'I want to be a dream maker'

With his mop of ‘mushroom hair’ and uncanny eye for goal, Kyogo Furuhashi is leading the charge for a gifted band of Japanese recruits looking to leave their mark at Celtic and beyond

WORDS Alex O’Henley & Chris Burke | PORTRAITS Jan Kruger

Interview
Hampden Park, 19 December 2021: the day Kyogo Furuhashi cemented his place in the hearts and minds of the Celtic support. The Japan striker had been an injury doubt leading up to the Scottish League Cup final against Hibernian but surprisingly made Ange Postecoglou’s starting XI. Kyogo had already endeared himself to the Hoops support with some stellar early-season feats, including a hat-trick on his home debut against Dundee – but goals that win trophies are the real currency the Celtic faithful trade in. And so it proved that afternoon as Kyogo served up a majestic cup-winning double, the second a delicious lob over the advancing Matt Macey to seal his first trophy as a Celtic player. 

Welcome to instant hero status. Not even the dank skies above the south side of Glasgow could dim the forward’s beaming smile out on the Hampden turf. For those jumping off their seats, meanwhile, memories were stirred of another goal-hungry club servant, a Celtic legend with his own knack for the spectacular. Kyogo’s touch, speed, movement and finishing bear the hallmarks of a genuine talent, and for many supporters he is the best striker they have seen since Henrik Larsson, the ‘Super Swede’ who racked up 242 goals in seven seasons between 1997 and 2004. 

“That is so flattering,” says Kyogo when the comparison is put to him. This may be just his second season at Celtic Park, but the 27-year-old has been catching up on club history. “Of course, I am happy to be compared to Henrik Larsson. However, he and I are different players. I’m going to keep playing my own style of football and scoring more goals so that many people will know my name.”

Millions already do. Snapped up from Vissel Kobe in summer 2021, Kyogo was advised that Celtic would be a good fit by one of football’s all-time greats: his former Vissel team-mate Andrés Iniesta. “Playing with him on a daily basis, my desire to play overseas became stronger,” says Kyogo, his face wreathed in smiles at the mere mention of the Spanish icon, whose respect for Celtic matchnights was born during his Barcelona heyday. “Celtic Park is a great stadium, the supporters are all so enthusiastic and it’s one of the top stadiums in the world. I was told I would enjoy playing here.”

Kyogo’s profile is also boosted by his voracious work ethic, even to the point where he has been seen picking up litter from the side of the pitch at the end of matches. And then there’s his infectious appetite for the game and sense of fun, which is best encapsulated by his regular goal celebration: hands joined together to form a triangle above his head. As Kyogo explains it, the gesture was dreamt up to represent a fungus, all because a friend once made a joke about his sprawling mop top. “My hair is a mushroom” he says, smiling. 

If the Celtic marksman does not take himself too seriously, opposition defenders clearly do. Despite missing four months of action through injury around the turn of the year, Kyogo still managed to find the back of the net 20 times in all competitions last season, helping the Hoops reclaim the Scottish title after that League Cup triumph against Hibs. He announced himself to Europe last season too, not least thanks to his slick control and finish against Ferencváros in the Europa League, a goal voted as the best of the competition’s group stage.

Hence the whispers of Larsson’s name. But just as tempting are comparisons to another club icon: Shunsuke Nakamura, Celtic’s original star from the East. With the Glasgow giants having taken part in the Champions League again this season after a four-year absence, fans have cast their minds back to Nakamura’s sumptuous free-kick against Sir Alex Ferguson’s star-studded Manchester United at Celtic Park in November 2006, a swerving, left-footed masterpiece that sent the hosts through to the knockout stage for the first time.

Kyogo was just 11 at the time but – as with Larsson – this is club lore he has already swotted up on. “I’ve seen this on YouTube as an adult and just watching it makes me feel excited,” he says when Champions Journal fires up the video. “The direction and speed are absolutely perfect. I’ll never get bored of watching it. The fans have their hands on their heads. ‘What?’ There’s just no way of stopping that strike, [and to produce it] in this amazing atmosphere, against this fantastic opponent – it’s simply perfect.”

