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Thursday, March 26, 2009
Okada reaps the benefits as Hasebe builds on potential
Shunsuke Nakamura and Yasuhito Endo will be expected to provide the artistry in Japan's World Cup qualifier at home to Bahrain on Saturday, but no player can build a cathedral without someone to carry the bricks.
Makoto Hasebe will again be tasked with shouldering the burden, and it is a measure of the progress the Wolfsburg midfielder has made over the past year that his place in the team has now been set in stone.
The 25-year-old seemed destined to become a future international mainstay when he burst into Urawa Reds' first team in 2003, but while his time in Saitama brought medals and praise by the bucketload, there remains a lingering feeling that things did not go quite according to plan.
Hasebe's career began spectacularly enough, helping Urawa win its first trophy with the Nabisco Cup in 2003 before making the J. League team of the season a year later.
Further success followed with the league title in 2006, but when the club subsequently went out and bought JEF United midfield general Yuki Abe, questions over Hasebe's future began to surface.
In truth, Hasebe's role at Urawa was never entirely cut and dried. While he never lacked playing time under managers Guido Buchwald and Holger Osieck, he seemed to be shunted more and more toward the peripheries, and was never really given the responsibility his talent demanded.
By the time he was finally given a central role against Milan at the Club World Cup in December 2007, he had already decided to leave for Europe.
As a player with exceptional technique, it was perhaps felt that Hasebe was too lightweight and elaborate for such a disciplined task. If this was indeed the case, he could not have chosen a better place to address those issues than the German Bundesliga.
Hasebe has undoubtedly become a better player since moving to Wolfsburg, adding a streamlined efficiency to his game and learning the importance of doing the simple things well.
He has also developed a tougher streak, as Karlsruhe goalkeeper Markus Miller can attest after being carried off following a collision with the midfielder earlier this month.
Takeshi Okada was quick to recognize Hasebe's progress, and the national team manager has been reaping the benefits ever since bringing him back into the side for last May's Kirin Cup game against Cote d'Ivoire.
Playing alongside the more creative Endo in central midfield requires a mature, assured presence, and it is to Hasebe's credit that he has emerged as Okada's first choice despite strong competition from others. While Abe and former Reds teammate Keita Suzuki have faded from the picture, Hasebe has gone from strength to strength.
Of course there is still much work to be done. Hasebe needs to show more consistency to cement a starting place at Wolfsburg, and scoring more goals would also be welcome for a player inclined to attack as much as defend.
If Wolfsburg — currently third in the Bundesliga — can continue its impressive form, a place in the Champions League is there for the taking. Such an achievement would provide the platform for Hasebe to take his game to the next level, and the season before the World Cup in South Africa would represent the perfect time to do so.
A more immediate concern is making sure Japan gets there. If Hasebe can apply the same diligence against Bahrain that he has shown since moving to Germany, it will go a long way toward making that happen.