Fernando Torres aiming to put Sagan Tosu on world football's map
The career of Fernando Torres has come full circle. The Spanish striker fell in love with football from reading the legendary Japanese comic "Captain Tsubasa." "I remember when I was a kid, we couldn't find the signal really well on TV, but everyone in school was talking about this cartoon about football, from Japan," Torres said back in 2012. "I started playing football because of this ... that was the first contact I had with Japan."
The last chapter of a football career that has seen spells with Atletico Madrid, Liverpool and Chelsea, as well as over 100 appearances for Spain, is likely to be in Japan as the 34-year-old gets ready to make his debut for Sagan Tosu on Sunday.
It is becoming an increasingly familiar sight for Japanese fans. A big name -- and World Cup winner, no less -- pictured holding the scarf of a J.League club aloft. It follows the arrival of Andres Iniesta and Lukas Podolski at Vissel Kobe. The European trio have signed for clubs that are not traditional members of the Japanese elite. The stars are not yet joining Urawa Reds, Kashima Antlers or Yokohama F. Marinos but rather Vissel Kobe and Sagan Tosu, teams that have never come close to winning a league title.
Although Kobe may be --or may have been -- a footballing backwater, it is also a city of over a million and located in the densely populated Kansai region, just a short train ride from the bright lights of Osaka and the historic sights of Kyoto. Tosu, with a population of around 70,000, however, is a backwater full stop. It is located in laid-back Kyushu, the westernmost of the four main Japanese islands, far from Tokyo or Osaka and close to the southern tip of the Korean peninsula.
And it is Korea that has played a major part in the club's recent history. Until 2011 Sagan had spent their entire history in the second tier. Then former South Korean international Yoon Jung-hwan took over as coach and finally delivered promotion and then a top-5 finish. Yoon left in August 2014, but the club still retains Korean imports and a trace of the relatively direct style that Yoon introduced.
Now, though, there is Torres. He wants to put his new team on the map. "With my play, I want to help raise the level of football in Japan. My goal is to make Sagan Tosu a major club," he said. And there will be plenty of attention on a cup match in August as Torres meets Iniesta.
"Andres is a great friend who I first played with when we were both 15," said Torres. "We have the same motivations and we both love Japan. I'm looking forward to playing him. It should be a good game."
Until recently Sagan Tosu versus Vissel Kobe would not have made that many headlines in Japan, but Torres vs. Iniesta and Podolski will be a different matter. Money has obviously played a major part in bringing these stars east and there is more money in Japanese football these days. Kobe's case is a little different as the club has been owned since December 2014 by e-commerce giant Rakuten. The company sees football as a way to increase its brand at home but especially overseas, and as well as sponsoring Barcelona, it wants to build Vissel into a national and then Asian powerhouse.
There has been a league-wide windfall too. A deal signed in 2016 saw the J.League sell domestic online streaming rights for a total of around $2 billion over a 10-year period. Some of that is feeding through, and while there has yet to be the kind of widepsread spending seen in China in recent years -- a spree that has seen the Chinese Super League overtake the J.League in terms of average attendance and international profile -- there is a determination to make Japan's league the undisputed No. 1 in Asia.
For the short term, however, Torres has a more immediate priority: to take the points against Vegalta Sendai on Sunday and help relieve relegation worries. He does not want to suffer the same fate as Diego Forlan, the last big-name player to head east in 2014 before the current spate of spending started last year. The Uruguayan ended up playing in the second division with Cerezo Osaka, though when he arrived, he was supposed to be the missing piece in the jigsaw to deliver a first league title to the Kansai club.
At least Torres knows what he is getting into. As the league approaches the halfway stage, Tosu are next to bottom with 14 points and three off safety. It is going to be a scrap, but with less than a goal a game to the team's name, there is serious scope for the Spaniard to make a difference.
"First we'll focus on winning one game, then the next one," he said. "I want to score goals, of course, but more important than scoring goals is winning games."
If Torres can help the club avoid relegation, then minds can turn once again to putting Sagan Tosu on the map.