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Saturday, Sept. 15, 2007

Takahara finding his feet at Frankfurt


Staff writer

FRANKFURT — Naohiro Takahara puts almost all of his Japanese striking contemporaries to shame by possessing that rare something that is hard to come by on the national team: a killer instinct.

News photo
Naohiro Takahara of Japan and Eintracht Frankfurt smiles during a recent interview at the German League club's Commerzbank Arena in Frankfurt. FRANKFURT TOURIST & CONGRESS BOARD PHOTO

If there was any finger-pointing to be done after Japan's disappointing fourth-place finish at the Asian Cup finals, it would have been unjust if any was in the direction of the Eintracht Frankfurt hitman.

Takahara did the business, no question. Four goals in six games made him the tournament's joint-top scorer. One in the opener against Qatar, two against United Arab Emirates and, the best of the bunch, the vital equalizer against Australia in the quarterfinals.

Go back a little further, just three games, and Takahara's tally in national team games in 2007 is six goals in nine games. A fair clip that suggests the 28-year-old Takahara is now in his prime.

He's also scoring at the club level. After a frustrating spell at German club Hamburg, the "Sushi Bomber" has been outstanding at Frankfurt since his move in 2006 and the goals have started rolling in.

Last season, he bagged 11 in 31 games. And if this kind of form hadn't already put a smile on the face of the striker, the arrival at Frankfurt in the summer of Japan teammate and old friend Junichi Inamoto from Turkish club Galatasaray certainly has.

Takahara's blossoming at the top level has been a long time coming. The Shizuoka-born forward was a prolific striker at Jubilo Iwata before the 2002 World Cup. Here was a natural-born scorer who could quickly get his shots off with both feet, was great in the air (although standing only 181 cm) and wasn't afraid to mix it with defenders.

Then the wheels came off, somewhat. A short loan spell at Argentina's Boca Juniors proved uneventful. Two bouts of deep vein thrombosis didn't help either, one of which caused him to miss the 2002 World Cup finals.

But out of his time at Boca, debilitating "economy class syndrome" and heel-kicking frustration at Hamburg has emerged a truly international class forward making his mark in one of the world's strongest leagues.

Takahara is slowly returning from a knee injury and made his first appearance of the season for Frankfurt as a substitute in the recent 2-1 loss to Werder Bremen, but a strong start of two wins and a draw in the first three games means the club sits in fourth place in the German League. The early signs suggest an improvement on last season's 14th-place finish in the 18-team league.

Takahara is set to make his first league start of the season Saturday and he'll have more of a point to prove than usual.

The opponent?

His old club Hamburg.

The Japan Times, along with a select group of journalists from Japan, recently traveled to Frankfurt and talked with Takahara at Eintracht's Commerzbank Arena.

* * * * *

News photo
Naohiro Takahara controls the ball as Eintracht Frankfurt and Japan teammate Junichi Inamoto watches during the striker's substitute appearance in the German League against Werder Bremen at the start of September. KYODO PHOTO

What's the secret behind your good form last season?

It was good for me to restart again here in a different environment. I struggled in Hamburg a bit, but that experience helped me do well here. I feel the 3 1/2 years in Hamburg were too long. They were kind of my "lost years."

It would have been ideal if I had gotten off to a good start in Hamburg, but I have tried to bring something positive out of my struggles there and that experience and dedication has been very important for me.

You scored 11 goals last season. Was it a conscious change in attitude that brought this about?

Not really. I was given the chance to play and I showed what I was capable of. That was what I needed.

Nothing would have changed if I had stayed in Hamburg. I knew I couldn't show what I was capable of in Hamburg. My teammates did not understand me the right way. They misunderstood my ability. I wanted to play this way, but the other guys didn't think so.

So, I decided to reset everything to be myself. I didn't intend to stay there anyway. I needed to go to a team where I can be myself and that needed me. I had to have the chance to play in a match to show what I can do. In Hamburg, I couldn't be myself, not only as a soccer player but as a person.

Frankfurt offered me a contract during the winter break and we kept negotiating from then. But Hamburg wouldn't let me go. After the season, Frankfurt offered to buy me again and the deal was done.

It was important for me to join a team that wanted me. I struggled at first, but the coach kept using me. Like this season I got injured early last season, too, but he kept using me. Then I started to fit into the way the team played.

Since I transferred, everything has gone right. I feel happy playing. You can't show what you can do unless you play. I wanted to prove I struggled in Hamburg because I was not given the chance to play.

Was there a moment when you realized things were coming together last season?

