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Thursday, June 30, 2011
J. League's loss is Bayern's gain as Usami aims for stars
J. League fans will be sorry he did not stick around longer, but there can be no denying the opportunity facing Takashi Usami as he prepares to begin a six-month loan spell at Bayern Munich.
Usami on Monday confirmed Japanese soccer's worst-kept secret when he announced his move from Gamba Osaka to the German Bundesliga, revealing that he turned down offers from Italian club Atalanta and Portuguese side Sporting Lisbon to join the Bavarian giants.
There can be few more daunting places to begin a European career than a club that has won the continent's top prize four times and goes by the nickname "FC Hollywood," but Usami does not appear star-struck in the least.
The 19-year-old has shown remarkable maturity throughout an intense and protracted period of speculation over the move, and he again kept his cool on Monday as he spoke of his desire to work hard and improve in order to win a place in the Bayern lineup.
With the likes of Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Thomas Muller ahead of him, the chances of that happening regularly within the initial loan period seem slim. If Usami can live up to the potential that Bayern clearly believe he has, however, his opportunity will surely come.
He certainly has the raw ingredients to make it happen. Dynamic, explosive and direct, the attacking midfielder should find the pace of the Bundesliga to his liking once he gets used to it, and the recent success of compatriots Shinji Kagawa and Atsuto Uchida proves that a hulking physique is not essential in a northern European league.
Usami has looked too hot for J. League defenses to handle at times in 11 appearances for Gamba this season, and a callup to the national team for the Kirin Cup earlier this month reinforced the impression of a player earmarked for great things.
Of course that does not mean Usami is guaranteed to succeed. The hard work is all in front of him, and if he fails to make the grade he would not be the first youngster to fall by the wayside at Bayern.
But what the move does show for sure is that Japanese talent is showing up louder than ever on the radar of European clubs. Players as good as Usami will always find their way overseas eventually, but to do so at 19 reflects a growing demand for younger and younger players that reached new levels when schoolboy Ryo Miyaichi signed for Arsenal in January without ever having appeared in the J. League.
Such transfers are evidence of an ever-increasing standard of quality among young Japanese players, but also of a growing awareness in Europe that the J. League offers fertile ground for cheap talent. South American countries have worked within these parameters for many years, and if a constant stream of exports brings Japan's national team up to a level approaching Brazil or Argentina then the benefits will be obvious.
Unfortunately, South American fans have also long been frustrated at seeing their idols whisked off to Europe as soon as they make their name. Usami's departure will be a disappointment for those hoping to see his skills in the flesh for slightly longer, and while there are many factors behind a drop in J. League attendances this season, a steady outgoing of gifted players is surely among them.
But the pride in seeing Usami wearing the shirt of such a revered institution as Bayern brings its own compensation. Japan now has, along with Yuto Nagatomo at Inter Milan, two players plying their trade at genuine elite, blue-chip clubs, and with more and more eyes turning east in search of talent, that number seems set to rise.
Now it is up to Usami to help prove that interest is justified.