Gool thrust the away side into a commanding lead but Forest wrestled the advantage back through Gary Birtles, Ian Bowyer and John Robertson.

With 10 minutes of the game remaining, Weisweiler threw Okudera into the mix to try and restore parity. With Forest attacking, he was sent towards the halfway line in case of a counter-attack. Birtles hooked in a free-kick from the left, but the Germans cleared and van Gool was sent racing through on goal.

Eighty minutes into the game, the Belgian was tiring and the retreating defence making up ground. To his left, he saw the sprightly figure of Okudera, fresh-legged and without a touch of the ball. He found the substitute at the edge of the area and watched as he took the ball around one defender, moved it onto his right foot and struck a low shot into the bottom-left corner. Okudera had become the first Asian player to score in the European Cup.

His effort wasn’t enough to see Köln through to the final, though, as one of Forest’s most stoic performances under Clough secured a 1-0 away win and a 4-3 aggregate victory on their way to lifting the trophy.

Okudera stayed with Köln for just one more season, before moving to the capital to join Hertha, then of the second tier. Their promotion push was ultimately unsuccessful but Okudera’s stay outside of the top flight was a short one as he was spotted by a young Otto Rehhagel, manager of Werder Bremen.

His time at Bremen was perhaps the best spell of his career as, after being switched to an attacking full-back, he helped Die Grün-Weißen establish themselves as one of Germany’s top clubs with three successive second-place finishes.

Arguably as much as the title win and the European jaunt, this was what confirmed Okudera’s legend as a footballing pioneer. A second top manager had recognised his ability, and he had adapted to become a key component of a genuine domestic powerhouse. He returned to Japan and Furakawa in 1986, taking his family home and leading the drive for the professionalisation of the game in his home country.

By now rebranded as JEF United, his club made him the first native-born professional player in the country, and he won his first international caps since leaving in 1977. However, the transition back into a largely amateurish league was not an easy one for Okudera to make, and he struggled to make the same impact he had in Germany.

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JEF became the first Japanese club to win the Asian Club Championship in 1987 but Okudera would only play on for another season. He hung up his boots in 1988, at the age of 35.

Okudera’s football career did not stop here, though his managerial career was short-lived; restricted to a single period at JEF in 1996, it appeared as though he harboured grander ambitions than could be realised in the dug-out.

In 1998, he linked up with his former teammate Littbarski – who by this point had over 400 appearances for Köln, more than 60 for JEF United and a World Cup trophy to his name – to help form Yokohama FC. By 2006 the club had been promoted to the J1 League, after working their way up through the lower divisions with Okudera as president and Littbarski having a spell as manager.

Two years later, he took a rare misstep on his long footballing journey as he agreed to take over as president of Plymouth Argyle, then of the Championship. Financial troubles and relegation eventually saw Okudera leave the Pilgrims, and he returned to continue in his role as president at Yokohama.

A unique sidenote to Okudera’s career in fact sees him play a crucial role in the career of some of world football’s most decorated stars. Lionel Messi, Alessandro Del Piero, Sergio Agüero and Andrés Iniesta are but four players to have mentioned the role played in their upbringing by legendary Japanese anime character Captain Tsubasa – and it was Okudera who handed him his big break.

In a 1988 manga adaptation of the immensely popular series, Okudera is manager of the Japanese national side, and it is he who spots Tsubasa as a teenager. Playing in a friendly match for his university side against the national team, Tsubasa’s skills are so great that Okudera comes onto the pitch to tackle him himself, before calling him up to represent his country.

That Okudera was granted the privilege of kick-starting the career of his nation’s most legendary footballer is testament to the influence of his exploits at home and abroad. Asian players have gone on to represent some of the biggest clubs in the world, Japan and South Korea have co-hosted a World Cup, and China is threatening to buy its status as one of the world’s most significant leagues.

And arguably, all of this can be traced back to Okudera’s brave first steps – bringing Asian football up from the depths of the well, and out to the farthest reaches of the ocean.

By Sam France @sjakef

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