Watching them go about their business at Celtic’s Lennoxtown training centre, it quickly becomes clear that Kyogo and Hatate are the inquisitive, jovial types always trying to understand and take part in the banter with the rest of the squad; Maeda and Ideguchi are more reflective and studious. As Postecoglou has reminded the media on more than one occasion, the club’s Japanese quartet are individuals with unique character traits, something the players themselves are swift to acknowledge.
Ask Kyogo about Hatate and the forward says his colleague is “very talkative”, while Maeda and Ideguchi “live for their families”. Maeda pokes fun at Hatate for “always being in the gym”, a dig that Hatate pays back in full by joking that his team-mate “couldn’t survive without a razor” to shave his head, plus certain “high-quality cosmetics” to maintain his complexion. As for Kyogo, the other three agree he couldn’t live without his sofa because – aside from the occasional meal with his countrymen – all he seems to do is rest and watch TV, something Kyogo is intent on rectifying now he has fully settled in Glasgow.
“I feel like my life here is not that different from my life in Japan,” says Kyogo. “But this season I hope to not just stay indoors but go out to many places, and to interact with many people to practise my English and see and feel various things. Actually, my family is here at the moment and we have been to Edinburgh, and hope to go to the Highlands to see the famous Harry Potter viaduct at Glenfinnan. I am really determined to go out and explore Glasgow and Scotland more.”
Adventures await, but the more pressing concern for Kyogo and Co has been their European journey. A shoulder injury restricted Kyogo to a cameo appearance in Celtic’s opening 3-0 loss at home to Real Madrid in the Champions League but, for the best part of an hour, the Hoops unnerved the holders. Above all, Hatate more than held his own in midfield against illustrious duo Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos. Since then Celtic’s best result has been a 1-1 draw with Shakhtar Donetsk; Kyogo got an assist in seeting up an equaliser against Leipzig on Matchday 3, though the German side went on to win that game.
“Traditionally Japanese players have really good technique, speed and attacking thought,” says McGregor, who rattled the post against Los Blancos on Matchday 1 with the game still goalless. “Kyogo has been superb. His runs off the ball are probably as good as I’ve seen anywhere. Reo is super technical. He’s showed that every time he’s played. He’s of a really high level and Daizen’s the same. His runs in behind – he’s got that speed that can hurt high-line defences.”
“I was absolutely 100% certain that Kyogo was going to be a hit”
Those attributes fit well with Postecoglou’s own vision of the game, first honed under the influence of former Real Madrid icon Ferenc Puskás during the Hungarian’s three years in charge at South Melbourne, where Postecoglou was his captain, chauffeur, confidant and translator. Together with Postecoglou’s late father Dimitris (or ‘Jim’), Puskás instilled a love of free-flowing football that won Ange championships as a coach with Brisbane Roar before he guided Australia at the World Cup in 2014 and 2018.
Then came his success at Yokohama F. Marinos – where he clinched the J1 League in 2019, the club’s first title in 15 years – before the opportunity arose to join Celtic. Since moving to Glasgow, the Greek-born coach’s mantra of “We never stop” has come to define the way his Hoops side function: high pressing, high-tempo football, restarting the play as quickly as possible and looking to catch the opposition cold while trying to deliver a knockout punch.
Postecoglou believes that Nakamura’s Champions League exploits for the club 16 years ago have provided a blueprint for Celtic’s latest Japanese charges. “When Shunsuke Nakamura had his career over here, the impact that had back in Japan was immense,” he says. They know, if they can replicate that, just what an impact it would have for themselves personally, but also for the game back there. I am sure those images [of Nakamura scoring against United] are burned into Kyogo, Reo, Daizen and Yosuke because in Japan they hold their sportsmen on a really high pedestal, particularly the ones that have achieved something overseas.”
Not that Kyogo needs telling by his coach – or anyone else, for that matter. Celtic’s latest overseas talisman, the poster boy of the club’s recent Japanese influx, has already been to the source. “Shunsuke once told me: ‘Be yourself and execute your own unique style of football on the pitch, and many people will love you,’” he recounts. “That was such reassuring advice and I want to follow it.” Nakamura, incidentally, can also provide a lesson in longevity: now at Yokohama FC, he’s finally set to retire from the game at the end of this season at the age of 44.
As Kyogo prepares to pit his wits against Costa Rica, Germany and Spain at the World Cup, he’ll be keen to announce himself on the global stage. He has other ambitions too: “I’d like to continue trying to be the player I want to become, which is like a role model and a dream maker for children who have dreams for the future.” He’s well on his way: just ask the Celtic Park faithful cherishing a new hero – or perhaps the next wave of Japanese talent studiously watching his every kick.