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Thursday, June 25, 2009

SOCCER SCENE

Nakamura's European ambition puts Okubo in the shade


If Shunsuke Nakamura's decision to snub a return to the J. League to stay in Europe represents a triumph of ambition over comfort, it is a message sadly missed by international teammate Yoshito Okubo.

Andrew McKirdy

Nakamura this week rejected the chance to come back to his boyhood team, Yokohama F. Marinos, opting instead to test himself in the more demanding environment of Spain's La Liga with Espanyol.

Okubo, on the other hand, has left Bundesliga champion Wolfsburg to re-sign with Vissel Kobe, after failing to make an impact in Germany following his January move from the J. League club.

Japan's qualification for next year's World Cup undoubtedly played its part in both players' decisions, but Nakamura also had other factors to consider. After seven years in Europe, the midfielder was keen to return to Japan to raise his children.

The fact that Nakamura has put this on hold speaks volumes about his desire to succeed on the biggest stage and his willingness to keep pushing himself even at the age of 31.

The move is not without its risks. Even if Nakamura is able to adapt to a new league and hold down a place on the team, there is still the problem of fatigue to overcome when the World Cup begins next June.

But Nakamura has obviously decided that maintaining his edge and wringing every last drop out of his career is more important than treading water in Yokohama, and if he can quickly strike up a rapport with Ivan de la Pena in the Espanyol midfield, there is no telling what he could achieve in the coming season.

Okubo, however, has chosen the opposite path.

News photo
Back so soon: Yoshito Okubo has re-signed with Vissel Kobe after failing to make an impact with Germany's Wolfsburg in less than six months in the Bundesliga. AP PHOTO

Four years Nakamura's junior, the forward should have been enjoying the prime of his career with the newly crowned German champions. Instead he found himself marginalized on the sidelines, unable to get playing time and watching helplessly as the manager who signed him, Felix Magath, left to join rival club Schalke.

The situation looked bleak enough for Okubo to return to Kobe, but he need not have been so hasty.

Wolfsburg's success last season was built on a phenomenal performance by front men Edin Dzeko and Grafite, who combined to score 54 goals — a German record for a striking duo. But Europe's leading clubs are circling Dzeko fast, and it would be a surprise if the Bosnian is still with the unfashionable northern side next season.

Now Okubo has passed up the fight to replace him, preferring instead to return to a Kobe team where his place in the starting lineup is guaranteed. The striker is right to worry about missing out on Takeshi Okada's World Cup squad, but surely he could have given himself until the Bundesliga winter break before throwing in the towel.

Okubo's previous stint abroad, at Real Mallorca, was not the success it could have been, and he seems to have sold himself short by giving up so easily in Germany. Whatever the reason for the departure, it is once again left to Nakamura to fly the flag in Europe.



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