Yasuhiko Okudera:The Japanese pioneer in Europe

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While today there are many Japanese players playing in Europe,which by far the largest number can be found in the Bundesliga where this season 9 of them are playing,that wasn’t the case before.Before the launch of the J-League in 1993,Japan lacked a professional league since the Japan Soccer League was an amateur league whose players were employees of corporations which made the league.Only the top players of the Japan Soccer League were paid for football.Before Hidetoshi Nakata,Shinji Kagawa,Shinosuke Nakamura and Shinji Ono became representatives of Japanese football in Europe,the pioneer who blazed the way was Yasuhiko Okudera.Born in 1950 in the city of Kazuno in northern Honshu,he was the first ever Japanese player to sign for a European club.Okudera began his career as midfielder in 1970 when he became an employee of Forukawa Electric which is today known as JEF United Ichihara of the J-League,like an other player in that time in Japan he was an amateur.He stayed in the club until 1977 when Forukawa Electric went to preparations in West Germany and there the legendary coach 1.FC Cologne Hennes Weisweiler spotted Okudera and he signed for Weisweiler’s club.With that Okudera became the first ever Japanese player ever to sign for a professional club in Europe and his debut against MSV Duisburg in October 1977 almost ended in a disaster when he made a foul in the penalty area,however Harald Schumacher saved the penalty and Cologne went to win the game.The same season Okudera became the first ever Japanese player to win the Bundesliga and the German Cup,while in the next he played with Cologne in the semifinals of the European Champions Cup where Cologne was defeated by Nottingham Forest.Okudera in 3 seasons playing for Cologne made 75 appearences and after sharing the locker room with Harald Schumacher,Pierre Littbarski and Dieter Muller he signed in 1980 for Hertha Berlin where stayed only for a single season until legendary coach Otto Rehhagel took him to Werder Bremen where under his guidance he thrived as a player spending 5 seasons and making 159 appearances where he scored 11 goals.After spending 9 years in Germany,Okudera returned to Japan to his former club Forukawa Electric where he played for 2 more seasons until 1988 when after 18 years he retired from football.Nevertheless Okudera was a trailblazer who made the way for Japanese players which also was made possible by the founding of the J-League in 1993.Last year Yasuhiko Okudera was inducted as the one of the inaugural members of the Asian Football Hall of Fame and continues to work in football related activities.

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