Leaving Cerezo Osaka and Japan was emotional but it is time to return home
Diego Forlan writes a weekly column for The National, appearing each Friday. The former Manchester United, Inter Milan and Atletico Madrid striker has been the top scorer in Europe twice and won the Golden Boot at the 2010 World Cup. He currently plays in Japan for Cerezo Osaka. Forlan’s column will be written with the assistance of European football correspondent Andy Mitten.
As a footballer I have always found it better not to be too emotional. Better to be cool, consistent, clinical. Celebrate goals, yes, but keep your feelings for those you trust most.
My mask nearly slipped when I left Japan recently after 18 months playing with Cerezo Osaka. My team may have been relegated, but I loved my time in Osaka, a huge metropolis of 18 million, the second largest in Japan after Tokyo.
There are direct flights from Osaka to destinations all over the world. It’s a bit different from Montevideo.
The Japanese people and their country left a huge impression on my wife and I, and we found it difficult to say goodbye before moving back to South America.
First, I said farewell to the Cerezo fans after a game. They sang my name, the same song Manchester United fans used to sing but with different words at the end: “Diego, Wooah, he came from Uruguay, now he’s our number 10.” Trust me, it rhymes in Japanese.
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I was given so many flowers, as is the custom in Japan, that we couldn’t carry them all home. The club presented me with eight beautifully bound albums containing 2,000 messages from fans written in English and Spanish.
The staff and players sang to me as I left and then about 1,000 fans came to see us off at the airport. They were singing, too.
I’ve never experienced anything like it. My wife and I vowed to return to Japan, if not to work then for a holiday.
I’m not really sure of the origins of how my move there came about. Some say it was because I scored twice for Uruguay against Japan two years ago.
All I know is that I had a good contract offer in a country which I liked the idea of living in, where the standard of football was high and, at age 34, as I was at the time, best suited to my level. It is a decision I will never regret.
I tried my best to learn the language – that is the minimum a player should do when he moves abroad. It was difficult but I had a translator at the club, who became a friend.
I found the Japanese people polite, respectful, sensitive and shy, but maybe that shyness was because we couldn’t communicate properly.
The shyness can come across as coldness, but I felt warmth from the Japanese people. The language barrier was always there and conversations lose momentum in translation. But people did try to speak to us in English, too.
Japan is a country that works well. The trains, buses and planes stick to their timetables. When you try to change the schedule of anything it can confuse.
I called a news conference to announce my retirement from international football a week ahead of it happening. The media people at the club said: “A week? We need a month.” It was a change to their schedule. They sorted it out in the end though.
I was amazed at the honesty of the people. A friend left his bag on a bullet train from Tokyo. It was returned to his home at 9am the next morning.
We left our shopping on a bike outside the supermarket while we went for a coffee. All the shopping was still there when we returned 90 minutes later. That wouldn’t happen in Europe or South America.
The Japanese argue differently, too. I learnt that if you raise your voice then you are effectively conceding that the other person is correct and therefore wins the argument. So there were none of the raised voices that we hear in Latin exchanges.
The fans did raise their voices in the stadium, though. They sang wonderful, melodic songs. There were lots of young females at Cerezo games, too, more than I’ve seen at football grounds elsewhere. I think that’s because a few of our players were good looking and that obviously appealed to girls, who made up our hardcore supporters.
They travelled to away games all over Japan, and one girl, Michiko, took photos at every training session I was in. She would present them to me frequently. She is learning Spanish and wants to visit my family in Uruguay.
Japanese culture is distinctive but also influenced by the west. You see people wearing clothes of Italian designers or listening to music from English or American pop stars.
I went to Japan to experience a new culture and I would recommend that any footballer does that. But the main reason I went was to play football.
Japanese teams are often the strongest in Asia. Their league is well organised, with big crowds in large, modern stadiums. Their players’ technical levels are high and the national team regularly reaches the World Cup finals.
They could improve, too, if more of their players played abroad in the stronger leagues and then returned to pass on their experience.
More, but not too many, foreign players could also help the Japanese league, but the language is a considerable barrier.
Football has taken me around the world. People doubted my ability at a young age, they said that I was from a wealthy family and didn’t have the hunger to succeed to be a footballer, to travel alone.
I proved them wrong by moving to Argentina when I was 17. Over half my life later, I’m still a footballer and I’ve lived in England, Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Italy and Japan. Now it is time to play professionally in Uruguay, to go home.
Updated: July 21, 2017 06:42 PM