By Dan Orlowitz
Just two seasons ago, Shinji Kagawa was virtually unknown outside of Japan, but those paying attention saw a gifted attacker who had laboured for three campaigns in the J-League’s second division on the way towards helping Cerezo Osaka earn promotion to the top flight. Now he’s on the verge of a new home at Old Trafford after Manchester United made an unprecedented €17 million offer for him.
Kagawa broke with tradition early, becoming the first Japanese player to sign a professional contract before graduating from high school. As an 18-year-old he earned a regular spot with Cerezo, and his confidence grew with his scoring tally. Kagawa’s 27 goals in 44 appearances in the 2009 season allowed Cerezo to return to J1 after a three-year exile. But his time in the top flight would be brief, as German agent Thomas Kroth engineered the move that would send the youngster to a Borussia Dortmund side looking to improve on a fifth-place finish.
His performances at Dortmund speak for themselves; in his first year in Europe, Kagawa was voted into the league’s Best XI despite spending the second half of the campaign recovering from injury. This year, he set a new Japanese scoring record in Europe with 13 goals in 32 appearances. Shinji is a threat whenever he touches the ball, able to create opportunities via his own shooting prowess or through a deft pass to a team-mate.
His shirts are the number-one seller at national chain soccer shop KAMO, with demand expected to spike even higher should Kagawa move to United. And in a country as brand- and celebrity-conscious as Japan he’s a proven commodity, on the same level as Inter defender Yuto Nagatomo or CSKA Moscow forward Keisuke Honda.
But unlike Nagatomo, whose antics made him a hit in Italy, and Honda, whose brash personality helped him stand out in a Japan unfamiliar with footballers acting like rock stars, Kagawa is naturally shy and avoids the media spotlight.
Even after two years in Germany, he still speaks either through a translator or to the throngs of Japanese press that follow him. This is made possible by a media environment in his home country where Kagawa and most other Japanese players are regularly courted and rarely spoken of in unflattering terms for fear of being cut off from potential exclusives.
But that will not be the case in England with its tenacious fourth estate, who are as likely to treat him as a conquering hero as they are to dismiss a transfer to United as a cynical move intended to sell shirts in any given week.
A clear example of this occurred earlier this month, when Kagawa was hit with two controversies. First, comments made about team-mate Robert Lewandowski were mistranslated and spread across Polish and German media. Days later, a prankster’s tweets allegedly confirming the move to Manchester United were reported around the world, creating another embarrassing situation for the normally reserved star.
|"[Kagawa] can play well on the sides, as a shadow striker, and in the penalty area; it's easy to recognise that he's an incredibly important player for us"
- Alberto Zaccheroni
The media will be the first of several challenges Kagawa faces, including the Premier League's notoriously physical style and the demands of the Old Trafford faithful. He’ll also have to adjust to sharing a dressing room with larger-than-life personalities such as Wayne Rooney and Patrice Evra, nevermind playing under no less a figure than Sir Alex Ferguson himself.
But if there’s anyone who can wear the famous Manchester red with pride and set a new standard for Japanese players in the world’s most famous league, it’s the boy wonder from Kobe. Just three years ago, Kagawa was befuddling goalkeepers in Japan’s second division. Soon, it appears he’ll have a chance to demonstrate his talents against some of the world's best week in, week out.
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