After signing his first professional contract with Cerezo Osaka in 2010 at the age of 17, brawny striker Kenyu Sugimoto became the youngest member of Japan’s London Olympics squad just two years later. There were high expectations when he inherited the No 20 shirt from club legend Akinori Nishizawa, who had stints at Bolton Wanderers and Espanyol.
With Cerezo lagging in the table, Sugimoto’s ability to prosper in the second half of the season will be the key to the club rebounding. But things have not been easy for the 21-year-old so far in 2014.
“I’ve mostly been played on the right side and haven’t been involved in our scoring,” said Sugimoto. “I’ve needed to defend more and that’s prevented me from pushing higher up the field.”
With just two goals to his name so far this season, the forward is undergoing rehabilitation after dislocating his right shoulder against Guangzhou Evergrande in early May.
Following the World Cup, Sugimoto’s Cerezo will restart their campaign with several changes, not least of which is the appointment of new manager Marco Pezzaiuoli.
“It’s the first time I’ve had a manager change in the first half of the year,” Sugimoto said.
“I have to see how [Pezzaiuoli] thinks and how he runs the team in order to respond. It’s important that we adapt to his playing style as much as possible during the break.
“It’s a chance for me to show my determination. I want to play up front, and I think that’s where I can play best. Right now Cerezo have a lot of young players with potential, and we have to play more aggressive football. But I’m confident we’ll get results in the second half.”
Like teammates Yoichiro Kakitani and Hotaru Yamaguchi, Sugimoto is a graduate of Cerezo’s academy system: “The youth system is well thought out, and with donations from the Hanasaka Club we were able to take part in overseas trips.
“We learned a lot from playing foreign clubs, and I was able to connect with the world.”
The youngster has also been influenced by the likes of former clubmates Shinji Kagawa, Takashi Inui and Hiroshi Kiyotake, whose careers have taken off in Europe.
“When you play together with these guys and they succeed over there, it makes you think, ‘If I work hard I can go overseas too.’”
In addition to his experience in London, Sugimoto can already claim to have scored against one of the best clubs in the world in last year’s friendly against Manchester United.
“That goal gave me a lot of confidence,” he remembers fondly.
“My family were all excited, my grandmother said she was crying.”
In the AFC Champions League, Sugimoto has played not just in China and South Korea, but also in Thailand where the club is rising in popularity thanks to the presence of Diego Forlan.
“Thailand’s stadiums are much better than I expected,” said Sugimoto of Cerezo’s voyage to face Buriram United.
“The fans are so loud that you can’t hear each other on the pitch, and the sport’s becoming very popular there. With a lot of Japanese players joining [the Thai Premier League], it’s worth following.”
Through Cerezo’s partnership with Bangkok Glass, where former defender Teruyuki Moniwa currently plays, Sugimoto believes that the path blazed by the likes of Kagawa and Kiyotake will continue to widen.
“I think a lot of Cerezo players are going to go overseas, and some of them might go to Southeast Asian clubs,” he said.
“I hope we’ll get more fans from the region to follow us.”