Portsmouth’s erratic Japanese keeper can’t get near the first team but, reports Justin McCurry, he’s happy plying his trade on English training grounds
Just before last year’s World Cup, a football writer in Japan drew attention to a phobia Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi shares with Transylvania’s most feared resident. Aside from being a poor joke, it turned out to be a prescient commentary on the fortunes of Japan’s erstwhile No 1. Less than two years after his £1.7 million move to Portsmouth, Kawaguchi’s fear of crosses has come to symbolise a promising career that is in danger of slipping from his grasp.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Kawaguchi was between the sticks in Japan’s famous victory over Brazil at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. At France 98, he and Hidetoshi Nakata were the only bright spots in a mediocre Japanese team, and two years later he performed heroics as Japan defeated Saudi Arabia to lift the Asian Cup.
Kawaguchi says he recalls mulling a move abroad on the way home from France. His mum insists he was just six when he first voiced his determination to play in Europe. Whenever his plans were hatched, they came to fruition in October 2001 when Graham Rix took him to the English south coast from Yokohama F Marinos as a replacement for Aaron Flahavan, who had died in a car accident that summer.
It was a difficult parting. Kawaguchi had spent his entire career in Yokohama, where his 234 league and cup appearances and 50-plus international caps turned him into the nearest Yokohama has to a modern-day idol.
Life in Blighty proved more testing. It took less than a minute for “Yoshi” to concede a goal on his league debut. He proceeded to let in another 24 in the space of 12 games before being replaced by Dave Beasant, Portsmouth’s 42-year-old second-choice keeper.
No sooner had he learned the words to the Pompey Chimes than he was preparing for an ignominious return to Japan. Portsmouth’s chairman Milan Mandaric tried to soften the blow by saying his keeper needed more playing time – time he was not going to be given at Fratton Park. There was also disappointment in the boardroom that the expected commercial windfall that usually accompanies a Japanese player’s arrival had not materialised.
Last spring, Jubilo Iwata almost succeeded in luring Kawaguchi home in a £1 million deal, but with the World Cup drawing near, the keeper decided he would prefer to bide his time. Korea/ Japan 2002 should have been Kawaguchi’s chance to answer his critics. Instead, Philippe Troussier opted for the less accident-prone Seigo Narazaki, who played well enough to retain his place when Zico replaced the Frenchman after the tournament.
We are probably going to see a lot more of Kawaguchi next season, watching from the bench, waiting patiently for his chance in the Premiership. Yet renewed bids from J-League clubs have failed to tempt him back. Even Urawa Reds, Japan’s best-supported team, were recently sent on their way with a “Thanks, but no thanks”.
So why has he decided to stay put? His remarks shortly before he left Yokohama offer a clue. “While I am going to Portsmouth to play soccer, it’s not the only reason,” he said. “I’m looking forward to living in Britain and getting a feel for the culture there.”
He wasn’t the first overseas-bound player to pay lip service to the supposed cultural delights of his new home, but Kawaguchi appears to have meant it. In a recent interview with a Japanese football magazine, his message to the fans still scratching their heads back home was clear: he prefers living in England.
“When I was in Japan, soccer was just about the only thing I had,” he said. “But since coming here, I’ve learned that playing football is just one part of life. Now there are lots of other things that make me feel good; being with friends, that kind of thing. It’s a different kind of contentment.”
He is equally enamoured of his neighbours: “I don’t want to label the English, but the people I meet in Portsmouth don’t have any airs or graces. The players are the same. Some of them really lose their temper in training, but they soon forget about it. I seemed to be permanently stressed out when I was at Marinos. I think I’ve grown up.”
If things don’t work out at Fratton Park, he would make a fine ambassador for the English tourist industry. He says he enjoys – wait for it – train journeys, and admires the rural postal service. And he talks at length of the satisfaction of learning training-ground English, which he used, much to his team-mates’ bemusement, when Japan prepared for their recent friendly against Uruguay.
That match marked Kawaguchi’s first appearance for Japan for almost a year, but the demons returned as he fumbled a catch from a corner to allow the South Americans to score their second goal in the 2-2 draw.
There must be more to his decision to stay put than an affinity with the locals and a pleasant view of the Solent. After all, he is unlikely to dislodge Pompey’s current keeper, Shaka Hislop, after promotion. But as he conceded, a place on the bench in the Premiership will do more for his marketability than the possibility of starting for Urawa Reds. That club’s fanatical supporters will disagree, but he is probably right.
The understudy keepers
The doyen of reserve keepers. Arrived from Australia in 1988 as a teenager to join Luton Town where he played 19 games in five years. Since then has been with a further 12 clubs, mostly on loan as cover, though he did have a spell as Charlton’s first choice in 1997-98. Had personal problems while at Portsmouth a couple of years ago but made a comeback this season with Brighton and is currently on a short-term contract with Bournemouth.
Signed by Liverpool in 1997 from Copenhagen club Hvidovre, the year after he’d been voted Danish goalkeeper of the season and also been capped at Under-21 level. Spent five seasons as a non-playing reserve at Anfield, including two loan spells at Wolves where he also didn’t play. Now 30, and back home with Farum in the Danish Super League.
Dutch keeper bought for Newcastle by Ruud Gullit four years ago. Previously a regular with NAC Breda – for whom he made nearly 400 appearances – and once tipped to make the Dutch national team, he conceded seven in two games in August 1999 and has played just once since. Still hanging on to a squad number despite rarely making the bench these days.
Made three appearances in six seasons with Lens before joining Leicester in 1997, deputising occasionally for Kasey Keller and then Tim Flowers. Moved on to Liverpool, where he has started three matches, two in the Worthington Cup, in three years. Also fitted in three games on loan at Stockport. Unlikely to get further first team chances at Anfield unless Jerzy Dudek has a few more of his “moments”.
Played in 15 league games in his seven seasons at Middlesbrough and six cup ties, including the 1997 FA Cup final v Chelsea, with five loan spells at other clubs. Hampered by injury and yet to play a first-team game for Charlton since joining them in 2000 but has been loaned out to a further three clubs. Not 30 yet so his best years may be still to come.
From WSC 195 May 2003. What was happening this month