SINGAPORE — During Leicester City’s improbable English Premier League triumph in 2016, Asian fans took notice of a diminutive Japanese forward who zipped around opponents’ defences just like his striker partner Jamie Vardy.
Nearly five years after that momentous triumph, Shinji Okazaki is still tirelessly troubling rival defenders – although they are players in Spain’s LaLiga Santander instead of in England, with the 34-year-old Okazaki now representing promoted side SD Huesca.
Last month marked his 10th year plying his trade in Europe. He had joined German Bundesliga side VfB Stuttgart in January 2011 after a successful five-year stint at J-League side Shimizu S-Pulse, before moving on the German club Mainz, then to Leicester and finally Huesca.
During a recent online interview organised by LaLiga Santander, Okazaki said he regrets not moving to play in LaLiga earlier in his career, especially given that his contract with Huesca runs out at the end of the season.
While he scored 13 goals to help his current club gain promotion from the LaLiga SmartBank last season, he has scored just once in eight appearances in LaLiga Santander this season.
“If I had come to Spain at a younger age, I might have had more options. For me, it’s now a challenge to play at the high standards demanded by LaLiga. I play like it's my last season every year,” he said in Japanese during the interview.
“My dream is to be able to continue playing in one of the top leagues in Europe, but of course I would also like to return to the J-League.”
One of the best forwards Japan has ever produced
Whether he continues to play in Europe or not, Okazaki will be recognised as one of the best forwards Japan has produced. Since making his senior debut for the national team in 2008, he has featured in three World Cup Finals in 2010, 2014 and 2018.
He has scored 50 goals in 119 appearances for the Blue Samurai – only the third player to reach that milestone in national team history.
Okazaki said during the interview that he is proud to represent Asia in the top European leagues, and hope that his decade of playing in Europe can be an example for other Asian players that it is possible to have a long and fruitful career in Europe.
“Being an Asian player, it was natural that when I first came to the Bundesliga, there were concerns about my physical size,” he said. “However, when I was there, I actually felt confident in my ability and capability to play well.
“Of course there is a difference in body size, when compared to European players, but Asian players do have an advantage in quickness. So I used that ‘physical’ quickness with ‘mental quickness’ – I had to be quick-thinking as well to be at the right place at the right time to score.
“If I try hard enough to bring out the best in Asian football, my confidence will grow.”
Still has affection for Leicester City
Indeed, Okazaki was often the unsung hero of his team. While Vardy earned most of the plaudits amid Leicester’s 2016 triumph, Okazaki was also an ever-present figure in that triumphant team with his ceaseless running and link-up play between midfield and attack.
It is no wonder that the Japanese still has fond memories of that fairytale title triumph, and he admits that he still keeps track of the Foxes’ fortunes, two years after his departure.
“I watched the Leicester v Fulham game recently, and they are good again, near the top of the league,” he said with a smile. “Even though Vardy is out injured, they still beat Fulham and showed that it doesn’t matter who is on the field. Everyone is performing well for the club – just like it was for us in 2016.”
He was then asked: In his first LaLiga Santander season, which player has he been most impressed by?
He sprang a surprise answer: it was not Lionel Messi, but Celta Vigo star striker Iago Aspas.
“He a very smart player who can do everything – goals and assists. Very good player.”
This interview was organised by LaLiga. Watch LaLiga Santander live on your local broadcasters.