Shinji Okazaki

Shinji Okazaki: ‘I Played With Real Desperate Desire’

Shinji Okazaki talks Leicester City's 2016 title win, English classes with N'Golo Kanté, ambitions to be a manager, and a fancy dress party in Copenhagen...

Bananaman walks into a bar in Copenhagen, the Danish capital. He’s joined by Batman, Mr Incredible and the White Power Ranger. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are there too. This odd spectacle becomes stranger yet when you realise who’s behind the masks. This isn’t a comic-book convention, instead it’s Leicester City’s players on a Christmas party in 2015. It’s the fearless Foxes, atop of the Premier League, stunning the world one weekend at a time.

Eight years later, Shinji Okazaki grins as he recalls that night out with his team-mates. It was still very early days for Shinji at Leicester City. Less than five months into his new adventure, he didn’t speak very much English at all. The Japanese striker, though, had joined a unique dressing room. When everything else is stripped away, football teams – Premier League or Sunday League – are just a group of likeminded people. And these were a band of brothers on the cusp of achieving unthinkable glories. Shinji was already feeling at home. 

“It was a fancy dress party,” he chuckles, talking through a translator, sat in the town square of Sint-Truiden, a pretty city in Belgium’s Flemish region. “We went out into the town wearing fancy dress and we drank all night! That night, I really felt accepted and a part of the team. I really got to know Jamie [Vardy], Kasper [Schmeichel] and Wes [Morgan] on that trip.”

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Shinji Okazaki

Shinji Okazaki is now playing in Belgium's top division for Sint-Truiden.

The reason we’re in Belgium is because Okazaki now plays for Sint-Truidense V.V. – a Japanese-owned side in the Jupiler Pro League, the top division in Belgium. At 36 years of age, Shinji – who wore Leicester City’s colours between 2015 and 2019 – is still going strong. He’s a little greyer around the ears perhaps, but he’s generous as ever with his time. We end up speaking for over an hour. That famous beaming smile is never far away, but he offers an honest and at times surprising account of the Foxes’ greatest-ever achievement.

Shinji is one of Leicester City’s immortals, a member of that magnificent, maiden Premier League title-winning team of 2016. Seven years on, we’re now closer to the 10-year anniversary of that famous trophy being hoisted to the heavens than the moment itself. Time is hurtling by, but the memories remain rich and vivid in Okazaki’s mind.

Leicester’s closest rivals through the 2015/16 season were Tottenham Hotspur, the north London club who themselves had not won the title in 55 years. In a different galaxy of financial might to City, Spurs were cast as favourites even when they lagged behind in the standings. In any normal season, though, Mauricio Pochettino’s side wouldn’t have been title contenders either. It was a once-in-a-lifetime shot at glory for both teams. 

The day I signed the contract, Nigel [Pearson] had a day off, but we spoke on the phone after the signing. We said to each other: ‘I'm looking forward to meeting you.'

Shinji Okazaki

“I was pretty sure Tottenham would win the title,” Shinji explains. “I was very sceptical until the very end. I honestly never imagined we would win. I haven’t talked about that season for a long, long time, so it brings back some incredible feelings for me.”

Shinji joined Leicester City in the final days of Nigel Pearson’s time as manager. In the summer of 2015, though, City’s second and third tier title-winning manager left the Foxes and was replaced by Claudio Ranieri, the Italian former Chelsea coach. Likeable maybe, but not fashionable, Ranieri was cast as the dinosaur who’d somehow survived the asteroid strike. His appointment at a Premier League club was a surprise to everyone. Gary Lineker, the former Filbert Street hero, famously tweeted: ‘Claudio Ranieri? Really?’ It was all rather chaotic in the summer of 2015 – and certainly not what Shinji signed up for. 

“The day I signed the contract, Nigel had a day off, but we spoke on the phone after the signing,” he explains. “We said to each other: ‘I'm looking forward to meeting you’. Then three days later, he’s gone. I still can't forget that dismissal. 

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Shinji Okazaki

The Japan striker wants to earn yet more caps for his country.

