Japan's 2002 World Cup hero paved the way for a fresh generation of stars to come through the ranks at the Osaka club, including Hotaru YamaguchiYou can only wonder how Cerezo Osaka’s Hiroaki Morishima felt on June 14, 2002, when after a scoreless 45 minutes for the World Cup hosts, he was told by manager Philippe Troussier to take to the pitch in the second half of their crucial fixture against Tunisia.
Morishima may have been born in Hiroshima but he has lived all his adult life in Osaka. He is, in his own words, a proud Osakan. The venue for this match was the home ground, now the Yanmar Stadium, of Morishima’s own team.
A victory in the third and final group game would send Japan into the knockout round of the World Cup for the first time in their history.
Morishima scored with his first touch three minutes after joining the fray, opening the way for a 2-0 victory on what was a historical day for Japanese football. It was also a notable day for Cerezo Osaka, as Morishima was their first player to score at a World Cup - in the club’s home stadium, of all places.
How times have changed. After 12 years of growth, Cerezo have taken three players to the World Cup in Brazil. One of those, Hotaru Yamaguchi, has gradually become the fulcrum of Alberto Zaccheroni’s starting eleven.
Last July Yamaguchi was voted by a jury of FIFA coaches as the best player at the East Asia Cup in South Korea and he has continued to impress with both Cerezo Osaka and the Samurai Blue.
At only 23, Yamaguchi is emerging as a complete midfielder, capable of both defending and creating plays. In the absence of captain Makoto Hasebe, he has formed a solid midfield partnership with Gamba Osaka legend Yasuhito Endo.
Yamaguchi impressed when Japan faced the Netherlands and Belgium last November and is now in the crosshairs of several European clubs.
The other jewel in the Cerezo crown is striker Yochiro Kakitani, also 23, who graduated alongside Yamaguchi from Cerezo’s academy. Kakitani’s qualities have been known since 2006, when he scored a seemingly impossible goal with a drive from 40 meters against France in the U17 World Cup.
However, his growth was impaired by a rebellious character. In order to mature as both a player and a person, Kakitani was loaned out to Tokushima Vortis, a second division club in the rural island of Shikoku, for two and a half seasons.
He flourished in the countryside, returning to Cerezo a man transformed and becoming the fulcrum of the team’s attack. His 21 goals in 2013 earned Kakitani third place in the J-League’s scoring chart and carried the club to an AFC Champions League berth.
The reformed troublemaker was even given the Fair Play Award at the end of the season by the J-League - a prize that surely meant as much as his place in the league’s Best XI and his Goal of the Year award.
While he has scored only once in 13 appearances thus far this season, Kakitani was very effective in continental football, scoring four goals from eight ACL games.
He has an impressive account for Japan, too, with five goals from 13 games. He carries great expectations and is considered a serious candidate to follow in the footsteps of Shinji Kagawa, Hiroshi Kiyotake and Takashi Inui in moving to a European club.
The third player sure to excite Cerezo fans during the World Cup is of course Uruguay’s Diego Forlan, who was named MVP of the 2010 tournament. Should Luis Suarez miss out through injury, Forlan is a strong candidate to once again lead Uruguay’s attack, pairing up with PSG’s Edinson Cavani.
No other J-League club is sending as many players to Brazil, and they are joined by four former Cerezo stars. Surely Morishima, now an ambassador for the club, could never have imagined what his first touch would bring.