Shinji Okazaki: Selfless and symbolic of trademark Japanese grafting

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©Barclays Premier League Media

Shinji Okazaki: Selfless and symbolic of trademark Japanese grafting

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Kaustubh Pandey


"Our story is important for football fans all around the world. It gives hope to all young players out there who've been told they're not good enough."

Nothing comes close to the respect that Leicester Cityare commanding right now, albeit due to their simply skeptics-defying, dumbfounding efforts at doing what others only dream of. It's been a story filled with what we term as 'eye-openers' and unbelievable results, that have forced us into believing that this Leicester team is special, much like their wire-rimmed spectacled gaffer Claudio Ranieri. Leicester fans are still pinching themselves, hoping not to realize that it was all just a fascinating dream. But dear Leicester fans, if winning the Premier League was a dream, then you better wake up to reality.

When the season was on the brink of kicking off, Leicester were tipped to go down into the Championship, which is something they had avoided narrowly, yet valiantly, last season under the controversial Nigel Pearson. The lack of quality in the side, which consisted of academy rejects from big clubs, Championship players and others from humble backgrounds, had led people into prompting whether the Foxes were good enough to stay in the English first division. Their question was simple, "How can a group of players, who have been in the second, fourth and eighth divisions of club football in different countries, survive in the Premier League?".

This season, it’s all been a case of proving those people wrong, who consider money in the vault to be everything in football. The Foxes have resoundingly shown to the non-believers that determination and commitment towards a cause are far more important than any other aspect, when it comes to achieving an objective.

Players from backgrounds such as the fourth division of France and from the eighth tier of English football point out to how hard they’ve worked in order to come this far. And although, their contributions to Leicester’s cause have been substantial and they’ve played their hearts out for it, there is a pocket-sized Japanese in there whose hard work for Ranieri’s team has gone largely unnoticed.

(Image Courtesy: © Facebook - Premier League)

Shinji Okazaki, the man who plied his trade under Kasper Hjulmand at Mainz last season, has been someone without whom Leicester wouldn’t have yielded as much success as they have. Despite being the highest scoring Japanese in the Bundesliga history, few knew about Okazaki’s presence in this world.

(Read how Claudio Ranieri created a miracle at Leicester City)

The likes of Shinji Kagawa, Atsuto Uchida, Gōtoku Sakai, Hiroki Sakai and Hannover’s Hiroshi Kiyotake are the more famous ones that have their names on the back of the jerseys of the earthquake-stricken nation, apart from Keisuke Honda and Yuto Nagatomo. It’s their flamboyance and aura that makes them well recognized personalities in Japan. Their adeptness in a single aspect of a play makes them someone the Japanese youngsters can look up to. But, it’s Okazaki’s spirit and tendency to work silently, but effectively, which is truly admirable.

Watching Leicester’s recent 2-2 draw against West Ham may well have sent some Leicester heads crashing. Spurs fans and their side used it as a catapult to close the gap on the Foxes. During the game at King Power on Sunday, few noticed Okazaki’s contributions to the game. Or that’s how underrated the 30-year-old is.

When Leicester broke through Riyad Mahrez from the right flank, the dynamic Algerian seemed harried by West Ham defenders and it gave the impression that he doesn’t have enough options to pass to. Mahrez turned, only to be falling short of space to pass. In came Okazaki, his run took Mark Noble out of the picture, creating a huge amount of space for N’Golo Kante to run into and seek the pass from Mahrez. The Frenchman received the ball and ran into the space that Okazaki had created, played the ball through to Jamie Vardy, who was onside and scored to give Leicester the lead. No one paid regard to how much distance the Japanese covered, not to latch onto a pass and score, but to create space for someone else to score. And this trait is certainly a unique one.

Okazaki, who scored as many as 14 times for Mainz last season before moving to King Power for £7m, has never been the one to be in the spotlight, top scorer or not. He’s one of those selfless characters who would go about their job without making much of a fuss about it, neither would he care about how someone rates him. All he knows is that he has a job on his hand that he has to perform it with a certain amount of dedication. He always has that desire to do what is best for the team, no matter what the circumstances are.

In a world where good looks of a player make him a star and a heart-throb, Okazaki has zero regards for such vanity. You’d never see his hair tied up or combed in a certain way that would brand him as a style icon or flamboyant. He shows off his uncanny style on the pitch—runs all day long, labours diligently for the team, sacrifices what he deserves for the sake of the greater good and is always at the right place at right time.

Unlike Jamie Vardy, who has been deservedly glorified as someone who represents players that hail from humble backgrounds, Okazaki still hasn’t got the plaudits he deserves. He doesn’t have a special attribute appended to him, but rather happens to be a 'jack of all trades' kind of a player. He does a titbit of everything that his team requires of him.

He has come up with crucial goals for Leicester when Jamie Vardy wasn’t on song, say during Leicester’s 1-0 win over Newcastle. He harries the opposition players, drops deep to win balls back and does more dirty work than say Aleksandar Mitrovic would desire to do.

He bites the dirt continually for the team, gets up and starts running again. A symbol of the age-old, traditional Japanese hard-working attitude, Okazaki wins fouls for the team and yet, hardly commits a foul of his own. No matter how many times he is brought down by an opponent, Okazaki hardly retaliates. And he has done this all season long.

(Read how Leicester City can emulate Atletico Madrid in Europe)

His space creation abilities are something Leicester thrive on. He makes amazing runs that take defenders out of the equation, making sure a teammate has the space required to score. The former Stuttgart always seems to have a nonchalant grin, yet a focused look on his face, which turns into a laugh once Leicester win or score. Okazaki scored from a spectacular overhead kick against Newcastle and yet, it did not make it to the headlines? Had Wayne Rooney or Harry Kane scored a stunner like that, it would have broken the internet.

Okazaki truly belongs to that rare host of players who are willing to do everything for their side, that too without needing any bit of glorification or attention, Sevilla’s Grzegorz Krychowiak or Mainz’s former star Johannes Geis are few of the others. And it’s refreshing to see that, because he may be one of those endangered species that won’t survive for long in this increasingly glamorous and hype-driven world of football.

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