Kagawa provides reminder of Eastern promise
At 3.30pm on October 22, 1977, Cologne forward Yasuhiro Okudera attempted to separate Duisburg's Herbert Bussers from the ball. It was the first minute of Okudera's first Bundesliga game and it would have been his first touch of the ball in a competitive game in Germany. If he had made proper contact with the ball, that is.
Instead he brought down Bussers and, since this happened in Cologne's penalty area, the referee blew his whistle and pointed to the spot.
There are no two ways about it - it was the worst possible start for the first Asian player in the professional German game. Okudera, signed for 300,000 Marks (then £75,000) from Japanese club Furukawa, wasn't even supposed to start the match because he had spent the previous week munching tablets like candy on account of an infected wound. And now this.
But it all turned out well, in more ways than one. Rudi Seliger stepped up to take the penalty for Duisburg and, behind his his back, Cologne's Heinz Simmet pointed to a corner to tell his 'keeper Toni Schumacher where he thought the ball would be placed. Seliger struck, Simmet was right, Schumacher saved. And Okudera, we may surmise, enjoyed a big sigh of relief. Cologne eventually won the game 2-1.
It also turned out well when you look at the bigger picture. Okudera spent almost nine years in Germany and played more than 250 games for Cologne, Hertha and Bremen. He won the league and cup Double with Cologne and would have won a second Bundesliga title, with Bremen, if it hadn't been for another, much more famous, missed penalty - Michael Kutzop's 88th-minute spot-kick on the penultimate day of the 1985-86 season against Bayern.
Okudera also became the first Asian to score in the European Cup, when he put one past Nottingham Forest's Peter Shilton with his first touch of the ball, 28 seconds after coming on, to make it 3-3 at the City Ground in the legendary 1979 semi-final first leg. (You don't hear this often, but Shilton should have saved the shot. However, it didn't matter much as Forest won the second leg 1-0.)
A few weeks after this game, the second Asian success story in Germany got off the ground when the South Korean Bum-Kun Cha made his league debut for Frankfurt. Actually, this was the much bigger success story, because while Okudera was a solid Bundesliga player, Cha became a true star in Frankfurt, and later at Leverkusen. The German writer Eckhard Henscheid composed a 130-line ode called Hymn to Bum-Kun Cha in 1979 (it name-checks Okudera) and, almost two decades later, a Frankfurt indie band called itself Bum Khun Cha Youth (sic).
Of course, it's way too early to tell if Borussia Dortmund's Shinji Kagawa can emulate Cha - or even, for that matter, Okudera - but there's no denying that the young Japanese already enjoys the kind of cult status among Borussia's support that Cha had in Frankfurt. Even before Kagawa scored two goals to win the heated Ruhr derby for Dortmund against Schalke, the Dortmund supporters had watched and listened to enough YouTube videos to sing Kagawa Shinji - putting the family name first, as it's done in Japan - and make brave attempts at getting the sounds right, pronouncing the 'w' more like 'oo'.
This is astonishing, considering Kagawa has been with Dortmund for not more than 14 weeks. But the fans were given proof very early that this is quite a talented 21-year-old. He was the best man on the pitch when Dortmund met a star-studded and fiendishly expensive Manchester City side in a pre-season friendly. Kagawa, signed for only €350,000 from Cerezo Osaka, won the penalty that led to the first goal and scored the second as Dortmund won 3-1.
Also, Kagawa reminds Dortmund's support of two former players who were very popular in the stands. The first is, of course, Tomas Rosicky, because Kagawa's technique, vision and pace over the crucial first few yards (not to mention his stature) make him almost a dead ringer for the Czech playmaker.
The second is, far less apparently, the Scot Paul Lambert. Like Lambert, Kagawa was signed as a stand-in for more established midfielders but won a place in the starting line-up through diligence and his work-rate; like the Lambert transfer back in 1996, Kagawa's signing was both a no-risk deal and seemingly the result of good scouting in places untapped by competitors.
Seemingly. Because the truth of the matter is that it wasn't scouts who found Lambert back then or spotted Kagawa now. In both cases it was an agent who alerted the club to the availability of a good player. Such things often come about in a convoluted way and usually have to do with being well-connected. Which is why you could say that the Kagawa deal, broadly speaking, goes back all the way to Okudera.
In the 1970s and '80s, German footballers past their prime went to North America or Switzerland to see out their careers and secure a final lucrative contract. But this changed on a brisk day in the winter of 1992-93, when an old friend suddenly paid an unexpected visit to the Cologne clubhouse - Okudera.
Five years after he had retired as a player, Okudera was working as what amounted to a director of football for his old club. It was now called JEF United Ichihara and would soon be competing in the inaugural season of the first professional league in Japan - the J League.
