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Keisuke Honda: Japan’s Globetrotting Maestro

Keisuke Honda is celebrated as perhaps the most famous and decorated Japanese player of all time. Still playing at the age of 33, the much-travelled midfielder is perhaps unique in as much as not only does he continue to play club football, but he is also a national team manager.

Although others have travelled down this path, most notably Terry Neil and Johnny Giles who were simultaneous club and country player-managers, and Mark Hughes who combined playing club football for Blackburn with managing Wales, Honda is unique in the sense that neither the club he plays nor the country he manages relates to his native country, Japan.

He is playing his club football in Brazil with Botafogo while managing the Cambodia national side remotely.

Although an unconventional arrangement, it is perhaps in keeping with a man who has played in no less than seven different countries and in that time has never been directly transferred between two sides from the same nation.

A versatile player who perhaps prefers the label of ‘midfielder’, Honda is indeed adaptable and can play in a variety of attacking positions. Strong and mobile, he can create as well as finish, and to protect and lay deep when required.

Although not quite considered a typical ‘all-round’ player, Honda nevertheless holds a vast array of talents within his locker.

Born in Settsu, Osaka, Japan in 1986, Honda made his breakthrough playing for Nagoya Grampus Eight where he stayed for three full seasons and made over a century of appearances in all competitions. His early career promise brought European scouts to his door and it was for Dutch Eredivisie side that he signed in 2008.

After an initial relegation found Honda playing in the second tier of Dutch football, an instant promotion brought him his first major honour in the game and once more exposure at the top level of European football.

Moving to Moscow and CSKA, Honda achieved his stated aim of playing Champions League football in the winter of 2009.

After becoming the first Japanese player to score in the Champions League and to play in the knock-out stages, Honda proceeded to stay three full seasons in Russia and in doing so won further honours in the shape of the Russian Cup in 2011 and 2012, The Russian Premier League in 2013, and the Russian Super Cup the same year.

In October 2013 Honda joined AC Milan on a free transfer and his already massive profile was extended even further. By now seen as an icon for Asia in general and Japan in particular, Honda found himself in the spotlight like never before.

Despite the acclaim that his transfer to Milan brought, his early form was slightly underwhelming, as he struggled to adapt to life in Italy. The 2014-15 season was better and Honda managed to maintain a starting place for most of the next two seasons as Milan as a club went through a transitional stage.

By the summer of 2017, Honda was off on his travels again and this time found himself playing his football in Mexico for Pachuca FC. One solid season later and it was to the A-league and Melbourne Victory that Honda was headed.

Again, a single-season ensued with his new club before a short-lived return to Holland to play for Vitesse Arnhem came about. After just four league appearances, Honda left the club and in January 2020 he signed for Brazilian Serie A side Botafogo.

His national career with Japan first saw him capped in 2008 in a World Cup Qualifier against Bahrain, and he would go onto make appearances in the final stages of the competition in 2010 and 2014, when goals in both competitions made him the first Japanese player to score in the finals of two World Cups.

This was a record that he was to extend in the 2018 tournament in Russia when his goal in the Group H clash with Senegal made him the top Asian goalscorer in World Cup history. Following this tournament, Honda retired from international football.’

That he did so two caps short of a century to his name is testament to his longevity, talent and endurance.

Nevertheless, it was still a shock when Honda was named manager of Cambodia in 2018. At the time, Honda was in the throes of his transfer to Melbourne Victory and it was wondered how he could be a player and a manager in continents apart.

It was agreed that Honda would hold weekly conference call while making himself available for Cambodia’s games. It was a deal that was agreed with Honda receiving no salary for his services, but it wasn’t universally met with acclaim in his native Japan.

Nevertheless, at the time of writing, Honda has been in charge for a total of 16 games and has a win record of exactly 25%.

However his career in management pans out, he will rightly be remembered as an icon in his native land based on his playing career.

It is a career in which he has won many personal accolades such as Japanese Footballer of the Year, Best Footballer in Asia, and AFC Asian CUP MVP, and so he deserves his place in history as one of Asia’s best-ever players.

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David Nesbit

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