FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan was recently in Sapporo for an exclusive interview with legendary Japanese midfielder Shinji Ono, who perhaps deserves greater international recognition for his talents and all that he achieved.
天才 (tensai) in Japanese means “genius”.
And, in a country famous for being conservative, and for a culture that is based on humility and working towards a common goal, it is not commonplace for such extravagant praise to be lavished on individuals.
Which speaks volumes about just how good a footballer Shinji Ono has been through the years given that is the nickname that has been bestowed upon him in his homeland.
Scoring against Beckham and friends in a 1-1 draw with England back in 2004
Curiously, outside of Japan at least, Ono is arguably not as famous as his contemporaries like Hidetoshi Nakata, Shunsuke Nakamura or Junichi Inamoto, if only for the fact that he never plied his trade in England (Scotland, in Nakamura’s case), Spain or Italy – the only three countries that really captivated global attention in that era.
But, undoubtedly, the Shizuoka native was as talented as those more-illustrious names, if not more so.
— Leicester City (@LCFC) November 8, 2017
He was just described (in the above tweet) by current Leicester star Shinji Okazaki as “the best player in Japan”, while Wesley Sneijder – the most-capped player in Netherlands’ history – identified Ono as the toughest opponent he’s ever faced.
After beginning his career with Japanese giants Urawa Red Diamonds, Ono earned a move to Netherlands and spent five seasons with Feyenoord, where he won the 2002 UEFA Cup alongside famous names like Jon Dahl Tomasson, Pierre van Hooijdonk, and a then 18-year-old Robin van Persie.
Thereafter, he also had spells in Germany and Australia with VfL Bochum and Western Sydney Wanderers respectively, split by a three-year stint back in Japan with Shimizu S-Pulse, before winding up at current club Consadole Sapporo.
Even if it’s mainly in his homeland, and among Asian football fans, Ono will be remembered as one of the best players of his generation to emerge from the continent, primarily blessed with the vision to spot passes mere mortals couldn’t but also with the sublime technique to execute with precision.
How he replied, when asked what he would look back on most fondly when his career does eventually come to a close and how we would like to be remembered as a footballer, also illustrates how much focus, determination and professionalism – hallmarks of him as a player – he still holds with him.
“Of course, I’ve had a long career [but] I don’t want to think too much about the future,” the 38-year-old told FOX Sports Asia.
“I just want to keep playing for as long as I can and I’ll think about all of this when the time comes.
Considering another Japanese legend – Kazuyoshi Miura – is astoundingly still playing in Japan’s second-tier J2 League at the age of 50, it may not be that absurd that Ono could still have a few seasons left in him, especially considering how he has not lost any of his abilities and is still looking fit as ever.
As for his immediate goals, having played for one of the biggest clubs in the country, Ono is determined to help his present team scale similar heights.
“Sapporo hasn’t been in J1 for that long so I’ve come here,” he explained.
“I want to do my best to make sure we become a big team and stay in J1 for a long time to come.”
Playing for Consadole this year has also seen Ono acquainted with an up-and-coming Thai footballer who might just remind him of himself with the same uncanny ability to carve apart an opposition defence – a certain Chanathip Songkrasin.
While the dream for every player undoubtedly remains a move to Europe, the veteran believes his new team-mate has taken the right step in his career.
On the man who wears the same No. 18 jersey as he did for Japan, Ono said: “Obviously, ‘Chana’ is a player who’s still improving and he’s come to the J.League to further that improvement.
“I’ll be looking forward to seeing other players take the same steps, coming to the J.League first and then move to Europe.
“I think it’ll be good.”
Aside from all his club achievements, Ono also represented the Samurai Blue at the 1998, 2002 and 2006 FIFA World Cups.
With the world’s best international teams set to do battle for football’s most-coveted prize once again in just seven months’ time, he is optimistic that the present generation can go on to make quite an impact in Russia.
“It’s a big tournament; in fact – it’s the biggest stage,” Ono added.
“I want to see our players make the most of their technique and intelligence.”
“If we can play to the best of our abilities, I think we can do well in this tournament.”
The legendary Samurai Blue side that reached the 2002 World Cup Round of 16
At the very least, doing well would equate to equalling their best-ever performance of reaching the Round of 16, which Ono played a key role in achieving on home soil back in 2002.
There is enough quality at Vahid Halilhodzic’s disposal to suggest that is within their reach if, like Ono said, they play to the best of their abilities.
From the seasoned campaigners like Shinji Kagawa and Maya Yoshida to the emerging generation of Takuma Asano and Yoshinori Muto, Japanese players featuring prominently is now a standard feature in almost all of Europe’s top leagues.
Still, it wasn’t always the case and, for that, the current crop have the legends of yesteryear to thank.
Legends like Nakata, Nakamura and Inamoto. And also Ono.
For 天才 deserves to be mentioned in the same breath, not only in Japan but all around the world, as his celebrated peers.