WORDS: CHRIS COLLINS
A prodigious talent from the start, Yoichiro Kakitani lost his way at the point when things looked to be taking off for him as a youngster, but now he is back, refocused and scoring goals for Cerezo Osaka on a regular basis. Here’s why we think he could be the next major talent to come out of Japan…
The Cerezo Osaka production line has delivered plenty of emerging Japanese talent to Europe in recent seasons, with the Bundesliga the main beneficiary. Now, a few years later than anticipated, Yoichiro Kakitani looks set to be the next creative talent to come off the conveyer belt.
Shinji Kagawa, Hiroshi Kiyotake and Takashi Inui all earned their moves move to Germany having spent their formative years in Osaka under the guidance of Brazilian coach Levr Culpi. As his friends and contemporaries progressed, it appeared Kakitani’s talents were destined to wither on the vine, but he has achieved domestic and international recognition over the last six months, finally demonstrating the consistency required to break into Alberto Zaccheroni’s Samurai Blue squad.
Still only 23 years old, and having almost squandered his talents before they had fully developed, far less been widely appreciated, he looks certain to terrorise defences at the World Cup in Brazil next year.
Kakitani’s backstory is a familiar one. The youngest player ever to sign a professional contract with J-League outfit Cerezo Osaka, he was a teenage prodigy, firing his country to glory in the Under-17s Asian Championships, being named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player in the process.
In the Under-17s World Cup in 2007, his superb performances, which included a goal from the halfway line against France, drew the attentions of scouts from all over Europe, including Inter and Arsenal, both of whom he was invited to train with.
Playing anywhere across the frontline or in behind a striker, Kakitani’s balance, pace and immaculate control set him apart and marked him out as an attacker of outstanding potential with a lively and inventive football brain.
However, things quickly unravelled. Apparently unwilling to accept and adhere to the basic tenets of professionalism, his star began to wane soon after. Looking back he reflects he simply was not equipped to deal with the expectation.
“Honestly speaking, I don’t think I was ready to be a footballer. The way I was acting was completely unprofessional. Luckily I got a lot of support from a lot of people and now I am in a much better place.”
These “problems” have never been fully documented, though in a society that retains fairly traditional values, his attitude was frequently questioned, and his healthy self regard had seemingly outgrown even his own prodigious abilities. On the pitch, his play had become wasteful and extravagant, to the detriment of the team and his own individual statistics.
Culpi took the decision to loan him out to J2 side Tokushima Vortis, where he played for three seasons, enabling his personal growth and physical development. For a time it seemed he would not emerge from the lower divisions, but Culpi maintained a keen interest in Kakitani throughout his loan period, despite persistent rumours of a badly fractured relationship.
The Brazilian, more than anyone, was eager that he should return to Cerezo Osaka a more rounded professional.
“Yochiro is very similar to Shinji [Kagawa], when it comes to technical abilities, but compared to Shinji, who never let his eyes off the road, Yoichiro had instances wherein he wandered and lost sight of his destination. I pray that he faces his problems head on in Tokushima and develops further.”
His restoration complete, he returned to Osaka in 2012 and quickly re-established himself in the team, scoring 17 times in all competitions. With three months of the 2013 campaign remaining he has already surpassed that figure, scoring freely as Cerezo continue to challenge for an ACL place. His international credentials received further endorsement as he added five caps and three goals to his CV in an impressive start to his career with the senior Japanese side.
He scored three times in his first two games as Japan lifted the East Asian Cup in South Korea in July, and was part of a potent attacking triumvirate with Keisuke Honda and Kagawa in the recent Kirin Cup victory over Ghana.
His disciplinary record has improved dramatically. He has been cautioned only once in the last two seasons; between 2009 and 2011 he received seventeen yellow cards.
To observe Kakitani at the peak of his powers is to witness a footballer with almost effortless ability. He plays with rhythm and confidence, and a fluent, purposeful aggression, despite his relatively slight frame. He has mastered the art of controlling the ball and shifting it away from his opponent in the same movement, though his ice cool finishing is fast becoming his most notable attribute. His heading ability requires improvement and he can occasionally operate in the margins of the game, but on his day he is comprehensively brilliant in almost every aspect of forward play.
Unlike the European-based stars Kagawa and Honda, Kakitani is yet to be tested, let alone prove himself overseas against the best defenders in the world, though recent reports have linked him with some of the top clubs in Germany and the UK.
Barring injury or a complete collapse in form, he will almost certainly board the flight to Brazil next year. A player of immense talent, almost lost to Japan, once more has the world at his feet.