Former Japanese Representative Shinji Okazaki’s Mentor Unveils Reasons for 19 Years of Continued Success | FRIDAY DIGITAL

Former Japanese Representative Shinji Okazaki’s Mentor Unveils Reasons for 19 Years of Continued Success

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Since starting his professional career with Shimizu S-Pulse in 2005, Shinji Okazaki has been accompanied by Ryuyu Sugimoto (left) all along.

In February, Shinji Okazaki announced his retirement from professional football at the end of this season. Joining Shimizu S-Pulse from Takigawa Nishi High School in 2005, he spent 13 seasons playing for European clubs from January 2011. During the 2013-2014 season with Mainz in Germany, he scored a record 15 goals, the highest for a Japanese player in a major European league. His 119 appearances for the Japanese national team rank fifth all-time, and his 50 goals rank third.

Ryuyu Sugimoto, who coached Okazaki since his time at Shimizu S-Pulse, where he competed in the 100 meters at the Barcelona Olympics, spoke in an exclusive interview.


He said, “I can’t get any better than this. That’s why I’m quitting.”

During Okazaki’s retirement announcement, Sugimoto did not make any particular contact or offer words of consolation.

“I didn’t reach out at the time of his retirement announcement. Until the end of this season, he’s still a player, right? On social media, there were many comments thanking Okachan and saying ‘Good job,’ but I thought, ‘No, the season isn’t over yet.’ Okazaki’s knee condition isn’t good right now, but as long as he’s a player, I want him to contribute to the team in matches until the end. So, I didn’t think it was the right time to offer words of encouragement. About two weeks after the announcement, we had a conversation over the phone. Basically, we discussed plans for the future. Although he won’t be a player anymore, we’ll continue to stay connected.”

However, Okazaki had been considering retirement since last year, and it had been a topic of conversation with Sugimoto.

“The decision to retire seemed to be finalized around October or November last year. Even then, it wasn’t like, ‘What should I do about retirement?’ but more like, ‘I think it’s about time for me to retire.’ Personally, I was slightly surprised. Because I thought that in his last year, he might want to play in Japan, and considering his knee injury and the fact that he hasn’t played much, I thought he might have a strong desire to play, even if he had to change clubs.”

At the end of last year, there was a decisive conversation between the two about Okazaki’s future.

“I went to see the Sint-Truiden match in December, and Okazaki played for about 20 minutes (against Molenbeek on December 16). Regardless of the team’s level, his style of continuous movement remained the same as during his time in the Premier League. But at that time, he said, ‘I can’t get any better than this anymore. So, I’ll quit.’ He always had this sense of wanting to improve and grow fundamentally, but it seems he reached a point where he felt he couldn’t improve any further.”

In the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, Okazaki, who participated in the tournament, scored the equalizer just before the end of the first half, diving to head in a cross from Keisuke Honda. Okazaki’s goals always seemed to give the team momentum.

When he was at S-Pulse, Okazaki was the only one who came to the university track team’s practice when I invited him.

At the end of January, Okazaki himself stated on social media that he would continue to play, indicating a gradual determination to retire. Their invaluable relationship of trust, cultivated over the 19 years since Okazaki began his professional career, allowed them to confide in each other.

“When it comes to Okazaki as a player, he’s often underestimated because of his cute and amusing personality, but I think everyone should lift him up more and give him credit as he retires. Whether it’s for the national team, Mainz, or Leicester, he consistently delivered results as a key player. So, I believe his achievements should be more recognized, and we need to properly review them.

Reflecting on his play, I think he showed a lot of refinement in his performance after the initial gritty image during his first three or four years at Shimizu. When he first joined, he was probably a player who might have been let go within a year. But somehow, he managed to contribute to goals even in satellite matches. There was probably a sense of grittiness or determination combined with earnestness and diligence in his character.

At one point, I invited the players from Shimizu to a practice session for the Hamamatsu University track and field team that I was coaching, and Okazaki was the only one who showed up. Naturally, when a player shows that level of commitment, you want to invest your affection in them.”