One man who had an even better view of that memorable free-kick is current Celtic captain Callum McGregor. He was a ball boy that night and a young fan of Nakamura’s set-piece skills. “I was actually sat next to the dugout as that goal went in,” he tells us. “You can just see both sets of staff: one, absolute elation, and the other one thinking, ‘How did that go in?’ Naka could deliver those sorts of moments. His dead-ball situation was absolutely second to none and he would produce that on a regular basis.”

For Kyogo, the former Japan midfielder was an inspiration – and a trailblazer. “Japanese players like Shunsuke and Koki Mizuno flourished at this club,” he says. “This helped to create the image in many supporters’ minds that Japanese players are impressive.” 

That work is now being carried on by Kyogo himself. This partly explains why Celtic’s Japanese contingent has swelled since his arrival, with Reo Hatate, Daizen Maeda and Yosuke Ideguchi all following in his footsteps last winter. It helps as well, of course, to have a manager in Postecoglou who brings deep knowledge of the Japanese game from his previous spell in charge of Yokohama F. Marinos.

“To be honest, any club I would have gone to, I would have signed him,” says Postecoglou of Kyogo. “I had experienced him first hand – the talent that he has, the impact he had in Japan – and I knew that talent was transferable, for sure. I’d watched his development in Japan and there are different pathways you can go through, but he came out of university, went into the J2 League, then J1, and every time he went up a level you could see that he was improving.
Furuhashi in action in the Champions League

“It’s a market we haven’t been into so much in recent years,” says McGregor. “But suddenly we have a manager who’s worked in Japan previously and knows it really well. Now we have three or four Japan internationals in the team, which gives you a better chance of being successful in Europe as well.”

Even so, Postecoglou made a bold statement when he swooped for Kyogo as his first signing. The first Australian coach to helm a major European club, Postecoglou faced an army of critics when he took the reins in June 2021, with many questioning whether he would last beyond Christmas. The fanbase was hurting after being denied a tenth championship in a row by arch-rivals Rangers in 2020/21, but the 57-year-old never doubted where he would look for trophy-winning inspiration. 

“To be honest, any club I would have gone to, I would have signed him,” says Postecoglou of Kyogo. “I had experienced him first hand – the talent that he has, the impact he had in Japan – and I knew that talent was transferable, for sure. I’d watched his development in Japan and there are different pathways you can go through, but he came out of university, went into the J2 League, then J1, and every time he went up a level you could see that he was improving. 

“Then he had the added benefit of getting tutelage from one of the best in the world in Iniesta – training with him every day. I knew from speaking to him and speaking to people around him that he was really ready to go to Europe and make a career for himself. 

“And he hit the ground running – he had to. He was pretty much my first signing and, as any new manager will tell you, your first signings are important because it sets down a marker for the kind of football manager you’re going to be, and also your ability to judge a player. So I had to get it right with the first one, but I was absolutely 100% certain that Kyogo was going to be a hit.”

Postecoglou was proved right, and soon after Kyogo’s League Cup final exploits he was looking to the East again. “With the other boys, it was a similar scenario,” adds the manager. “We’d played against them – Daizen [Maeda] I’d actually coached as well. They are all different, they all have different personalities and they all play differently. But I know they’ve been exposed to a really high level of competition in Japan, and all of them had this really strong desire to have a career over here in Europe. So I was confident that from a playing perspective and a personal perspective, in terms of their character, they would be a good fit.”

“The direction and speed are absolutely perfect. I’ll never get bored of watching it”

Again, the impact was instantaneous. Just take Hatate, who hit his straps with a goal at Hearts in his second appearance after the winter shutdown. The 24-year-old midfielder then truly announced his arrival with a scintillating long-range double and an assist in Celtic’s season-defining 3-0 win over Rangers in early February. As for Maeda, he scored on his debut against Hibs and notched another five league goals before the end of the campaign, his selfless running and defensive discipline adding another cog to the championship-winning team that Postecoglou was building. 

