Shinji Okazaki: Aiming Beyond Burnout – Intensive Interview | FRIDAY DIGITAL

Shinji Okazaki: Aiming Beyond Burnout – Intensive Interview

One of Japan's best strikers has been suffering in Belgium due to a sharp decline in opportunities to play.

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Shinji Okazaki (Sint-Troiden VV), a 37-year old veteran fighter, is having a difficult season on Belgian soil.

So far this season, he has played in only five of the 19 league games (as of December 26, 2011). Although he has played in two cup matches and scored one goal, this is the first season he has played so few games since he joined the club overseas in February 2011.

When the season started in August last year, I had the image that I would score a lot of goals as a striker,” he said. But I couldn’t get involved in the games as much as I wanted to, and my knee injury also came along, so I was feeling a bit down until around October.

Born in Hyogo Prefecture in 1986, he has been playing in Japan since 2011, when he challenged overseas. Since taking up the challenge of playing overseas in 2011, he has played for a total of seven teams, including Germany, England, and Spain, in addition to Belgium.

It was then that Okazaki was confronted by Torsten Fink, 56, the manager of Sint-Troiden VV. The famous coach, who led Vissel Kobe to the Emperor’s Cup title in Japan in 2007, spent the last years of his active career with the second team of Bayern Munich, a prestigious German club. There, he worked with young players such as Philipp Lahm (40), who later became the captain of the German national team.

In his last two years of active duty, Fink played alongside Lahm and other promising youngsters. His opportunities were limited, but he shared his experiences with them. Shortly after he retired and became a coach, he also told me a story about Granit Xhaka (now Leverkusen 31), whom Fink had coached in Basel, Switzerland, and how he had made great strides. He told me that Granit Xhaka (now 31 at Leverkusen) had made great strides at Basel, Switzerland, when Fink had just retired and was coaching him. I began to think, ‘I’d like to use my experience to coach in Europe.

There is no doubt that I am heading toward retirement. But if I have the goal of becoming a “director” as an extension of that goal, I can maintain my motivation even under difficult circumstances. Of course, there is the issue of the license, and if I want to take the UEFA license course in Europe, there is also the issue of language. Even so, it was very important for me to be able to put my life after retirement in perspective and say, ‘Even if it’s hard right now, I’m going to make it through as a player. I want to make the most of everything, including the frustration of not being involved in the games, going forward.”

Soul is something that is passed down from generation to generation

Okazaki, who works hard every day on the same pitch with teammates Zaion Suzuki (21) and Ryotaro Ito (25), must be wondering what is going on with the current Japan national team, including them.

Okazaki was unsuccessful in his bid to make the national team for the 2010 World Cup in Qatar, along with his close friend Shinji Kagawa (C Osaka, 34), until the very end. Although he has been away from the national team for some time now, there are many of the players in the current squad, such as Ko Endo (Liverpool, 30), with whom he played at the World Cup in Russia in 2006.

As you can see from the FIFA rankings, I think the current national team is strong. The average value of each player has risen, and I feel that we have a group of players who can aim for a high ranking in the World Cup.
I am confident that I can fit in well in a fast soccer game that takes advantage of the two wide players Junya Ito (Stade Reims, 30) and Kaoru Mitomo (Brighton, 26).

Okazaki envisioned receiving crosses from the two “left and right spears” and scoring goals. Certainly, if Okazaki had been in his prime at the top of the current national team’s first lineup, he could have raised his tally to 50 goals for the national team even higher.

Who would be the candidate to succeed him as the FW who inherits his goal-oriented hunger? …… When I asked Okazaki, he responded as follows.

In an interview after the World Cup in Russia, I saw Asano (Takuma Bochum, 29) say, ‘Okazaki-san’s greed was really great. At that time, I was injured and couldn’t train properly, and just before the tournament, I was in a situation where Asano might be on the preliminary roster. Even so, I absolutely wanted to make it to the World Cup, so I continued to appeal with all my energy. In the end, I stayed in the team and Asano was not selected, but I thought Asano must have felt something when he saw how desperate I was. I felt that Asano felt something when he saw me struggling so hard. I felt that “this is what it means to have one’s spirit taken over,” and it really hit home.

I did not particularly care for Asano, and I never asked him to succeed to my will, but I felt that the soul is something that is naturally inherited. I had a strange feeling.

Asano, who inherited the fighting spirit of his great predecessor Okazaki, hit the winning goal against Germany at the World Cup in Qatar, and is now the mainstay of Moriyasu Japan’s forward line. With Kisei Ueda (Feyenoord, 25) and Daisuke Maeda (Celtic, 26) also on the rise, there is no telling who will be the ace of the ’26 World Cup in North and Central America. But it is true that we need an outstanding scorer to surpass Okazaki’s 50 goals.

The most important role of a forward is to score important goals when the team needs them and contribute to the victory. I need to increase the number of times I can feel that I have contributed to the team. It’s tough because I don’t have many opportunities to be used in situations where I am expected to score, but I want to make this a year in which I continue to compete as a player and a striker. I will do my best until the end.”

Until the day he burns completely, Okazaki will continue to run with his characteristic greed as a weapon.

From the January 19, 2024 issue of FRIDAY

  • Interview and text by Etsuko Motokawa Etsuko Motokawa

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