Many Japanese clubs went looking for foreign players around this time to bolster their squads and make their teams more attractive for the fans during this crucial first season - Gary Lineker signed for Nagoya Grampus Eight, Gerald Vanenburg joined Jubilo Iwata, Zico went to Kashima Antlers.
But Germany would be represented by no less than four players in the first year of the new J League, as Okudera lured not only his old Cologne team-mate Pierre Littbarski to JEF United but also his old Bremen team-mate Frank Ordenewitz.
Those two were joined in Japan by Uwe Rahn and Michael Rummenigge, who signed for Urawa Red Diamonds in two transfers that established this particular club's very strong German ties. (Uwe Bein and Guido Buchwald joined Red Diamonds only one year later, and the list of the team's future coaches would include Holger Osieck and Volker Finke.)
Put differently, German football people have been familiar with Japan for one-and-a-half decades, and that includes football people who didn't even play in Japan themselves, such as a former midfielder by the name of Thomas Kroth.
Kroth played together with Okudera at Cologne and hung up his boots many years later at Borussia Dortmund, as a team-mate of Michael Zorc, who is now Dortmund's director of football. In the mid-'90s, Kroth went into career management and soon discovered an almost pristine playing field - Asia, and particularly Japan.
In the spirit of those times, Kroth placed some older and lesser-known Germans with Japanese clubs, such as Dirk van der Ven, but he quickly realised the more rewarding way was the opposite direction.
And so 23-year-old Naohiro Takahara went from Jubilo Iwata to Hamburg in the same month that the 32-year-old Van der Ven went from Bielefeld to Yokohama - January 2003.
Since then, the number of transfers from Asia to Germany has gradually but steadily increased. Junichi Inamoto joined Frankfurt three years ago, and then, in early 2008, no less than four clubs suddenly found new players in the Far East: Bochum (Shinji Ono), Wolfsburg (Makoto Hasebe), Wehen Wiesbaden (Xie Hui) and Jena (Naoya Kikuchi).
This summer, Kagawa went to Dortmund, Asuto Uchida joined Schalke, Kisho Yano came to Freiburg and Bochum signed the first North Korean player in Germany, Chong Tese (sometimes spelled Jong Tae-Se).
What is this - simply a coincidence? Does this prove the concept of the collective soul, where everybody suddenly feels the same urge and acts accordingly? Or are our clubs just following a trend and jumping on the Japanese/Asian bandwagon?
No, it's none of that. It's a talent for recognising talent coupled with good business sense. Of the ten Asian players I've just mentioned, nine are represented by the same agency. It is Kroth's.
At the end of the day, it was Kroth who arranged the marriage between his old club and Kagawa. However, it was not a foregone conclusion that Borussia would be the ones to snatch him up. Last winter, Kagawa spent some time in Europe to check out Cologne, Schalke and Venlo in the Netherlands. He was also courted by Volker Finke, though the Urawa coach quickly realised he didn't stand much of a chance because Kagawa had no intention of staying in Japan for much longer.
In fact, he could have moved during the winter break, but apparently decided against it because he feared it would hurt his chances of making the World Cup squad. In the end, though, he was cut from the Japan squad and went to South Africa only as a non-player to gain experience. On the first day of the J League season, in March, Kagawa told his fellow countrymen: "My move to Europe is only delayed by some months."
That is an aspect of the Kagawa story which is usually overlooked when people wonder how the young player managed to adapt so swiftly and how he can cope with being so far away from home all by himself. In Germany, Kagawa's image is that of the carefree, happy-go-lucky kid, but he is also, in the words of a Japanese colleague of mine, "an incredibly ambitious person".
Actually, that is why he came so cheap. The €350,000 Dortmund paid to Cerezo was not even a proper transfer fee but just compensation for the player's schooling. Ahead of the 2010 season, Kagawa insisted on a get-out clause for Europe and had this modest sum written into his contract. This is clearly one man who trusts himself and his talent.
The extent of Kagawa's ambition has surprised even those who knew him before he moved to Europe. A Japanese friend of mine predicted that "language and communication will be a big obstacle, as he does not seem to be bookish or a diligent learner", but Kagawa already speaks a bit of German. After his first Bundesliga goal, against Wolfsburg, he grinned into the camera and said "Didn't sleep, didn't sleep!" in German, referring to the fact he'd just come back from international duty and been awake all night due to jet lag.
Didn't sleep - or, more precisely, didn't dream - would be a good catchphrase for Kagawa's time in Germany so far. He's been nothing short of a revelation, as his supposed lack of physical strength doesn't seem to be a problem and his finishing is already better than Rosicky's ever was. If he can keep up this form, expect a Hymn to Shinji and the formation of a Dortmund band called Kagawa Youth.