Ideguchi has been the slowest off the mark thus far with only five appearances last term, the midfielder having been plagued by niggling injuries since his arrival. However, his compatriots – especially Kyogo and Hatate – have been outstanding value-for-money acquisitions, helping Celtic return to the apex of the Scottish game. The expectation is that they will continue to improve. 

Indeed, it is easy to forget how quickly the Japanese signings managed to settle into a new football and cultural environment, even if Maeda and Ideguchi had prior experience of playing abroad with Marítimo and Greuther Fürth respectively. Crucially the club – and McGregor as captain – did everything they could to make sure the players’ off-field requirements were taken care of, so that they could express themselves where it matters most: on the pitch.

“The club hired Aki, who’s here as translator and player welfare officer for the Japanese boys, but to be fair to them they speak decent English,” says McGregor, highlighting the role of the Japanese translator who was given a commemorative Premiership medal for his services to the team last season. “They’re really lively, nice, bubbly characters and they wanted to integrate straight into the squad. We’re a good group of players anyway, so we all got on really well really quickly, and obviously Aki played a big part in that.

“When they signed I dropped them a message and let them know that if they needed anything, they could always get in touch. Or, if they needed to speak to the club about anything, that I was always there to facilitate that as well. But it’s just letting the guys know you’re there to help. You’re not trying to hold anyone’s hand or baby them, but you let them know you care; you want them to settle in quickly.”

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. 

Insight
Just another day at the office

What do you do after scoring one of the most memorable goals in your club’s history? Keep calm and carry on, says Celtic legend Shunsuke Nakamura

It’s perhaps Celtic’s most memorable goal in the European Cup since Stevie Chalmers’ winner against Inter in the 1967 final. Celtic are at home to Manchester United in the 2006/07 Champions League and the game is goalless with nine minutes to play. Nemanja Vidić brings down Jiří Jarošík and Celtic are awarded a free-kick. Thirty yards out, Shunsuke Nakamura places the ball, waiting for the referee to line up the wall and blow his whistle. 

The Japan international pauses, taking his time, then whips a vicious, curling, dipping free-kick over the wall and high into the top corner. Edwin van der Sar dives high to his left, but can get nowhere near the ball. A packed Celtic Park goes wild. The home fans have more reason to cheer when Artur Boruc saves Louis Saha’s penalty with seconds left, ensuring Nakamura’s strike takes Celtic through to the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time.    

“Until then I hadn’t done anything, so I thought this was my first and last opportunity to do my job,” says Nakamura. “When I put the ball down it was quite far out, but I had no hesitation in how to kick it. During free-kicks, there is no pressure. And the fans, the Celtic fans, are great, passionate. There was nothing to fear even if I had missed the kick. My opponent was Van der Sar, but I focused on the kick as much as I could. I wasn’t thinking about anything, my mind was empty. It didn’t feel like time had stopped – rather, I don’t really remember it. Afterwards, when I saw it on TV, I thought, ‘Why was I so happy?’ The ball curved a lot. I really surprised myself. The coach, [Gordon] Strachan, was also surprised, and asked me why I had shot from so far out!

“It seemed unbelievable and I didn’t really know what had happened. The fans cheered and all of a sudden I was excited. And even more, I had been able to score against Man United. I was really happy.”

So how did it feel to be the hero, the man who had scored such a spectacular winner against such a storied side? “Everyone was talking about it a lot but, personally, I’m the kind of person who gets over it pretty quickly. I went to the gym to recover and didn’t go out to eat with people, but just went home and continued to lead my normal life. That’s the kind of person I am. I switched my mindset to the next match.” 

Celtic fans, meanwhile, are still enjoying the moment.

Welcome to instant hero status. Not even the dank skies above the south side of Glasgow could dim the forward’s beaming smile out on the Hampden turf. For those jumping off their seats, meanwhile, memories were stirred of another goal-hungry club servant, a Celtic legend with his own knack for the spectacular. Kyogo’s touch, speed, movement and finishing bear the hallmarks of a genuine talent, and for many supporters he is the best striker they have seen since Henrik Larsson, the ‘Super Swede’ who racked up 242 goals in seven seasons between 1997 and 2004. 

