Shinji Okazaki

Shinji Okazaki: The Japanese Fox

Upon Shinji Okazaki’s arrival at King Power Stadium in June 2015, the legendary Japan striker brought with him international recognition that had seldom been seen before at Leicester City.
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Even before the Takarazuka-born striker made the move to the Premier League, Japanese journalists from various ‘shimbuns’ would attend pre-match press conferences in an attempt to minute information on his potential signing.

At that time, Nigel Pearson managed the Club, and on several occasions, he subtly brushed off the speculation of him joining the Foxes. They were amidst a battle to stay in England’s top flight, so there was no time for transfer talk.

With Premier League status intact, City secured the signatures of experienced defenders Christian Fuchs, formerly of FC Schalke 04, and Robert Huth – a then two-time Premier League champion with Chelsea.

Then arrived a jet black-haired forward from FSV Mainz 05.

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The fairytale begins
The fairytale begins

Shinji Okazaki signed a four-year deal with the Foxes after joining from FSV Mainz in June 2015.

“He’s a very good player, a real talent,” said Steve Walsh, City’s Assistant Manager, responsible for recruitment at the time. “He’s a striker with a good strike-rate in the Bundesliga, which is a very strong league. We’ve been watching him now for the best part of two years. We tried to get him to sign last summer (2014), and we tried again in January (2015). Now, we’ve been successful. He’s a real talent, I think. Not only is he good with the ball, but also out of possession, he’s exactly what we need.

“The fans will take to him.”

A player the Foxes had been tracking for several seasons, Shinji drew in international attention like a magnet. He was introduced to the media in July 2015 with a press conference at King Power Stadium.

He took to the top table in the media suite on his own, comfortable enough to host the gathering that had followed him from his home nation, into Germany and over to England.

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Welcome to Leicester
Welcome to Leicester

Shinji Okazaki held a press conference for the Japanese media upon his arrival in Leicester.

A Japanese footballer breaking onto the European scene was noteworthy enough, but only six other countrymen had played in the Premier League prior to Shinji’s maiden venture into English football.

Mori Masatoshi – journalist for the Hochi Shimbun – attended his first press conference. He reported on the highs and lows of his Premier League career, following him up and down the country.

“He’s a very popular figure [in Japan],” said ‘Masa’. “He’s a goalscorer, we love him! We really want him to succeed in the Premier League and hopefully score heavily for Leicester. Playing in the Premier League is Shinji’s dream. It’s given him a really positive vibe. He’s really looking forward to playing for Leicester. He’s 29 years-old, but he feels like he is a newcomer, a new guy. I hope he can score goals.”

It took him only two games to score his first goal for the Club. His early opener set City up for a 2-1 victory away at West Ham United as Claudio Ranieri’s men made it two wins from two at the start of 2015/16.

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A first City goal
A first City goal

The Japan international bagged his maiden goal in a 2-1 triumph at West Ham United.

Shinji bagged only five top-flight goals in his debut Premier League season, and while he would often emphasise his desire to increase his strike rate, Leicester City supporters swiftly understood the value of his role in the team.

He was a link between the dynamic Danny Drinkwater, the indefatigable N’Golo Kanté, the prolific Jamie Vardy, the industrious Marc Albrighton and Algerian sensation Riyad Mahrez.

Indeed, the adjective ‘indefatigable’ could also be applied to Shinji. While in the title-winning campaign he would retreat around the hour mark in place of fresh legs, his work on the pitch had often already been accomplished.

Already his nation’s third-highest goalscorer of all-time, his coronation as a Premier League champion added to his Japanese stardom, as he became a City favourite  – but one major trait remained.

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A Premier League champion
A Premier League champion

The striker raises the Premier League trophy to the sky during one of the most memorable days in Leicester City's history.

The shimmer of the trophy, its Leicester City-themed ribbons and the weighty Premier League winners’ medal did not change Shinji’s mannerisms. His grin as wide as it had ever been, he would always afford time after the game for eager journalists, including Masa, waiting to speak to him in the mixed zone.