Initially serving as a coach for Shimizu and later entering into a personal contract, Sugiura, who specialized in training Okazaki’s running ability, holds Okazaki’s skills in high regard.

“In his case, he’s always the slowest in the 50-meter dash no matter which team he’s on, whether it’s Shimizu, Stuttgart, or Leicester. But even though his top speed is low, if you reduce the distance to reach that point, it can be useful in soccer. So, we focused on shortening the distance to reach that top speed and added turns and steps. Consequently, he doesn’t decelerate when turning, which is typical for most players. He’s also adept at losing his marker, as typically, when players make a step, they slow down, but he doesn’t. Unlike the agility that Japanese people often talk about, Okazaki’s agility is propulsion-oriented, so among all the players I’ve seen, he’s still the most skillful.”

However, according to Sugiura, what Okazaki acquired and his abilities were not fully utilized in Europe.

“I think he must have been constantly frustrated since coming to Europe. Even during his time at Mainz, when Thomas Tuchel, who was infatuated with Okazaki, acquired him, there must have been times when he felt frustrated because the ball didn’t come when he expected. In Europe, he was always given roles that were different from his ideal and had to respond to demands, thinking it was okay as long as he played in matches, but I think he always felt unsatisfied while doing his best. Of course, some people evaluated that aspect positively, but he must have accumulated stress. Ironically, I think the time when he was able to fully embody the position specializing in the goals he wanted was actually during his time at Shimizu.”



The skills of Mr. Sugiura (center), who turned the once unknown Okazaki into a top-class player, quickly gained recognition among other players as well. Many Japanese national team players, including the former captain Maya Yoshida (left) and Hiroki Sakai (right), visited him for guidance. (Excerpt from Mr. Ryuhei Sugimura’s Instagram, partially modified)

The blueprint he has already drawn for becoming a professional club manager

“After retirement, I’ve decided to become a coach, but there are already many young coaches emerging. For example, this year, Bayer Leverkusen’s Xavi Alonso, who is 42 years old, is leading the Bundesliga and drawing attention, while the German national team coach, Julian Nagelsmann, is just one year younger than Okazaki. If it takes at least 4 or 5 years to become a coach for a professional team, then I thought it’s better to retire early. Besides, being a coach means there’s no end to the work, unlike being a player. Especially now, with the ability to watch endless videos and data, it means staying up late to check them. Younger people have the stamina to endure such constraints, so it’s better to transition to a second career sooner rather than later.

Specifically, I plan to aim for coaching while taking coaching license courses in the Premier League, and since Okazaki has a club called Basara Mainz in Germany, I’ll aim to base myself there. Basara’s top team is currently in the sixth division of Germany, and there are many Japanese players who couldn’t become pros but are challenging themselves here. Coaching such players is tough. So, I believe that communicating with them and persuading them will definitely be a plus for becoming a professional team coach in the future.”

Currently, Okazaki is 37 years old. Even if he doesn’t aim to be a coach, retiring early seems to be a good idea to dive into a different field from being a player. Mr. Sugimoto sent this final encouragement to Okazaki’s future.

“Okazaki is a person who uses his head a lot. Surprisingly, he’s not someone who relies on intuition, so his decision to retire and aim to become a coach must have been reached through his own logic. As a coach, I hope he adopts tactics with physical evidence, including his own experiences, and nurtures players with physical evidence.

During his time at Leicester, Okazaki sprinted 34 times in one match, which was considered amazing at the time, but now it’s become commonplace. Considering such trends, I hope he becomes a coach who can integrate physicality and technique, rather than separating them, and express soccer in its entirety. I believe he has such aspirations. Including coaching license courses, it won’t be easy in the future, but I believe he will overcome it. Let’s do our best.”

  • Interview and text Miko Ryokai

    Born in Saitama Prefecture in 1975. Started covering soccer in 2001, and became a writer in 2003 when she covered the World Youth Cup (now U-20 World Cup) in the UAE. Currently resides in Düsseldorf, Germany, where he has lived since March 11, 2011.

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