“That is so flattering,” says Kyogo when the comparison is put to him. This may be just his second season at Celtic Park, but the 27-year-old has been catching up on club history. “Of course, I am happy to be compared to Henrik Larsson. However, he and I are different players. I’m going to keep playing my own style of football and scoring more goals so that many people will know my name.”

Millions already do. Snapped up from Vissel Kobe in summer 2021, Kyogo was advised that Celtic would be a good fit by one of football’s all-time greats: his former Vissel team-mate Andrés Iniesta. “Playing with him on a daily basis, my desire to play overseas became stronger,” says Kyogo, his face wreathed in smiles at the mere mention of the Spanish icon, whose respect for Celtic matchnights was born during his Barcelona heyday. “Celtic Park is a great stadium, the supporters are all so enthusiastic and it’s one of the top stadiums in the world. I was told I would enjoy playing here.”

Kyogo’s profile is also boosted by his voracious work ethic, even to the point where he has been seen picking up litter from the side of the pitch at the end of matches. And then there’s his infectious appetite for the game and sense of fun, which is best encapsulated by his regular goal celebration: hands joined together to form a triangle above his head. As Kyogo explains it, the gesture was dreamt up to represent a fungus, all because a friend once made a joke about his sprawling mop top. “My hair is a mushroom” he says, smiling. 

If the Celtic marksman does not take himself too seriously, opposition defenders clearly do. Despite missing four months of action through injury around the turn of the year, Kyogo still managed to find the back of the net 20 times in all competitions last season, helping the Hoops reclaim the Scottish title after that League Cup triumph against Hibs. He announced himself to Europe last season too, not least thanks to his slick control and finish against Ferencváros in the Europa League, a goal voted as the best of the competition’s group stage.

Hence the whispers of Larsson’s name. But just as tempting are comparisons to another club icon: Shunsuke Nakamura, Celtic’s original star from the East. With the Glasgow giants having taken part in the Champions League again this season after a four-year absence, fans have cast their minds back to Nakamura’s sumptuous free-kick against Sir Alex Ferguson’s star-studded Manchester United at Celtic Park in November 2006, a swerving, left-footed masterpiece that sent the hosts through to the knockout stage for the first time.

Kyogo was just 11 at the time but – as with Larsson – this is club lore he has already swotted up on. “I’ve seen this on YouTube as an adult and just watching it makes me feel excited,” he says when Champions Journal fires up the video. “The direction and speed are absolutely perfect. I’ll never get bored of watching it. The fans have their hands on their heads. ‘What?’ There’s just no way of stopping that strike, [and to produce it] in this amazing atmosphere, against this fantastic opponent – it’s simply perfect.”

One man who had an even better view of that memorable free-kick is current Celtic captain Callum McGregor. He was a ball boy that night and a young fan of Nakamura’s set-piece skills. “I was actually sat next to the dugout as that goal went in,” he tells us. “You can just see both sets of staff: one, absolute elation, and the other one thinking, ‘How did that go in?’ Naka could deliver those sorts of moments. His dead-ball situation was absolutely second to none and he would produce that on a regular basis.”

For Kyogo, the former Japan midfielder was an inspiration – and a trailblazer. “Japanese players like Shunsuke and Koki Mizuno flourished at this club,” he says. “This helped to create the image in many supporters’ minds that Japanese players are impressive.” 

That work is now being carried on by Kyogo himself. This partly explains why Celtic’s Japanese contingent has swelled since his arrival, with Reo Hatate, Daizen Maeda and Yosuke Ideguchi all following in his footsteps last winter. It helps as well, of course, to have a manager in Postecoglou who brings deep knowledge of the Japanese game from his previous spell in charge of Yokohama F. Marinos.

