Shinji Ono knows a thing or two about success. The Japanese icon has won coveted silverware for both club and country, in addition to numerous personnel accolades since a meteoric rise to fame as a prodigiously talented teenager.
There were three FIFA World Cup™ appearances, and on the domestic stage a league and cup double with Urawa Red Diamonds was followed by an AFC Champions League win, the first for a J.League club. Ono was also the initial Japanese player to win continental silverware in Europe, when he - alongside Sydney FC’s Brett Emerton - helped Feyenoord to the UEFA Cup in 2002. The list goes on and on.
Now the evergreen Ono is sprinkling his magic dust upon the fairytale that is A-League side Western Sydney Wanderers. In their debut campaign the league’s newest club, which didn’t have enough players to take the field just three months prior to the season, has conjured a sporting miracle by taking out the Australian premiership.
Glamour cross-town rivals Sydney FC dominated the pre-season headlines after claimed the biggest coup of the A-League’s eight-year lifespan, with the recruitment of Italian FIFA World Cup-winner Alessandro Del Piero.
Just weeks before the start of the season the Wanderers signed Ono following an indifferent two-year spell at Shimizu S-Pulse and the synergy was immediate. Almost at once Ono became a somewhat unlikely crowd favourite and their hero has flourished in return.
The 33-years-old Ono cuts a lean figure in the Wanderers Flamengo-style red and black stripes, and in contrast to much of his time at Shimizu, gets through fast-paced 90-minute matches with regularity. The move to Sydney has, one senses, given Ono and the twilight years of his career, fresh impetus.
Sporting and cultural missionary
Western Sydney Wanderers are potentially just 180 minutes away from attaining glory that was unimaginable even just a few shorts months ago. The Wanderers took four matches to score their first goal and a full 11 outings before enjoying a two-goal winning margin. Then the momentum suddenly became unstoppable and the league’s new boys enter this weekend’s semi-final against champions Brisbane Roar on a 12-match unbeaten run. A win would set up a meeting against either Central Coast Mariners or Melbourne Victory with the national championship at stake.
“I want to achieve more with this club,” Ono told FIFA.com earlier this week. Having finished top of the ladder a fortnight ago, Ono is now hungry to win the play-offs which determine the national champions. "This is the system I know now and I want to get one more championship with this team.”
Sometimes I need to stop thinking about football so much. But I can’t because I have passion and I love football.
Ono says he likes the idea of being an ambassador for Japanese culture in Australia, as well as promoting football in a nation that famously is active across multiple sports.
“If we win the championship then more Australian people know about me and about Japanese people. This is very important for me. Maybe some people think Japanese people don’t have a good personality or something, I don’t know. But if I achieve with the team then more people know of Japan and Japanese personality.
“It surprised me that there are so many other sports (in Australia) like Rugby, AFL (Australian Rules Football), and I don’t understand why they are more popular than football. I want to help the people love football more. They want to learn. The football history is not long here. Maybe some people want to learn from me."
Despite his wife and two children remaining in Japan, the man nick-named Tensai (genius) has a genuine affection for his temporary home. And the feeling is mutual with Wanderers coach Tony Popovic describing Ono as “a true gentlemen off the field and a fantastic player on it.”
Ono makes a weekly journey to one of the city’s harbourside restaurants where a well-known celebrity Japanese chef provides some culinary tastes of home. “I didn’t know about anything in Australia before I came, but within two or three weeks I was very happy. I love this country and this city. I love the weather and the people are very kind.”
Ono’s international career spanned 11 years and three FIFA World Cups. There was also success at youth level, where he captained the national team to a maiden final appearance at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 1999. The following year was not so kind, however, and injury forced Ono to miss the Sydney Olympics. Little did he know that, a lone 2007 AFC Champions League match in Sydney aside, a footballing odyssey to Australia’s largest city was to follow 12 years later.
An 18-year-old Ono found himself catapulted virtually from high school into Japan’s long-awaited FIFA World Cup debut at France 1998. That tournament remains, says the attacking midfielder, a favourite memory of his time in the colours of Samurai Blue.
On the debit side is his final FIFA World Cup appearance eight years later which lasted for just 11 torrid minutes. “I have a bad memory of Germany 2006,” he says with a grimace. “We were 1-0 up (against Australia) but lost the game.”
It proved to be a pivotal result which pushed the Socceroos to breakthrough qualification for the knockout stage, and ultimately ensured Japan’s elimination. The match will remain a key moment in Australia’s football narrative for decades to come but for Ono it left only scars. “I was really down for one or two years and couldn’t enjoy football. I felt responsible, but of course football is not just about one person, but 11 together.
“Sometimes I need to stop thinking about football so much. But I can’t because I have passion and I love football.”