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Saturday, Aug. 28, 2010

No regrets as Inamoto reflects on nomadic career

Staff writer

KAWASAKI — If Japanese soccer has been on a journey since the J. League began in 1993, no one has racked up more miles than Junichi Inamoto.

News photo
Personal growth: Kawasaki Frontale's Junichi Inamoto says he matured through his experiences playing overseas for several years. KYODO PHOTO

Inamoto emerged as one of the leading lights of a new generation in the late '90s, making his name as a dynamic midfielder with Gamba Osaka before forcing his way into the national team at 20 and blazing a trail with a move to Arsenal in 2001.

But if Inamoto's career began with a flash and a bang, it has long since become a slow-burner. The Kagoshima Prefecture native joined Fulham after just one fruitless season at Highbury, and barely stopped to unpack as he embarked on a wandering tour of Europe taking in seven clubs in four different countries.

Then in January this year, at the age of 30, Inamoto came home. A move to Kawasaki Frontale brought the curtain down on almost nine years overseas, and reacquainted the player with the league where it all began.

"My first game back in Japan brought back good memories," he said at Kawasaki's training ground this week. "Even though I was playing for Frontale rather than Gamba, I was really happy to be back. It was an emotional moment for me.

"I think the individual level of the players in the J. League has risen a lot. Right across all 18 teams in the first division there has been a big improvement technically and tactically."

The iconic image of Inamoto's goals against Belgium and Russia at the 2002 World Cup means he is destined to stay forever young in the minds of Japanese fans, but the reality is somewhat different.

"I started playing for Japan when I was young and inexperienced, and at the time I didn't really think too much about what was going on around me," he said. "I just concentrated on my own game and put everything into that.

"But now that I've reached 30 there are a lot of players younger than me, and I think much more about the team rather than just me as an individual. I need to use my experience for the good of the team."

If Inamoto plays the role of big brother well, however, it is a far cry from his first taste of life abroad. Hopes were high when Arsene Wenger brought the then-21-year-old to London, but disappointment followed as Inamoto made only a handful of appearances in cup competitions.

"The first club I went to was Arsenal, but I didn't really watch much European football and I went there not knowing anything about Arsenal's history or the level that they played at," he said. "When I got there I soon understood the quality of the players around me, and that was a shock.

"There were times when I looked at the other players and thought there was no way I would be able to get in the team, but that's probably the reason why I wasn't playing. If I had been mentally stronger and really tried to force my way in there, I think I would have been able to play more."

Inamoto was also hampered by stigma common to Asian players in Europe, unfairly landing the nickname "T-shirt" from cynical fans convinced he had been signed more for his marketing than playing abilities.

"When Hidetoshi Nakata went to Italy a lot of shirts were sold in Japan and it made a lot of money for sponsors," he said. "When a big club like Arsenal signs a player like me then of course that plays a part, but it was never something that I thought about. Anything other than football was not my problem.

"I didn't really know too much about what people were saying because I didn't speak English and I didn't read the papers. I knew that I did have to change that image that people had of me, but I also knew that the only way I would be able to do that was to show what I could do on the pitch. It's a shame I didn't get more of a chance to do that."

Not that Inamoto's time at Arsenal was a complete disaster, though. The Gunners won the league and cup double after going the entire league season unbeaten away from home, and the experience still resonates today.

"Arsenal won the double when I was there, and we had a parade through the streets to celebrate," he said. "Even though I hadn't played in many of the games I knew that this was something that didn't come around often and that it was to be savored. That's something that will stay with me."

Subsequent stops at Fulham, West Bromwich Albion, Cardiff City, Galatasaray, Eintracht Frankfurt and Rennes did little to dissuade the notion that Inamoto's has been a career of unfulfilled potential. The player, however, insists he would not change a thing.

"I was able to play for a lot of teams in a lot of countries, but on the other hand you could say that it means I wasn't good enough to stay at one team for a long time," he said. "But over nine years I played in four countries and away from football that meant I got to experience different ways of life, cultures and customs. That has helped me grow as a person."

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