The Club continued to amplify their status after their 2015/16 heroics. Okazaki played his part in City’s first-ever UEFA Champions League journey, featuring in seven of their 10 fixtures and scoring in a vital group stage victory over Club Brugge.

His first-touch finish at the front post with only five minutes on the clock to set the tone in a game that saw the Foxes reach the knockout stages of the competition with a game to spare, securing top spot of Group G in the process.

That goal was one of six he scored that term, with his final strike of 2016/17 coming in the form of a thunderous volley against Manchester City, who a year later would be crowned champions of England.

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Okazaki's lightning start against Club Brugge
Okazaki's lightning start against Club Brugge

Shinji netted his first UEFA Champions League goal for the Football Club after just five minutes against Club Brugge.

Some of the best form of his City career followed, as he found the net five times in eight games in all competitions, including a strike inside the opening minute during Craig Shakespeare’s first win as the Club’s permanent manager.

“We spoke before the game about getting into the box a bit more,” said Shakespeare of the Foxes No.20. “He’s really diligent without the ball and really gets in and around the opposition’s midfield players. He poses a lot of threat for the opposition, but also helps us in getting the ball back.

“He’s got to be really pleased with his overall performance.”

That sentence epitomised Shinji. His overall performances were always a source of pride for the Blue Army, who would watch on as the fierce frontman ran until he couldn’t, breaking up opposition play while exploiting space between the lines.

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Double at Southampton
Double at Southampton

The frontman's brace against Southampton at St. Mary's Stadium helped the Foxes to a 4-1 win.

After a fruitful opening to 2017/18, he would add another two goals to his name. His double against Southampton in December ensured Claude Puel – appointed Leicester manager two months prior – would enjoy a victorious return to St. Mary’s Stadium. The Foxes won 4-1, recording their joint-biggest win of the campaign, with Shinji’s efforts crucial to the performance.

More success would follow for Okazaki that term. Having missed out on selection in Vahid Halilhodzic’s previous two Japan squads, Okazaki’s nation appointed new manager Akira Nishino ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Nishino included Okazaki in his 23-man squad, giving the striker an opportunity to play at a third World Cup having competed in the 2010 finals in South Africa and the 2014 finals in Brazil.

Okazaki already had fond memories of watching Japan at the World Cup. They made their World Cup debut in 1998 in France before hosting the following tournament alongside South Korea in 2002.

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Loved by the Blue Army
Loved by the Blue Army

The striker has made 24 appearances for the Foxes in 2018/19, and 135 in total during four years at the Club.

“It was a very exciting time in Japan,” he recalled prior to last summer’s competition. “Everyone everywhere was talking about the World Cup. I’ve never experienced that in Japan, so it was special for me.”

His first World Cup goal came in 2010, when he came off the bench to score Japan’s third goal in a 3-1 win over Denmark to add to two sensational free-kicks from superstar Keisuke Honda and Yasuhito Endo.

“To score in the World Cup is different,” he said. “It’s a memory that I’ll never forget.”

Fond memories, indeed. The chance to add to his 100-plus caps came in Russia, where he would play three times against Colombia, Senegal and Poland in the group stages to help Japan set up a round of 16 clash with Belgium.

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A Japanese legend
A Japanese legend

Okazaki is Japan's third-highest goalscorer of all time, having found the net on 50 occasions for his country.

Japan stormed into a 2-0 lead after the break following efforts from Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui, but Nacer Chadli struck a 94th-minute winner after Jan Vertonghen and Marouane Fellaini had levelled matters.

The Blue Samurai exited the World Cup, but their spirited displays did not go unnoticed, and neither did their respect and etiquette, as post-match pictures of their immaculate changing rooms went viral on social media.

Later that summer, Shinji arrived back at Belvoir Drive for the 2018/19 season and in his first four games of the campaign helped City to triumphs against Southampton, Fleetwood Town and Huddersfield Town.

Making a total of 24 appearances in 2018/19 to date prior to Sunday’s final match of the season against Chelsea, the much-loved striker will depart Leicester City as a long-lasting favourite of the Blue Army.   

His unique persistence in Leicester colours was a joy to watch, and his contribution to the Football Club’s recent success will forever be valued.

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