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 By Kelvin Leong

Japanese legends paved the way for the likes of Kagawa and Okazaki

Shinji Ono and Hidetoshi Nakata of Japan
Nakata and Ono were part of a golden generation in Japanese football.

Names like Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki easily roll off the tongues of modern European football fans, but their success can be attributed to their legendary compatriots like Hidetoshi Nakata, Shunsuke Nakamura and a certain man the Japanese fans fondly call Tensai.

Born with the gift of an amazing football brain and artistic footwork, Shinji Ono took Japan by surprise when his name was announced as part of the country's 1998 World Cup squad in France, ahead of then-superstars, Kazuyoshi Miura, who is still playing at the age of 48, and Tsuyoshi Kitazawa.

Just 18 at that time, Ono took his first baby steps into the world of professional football, becoming the youngest player to ever represent Japan on football's biggest stage.

"It was a big surprise for me," Ono told ESPN FC.

"I always believed in my own ability, but there were so many experienced and top players like Kazu, who was left out. I didn't play much in France, but I really took in the experience, which helped me develop my career."

The only problem for him was that his entry into Japanese football folklore came at a time in which the Samurai Blue had a golden generation of star midfielders such as Nakata, Junichi Inamoto and Nakamura.

Celtic midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura
Nakamura gained legendary status at Celtic Park with his spectacular goals and high work rate.

And despite being crowned Asian footballer of the year in 2002, Ono believes it was Nakamura who was the best Japanese player of his generation.

"For me, it has to be Nakamura," Ono told ESPN FC. "He has very good technique and skill and is one of the most complete midfielders of my time, along with Nakata. If you look at his career in Europe and also Japan, you can see he is always one of the top players for his club.

"Players like him made us all work hard when we got called up for the national team, and you had to give your best in training to be able to fight for a spot in the starting lineup."

Big clubs began to throw their names into the hat in order to sign the playmaker, but Ono chose to join Bert van Marwijk's Feyenoord in the Dutch Eredivisie, where he spent five wonderful years and became the first-ever Japanese player to win a European trophy in 2002, outplaying German giants Borussia Dortmund 3-2 in the 2002 UEFA Cup Final.

But it was in the UEFA Super Cup against Champions League winners Real Madrid that Ono finally went up against a player he claims was on another level from everyone else of his generation.

Japan midfielder Shinji Ono
Ono (right) went up against the likes of Luis Figo in the 2002 Super Cup.

"It was wonderful to win the UEFA Cup in my first season at Feyenoord but then, the Super Cup was even more special," Ono said.

"Most of the players in the Real Madrid team like Raul, [Luis] Figo and [Claude] Makelele. ... But then the chance to play against them was something different. I was nervous and excited at the same time.

"Makelele was very good in the 3-1 win, but it had to be [Zinedine] Zidane who was the best player on the pitch for me. His movement and style is like he was on a different cloud from the rest of us. [It] will always be a memorable night for me."

When his time was up in Netherlands, Ono returned home to turn out for J-League giants Urawa Red Diamonds before moving back to Europe to play for VFL Bochum in Germany.

Ono then returned to Japan to turn out for Shimizu S-Pulse before a surprise move Down Under to join up with Western Sydney Wanderers four years ago as the capital club's marquee signing in the A-League.

Shinji Ono and Alessandro Del Piero in Australia
Del Piero and Ono were signed on as marquee players in the A-League.

Along with Italy World Cup winner Alessandro Del Piero and former England and Liverpool striker Emile Heskey, the trio stole the limelight, but the Japanese playmaker came out on top by winning the Premiership title in his first year.

"I didn't know much about Australian life and culture before I joined the Wanderers. But once I set foot into the country and stayed for a few months, I realise it was quite similar to the way of life back home in Japan. I was very comfortable and enjoyed my football at the club almost immediately," Ono said.

"To be honest, I didn't know who the other marquee players were, and when I found out it was Del Piero and Heskey, two of the biggest names in world football, it made me nervous and stressed but we managed to achieve becoming champions of the league in my first year, and it became a lot easier to focus on showing what I wanted to achieve on the pitch."

With Ono nearing the twilight of his long and illustrious career with J2 club Consadole Sapporo, the mercurial attacker is ready to give back to the sport that has brought him on a fantastic 17-year journey. But, like every player who has donned the famed Samurai Blue jersey, the man they dubbed Tensai -- genius in Japanese -- has one wish for his country, but knows it will be years of hard work before his dream can be fulfilled.

Japan midfielder Shinji Ono
Ono made 56 appearances for Japan, scoring six goals in the process.

"The Japan national team has a lot of good players who now have experience playing in Europe. Players like Kagawa and Okazaki must lead the youngsters to compete on the international level and we must believe that one day, we can win the World Cup.

"Japan must keep improving because we may be doing well in Asia but the rest of the world are also improving their football, so we cannot stay where we are.

"The J-League must keep trying to improve the level of football year after year, and one day, maybe one day, Japan will be World Cup champions."

ESPN FC editor Kelvin Leong is a former media officer for Singapore and ex-regional editor of ESPNSTAR.com. Twitter: @KelvinLeong29.

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