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Apr 28, 2012

Kagawa the toast of Asia

Germany has great beer but Japan is not far behind with Sapporo, Asahi and Kirin all crisp and cool. Just like Shinji Kagawa who last weekend was able to enjoy the huge tankards of ale on the pitch as he celebrated a second successive title with Borussia Dortmund.

When served with a league winner's medal, any beer in the world would taste great. Among fans of the German champions however, there is a growing fear that the Japanese international is about to drain his glass, say "cheers" and head to a new party (that's enough - ed).

After just two seasons in the Bundesliga, Kagawa has established himself as one of the league's top players. That is some achievement for a 23 year-old who arrived from Cerezo Osaka in the summer of 2010 unknown to European fans and most Asians after just a dozen games in the top tier of the J-league. Japanese fans knew though.

That summer saw a number of Blue Samurai heading to Germany for free, much to the annoyance of the Tokyo media. Despite the fact that the Flaming Pinks received €350,000 for Kagawa, Cerezo received the most criticism as all knew that the attacking midfielder who offered goals, vision and the ability to unlock defences, had all the tools necessary to do succeed wherever he went. Crucially, the player knew too.

Kagawa's arrival may have been unheralded two years ago but he has soon become a darling of massed fans at the Westfalenstadion. Just before the Revierderby against Ruhr rivals Schalke a few weeks into the season, he predicted that he would score two goals. He did just that. Few Asian players in any of Europe's big leagues have ever done such a thing. Certainly, none had ever said that they would and then delivered.

If that caused fans to fall in love with the player, eight goals in the first 18 appearances cemented that relationship. Unfortunately, that season was ended by a broken metatarsal at the Asian Cup in January. The fact that the slight star still made the Bundesliga team of the season shows just how good those 18 games were.

Any concerns about possible second-season syndrome, were unfounded though both team and player started a little slowly. Soon though, he was back in top gear. Thirteen goals have come in 28 games, an impressive strike rate, and he has chipped in with seven assists. The last of those strikes came to clinch the title against Borussia Monchengladbach last weekend.

"I'm feeling a lot of emotions, and I really do feel a sense of completion," said the star of the hour. "Even though we had a really difficult period, we were able to win the championship and it's because of how close we all are. I really want to thank my team-mates and the fans. This wasn't something I could have ever accomplished alone, and it's amazing."

Kagawa has already surpassed Keisuke Honda as the standard bearer for Japanese players in Europe and there is more to come. Back in East Asia the likes of Yasuhiro Okudera and Cha Bum-Keun must have nodded in satisfaction.

Okudera was the first Japanese player in Germany and played for Cologne, Hertha BSC and Werder Bremen from 1977 to 1986. Cha was the first Asian star in Germany, thrilling fans at Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer Leverkusen from 1979 to 1989. The South Korean, who collected two UEFA Cup medals when the competition was a big deal, is regarded by many in Asia (and perhaps all in Germany) as the best Asian player of the 20th century.

While Kagawa has made a good start in the race for a 21st century equivalent, even Cha and Okudera would probably understand a move away from Germany to Spain, Italy or England. While the Bundesliga is respected in Asia, it does not command the widespread exposure and popularity that the other three, especially the Premier League, have. Whether a move is right in football terms or not, the fact is that a transfer to a global giant - "the blue chip option" as described recently by the Tokyo press - offers a quick step to super-stardom.

Barely a day goes by without a new club being linked to the player - Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Milan, Juventus, Arsenal, the list is growing by the day. Japanese national team coach Alberto Zaccheroni has advised the player to head to Serie A, though it is thought that England is his preferred destination.

The team that is the most desperate for his signature is Dortmund. Earlier this month, BVB sporting director Michael Zorc told Bild: "There should be a decision soon. We would like to extend with him... the ball is in [Kagawa's] box - Shinji must now decide. We know that he is flirting with clubs in England and Spain." According to recent reports, the player needs to decide by the end of April if he is going to sign a new contract with the club and double his annual salary to €3 million, or head elsewhere.

Again, according to reports, Manchester United are ready to double that again in search of a creative midfielder who offers goals and much more besides. Much of the Red Devils' financial global success comes from Asia. They are the number one brand in much of the continent and even where they are not, they are not far behind. Not only can Kagawa deliver the goods and the goals on the pitch, a Japanese player at Old Trafford would be huge news in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Park Ji-Sung, now an infrequent member of the Old Trafford starting line-up, has demonstrated what a talented and high-profile Asian player can do on and off the pitch. Few now think that old Three Lungs was signed for his commercial talent but even so, that has been impressive and helped to deliver over a million credit cards, two major sponsors and two sell-out games back in Korea. With United's marketing and commercial nous, reach and experience, Kagawa could do all that and more in Japan.

No deal is done yet though and while this Samurai Blue may make a perfect Red Devil, there is going to be quite a fight should Shinji Kagawa decide to leave the stage he has graced with such skill for two years.

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