It’s likely I’ll never again see you don the black and yellow kit in a competitive match, the kit that you, more than anyone else, helped me grow so attached to over the last decade.
It’s never fun to see a player you’ve seen perform so exquisitely on the big stages and a player you’ve grown so fond of over the years slowly succumb to the doldrums of age, injuries, and minutes played that have claimed every player preceding them. It’s inevitable, but it doesn’t make accepting it easier, particularly when said player is one of the main reasons you fell in love with the sport to begin with.
It goes back to my final semester of undergrad in Illinois. I was wrapping up my studies when one of my grad student friends from Japan invited me over to his apartment to watch Japan’s opening match of the World Cup in South Africa. I wasn’t particularly interested in watching the match, but I figured it might be one of my last chances to hang out with my friend before I graduated, so I went.
I ended up becoming far more invested in the match than I anticipated. When Japan ended up progressing to the knockout stage that year, I went back to my friend’s apartment for each of Japan’s next 3 matches in the tournament.
He and his friends were, and still are, big time supporters of the Samurai Blue, and most of my base interest soccer comes from those initial gatherings. As a result, rather than root for the US as many of my American soccer friends do, I root for Japan, which always gets a curious reaction whenever I reveal it to someone.
It was during the second group stage match vs the Netherlands that I first heard your name. I made a comment to the extent that Japan was doing much better than expected against a tough opponent. My friend agreed and then added that the country’s best young player wasn’t even in the tournament squad.
I asked who that was.
“His name’s Shinji Kagawa. He just signed for a club in Germany called Borussia Dortmund.”
How good is he? I asked.
My friend offered to show me. It turned out that he had replays of your last two matches for his J League club, Cerezo Osaka, stored on his laptop.
I’ll never forget what I saw. You were easily the best player on the pitch, a man among boys, even though you were only 21. You were so fast, your passes so articulate and disciplined, your final touch so excellent that I couldn’t turn away.
It helped to firmly plant the seeds of soccer fandom within me, a young man who had never played the sport, much less watched it attentively, in his life up to that point.
So I followed you to Europe.
To Borussia Dortmund.
I saw you score your first goal for the club vs Wolfsburg. I saw you bag a brace in your first Derby vs Smurfs.
And above all else, I saw how the club and fans embraced you and made you a part of the incredible Dortmund atmosphere. I was blown away by the Yellow Wall, the sheer size and sound of it, and how much every fan gave for the club and how much the club gave in return.
I was hooked.
Even after you broke your foot at the Asian Cup in 2011 one match short of the Final, and missed virtually the entire second half of the Bundesliga season, I still followed Dortmund all the way to the end.
The next season was even better. I followed it all, along with some co-workers in Chicago.
17 goals and 14 assists across all competitions, including the hellacious volley against Köln, the best goal I’ve ever seen you score. Bundesliga and DfB-Pokal champion. A key cog in the best Dortmund team and season I’ve ever seen.
You were excellent internationally as well, scoring the winner in a friendly against France in Paris.
And then you left Dortmund, off to a new country and a bigger stage.
I remained with Dortmund. The bond between myself and the club had now moved beyond the connection of a single player.
I did watch you at Manchester United. Were it not for you I wouldn’t have watched a single match of theirs because I despised them. I still do.
I saw you show all your potential in the summer, working in tandem with Wayne Rooney and crafting some magic in pre-season friendlies.
Then Robin van Persie arrived and you were shunted aside, into a position on the wing that you were not suited for. I’d seen the same thing occur in your appearances for Japan at times; played out of position in favor of someone else, Keisuke Honda in that instance.
For the first time I saw you struggle for your club. The United fans got on you, and I got upset, because many likely hadn’t seen anything you’d done for Dortmund. Couldn’t they understand that you weren’t being utilized correctly?
But you kept working. You fought through injury and scored a hat trick against Norwich. People started to come around. I was hopeful that you’d shown enough to be given a bigger opportunity in a position you could really excel in.
But that didn’t happen.
Your second season at Manchester was painful to watch. Without Sir Alex on the touchline, neither you nor the club seemed to know what to do. You went an entire season without a goal across all competitions.
Then that summer I watched you and Japan go out in the group stage at the World Cup in Brazil from my new apartment in central Illinois. Your first time appearing at the tournament was a big disappointment.
It seemed your career was at a crossroads. Where would you go from here?
I didn’t expect you to return to Dortmund. When I read the announcement, I did a fist punch right into the shelf in my office, knocking off a placard and bruising my hand. One of my favorite players was back with my favorite club. The only one more excited than I was might’ve been Jurgen Klopp.
You scored in your return match against Freiburg. I celebrated along with every other Dortmund fan. It looked like things would be as good as they had been two years before.
But they weren’t. After that one match, pretty much the entire season sucked.
The club was bottom in January, right around the time you and Japan went out in the last 8 of the Asian Cup, another disappointment on the international stage.
