Pitchside Europe

‘Die Nippon Connection’ lights up Bundesliga

Pitchside Europe

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Nuremberg's Japanese midfielder Hiroshi Kiyotake runs with the ball during the Bundesliga match against Borussia …

Days after a particularly memorable display from Shinji Kagawa, one thrilled Borussia Dortmund fan insisted on naming his newborn son Shinji. Now there could be a crop of baby Hiroshis and Takashis across Germany.

Japanese players have never been so highly regarded in the Bundesliga.

Last weekend Nuremberg's new signing Hiroshi Kiyotake created two goals and scored a stunning solo effort as Der Club beat Borussia Monchengladbach 3-2. Takashi Inui curled in a lovely effort as Eintracht Frankfurt beat Hamburg by the same score. Hoffenheim were horrible in losing at Freiburg but had one consolation, Takashi Usami banging in one of the goals of the season from distance.

Some 35 years after Yasuhiko Okudera became the first Japanese player in the Bundesliga, and with Kagawa's displays fresh in the memory, the Bundesliga is ahead of other European leagues in tapping talent from the Land of the Rising Sun.

The German media have a phrase for the phenomenon: ''Die Nippon Connection.''

Nine Japanese players make a living in the Bundesliga. Kiyotake, Inui and Usami made headlines this week but Shinji Okazaki is a key part of Stuttgart's midfield, while Hajime Hosogai missed just two games as Augsburg surprisingly avoided the drop last season. National team captain Makoto Hasebe has more than 100 Bundesliga games under his belt for Wolfsburg, while Atsuto Uchida has proved a solid right-back for Schalke.

And Bundesliga clubs are attracting future talent: five of Japan's U23 Olympic team are signed up to German teams.

''This development is no coincidence,'' said Volker Fink, who coached the Urawa Red Diamonds in Japan after a hugely successful spell at Freiburg. ''Kagawa was the locomotive that opened up the German market for Japanese players. Now they are really coming alive.''

Attacking midfielder Kiyotake is in the news after a wonderful display at Borussia Park. Two superb set pieces created the opening goals. By the second half, Kiyotake was giving Gladbach the runaround: when Martin Stranzl dived in studs up, the Japanese player skipped over the big defender and slipped the ball home from the edge of the box.

Kiyotake has fitted in quickly at Nuremberg, even inspiring team-mate Timm Klose to learn Japanese. And he has a self-critical streak that German coaches adore: ''I'm losing possession too often. I have to start demanding the ball more, in training as well. ''

So why the glut of Japanese talent in Germany?

Wolfsburg's veteran coach Felix Magath has an answer: "The Japanese are disciplined, hard-working and obedient toward the team. They have speed, technique and discipline."

Those attributes have encouraged German scouts to take regular flights to Tokyo, and they seem to be looking for an archetypal Japanese talent: attacking midfielders in their early 20s, who are relatively short (Kiyotake and Inui are both five feet seven inches, while the other Bundesliga regulars are five feet 10 or less). The Japanese imports may seem lightweight, but they are lightning quick, and blessed with an ability to play fast, precise passes. Unbelievable work rate and professionalism are a given.

Everyone is looking for the next Kagawa (who stands five feet seven and a half inches). Not just because the €15 million Manchester United player was bought for around €500 000 and paid an ordinary salary before scoring 21 goals and creating countless more in less than 50 Bundesliga matches. Kagawa was also a model professional, popular across Germany among players and fans alike.

Kiyotake not only plays like Kagawa, he has the same manager and interpreter. Kiyotake and Inui also came through the same Cerezo Osaka youth system as Kagawa.

But there is more to Die Nippon Connection than the search for the next Kagawa.

Youth development and tactics are a big factor in bringing Japan and Germany closer together: both countries emphasise quick passing, incisive counterattacks and imaginative approach play.

The Bundesliga weekend kicks off with Kiyotake and Inui coming face to face as Nuremberg host Frankfurt. Don't bet against one of them making the headlines again this weekend.

Andreas Evagora

Deputy Head, Eurosport2

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