Cameroon opens up to the Orient
Clearly not a man to mince his words, Kimitoshi Nogawa began his very first training session in Yaounde with a statement as bold as they come. "My ambition is to make Canon the champions of Cameroon," he insisted, and his words will have been heard across the home of the Indomitable Lions, where his arrival from the Land of the Rising Sun is big news. He is, after all, the first Japanese footballer to ply his trade in Cameroon - but probably not the last. Two of his compatriots are already set to follow in his footsteps in the next few days.
The new man certainly looks to have his work cut out if he is to make good on his grandstand promise. Four-time African champions Canon have struggled in the early stages of the league season, and a lacklustre two points from five games sees them languishing in the lower reaches of the table. Not that Nogawa will be overly concerned. The globetrotter has plenty of experience packed into his suitcases, having played for several Japanese clubs and made career stop-offs in countries as diverse as Brazil, Poland and Italy.
So what attracted him to the challenge of football in an African championship? The answer is closely tied to the activities of Maboang Kessack Emmanuel. The former Indomitable Lions striker runs the management company Komodo Sports in Indonesia, the country where he finished his career in the mid-1990s alongside a certain Roger Milla.
In his new role as an agent, Maboang has made it possible for a large number of African players to leave their native countries and pursue their careers in Asia, most notably in Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and India. The steady influx of genuine talent slowly set the local football officials to thinking. "The presidents of clubs in Asia were just amazed that African players could be so strong and have so much stamina, whatever the time of year," remembers Maboang. This heightened curiosity led him to help set up training camps in South Africa for Vietnamese club officials who wanted, "to see how they played over there and learn some lessons."
Like many of his compatriots, Nogawa rates African football highly, no doubt impressed by the exploits of Cameroon and Nigeria at recent FIFA World Cups. And unperturbed by the lack of financial resources that holds back many leagues, he was keen to, "go and see for myself, try the experience, get stronger and then why not try again in Europe."
Nogawa's first crack at the Old Continent was limited to brief flirtations with football in Poland and then Brescia in Italy, before he set sail for his latest adventure at the beginning of April. The only taste he had of what lay in store in Yaounde was a few hasty training sessions in Paris with former players and students from Cameroon - and we can assume the experience went well.
Patrick Mboma: an example to follow
The potential pitfalls for a Japanese footballer trying to adapt to the African game are not hard to number, with culture shock and home sickness at the head of the list. Many experts believe it to be almost impossible, but Maboang firmly disagrees. "Kimitoshi can adapt to Cameroon, just like Patrick Mboma did in Japan before him," he says confidently. Indeed, the former Cameroon international now proudly wears the colours of Verdy Kawasaki, having first joined Gamba Osaka back in 1996.
And the powerful striker has his own advice for Nogawa. "As far as I'm concerned, Japan leads the way in terms of organisation, so the difference between the two countries will hit him straight away. I'd recommend that he does exactly what I did - embrace the local customs, rather than expect others to adapt themselves to you. Starting to eat Cameroonian food, listening to the music and, most importantly, learning the language are all things that will help him flourish."
A genuine curiosity in his new home, Nogawa has attracted plenty of attention. Even the Japanese ambassador has become involved, assuring the player's security and promising to lend whatever help he can. The club, meanwhile, have provided their high-profile signing with a house and car, as well as a chauffeur for all his travel purposes.
For 'Doctor' Théophile Abega, Canon's President and a member of the Cameroon team that graced the 1982 FIFA World Cup, Nogawa's presence is an opportunity not only in sporting terms, but also financially. "I think that through our Japanese player, Canon can look to get support from Japanese clubs and businesses," he says. "We'll be celebrating Canon's 75th birthday on 9 November next year, and we plan to celebrate it with the Japanese."
Maboang is hopeful that the arrival of Nogawa and his two fellow countrymen will spark an influx of foreign talent into Cameroon, and even has his own dream for the future: "Who knows, maybe one day we'll have a white player in the national side. Why not a defender or a No. 10? Cameroon could have gone far in the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan with someone pulling the strings in midfield, and that's still what we lack today." Certainly, a number of European nations have benefited from players with immigrant backgrounds, and the example could serve as a reference in Africa.
Of course, Nogawa is not the first foreign footballer to test himself in the Cameroonian league. Liberian aces George Weah and James Debbahda, and Japhet N'Doram from Chad all nurtured their talent with local sides before making names for themselves in Europe, and the question is will Nogawa be able to do the same? First things first, though - he has the small matter of a promise to keep by taking Canon to the top of the table! And far from being a dream, that may prove to be a very difficult reality.