Feyenoord's Shinji Ono has become Japan's most successful standard bearer in European football.
After the sojourn of Europe's footballing stars in the Far East this June, one of Asia's finest is back in Europe aiming to further his growing reputation in the UEFA Super Cup. Crucial to Feyenoord's play against Real Madrid CF in Monaco will be Japan's Shinji Ono.
Adapted to Europe
A versatile midfield player who can fill a role in the centre or on either flank, Ono has adapted to European football even better than his much-vaunted Japanese international team-mate, Hidetoshi Nakata - proving his worth in the 2002 UEFA Cup final.
UEFA Cup goals
Having moved to Feyenoord from J-League side Urawa Red Diamonds the previous summer, the level-headed Ono established himself as a regular in the Eredivisie side's lineup, generally on the left. He got their UEFA Cup run off to the perfect start by scoring a late winner in their first match in the competition against SC Freiburg, and then put Feyenoord ahead at Rangers FC in the fourth round.
Ono's influence was also keenly felt in the final at Feyenoord's home stadium against BV Borussia Dortmund. With the game flowing from end to end in the second half, it was Ono who set up striker Jan Dahl Tomasson for what proved to be the Dutch side's decisive third goal. A year into his time in Europe, Ono had become the first Japanese player to win a UEFA club competition.
'All of us were proud'
Japan's World Cup coach, Phillipe Troussier, was certainly proud of his summer charge. "All of us were proud when they won the championship," he said of Feyenoord's UEFA Cup win. "We felt happy when Ono held up the winners' cup with both hands," added Troussier, who watched the match with the rest of his squad.
'A fantastic feeling'
Ono, who was substituted before the end of the final, before lifting the trophy wearing a headband bearing a red sun and the legend 'ichiban' (No1), was himself full of pride. "I wanted to be on the pitch at the final whistle, but we won so who cares?" he said. "It's a fantastic feeling, the best."
Out of position
And well deserved, considering the pressure he was under. With 30 dedicated Japanese journalists relocated to Rotterdam to report on his every move, he also struggled with learning Dutch. However, his hard work paid off, and his season was far more fruitful than that of his compatriots Nakata in Italy, or Junichi Inamoto at Arsenal FC. His success was even more impressive considering, as he admitted: "I have not had too many opportunities to play in my favourite role in the centre of midfield."
'Every tackle was tough'
Ironically, it was Dortmund who were the first European club to covet him. But Ono says he joined Feyenoord "because I thought a less physical sort of game would suit me better". He added: "Like all the Japanese I am on the small side in build and, at first, every tackle was tough. I am still getting used to that."
'A quick learner'
His club coach Bert van Marwijk does not regret the decision to take on Ono, saying: "He is young but he is a quick learner. The only thing he must learn is to be a little less hesitant and to commit himself more, physically. One good thing - he doesn't like taking the easy option of passing back to his defenders when under pressure."
World Cup experience
At the World Cup finals, Ono, who delayed an appendix operation to play, proved the benefits of his European experience in helping Japan to the second round. Now minus that appendix, Ono is ready to prove his form last season was no fluke - starting against the UEFA Champions League holders.