Yasuhiko Okudera earned himself a place in the history books in 1977 when he signed for Cologne, thus becoming the first Japanese player to ply his trade professionally in Europe at a time when the game was still in its amateur era back home. FIFA.com takes a closer look at the career of the first Asian to score in the European Cup, as well as touching upon his transition to life in Germany and ambitions for Japanese football.
Okudera earned his move to Cologne after making a name with Furukawa Electric in the corporate Japan Soccer League in 1970. It had not been long since West Germany had won the 1974 FIFA World Cup™ and the Bundesliga was one of the toughest leagues in the world, so the midfielder was under no illusions about the challenge ahead.
"I really wasn't sure if I'd be able to make the grade over there," he said. "The first season was a real struggle, not so much in terms of the style of play, but it took a while to get used to the lifestyle. It was from my second season onwards that I felt I had a good grip on things."
On the field, Okudera was quick to make an impression with his pace and crossing. Playing as a left-winger, he scored twice in each of the last two games of his first season as Cologne edged a nail-biting title race against Borussia Monchengladbach. The following year, he also found the net in his club's close-fought European Cup semi-final with eventual champions Nottingham Forest.
After three seasons at Cologne, where he shared a dressing room with the likes of Dieter Muller, Pierre Littbarski and goalkeeper Harald 'Tony' Schumacher, and one at second-division Hertha Berlin, Okudera was signed by Werder Bremen after catching the eye of coach Otto Rehhagel while playing out of position at right-back.
"I was thrilled to be offered a contract at Bremen," Okudera said. "I wanted to play in midfield, but Rehhagel told me I was going to be a right-back. And he told me we'd be playing a zonal defence: I'd never imagined I'd have to learn that because almost everyone else was using man-to-man marking."
Having become increasingly settled after his five years in Germany, Okudera thrived in Werder's colours. "I was at my most consistent while I was playing at Bremen," he said. "I didn't have any problems with the language or my environment or anything."
After 259 games and 34 goals during his nine-year stay in Germany, Okudera rejoined Furukawa Electric (now JEF United) in 1986, before finally hanging up his boots two years later.
Okudera is still closely involved with football in Japan, in his role as president and general manager of J.League second-flight team Yokohama FC. He also retains links with Europe, where he serves as president of English Championship outfit Plymouth Argyle. And his extensive experience means the 57-year-old is well-placed to pursue his goal of developing Japanese football.
"We need more Japanese who have played overseas to return and share their skills and knowledge here," said Okudera. "Urawa Reds and Gamba Osaka have played at the previous two FIFA Club World Cups, but it's difficult for Japanese players to get regular games against overseas teams. I'm sure that if Japan was in Europe, we'd be a stronger football nation than we are now.
"Japanese teams must be careful they don't get left behind by European clubs. Players like Makoto Hasebe are playing in Germany but Japanese club officials, as well as players, have a lot they can learn from overseas. I want more Japanese people to know about football, and I want to help take Japanese football to the world."