“I wanted to play in the Premier League. That was my dream. That’s why I came to Europe, to Mainz in Germany. Of course, I knew the name Claudio Ranieri. I also spoke with Yuto Nagatomo, my team-mate for Japan who played for him at Inter Milan. I heard Claudio had the aura of a great coach, but I needed to see it. The year before that, I had been coached by Thomas Tuchel in Germany, and his training was at the cutting edge of Europe. In comparison, Claudio’s training was quite orthodox. He values the basics. And, of course, his football was typically Italian. You focus on the defence first and are compact to defend well.”

Okazaki was a bubble in a can for the Foxes. Always fizzing, ready to burst and never giving defenders the chance to rest. Echoing one of his most memorable phrases, Ranieri once said: ‘Shinji is our dilly ding, dilly dong. He wakes up our players – he has the bell.’ Okazaki admitting that he sometimes looks back ruefully on his career at Leicester City comes out of the blue. It’s hard to believe – such was the importance of his role at the Club that year – however the striker does, sometimes, muse on what more he could have given to the cause. He’s the man who scored 14 goals for Mainz 05 the year beforehand, later netting six for the Foxes. That’s what he’s getting at – he idolised the great Filippo Inzaghi when he was a boy after all – but no one among the Blue Army will hold it against him. 

“At Mainz, I was a striker, and I had my best season there, but at Leicester I had a different role,” he says. “In general, I felt like I didn't score enough goals. I didn't play the full 90 minutes at all. Of course, it was a great season, but for me, it was a frustrating season as well. On a personal level, I wished I had played more and achieved more goals. Even though it was my first league title, I had mixed feelings.

He was cheerful and full of mischief, on and off the pitch. But on the other hand, he cared for his team-mates and valued the harmony with everyone.

Shinji Okazaki

“Claudio was basically a strict type. Yes, he showed a unique personality later on, but he was a person with a sincere attitude towards football, and he was a really passionate manager. I understood his style with regards to a strong sense of defence. This is how I found the way to play behind Jamie, joining the midfield to defend, and that's how I fit in with the team.”

The Japanese took one for the team, sitting deeper, opening pockets of space for his striking partner to exploit at will. Jamie Vardy, the man who used to work in a prosthetics factory while playing for Stocksbridge Park Steels, shot to fame as a result. He broke Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record, netting in 11 consecutive Premier League games. The whippet-like Sheffield-born striker ended the season with 24 goals to his name, the Premier League’s Player of the Season prize, and a place in the England squad for EURO 2016.

“At first, he seemed like the type to play by instinct,” Shinji adds. “But after I started playing with him, I realised that he is a very intelligent player. He is very clever at making the most of his speed and it makes him look pacier. He was cheerful and full of mischief, on and off the pitch. But on the other hand, he cared for his team-mates and valued the harmony with everyone. He can be cheeky on the pitch in a good way. 

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Shinji Okazaki

Now 36, Shinji Okazaki is showing no signs of slowing down.

“There are a lot of pacey players, but a lot of them can't use their strongest weapon properly. But for me, Jamie is the best player to make the most of his strengths. It's not just about running fast, he knows how to make his pace look even faster. He never misses the moments when the opponent switches off, then, he suddenly goes into top speed. He has an incredible sharpness and ability to read the games. 

“Also, he was always there to support me. He was so smart at linking play as well. His reaction was always great. I think that my third season was the best season to link up with Jamie. That season, I scored six goals by the middle of the season. Unfortunately, after that I got injured, but I’m sure that I wouldn’t have been able to score those goals without him. After all, Jamie is a player who I really admire and respect.”

A few weeks back, our visit to Belgium to meet up with Shinji was teased across Leicester City’s social media channels. The response was a swell of affection and nostalgia. Okazaki stirs emotions among the Foxes faithful. He’s one of them. He understands what it means to represent their club.

Of course, the main players were Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy and N’Golo Kanté, but I tried my hardest to give 100 per cent all the time. I was that desperate.

Shinji Okazaki

“A lot of people told me that I did well for the team,” the former No.20 continues. “They appreciated my hard work. Those words saved me a lot. When I saw so many people gathered in Leicester, partying and attending the winning ceremony, it made me think that I had done something amazing. We spent that winning season together, and as a result, the experience is very strong and binding. Of course, when I first went there, they probably thought, who is Okazaki? 

“I was just focused on winning the starting spot. I was desperate for survival, and at the same time, my attitude was to give 100 per cent to grab the regular spot. I think that gave a good impression to the team. Of course, the main players were Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy and N’Golo Kanté, but I tried my hardest to give 100 per cent all the time. I was that desperate.

