Lukas Podolski arrives in Kobe, Japan
Retired German international star and former FC Köln striker, Lukas Podolski, joined his new club this week. Beginning his professional career at Köln, the striker has served a term with Arsenal in the Premier League and Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga. Most recently, he played for Galatasaray SK of Istanbul, Turkey.
Like a wandering rōnin—the unattached samurai of history—the Germany forward’s career continues now with Vissel Kobe of Japan. The move was announced in March, but only just completed this week.
End of the millennium eagles
Podolski was a member of the German National Team first assembled by Jurgen Klinsmann and Joachim Löw in the early 2000s. That team eventually assumed dominance of the men’s international game alongside Spain’s tiki-taka 2010 World Cup winning generation. More lately they’ve traded blows with Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal. The latter having banked the EURO 2016 championship.
Like teammate Miroslav Klose, the 32 year-old Podolski was born in Poland but played internationally for his adopted country. He follows Klose, who retired in 2014 and is now a coach in Germany’s national team program. Podolski’s friend Bastian Schweinsteiger also retired from international competition this year.
While fans of Germany seem to have little to worry about for the foreseeable future, both Schweinsteiger and Podolski are now once again strangers in strange lands.
J-League needs a hero
Schweinsteiger has been playing since the beginning of this year for Chicago Fire in Major League Soccer. Podolski’s adventure abroad in the J-League is just beginning.
The J-League is Japan’s top flight for men’s football as MLS is for the USA. Both leagues were started in the 1990s. MLS struggled for the first two decades of its existence. But it has become much more viable in the last five years or so. (A topic for another day.)
The J-League has also had a rough first quarter century. Local economic juggernaut Toyota was the sole sponsor for FIFA’s Club World Cup for several iterations of that tournament. Over the course of the first 15 years of this century the CWC brought world-class footballers to Japan on an annual basis. It filled the largest stadiums in both Tokyo and Yokohama every December.
FIFA has recently begun to move that tournament around, however, in a manner similar to the men’s and women’s national team’s World Cup finals. A decision brazen with luck, as it turned out, with the advent of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in 2011.
But the loss of the Club World Cup has also likely hurt the popularity of the sport in Japan as well.
Ashita no Po(-dolski)?
Twenty-five years for MLS in the USA is a long time. In Japan that may not seem quite as long a time. Still the game there could use something or someone to help cement its future. That’s because like most of world football the J-League is currently operating in the long shadow cast by China’s Super League. The latter is threatening to eclipse not only all of the other leagues in Asia, but perhaps worldwide as well. The Super League has deep pockets and long arms right now.
If you have any familiarity with Japan you know that historically it is a nation often slow to change. If well-known players can keep interest in the J-League alive, it might have a brighter future with local and international fans.
Japan is also the nation that gave us manga. And a story that was very popular (still is) was titled “Ashita no Joe” (tomorrow’s Joe). He was a “future champ” of boxing in that story. On his way to the title fight (which had a stereotypically ambiguous outcome), Joe took a lot of beatings and gave as good as he got. He had to. His story ran for 5 years and 20 volumes. Manga are lengthy by design.
Is Podolski the J-League’s Joe Yabuki?
Maybe not. But get comfortable because it could be a long story.