Credit: Светлана Бекетова, Japan national football team World Cup 2018, CC BY-SA 3.0
An allegiance between Wakatake Group and LaLiga was recently announced, which saw the Japanese company become an official partner for grassroots football development in Japan until June 2022.
The project has three core functions. The first will be virtual training of coaches in Japan by LaLiga sports project department and methodology directors from Villarreal CF, Athletic Club and SD Eibar. Several LaLiga coaches will then travel to Japan to carry out sessions with players and help local coaches. Finally, a group of players will then travel back to Spain for a training session and maybe even a career in Spanish football.
Japanese football has always been one of the more popular Asian leagues in the European game. Beyond The Last Man explain how former Barcelona striker Gary Lineker moved there in 1992, instantly raising the profile of the J-League. Six years later, Japan qualified for their first World Cup tournament and has been at every tournament. The game has a strong fanbase in Japan too, as Expatbets document that the J-League is one of the few sports on which wagers are allowed. That allows fans to have an experience very much like those in Europe have, and the game has thrived as a result. That, combined with Japan co-hosting the 2002 World Cup, has helped ensure fans keep going to matches, even in a country dominated by combat sports such as sumo.
The growing interest in their domestic league has led to an influx of players leaving Japan for Europe, with some finding their way to LaLiga. Such is the interest in LaLiga in Japan, with SportsNavi becoming the first official LaLiga broadcasting partner. Now, with the latest link-up, the ties between Japan and Spain are only likely to strengthen. To celebrate the link between Wakatake Group and LaLiga, we selected the best five Japanese players to appear in Spain’s top flight.
Midfield Shibasaki already had seven years of J-League football behind him when he left Japan for Spain – he’d won the competition in 2016 with Kashima Antlerswhen he decided to move on. His first stop was Tenerife in the Segunda Division, but he moved to Getafe in the top flight after one season. After just 29 appearances in a two-year stay, he dropped back into the lower level, where he remains with Leganes.
Nakamura scored at a World Cup for Japan, netting against Australia in 2006. It was a controversial goal; his cross sailed over keeper Mark Schwartzer’s head as he appeared to be held down. That was one of 24 goals he scored in 98 international appearances. He won six trophies whilst playing for Celtic in Scotland, after which he had a short spell in LaLiga with Espanyol, appearing 13 times.
Inui appeared for Cerezo Osaka in the J-League before moving to Germany, where he played top-flight football with Eintracht Frankfurt. A move to Eibar followed, and he spent four seasons in the Basque country, scoring 14 times in 141 appearances. Since leaving Eibar, he has remained in Spain, moving to Real Betis and having a season on loan with Alaves.
Okazaki is something of a Japanese legend, playing 119 times for his country, bagging 50 goals. He is well-known for winning a surprise Premier League title with Leicester City in 2016, but he also appeared in the Bundesliga with Stuttgart and Mainz 05. In 2019/20, his 12 goals in 37 outings helped Huesca to promotion to La Liga, although he only bagged once in the top flight as they were immediately relegated. He did briefly sign for Mallorca, in 2019, but had his contract ripped up before he could kick a ball.
Kubo started his career with Tokyo Verdy and Kawasaki Frontale as a youth but was picked up by Barcelona in 2011. He returned to Japan in 2015, but four years later was back, this time with Real Madrid. The talented winger has since appeared for Mallorca, Villarreal and Getafe on loan, appearing five times for Villarreal in the Europa League. He bears the name ‘Take’ on his shirt and, at 20-years-old, is promising to be a significant player for club and country.