When (teammate Ioannis) Amanatidis got injured, I replaced him up front as the lone striker. I played well and when he returned I teamed up with him up front.

When I played on my own up front, I had some difficulties and I couldn't track back as much. I just focused on scoring goals. With two up front, I could do more than just focus on scoring.

What sort of shape is the team in at the moment?

After the last season, I was afraid that some players would leave the team, but it didn't happen. And we bought good players such as Inamoto, (Mehdi) Mahdavikia, and (Aaron) Galindo. We have had a good start to the season with returning players and newcomers, although we currently have some injured players, including myself. When they return, we will be a better team.

News photo
Naohiro Takahara celebrates his equalizing goal against Australia in the Asian Cup quarterfinals in Hanoi in July. Takahara finished as the tournament's joint-top scorer with four goals, but Japan lost its semifinal match against Saudi Arabia and its third-place playoff match to South Korea. KYODO PHOTO

We battled to avoid relegation last year. It could happen again. This team has lost some games it should've won last year and the year before. If it had won them, we would have placed higher up in the league. And our goals against in the last 15 minutes was the worst in the Bundesliga. It showed this team cannot finish the game. Everyone understands this.

How well can the team do this year?

For now, I would say our goal is 10th. We are good enough to get higher if we play our soccer. Momentum is important here. When you're feeling better, you produce more momentum.

Will there be another surprise league winner? (Stuttgart is the title holder.)

Last year this league was so wild and competitive. This year, Bayern Munich is so solid and it won't happen again.

Inamoto said he's going to go out with you for some fun in Frankfurt.

We've known each other since we were with the junior leagues in Japan and been good friends. For now we've been busy and he hasn't asked me yet!

It's rare to have two Japanese playing for the same team overseas, isn't it?

Japanese players don't have many chances to play overseas. For the team, to have two Japanese players on the same roster could be difficult to handle. But Inamoto and I have played overseas for a while now and I'm glad we can play together after we have had some experience overseas. If we play well here, then maybe other Japanese players will be more attractive to overseas leagues.

What are your personal goals this season?

I don't actually intend to change my playing style. I want to play as I played in the past and just improve my communication with my teammates. I scored double-digit goals and it has now become my standard.

The players in Germany are all strong. I had to deal with them physically. For the forward, the opposing defenders are big and strong. To deal with them, I have to use leverage more and play smarter.

How are you enjoying playing for the national team?

I just feel I fit the current national team's plan. I used to play with Jubilo and this plan is similar to that of Jubilo's. I feel very comfortable. Other guys in other positions move better than before and that makes the forwards focus on the ball. That helps me play well.

Did you fit into coach Ivica Osim's scheme quickly?

Yeah. I didn't feel uncomfortable at all. I heard through the grapevine that Osim's training sessions were hard, but I felt they were normal. He introduces some tactics used in Europe. Nothing difficult.

What's your postmortem on the Asian Cup?

Although we lost to Saudi Arabia, I think we were the better team. But we were too soft, too much passing the ball around too nicely. There were some points we should've got more aggressive rather than passing the ball around. And the opponents who were more aggressive made their chances and scored. The aggressiveness made the difference.

Usually we have two years to organize the national team. but this time it was only one year since Osim became coach. That said, I think we played well, though many people were disappointed. We are taking it step by step, and we know what we should do now — what kind of players or style of play we need. We understand this because of that tournament. We played the soccer we were supposed to play, though we couldn't win the tournament.

When the opponents were down to 10 men, we still couldn't kill the game. Japan has had this problem for a long time. That's our weakness and we need to improve. When the opponents were playing with 10 players, we still just passed the ball around. You can't make anything happen by doing so. That was one point I regretted in the game. Of course, I pointed out that during the game, but it was hard to adjust quickly. We need more experience to make a quick adjustment in the game. That was the lesson I learned.

How is "Osim Japan" coming along in your eyes?

Osim has his own vision and we, as players, need to improve to fit the vision individually. Not only doing what you're told to do, but you have to think by yourself, because it's us who play the game. We have to make correct decisions by ourselves.

Is there a rosy future for the Japanese national team?

In Germany, young players have developed and they make the German League more competitive and interesting. And they come to the national team and push the veterans. In Japan, the members of the national team rarely change. Not many young players make it. We need more 20-, 21-year-old kids pushing for the national team. Germany has many young players in the national team.

How about your own national team future?

I don't play soccer just to play for the national team. Of course it's honorable to be called up for the national team and want to play well, but I'm not playing here to play well in the national team. I had hoped to play in Europe and score goals, and that's why I'm here. My priority is my club. I play for my club.

I just want to play here as long as possible.



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