Thursday, April 25

Honda eyes Tokyo Olympics after whirlwind Japan homecoming

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IN the end, Keisuke Honda’s first club game in his native Japan in almost a dozen years ended in disappointment. But the former AC Milan forward can hold his head high after scoring on his return home and paying his respects to his nation in a touching tribute.

Honda now plays for Australian club, Melbourne Victory, who were in AFC Champions League (ACL) action away to Sanfrecce Hirsohima on Tuesday. The 32-year-old provided a 71st-minute equaliser with a sizzling strike, before the J.League club secured a 2-1 victory through Daiki Watari’s goal four minutes from time.

The result leaves Melbourne Victory with no points from their opening two matches in ACL Group F.

“Sanfrecce played very well and applied pressure the whole 90 minutes,” Honda said. “We still have four (group) games left. We won’t give up.”

Honda’s quick trip to Hiroshima was widely covered by the Japanese media, from the moment he flew out from Australia, changing planes in Tokyo, and arriving in the World War II-ravaged city of Hiroshima. Being the only player from his nation to have scored in three World Cups, Honda remains one of Japan’s biggest sports’ superstars.

At Tokyo’s Narita Airport, police had to tackle a man who tried to breach the security cordon for an autograph, clutching an AC Milan jersey with Honda’s name.

In Hiroshima, he took a public taxi to avoid the paparazzi to pay his respects at Peace Memorial Park, which remembers the more than 100,000 people who were killed by the atomic bombings that would bring an end to World War II in 1945.

Although he had visited the park as a youngster, Honda was visibly moved as he toured the Atomic Bomb Dome and the Atomic Bomb museum.

On the field, Honda continues to perform in his first season at Melbourne Victory, having scored seven goals in 12 matches in all competitions. The defending A-League champions are in third spot on the table, assured of a place in next month’s playoffs.

At every training session, around 50 Japanese fans turn up to watch Honda go through his paces.

But in a city dominated by Australian Rules football, Honda is delighted that he and his family are able to live away from the media spotlight, unlike his flying trip back to Japan this week.

“Everything has pros and cons. I like Australian people, they don’t get fazed by celebrities. Japanese, like Asian culture, like celebrities very much,’’ Honda told the Herald-Sun. “Australian people just focus on themselves, enjoy their own life.”

Honda continues to work as general manager and coach of the Cambodia national team, which means occasional trips to Southeast Asia during international breaks.

Honda and his family live in an apartment near the centre of Melbourne. In the same complex are his trainer Taichi Oshita, Cambodia assistant coach Felix Agustin Gonzalez Dalmas, digital media man Kazuaki Ono, and Honda’s own personal chef Yuta Funaoka.

“We are very comfortable living here. We can walk outside, go to restaurants, eat in normal seats. In Japan, we usually don’t eat in an open space, always a private room,” Honda said.

He added that while the quieter Australian life agrees with him, he’s not one to visit major tourist attractions.

“I’m not interested in (sightseeing). My guests have visited many places and were satisfied about the city, some have said they want to live in Melbourne,’’ he said.

“Maybe if I live until I am 70, I will return to Melbourne – 50 per cent I am joking, but 50 per cent serious. This place is very nice for kids and older people.”

Honda retired from the national team at the end of last year’s World Cup, but he’s hinted at a comeback for next year’s Tokyo Olympics. Although men’s football is an under-23 competition, three over-age players will be allowed.

Honda grew up in Osaka, and was famously rejected by the Gamba Osaka youth academy. It made him even more determined to work on his skills, building a career that saw him play in Europe at CSKA Moscow and VVV-Venlo, in addition to his three-year spell in Milan. He scored 37 goals in 98 appearances for Japan, appearing in the 2010, 2014 and 2018 World Cups.

“I want to achieve that (winning gold at Tokyo 2020), but instead of a World Cup as a player, I still don’t give up about becoming a World Cup champion,’’ he said.

“After I quit soccer, maybe in two years, after Olympics, it’s just starting my life.”

China will be the next overseas destination for the much-travelled Honda, with Melbourne Victory facing Fabio Cannavaro’s Guangzhou Evergrande in
their third ACL group match on April 10.

Jason Dasey is CEO of Singapore-based Cockatoo Media and host of corporate events in Borneo.