Everyone at Dortmund struggled that season. It looked disjointed, nothing like what it had been. Klopp left after the season, his bond with the guys in the Dortmund locker room having been strained to the max by the difficult season.
At the beginning of the following season, Thomas Tuchel didn’t seem to be able to find a place for you in the starting lineup, even as the team did well.
Then things started to slow down for the club in the Spring. The team foundered, unable to keep up with Bayern in the table. It might have been curtains for the season.
Tuchel changed the lineup in March of that year and you moved into the starting XI. Something sparked.
You looked the old you again. You were fast, agile, and scoring big goals for the club. You put the team on your back in some instances and carried them to results they otherwise didn’t deserve. For the last two months of that season, you were Dortmund’s best player.
I hoped that it would continue into the following season. You looked good at times, but the team was inconsistent from the start.
Then the injuries started to pile up. They were small at first, one match missed in September with a sprained ankle. Another in early November. Then 4 more in December.
When you came back you didn’t look like you. You looked slower, less agile, the passes more inaccurate. I could see it not just with Dortmund, but with Japan as well. You were finding it harder to excel against the lesser countries in Asia, sides you used to literally run circles around.
You won the DfB-Pokal for the second time that season. I watched and celebrated with a group of Dortmund fans at a bar in downtown Boston. Hopefully this meant things would get better.
Tuchel was sacked right after the Cup triumph. Then you missed an entire summer due to a shoulder injury. When you came back, you tried your best to play through it. The goal you scored against Augsburg was as audacious as any I’d seen.
But then you struggled, as did the rest of the team. Peter Bosz couldn’t solve it and was sacked. Then you missed most of the Spring with another ankle injury.
Around the same time, you stopped getting called up to Japan every international window, even if you were healthy. And when you did get the call…well, you didn’t look like you.
The thought made me shudder.
I knew it would happen at some point. It happens to every athlete, the point where their body starts to let them down and age and accumulated minutes begin to creep in and affect their game. But I didn’t expect to see it so soon, as you weren’t yet 30.
But you’d played a ton of minutes at club level ever since you were 17. You were playing for the senior Japan team at 19. You were a starter on a Bundesliga champion at 21.
All those minutes accumulate. As do the injuries. There’s only so much wear and tear a body can take before it starts to give out. It happened with Sebastian. It happened with Nuri. It’s probably happening with Lukasz & Marcel.
The World Cup in Russia showed me that this was probably the case, as much as I hated to admit it.
You started for Japan, in your ideal position in the hole. Honda was now on the bench in favor of you.
But you weren’t able to affect the game like you should have. The guy who dominated in that system and position for Dortmund and Japan years earlier wasn’t able to repeat it. The other players shouldered the load and guided Japan to the knockout stage again, carrying you along with them.
I celebrated Japan’s success in my new home in Massachusetts, but at the same time I feared that your best days were behind you.
The following season bore that out. Other players were stepping up and into the spots that you had occupied, and they were playing better than you could. The club started the year off like gangbusters, shooting to the top of the table. You could only feature in an occasional cup match, and when you did, I saw the same things I’d seen in Russia. Slower, passes less than precise, unable to affect the match from your ideal spot.
Some fans got angry at the situation, but I was just sad because I saw what was really happening. You were trying, but you just couldn’t do it at the level you needed to anymore. The club was in a great position to win the league for the first time in years. You wanted to help, but your body and the system just wouldn’t let you.
Then it was weird to see you in Beşiktaş colors. I hoped that time there would help you rediscover some of the old form, but you couldn’t even crack the starting lineup on a regular basis there, which made me even sadder.
You clearly still wanted to play, but you just couldn’t get to the level that you wanted or needed to be at.
I knew your time in Dortmund was over and we would have to part ways once again.
Now you’re off to Spain, the second division in Spain. It hurts to think about. Seeing one of the best players I’ve had the privilege of watching and rooting for over the years as a shell of his former self, one which not a single first division squad would take a chance on.
Will you get another call up to Japan, or has that time come to an end as well?
Only time will tell, but as you head off on the next leg of your journey, one in which I’ll still follow you from a distance, I find myself thinking back.
Back to that summer in Illinois, watching you light up the J League on my friend’s laptop.
That beautiful May afternoon in Chicago, celebrating a double winning season.
The raucous day in Boston, when you won the Cup for the second time.
We’ll always have the memories. Those will never leave us.
Neither will the trophies.
Or the frightening thought of what might have been, because were it not for you, I might’ve committed one of the gravest mistakes I could’ve ever made.
After the World Cup in South Africa, I followed several members of the Japan squad to Europe the following season. Of the handful that made the move, the one who got to the most playing time at their new club, other than you, was Atsuto Uchida…
Who had moved to Smurfs.
Yes. Were it not for you Shinji, I could’ve been a Smurfs fan.
So from the bottom of my heart…
THANK YOU SHINJI!!!!