Shinji Okazaki: the modest one

Shinji Okazaki: the modest one

THE SUCCESS OF any organisation is rarely down to just a few contributors, much like how a jigsaw is deemed incomplete even if a single piece is lost. As a result of that, there is always the need for a variety of characters in a successful business. Those that thrive under the spotlight and seek it and also those who never seek it, never get it but put in more hard work than the others. When Leicester City famously lifted the Premier League title in 2016, the huddle seemed to strike a stark sense of similarity with such a puzzle; full of varying characters. Some flashy and glamorous, the others- underrated.

When the Foxes were lifting the trophy on 7 May 2016, the King Power Stadium seemed to have been gobbled up by a sea of blue, with players mere minnows on the pitch. The occasion had sent reverberations across the world, acting as a source of inspiration for many such underdogs that the impossible dream can always be achieved. As soon as the title was handed over to Wes Morgan for his men to embrace, there stood a man towards the back of the rejoicing huddle, looking to join in but seemingly in a world of his own. As happy as the others to have done the unthinkable, he was humble enough to not overdo it.

Shinji Okazaki has never been a superstar. Or rather, he has never wanted to be anything like that. Never one for the spotlight, Okazaki goes about his business discreetly. His presence to the team is almost like oxygen to the human body, knowing it exists but rarely thinking about it. The man from Takaruza was the oxygen in the Leicester bubble that season.

During that campaign at Leicester, which was his maiden one at the King Power, Okazaki turned out to be the most under-appreciated gem of all. While the work that he managed to put in exceeded that of any other player, the Japanese hardly sought anything for it. All that mattered for him was winning games for his team – one way or another. And although it was evident that he had succeeded from the fact that the Foxes had lifted the title for the very first time, Shinji hardly seemed overawed by it.

Okazaki happens to be the epitome of what the Japanese are known for – an iron-willed work-ethic and a  tenacity that motivates them to keep going. That graft made Leicester click and played a massive role in allowing the duo of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez to run the show. Okazaki was the one who was, literally, running the show and was happy sacrificing himself for others get the plaudits. Claudio Ranieri famously said of his Asian maestro: “He is our dilly ding, dilly dong. He wakes up the players – he has the bell.”

While Okazaki could score only five times during that historic campaign, it should never have come as a surprise for he’s a player who thrives on the dirty work, not the glory. It’s a facet of his game shaped by his love for football.

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That love affair with football had started budding at a young age. It was Shimizu S-Pulse, a club from central Japan, that roped him in back in 2005 when Shinji was 18. His rise to prominence in the J-League came quickly; quicker than expected, rather. Okazaki made his debut for Shimizu in the last game of the 2004/05 season in a match against Sanfreece Hiroshima and, while he played only 11 minutes, he used it as a propellant to become a more regular part of the side during the next season.

He didn’t score his first senior goal until his second appearance in the 2007/08 campaign – a mark of things to come. That too came in a game that saw him play only 11 minutes. The season proved to be a breakout one for him as the forward scored 10 times in all competitions for Shimizu. The club finished fourth in the J-League, and for Okazaki it proved to be an important contribution as it got him selected for the senior Japan side, having previously impressed for the under-23s at the Olympics.

A tally of 14 goals over the next season established him as one of the best and the most feared players in the league. While he was now a regular for the Blue Samurai and had played for the side in the FIFA World Cup at South Africa, he was still short of the goals that made the best in Europe take notice. It was seen as a drawback by many, but it has gone on to define him.

Not the strongest or the fastest, he is certainly the most gritty, pressing defenders and creating space for others with his movement. With the ability to play across the front line, Shimizu were known to use him not just centrally but in wide areas well. 

Okazaki, despite his unspectacular record domestically, scored 21 times in his first 37 outings for Japan, and that impressed a struggling Stuttgart side, who were in need of goals to climb out of the relegation zone. The free transfer came after Okazaki had helped his nation win the AFC Asian Cup in Qatar by ousting the Australians in the final, and his tally of three goals in the tournament was worthy of praise.

Stuttgart perfectly tapped into his ability to give his all and cover an incredible amount of ground by rarely playing him up front. While the presence of Martin Harnik and Pavel Pogrebnyak kept him out of the side as far as playing at striker was concerned, Okazaki showed impressive resolve in making the left-wing his, combining his now-known grit with solid technique and clever movement to create space for the left-back and midfielders to move into.

