by Roberto Brambilla (@BobbyBrambo)
An amateur in the Bundesliga
In the 1970s, football in Japan was a growing phenomenon, but still limited.
After a good placement of the national team, prepared by the German director Dettmar Cramer, at the Olympic Games held on home soil in 1964, the Federation decided to create a new league, the Japan Soccer League.
The protagonists of this league, after the renunciation of the university teams at the time of its foundation in 1965, are the formations linked to the great
, the industrial groupings that at that time are dragging the Japanese economy almost to the “roof of the world”. In one of these teams, Furukawa Electric, a boy born in 1952 and who comes from the north of the island of Honshū, the one on which the capital Tokyo is also located, has been playing since 1970.
It’s called Yasuhiko Okudera And like almost all of his colleagues (with the exception of some foreign employees, for example the Brazilians of the companies) during the day he is an employee of the electricity company, in the evening and on weekends a player; In his case a good midfielder, excellent for the level of Japanese football at the time.
So much so that, in addition to being practically immediately a starter with the club, in 1972 he also joined the national team squad and in 1975, at the age of 23, he won a permanent place with the team that tried in vain to qualify for the Asian Cup.
But being in the national team two years later, in 1977, gave him an important chance.
That of going to Germany with Hiroshi Ninomiya’s national team, where the coach organized some internships with the German coaches. In one of them he is noticed by Hennes Weisweiler.
At that time the coach of Cologne, but above all a monument of German football, the one who between the mid-sixties and the mid-seventies built the technical myth of Borussia Mönchengladbach.
For him, who the season before had coached Cruyff and Neeskens‘ Barcelona and who had been in Japan with Gladbach in previous years, Okudera is a “Bundesliga” player.
The coach and management of Cologne, then among the top clubs, offered the 25-year-old Japanese midfielder a contract.
The boy is not convinced, because he is afraid of not being up to the task and above all because by moving to Germany and becoming a professional he would lose his job at Furukawa Electric, the one that if he returned to his homeland would guarantee him bread for his wife and his two-year-old daughter.
He was met by the Japanese company itself and the football authorities who, aware of the importance of the transfer for the movement of the Rising Sun, reassured him:
If it doesn’t go well, you’ll get your job back.
Okudera agrees. He is not only the first Japanese but also the first Asian to be signed by the Bundesliga, a league that in general, apart from a few exceptions in that period, does not welcome many foreigners, even Europeans.
The approach of the Japanese, awaited in Cologne with the curiosity of the “bearded woman of the circus”, is marked by caution. Okudera doesn’t speak a word of German and has to get used to the pace and methods of work more than to the climate (in his city the temperatures are more or less the same as in Cologne). Weisweiler, a fine teacher and connoisseur of football (his coaching courses at the Deutsche Sporthochschule of Cologne, which has been named after him since 2005, will train coaches of the calibre of Rinus Michels), didn’t let him debut until October, giving him time to at least start getting into the mechanics of the team and the locker room.
The day of the debut is set for October 22 against Duisburg away.
But at the Wedaustadion, the Japanese player’s debut was almost nightmarish.
A few minutes after kick-off, the midfielder knocked down an opponent in the box and awarded a penalty.
Even though his teammate Harald “Toni” Schumacher saved him and Cologne won 2-1, criticism of Okudera and the choice of his coach and the club began to rain. And they will do so at least for a couple of months, during which, even if in the midst of so many difficulties, Yasuhiko will first become an integral part of the team then an almost permanent starter.
The first year was difficult, Okudera told the FIFA website in 2009, not only because I had to get used to the Bundesliga , but because I needed time to adapt to the German way of life.
Not a player of the highest class, but with good physical means, with a desire to learn and above all very reliable.
Someone who knows a couple of things but does them very well. In addition, he has a character that conquers the locker room.
In a group of players with a great technical rate and an even greater ego (among others ” Toni” Schumacher, Dieter Müller, Heinz Flohe and “Crazy Horse” Elkjær) he, by education and culture inclined to measurement, functions almost like a harmonizer.
Everyone loves him: he’s just “Oku”.
And the 25-year-old, who was playing in an amateur league a year earlier, is one of the less flashy but more important pieces for Cologne’s path in both the Bundesliga and the German Cup. In December 1977, he scored the first goals of an Asian in German competition in a 9-0 win over Rot-Weiss Essen in the Dfb-Pokal.
Okudera made his most important contribution in the final days of the season in the midst of the point-to-point battle with Borussia Mönchengladbach. He scored four goals in the three final matches, one of which can be considered almost decisive.
On the penultimate matchday, Cologne drew 1-1 at home with striker Ottmar Hitzfeld’s Stuttgart (yes, the future coach of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund) ten minutes from the end, when Gerd Strack put in a cross from the right, a soft ball at the far post. Behind the Schwaben defenders, the Japanese appears, just under 180 cm, who dives past Roeder. 2-1 and the game decided.
