Small in stature but big in talent, Shinji Kagawa has become a key player for Borussia Dortmund as the club goes for a second straight Bundesliga title.
Slipping through opposing teams' defenses, he deftly receives the ball before using his superb control to set up goals. He comes off as an imposing figure, despite standing only 172 centimeters tall.
Kagawa missed the second half of last season, his first since transferring to Europe, due to injury, but he still scored eight goals in just 18 appearances. An outspoken and well-established German soccer magazine named him one of the year's 11 best players. Now, scouts from major European clubs, including Spain's Barcelona, where Kagawa has longed to play, have taken notice.
He will also be a staple of the Japanese national team in the final round of World Cup qualifying.
Kagawa signed his first professional contract when J.League club Cerezo Osaka scouted him in his second year of high school, and he joined Japan's national team at the age of 19.
Considering this history, Kagawa might be considered an elite player among the elites, but as a boy he was not outstanding.
Kagawa distinguished himself at FC Miyagi Barcelona, a club in Sendai that adopted the name of the famed Spanish team young boys around the world dream of playing for. In his first year of junior high school, Kagawa moved out of his parents' home in Kobe after failed tryouts for J.League club Vissel Kobe's junior high team. He had leveraged his connections in the youth team he belonged to and decided to train away from home.
At the time, it was the fourth year of existence for FC Miyagi Barcelona, which bears no relation to the original Barcelona club and is not a subordinate organization of the J.League. The unique style of coaching there had players experiment radically with different dribbling techniques to penetrate the opposing defense. Some people may have found the coaching a bit “uneven,” but Kagawa was a quick study, and that allowed him to absorb the instructions and rise to a professional level.
Kagawa spent a lot of time watching soccer videos in his room when not at school or practice. He studied how Japanese and foreigners played the game and thought about the type of player he should be. By the time he entered high school, he had created his own style.
"I watched a lot of players, but there weren't any midfielders in Japan who used dribbling to score goals,” he said. “A midfielder who only passes isn't intimidating. I decided to make myself into a midfielder like nobody had seen in Japan."
Kagawa's chance to open the door to his soccer career came in September in his second year of high school, when he was selected to play for the Under-18 Tohoku squad against the Japanese national Under-18 team in a friendly. Kagawa set up three goals in a 5-2 victory. The next year, he joined Japan's Under-19 squad and gained some experience in international competition, becoming the first Japanese national team player born in the Heisei Era (1989-present).
Playing for Dortmund on the opening day of the Bundesliga in 2010, Kagawa scored two goals in the "Ruhr Derby" against Schalke, a club from a nearby town and Dortmund's long-time rival, thus catapulting him to stardom. It was almost as if Kagawa knew exactly how to turn this game into an opportunity for himself.
Kagawa got off to a bad start in the opening match of the current season last summer, but things improved from there. He also was an important presence as a member of Japan's national team.
"I become engrossed in the game when it starts, but until I step onto the pitch, I always feel good about bearing the great responsibility of representing Japanese soccer," he said.
Kagawa is a quiet man but with ambition lurking just beneath the surface. No doubt he feels he is unique in Japan. Next, he wants to become unique in the world.
Following is an abridged version of an interview with Shinji Kagawa:
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Question: You've been hailed as a "genius" in Japan and Germany since your meteoric rise to prominence in Europe.
Kagawa: What's a genius? I can't answer that off the top of my head. I think people who call me a genius don't know a thing about me. If a genius is a player with something that no one else can imitate, then Barcelona's (Lionel) Messi or Real Madrid's (Cristiano) Ronaldo might fit that criteria. But I'm a sore loser, so I don't want to use the word "genius." I've never even seen a player people call a genius play so impressively that I thought I couldn't imitate him.
Q: When you watch Messi or Ronaldo, do you think it's possible to imitate them?
A: I watch video of them playing and imagine myself in their place so I can get closer to where they are. Then I try to do it in practice. What's amazing about them is that they can display their skill in the high-pressure environment of a stadium with 60,000 spectators. Even if I can do the same thing in practice, when I consider whether I can do it in a real match, when it really counts, then I realize that I don't think I can. That's when I really feel that they have considerable ability.
Q: Talent or effort--which is more important?
A: Well, you can nearly become a top-level player if you have both, right? When I consider myself, I'm proud of the advanced skills I've learned, but my talent is ordinary. That's because I've always set higher goals and practiced to become who I am today. There's no lack of effort among any of the players on the Japan national team. Yuto Nagatomo, who plays for Inter (Milan), suddenly went from being a college player to one of the kings of Italy. That might indicate that effort is more important.
Q: I've heard that when you played in Japan, you would keep practicing even when your coaches were done for the day.
A: I especially thought that way in high school. I decided I would always be the last one on the team to leave practice. And even since I turned pro I haven't stopped feeling that I want to get better by practicing. The club where I developed as a player, FC Miyagi Barcelona, was just a regular club, not a subordinate organization of the J.League. We played on a dirt pitch, we didn't have many useable balls or enough cones and markers. Still, that was our team, where we set goals to become better and we did what we could there, adding one thing at a time.
I'm not a "weed spirit" (like Koji Uehara, the baseball pitcher who overcame numerous odds to become Central League Rookie of the Year in 1999), but I think that as these things have become habitual for me, they've made me into the person I am now.
Q: You've stated that your dream is to play for Barcelona, the one in Spain. That's a big dream, but do you feel heavy pressure when things don't go well for you?
A: Even in Germany I've seen intense competition between players. And the countries around there have a lot of great players, too. But I came to Europe seeking this competition. It's a strong motivator for me. When I can't appear in a match, I work off my disappointment in the next practice. I believe my chance will come, and I practice so I won't miss it. Of course it's tough, but a lot of players run away from that challenge.
In my case, I always maintain an objective understanding of my situation and try to have a solid vision of what I should do to be successful. If I had to say where my talent lies, it would just be that. I've practiced while thinking about how I can improve one step at a time, because I don't have any exceptional talent.
Q: What goals are you working toward now?
A: Of course, playing for Barcelona is a big goal. My chance could come at any time. It wouldn't be out of the ordinary. I'm 22 right now, but I wanted to be there at 19 if I could. But when I look at myself realistically, I need to up my level more. To do that, I have to keep producing results in high-level matches, like in the UEFA Champions League, for another two or three years.
I think my playing style of using short passes and dribbling to slip through holes in the opposing defense suits Barcelona and other big clubs, too. But the players who get assigned to offense on top-level teams like that are very strong. To force my way into their class, I have to improve the overall quality of my play. I can't move faster than them and I avoid body contact with opponents because of my small frame, but I can't avoid it all the time. That's why I receive the ball on the move, look forward, pass, dribble, then go for a goal. That's the way they want me to help score goals.
Q: Listening to you I sense both modesty and confidence.
A: There's a very fine balance between the two. I thought about problems all the time when I was in Japan. Coming to Germany, I became confident in a good way. I still think about lots of stuff, but here, results are everything. If you produce results, then you're applauded. If you put up results, then you can be confident in yourself. This self-confidence will then lead you to growth so great you can't measure it. In Europe, the result of just one match can change your life in a huge way.
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