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“To be honest, any club I would have gone to, I would have signed him,” says Postecoglou of Kyogo. “I had experienced him first hand – the talent that he has, the impact he had in Japan – and I knew that talent was transferable, for sure. I’d watched his development in Japan and there are different pathways you can go through, but he came out of university, went into the J2 League, then J1, and every time he went up a level you could see that he was improving.
Furuhashi in action in the Champions League

“It’s a market we haven’t been into so much in recent years,” says McGregor. “But suddenly we have a manager who’s worked in Japan previously and knows it really well. Now we have three or four Japan internationals in the team, which gives you a better chance of being successful in Europe as well.”

Even so, Postecoglou made a bold statement when he swooped for Kyogo as his first signing. The first Australian coach to helm a major European club, Postecoglou faced an army of critics when he took the reins in June 2021, with many questioning whether he would last beyond Christmas. The fanbase was hurting after being denied a tenth championship in a row by arch-rivals Rangers in 2020/21, but the 57-year-old never doubted where he would look for trophy-winning inspiration. 

“To be honest, any club I would have gone to, I would have signed him,” says Postecoglou of Kyogo. “I had experienced him first hand – the talent that he has, the impact he had in Japan – and I knew that talent was transferable, for sure. I’d watched his development in Japan and there are different pathways you can go through, but he came out of university, went into the J2 League, then J1, and every time he went up a level you could see that he was improving. 

“Then he had the added benefit of getting tutelage from one of the best in the world in Iniesta – training with him every day. I knew from speaking to him and speaking to people around him that he was really ready to go to Europe and make a career for himself. 

“And he hit the ground running – he had to. He was pretty much my first signing and, as any new manager will tell you, your first signings are important because it sets down a marker for the kind of football manager you’re going to be, and also your ability to judge a player. So I had to get it right with the first one, but I was absolutely 100% certain that Kyogo was going to be a hit.”

Postecoglou was proved right, and soon after Kyogo’s League Cup final exploits he was looking to the East again. “With the other boys, it was a similar scenario,” adds the manager. “We’d played against them – Daizen [Maeda] I’d actually coached as well. They are all different, they all have different personalities and they all play differently. But I know they’ve been exposed to a really high level of competition in Japan, and all of them had this really strong desire to have a career over here in Europe. So I was confident that from a playing perspective and a personal perspective, in terms of their character, they would be a good fit.”

“The direction and speed are absolutely perfect. I’ll never get bored of watching it”

Again, the impact was instantaneous. Just take Hatate, who hit his straps with a goal at Hearts in his second appearance after the winter shutdown. The 24-year-old midfielder then truly announced his arrival with a scintillating long-range double and an assist in Celtic’s season-defining 3-0 win over Rangers in early February. As for Maeda, he scored on his debut against Hibs and notched another five league goals before the end of the campaign, his selfless running and defensive discipline adding another cog to the championship-winning team that Postecoglou was building. 

Ideguchi has been the slowest off the mark thus far with only five appearances last term, the midfielder having been plagued by niggling injuries since his arrival. However, his compatriots – especially Kyogo and Hatate – have been outstanding value-for-money acquisitions, helping Celtic return to the apex of the Scottish game. The expectation is that they will continue to improve. 

Indeed, it is easy to forget how quickly the Japanese signings managed to settle into a new football and cultural environment, even if Maeda and Ideguchi had prior experience of playing abroad with Marítimo and Greuther Fürth respectively. Crucially the club – and McGregor as captain – did everything they could to make sure the players’ off-field requirements were taken care of, so that they could express themselves where it matters most: on the pitch.

“The club hired Aki, who’s here as translator and player welfare officer for the Japanese boys, but to be fair to them they speak decent English,” says McGregor, highlighting the role of the Japanese translator who was given a commemorative Premiership medal for his services to the team last season. “They’re really lively, nice, bubbly characters and they wanted to integrate straight into the squad. We’re a good group of players anyway, so we all got on really well really quickly, and obviously Aki played a big part in that.