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He only scored seven times in the 2011/12 season but he had his moments, including a long-range stunner against Schalke in the season-opener and a sensational overhead kick against Hannover. Despite admitting that he found it “tough” on the left wing, he continued to shine for Japan, while playing a Dirk Kuyt-esque role in Germany.

It was his humble upbringing that helped Okazaki settle into the German culture. Bruno Labbadia, the then-Stuttgart boss, played a role but his tendency to adhere to the instructions and do all he could to make the manager proud is what stood out. He didn’t quite learn German or English, but he earned laurels and admirers for his ability to take on instruction nonetheless. It’s unsurprising, then, that at a club that has a long history with cult heroes, he too became one.

Okazaki has even written a book about how he adapted to German football. In that book, which has received rave reviews, Okazaki talks about having ‘no talent or technique’, his feet being ‘simply too slow’ and ‘not being good at headers at all’. He used it as a tool for self-assessment in every aspect – and it has worked wonders in his career since.

A move to Mainz in 2013 followed. A dry 2012/13 further contributed to his downfall as a goal-getter, but it didn’t matter. The then-Mainz and would-be Borussia Dortmund boss, Thomas Tuchel, however, was quick to lay emphasis on his work-rate and why it was the reason for signing the Japan international and playing him in a high-pressing system. The German said: “We’d always take a close look at him when we played Stuttgart and we liked his good movements and work-rate.”

At Mainz, Okazaki flourished more than ever. He was played as a lone striker but was instructed to create space for his teammates and press the opposition before needing to score. Despite that, it was during his debut season at Mainz that Okazaki registered the highest number of goals in a single season of his career. His performances helped Tuchel’s men finish as high as seventh in the Bundesliga.

While he has never been a star, Okazaki has never tried being one. In an interview with the Bundesliga, Okazaki was asked about his opinion on how people in Japan see him as a superstar; as a hero. His reply was telling: “I wouldn’t say I’m a superstar at all. Of course I’m frequently stopped on the street in Japan, but I just try to be relaxed about the situation. I try to be myself and sign autographs or pose for photos. Maybe I behave like this because I don’t see myself as a star.”

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Following the departure of Tuchel, Mainz roped in Kasper Hjulmand and it was under him that Okazaki racked up the highest number of assists that he ever had accumulated in a single season. He scored 12 times as Mainz finished 11th, but Okazaki’s overall development as a player was complete. His deal ran out in 2016 and a move to Leicester followed.

The move to the King Power went under the radar. There wasn’t a glamorous announcement or a big fee involved, but new Foxes boss Claudio Ranieri knew what he was getting. The Italian’s approach to the game offered Okazaki an ideal role.

That season was a cruel yet stark reflection of Okazaki. As the Foxes soared to stardom, Okazaki hardly changed from the diminutive, mundane character that he was. He scored only five times throughout the campaign but if there was anyone who realised his importance to the side more than anyone, then it was Ranieri.

The quote above would be enough to justify how, even if others don’t realise how much he meant to the side, the manager did. The likes of Kanté, Mahrez and Vardy were certainly key contributors to the triumph, but it is tough to imagine anything close to that happening in the absence of Okazaki. He connected the side together, inspired them to do an incredible amount of work on the pitch. He’d never stop for a second, even if all seemed done and dusted. He rarely benefitted on a personal level from playing behind Vardy and Leonardo Ulloa that season, but his side did. And he found happiness in that.

When the Foxes lifted the title, the huddle spoke for itself. Not just in terms of contribution to the success, but in terms of the characters they were. There was a clear sense of variety about the group; full of players with varying characteristics. While it was the presence of a common, efficient system that united them, the feat wouldn’t have been possible in the absence of characters like Okazaki. Those that are willing to sacrifice their personal success for the collective benevolence of the side are a rarity and should be treasured like gold. 

Twenty years from now, we will fondly recall the manner in which Mahrez, Vardy and Kanté inspired the greatest shock in Premier League history, and inevitably, the name Shinji Okazaki will be rarely whispered. Leicester’s Japanese warrior, by then, will be remembering it well away from the pitch, happy to fly under the radar, with no regret for not being a wannabe in a world of glamour and commercialism. 

By Kaustabh Pandey  

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