A week later, on 29 April, Okudera scored again, twice, and Cologne took home the last title in their history on goal difference. A trophy that pairs in the trophy cabinet with the German Cup won against Fortuna Düsseldorf in the final won 2-0 in Gelsenkirchen. With “Oku” on the pitch.
A historic double for both Okudera and Weisweiler’s team, orphaned by that season of the Overath lighthouse and flag. On the banks of the Rhine, under the magnificent cathedral, Yasuhiko will stay for another two years.
From the point of view of results, the Asian will not win anything anymore (his will finish twice straddling the Uefa zone) but he will still take away some satisfaction. This time in European competitions. In 1978-1979 Cologne, in which the 19-year-old Pierre Littbarski was gaining more and more space, reached the semi-finals.
After knocking out Rangers in the quarter-finals, the Germans face Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest, making their debut in the competition.
The first leg is played at the City Ground and it’s a beautiful game. In the mud and with a lot of battle.
The Germans were ahead 2-0 after 20 minutes, caught up and overtaken 3-2 by the “Garibaldi Reds”.
In the 80th minute, Weisweiler brought on the Japanese player and in his first open play he managed to get to the edge of the area and with a right-footed shot he surprised Peter Shilton. It’s 3-3.
A precious draw that, however, will not be needed to reach the final. Weisweiler’s men will lose 1-0 at home and will be eliminated. It will perhaps be Weisweiler’s highest point at Cologne. In 1980 the coach left the team and together with him the Japanese was sold.
Purgatory in Berlin, resurrection in Bremen
With the end of the adventure in Cologne, Okudera’s Bundesliga adventure also ends temporarily.
In fact, it was Hertha Berlin who bought him, who in 1980-1981 played in the second division and aspired to promotion.
A goal lost by the blue and whites by two points, with the Japanese midfielder scoring eight goals, a personal best in a single season in Germany. Herthaner finished third (despite scoring 123 goals), behind Eintracht Braunschweig and especially Werder Bremen. Here he coaches the second fundamental coach of Yasuhiko’s career: Otto Rehhagel.
He was 43 years old at the time but already had a fair amount of experience, between Saarbrücken, Offenbach and a two-year stint in Dortmund.
He was already at Werder briefly in 1978 but this time he arrives to stay there. For 14 years, until 1995.
Otto has an idea in mind for “Oku” that will change the Asian football life. He looks for him, offers him a contract.
Yasuhiko, delighted with the interest of a Bundesliga club, hopes to play in midfield, while Rehhagel offers him to try as a full-back with a licence to advance. And no longer as a man as he was used to, but as a zone, a revolutionary choice for the whole of German football as well.
The future coach of Greece extends the career of the 28-year-old Japanese and enhances him, also helped by the fact that Okudera is now fully integrated. He speaks and understands German decently, he has taken on the European rhythms and in his now adopted homeland he even gave birth to his son. A set of factors that lead the boy to become, as a full-back, one of the cornerstones of a Werder In the first half of the Eighties, it was transformed from a medium-low ranking team to a team that could fight for Europe and for the title with players of the calibre of Rudi Völler, arrived in 1982. A Meisterschale that Okudera will not be able to conquer, despite three second places, including two (1984/1985 and 1985/1986) right at the last minute behind the battleship Bayern Munich.
In the summer of 1986, with the disappointment of losing the championship (two defeats in the last two games with the match point thrown away with Michael Kutzop’s mistake from the penalty spot), 34 years old and with children who were growing up, the Japanese decided to return to his homeland. 259 games and 34 goals after his debut against Duisburg.
He will return to the national team and to his Furukawa Electric, where he will close his career by winning the Asian championship title in 1987 with the club with which he had grown up and with which he will also begin his career as a manager in 1993 in the newly formed J-League, of which he was a great supporter.
Among the first men that Okudera wanted with him at JEF United Ichihara Chiba (as the club is renamed with the transition to professionalism) is Pierre Littbarski with whom he had shared the dressing room in Cologne.
With the Berlin world champion in 1990 on the bench, in 1998 he also began his adventure as president with Yokohama FC, a position he still holds. He will take it from Serie B to the J-League.
He will return to Europe to lead Plymouth Argyle from behind his desk and to receive an indirect tribute from Germany.
In 2006 he, together with South Korean Cha Bum-kun , a former player of Darmstadt, Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer 04 Leverkusen, was invited to the draw for the World Cup played in the Federal Republic.
A tournament that as a footballer Okudera, unlike his colleague, has never played.
A lack that does not tarnish the consideration for the Japanese who in 2014 was inducted into the Asian Football Hall of Fame as a founding member. First of all. As always.