Expectations could hardly be any higher heading into the Bundesliga’s 51st campaign, especially after Germany’s top flight produced both of last season’s UEFA Champions League finalists.
Fans across the world have been lavishing the league with well-deserved praise in the build-up to Friday’s opening clash between champions Bayern München and Borussia Monchengladbach, while increasing numbers of international stars attracted to the open style and electric atmosphere now synonymous with German football.
Japanese players in particular have been flourishing, with no fewer than nine currently plying their trade in the Bundesliga, inspired by the success of former Borussia Dortmund string-puller Shinji Kagawa, who shone as the club won back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012.
Praise from Littbarski
"I think the demands of the modern game suit Japanese players,” said former Germany international Pierre Littbarski in a recent interview with bundesliga.de. The 1990 FIFA World Cup™ winner is regarded as a pioneer in German-Japanese football relations having finished his career in the Far East, where he continued to work as a coach once his playing days were over.
“They’re good at playing between the lines,” explained Littbarski. “They’re very mobile, good in tight spaces and they have excellent technique. They’ve got the advantage over lankier players in midfield and that’s very much in demand at the moment.”
“They’re completely committed and determined to do everything perfectly,” he continued, adding that Japanese players “train hard” and are “very disciplined”, virtues traditionally associated with German football which, unsurprisingly, have been central to the Asians' respective Bundesliga success stories.
Shinji Kagawa began his ascent to stardom with Dortmund, eventually earning a dream move to English giants Manchester United. Makoto Hasebe won the title with Wolfsburg in 2009 and is now captain of the Japanese national team, while last season Hiroshi Kiyotake starred for Nurnberg and Takashi Inui inspired promoted outfit Eintracht Frankfurt to a surprise top-six finish.
Both have already represented the Blue Samurai in qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, along with fellow Bundesliga stars Atsuto Uchida (Schalke) Hiroki Sakai (Hannover), Hajime Hosogai (Hertha Berlin), Gotoku Sakai (Stuttgart) and eight-time goalscorer Shinji Okazaki, who recently swapped Stuttgart for Mainz.
On average, every second Bundesliga club boasts a Japanese player among their ranks, with many of them key performers both at domestic and international level.
The language of football
"I’ve had a few world-class players in my time, but I’ve never seen anyone control the ball and move it on the way Inui does,” said Frankfurt coach Armin Veh. Inui enjoys a devoted following back home and has said that he is determined to “work just as hard as Shinji Kagawa – and to play like him”.
Yet while Man Utd’s No26 is the modern paragon, several have gone before him. The first Japanese player to make waves in the Bundesliga was Yasuhiko Okudera, who netted 26 goals in 234 league games for Cologne and Werder Bremen between 1977 and 1986.
Similarly to his successors, Okudera's biggest hurdle in Germany was getting to grips with the language. "You have to get by with gestures most of the time," joked Nurnberg schemer Hiroshi Kiyotake in a recent interview with kicker.
Not that the language barrier has been detrimental to the Japanese stars’ swiftly settling into the Bundesliga. Indeed, as soon as new season kicks off on Friday evening, all will once again be talking the universal language of football.