“As the season progressed, more and more people would say hi to me in the town. They would also chant ‘du du du du, Okazaki’ wherever I went, even in restaurants! Still now, I can hear the chant in my head. During my time at Leicester, I was dissatisfied with myself. I often felt frustrated, feeling that I could do more, especially when I was replaced earlier than I expected. Nevertheless, I was able to focus on the team because the fans were watching over me. They applauded and cheered me on my all-out play. It helped me the most when I was in trouble. I thought that was true support. I am grateful that they watched me more than the results. That's why Leicester still feels like my family for me.”

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Shinji Okazaki

Living in a new country and embracing a new challenge, the Japanese still looks back fondly on his time in Leicester.

Shinji is engaging company. One minute we’re talking about English classes with N’Golo Kanté – “His English was good, but his French accent was so strong nobody understood him!” The next, he’s paying tribute to the personal support he received from Gökhan Inler and Andrej Kramarić, two players who Leicester fans maybe don’t associate with that historic season. “They were important to me, we encouraged each other,” he explains.  

Then there’s that marvellous over-head goal against Newcastle United in March 2016 – one of seven 1-0 victories that season. It wasn’t the first or the last bicycle-kick of his career – fans of Mainz and Huesca, the Spanish club, have similar scrapbook Okazaki moments. It’s the 25th minute of a tense game. Mahrez’s free-kick from the right is rebuffed by the head of Aleksandar Mitrović, inside the Newcastle area. The ball’s now on the left, Albrighton scoops it up and lobs it back into the box. Steven Taylor’s header is tame, Vardy nods it back into the mixer. Six yards out, Okazaki’s got his back to goal. Both his feet are off the ground, and his left boot slams the ball into Rob Elliot’s bottom right corner. Filbert Way erupts. 

“I can say that that goal is a kind of symbol of my style of play,” he reveals. “A goal borne from a real desperate desire. I have never practiced the bicycle-kick. However, my mind is always going towards the goal, and I stare at the ball in order to score a goal. In football matches, there are so many ‘oh, why didn’t I do it then?’ kind of regrets. Yet, at the same time I'm always imagining the best possible goal to score. 

“That Newcastle goal was such an ideal goal that came from my imagination and suddenly appeared in reality. I think I've reached that goal because I'm always giving my best. I was really happy with that goal. I didn't expect it at all. I just felt like ‘go for it!’ and afterwards, I was surprised. At that celebration, in reality, I was the one who was the most surprised. It is a goal that I am happy to have created. It’s a goal I will never forget.”

I want to return to Japan and give them that European football feel. I have set up my own academy in Japan because I want to recreate the atmosphere of Europe.

Shinji Okazaki

The commentary on Sky Sports that evening described Shinji and his team-mates as ‘Leicester’s livewires’. It’s a fair summation. He’s closer to 40 than 30, but he’s not slowing down. He’s got 119 caps for Japan, but that’s not enough, Okazaki wants more. Only two players in his country’s history have scored more goals than his half-century for Samurai Blue. His move to Belgium – which coincided with Shinji Kagawa also signing for the same club in Sint-Truiden – was in fact designed to give him a shot at making it into Japan’s squad for the World Cup just gone in Qatar. He didn’t quite make it, but he’s still got things to do on the pitch. He’s got a life planned off it too – in the manager’s seat in the dugout. 

“I’m very grateful to STVV for giving me the chance,” he says. “I want to manage a club someday. That's why I want to play in Europe for as long as I can. If I chose to go back to Japan now, I could make a lot of people happy. They appreciate my career, and I can be richer than I am now. However, I want to feel close to the daily life of football in Europe and the way football is played here. I want to return to Japan and give them that European football feel. I have set up my own academy in Japan because I want to recreate the atmosphere of Europe. 

“I have established connections with Europe, including Leicester. I would like to use that connection to bring an authentic spice of football to Japan. Even though there is a huge distance between Japan and Europe, I want them to be closer. When I become a manager, I want to bring to the team a real sense of European football. Before that, I need to play until I'm completely worn out in Europe. I still seek to play in the World Cup at the age of 40. I’m very serious about that!”

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