Can Podolski help reverse the J.League’s decline?

The carpet was closer to rose than red – befitting his new club – but there it was all the way from the tiny charter flight to the halls at Kobe Airport as one of the biggest names to ever arrive in Japanese football touched down in his new home.

At 32, Lukas Podolski may not be in the absolute prime of his career but he’s coming to Japan off the back of a couple of seasons in Turkey where he continued to score goals at a high level as well as grabbing a dazzling match winner in a 1-0 victory over England in his 130th and final appearance for Germany barely three months ago.

Not since Brazilian midfielder Dunga did so back in the mid 1990s has a player arrived in Japan as a current World Cup champion and the expectations are very much that he will be the player to help provide a new spark not just for Kobe but also to a league that has lost much of its international sparkle over the past couple of decades.

A World Cup champion – in the J.League!.

Zico was the first to arrive as a genuine star in the country but he did so right at the end of his career, Argentinian forward Ramon Diaz left a lasting impression in the mid 1990s with Yokohama, Italian ace Salvatore Schilaci scored at almost a goal every game and a half for Jubilo during the same spell and Patrick M’Boma came as a reigning African champion shortly before and scored at a steady clip for Tokyo Verdy.

It’s little coincidence that those were the formative years of the professional J.League competition when the corporate and academic roots of the sport had been cut off and a host of newly branded ‘football clubs’ sprung up right across the nation with huge media attention and that crop of international stars that helped to pave the way for the country to later co-host a successful World Cup.

That tournament though marked something of a decline for the J.League in terms of attracting bona-fide stars to the country and although some who arrived at a younger age – including Hulk and Seydou Doumbia – have gone onto bright careers both internationally and with some of Europe’s leading clubs, the big-name players have largely either failed to arrive or perform.

Costa Rican Paulo Wanchope was lured to FC Tokyo the year after scoring two of his nation’s three goals at the 2006 World Cup but lasted barely half a season, Swedish forward Freddie Ljungberg reportedly had numerous falling outs during a failed spell with Shimizu at the start of the current decade and even though he didn’t totally bomb, Uruguayan Diego Forlan – at an advanced age – hardly dazzled with Cerezo Osaka a couple of years ago.

Podolski though is potentially a real game-changer for a league that has been clearly overtaken by China in terms of their ability to draw foreign stars to Asia with even the UAE, Qatar and on occasion Australia drawing more buzz around their transfer dealings.

Whilst Japan has a far greater record than any of those nations in recent times of exporting local talent to the biggest leagues in Europe, it’s been a one-way street for far too long.

Having the desire to bring in players of genuine international calibre has often been there but perhaps the finances haven’t, certainly not since the early boom years of the league.

Kobe though are one of the richest clubs in the land – if far from the ‘sexiest’ – and with the backing of e-commerce giant Rakuten they have set about trying to make a real splash.

At the start of the current season the Rakuten boss, Hiroshi Mikitani (a man inside the top 250 of the Forbes list of billionaires, nonetheless) made it his mission to try and attract as many big names to the club that he could, with FOX Sports Asia understanding that offers were sent to virtually every current member of the Japan national team to try and attract them to his hometown side.

When that failed he turned his attention to Podolski and after a brief negotiation he got his man.

The forward, expected to make his debut later this month, arrives at a club which were early season pacesetters but who have fallen totally off the cliff over the past couple of months as injury, especially at the back, has crippled a side that’s lost four of their past five league matches.

With the team having shipped eight goals in their past three matches alone the pressure will be immense right from the start for Podolski to score the goals that left the team when their leading striker, Leandro, did his ACL early in the season.

Having set up goals and scored for fun on much higher stages than this throughout his career, the challenge should be one that doesn’t faze the former Bayern Munich and Arsenal man and already he’s said the club is targeting a top-three finish which would not only be the highest spot they’ve ever reached but also assure them of ACL football next season.

With the J.League having signed a record $2 billion broadcast rights deal that began at the start of this current season it was expected that the red carpet would have been rolled out earlier than the mid-season arrival of Podolski and that’s why a lot is riding on his success for other clubs to also want to invest.

If the two-hour live broadcast of his first press conference and widespread coverage in the Japanese press is anything to go by, the German star has already hit many of the marks in bringing greater focus to the league – the challenge now is to start lifting his sinking club on the pitch as the league enters the second half of the season.

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