An Unsung Hero Retires: Shinji Okazaki
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An Unsung Hero Retires: Shinji Okazaki

28/02/24 04:48

Former Premier League champion and Japan international, Shinji Okazaki has released a statement confirming his retirement at the end of the season. The tricky forward has spent his final year in the game in Belgium, playing for St. Truiden.

At 37, Okazaki leaves behind an impressive career, which was spread across five countries, as his journey in the game began in Japan at Shimizu, before his dive into Europe at the age of 24. Stuttgart signed him as an unknown, but straight away he became a popular figure in attack.

In a search for regular first-team starts in the Bundesliga, he switched to Mainz 05, and scored 27 goals across two Bundesliga seasons.

By this point Shinji was already becoming a national team star, having already guided the nation to an Asian Cup trophy in 2011, a tournament in which he scored three goals. He was a regular up top for Japan, and accumulated 50 goals in 119 national appearances.

Okazaki made his dream move to Premier League Leicester City in 2015, a side who were hot favourites for relegation. Okazaki joined other unknown quantities such as Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante, in an attack completed by Jamie Vardy.

Vardy quickly became an obvious strike partner for Okazaki. A quick, aggressive striker with rapid pace and a view to get in behind at any given moment. Okazaki, a more technical and gritty forward, was his support, and sat a little deeper than the Englishman.

Okazaki quickly learnt that his role had changed in England. At Mainz in the two previous seasons, Okazaki was the man for goals and final product, a poacher of sorts. However, Vardy was the man who would be covered in glory in a season that nobody expected. Leicester were crowned Premier League champions that season against all odds, as the world was left in shock. The midlands side were 5000/1 at the start of the season to win it, and Okazaki played a key role.

As most will remember, record-breaking goalscorer Vardy and assist wizard Mahrez were the ones on all the front pages, but many forget the role of Okazaki, in allowing the others around him to work their magic. The man from Japan did score five goals that season, a lower tally than usual despite starting more or less every game. This was because he was the genius creator of space and time on the ball for the other players in the team in attack. His intelligence to bring defenders out of position, to distract and be a nuisance was an essential part of manager Claudio Ranieri’s tactics, and Okazaki consistently executed perfectly.

He stayed for three more seasons with the Foxes, starring in a full Champions League campaign, before making a move to Spanish side Huesca, where he scored 12 league goals in his first year.

Another season followed and the goals dried up, and he next made a move to Cartagena. Shinji joined St Truiden in 2022 and will finish his career at the club this season. A true Japanese legend, and one of the most unsung heroes in Premier League history.

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