“When they signed I dropped them a message and let them know that if they needed anything, they could always get in touch. Or, if they needed to speak to the club about anything, that I was always there to facilitate that as well. But it’s just letting the guys know you’re there to help. You’re not trying to hold anyone’s hand or baby them, but you let them know you care; you want them to settle in quickly.”

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. 

Insight
Just another day at the office

What do you do after scoring one of the most memorable goals in your club’s history? Keep calm and carry on, says Celtic legend Shunsuke Nakamura

It’s perhaps Celtic’s most memorable goal in the European Cup since Stevie Chalmers’ winner against Inter in the 1967 final. Celtic are at home to Manchester United in the 2006/07 Champions League and the game is goalless with nine minutes to play. Nemanja Vidić brings down Jiří Jarošík and Celtic are awarded a free-kick. Thirty yards out, Shunsuke Nakamura places the ball, waiting for the referee to line up the wall and blow his whistle. 

The Japan international pauses, taking his time, then whips a vicious, curling, dipping free-kick over the wall and high into the top corner. Edwin van der Sar dives high to his left, but can get nowhere near the ball. A packed Celtic Park goes wild. The home fans have more reason to cheer when Artur Boruc saves Louis Saha’s penalty with seconds left, ensuring Nakamura’s strike takes Celtic through to the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time.    

“Until then I hadn’t done anything, so I thought this was my first and last opportunity to do my job,” says Nakamura. “When I put the ball down it was quite far out, but I had no hesitation in how to kick it. During free-kicks, there is no pressure. And the fans, the Celtic fans, are great, passionate. There was nothing to fear even if I had missed the kick. My opponent was Van der Sar, but I focused on the kick as much as I could. I wasn’t thinking about anything, my mind was empty. It didn’t feel like time had stopped – rather, I don’t really remember it. Afterwards, when I saw it on TV, I thought, ‘Why was I so happy?’ The ball curved a lot. I really surprised myself. The coach, [Gordon] Strachan, was also surprised, and asked me why I had shot from so far out!

“It seemed unbelievable and I didn’t really know what had happened. The fans cheered and all of a sudden I was excited. And even more, I had been able to score against Man United. I was really happy.”

So how did it feel to be the hero, the man who had scored such a spectacular winner against such a storied side? “Everyone was talking about it a lot but, personally, I’m the kind of person who gets over it pretty quickly. I went to the gym to recover and didn’t go out to eat with people, but just went home and continued to lead my normal life. That’s the kind of person I am. I switched my mindset to the next match.” 

Celtic fans, meanwhile, are still enjoying the moment.

Welcome to instant hero status. Not even the dank skies above the south side of Glasgow could dim the forward’s beaming smile out on the Hampden turf. For those jumping off their seats, meanwhile, memories were stirred of another goal-hungry club servant, a Celtic legend with his own knack for the spectacular. Kyogo’s touch, speed, movement and finishing bear the hallmarks of a genuine talent, and for many supporters he is the best striker they have seen since Henrik Larsson, the ‘Super Swede’ who racked up 242 goals in seven seasons between 1997 and 2004. 

“That is so flattering,” says Kyogo when the comparison is put to him. This may be just his second season at Celtic Park, but the 27-year-old has been catching up on club history. “Of course, I am happy to be compared to Henrik Larsson. However, he and I are different players. I’m going to keep playing my own style of football and scoring more goals so that many people will know my name.”

Millions already do. Snapped up from Vissel Kobe in summer 2021, Kyogo was advised that Celtic would be a good fit by one of football’s all-time greats: his former Vissel team-mate Andrés Iniesta. “Playing with him on a daily basis, my desire to play overseas became stronger,” says Kyogo, his face wreathed in smiles at the mere mention of the Spanish icon, whose respect for Celtic matchnights was born during his Barcelona heyday. “Celtic Park is a great stadium, the supporters are all so enthusiastic and it’s one of the top stadiums in the world. I was told I would enjoy playing here.”

Kyogo’s profile is also boosted by his voracious work ethic, even to the point where he has been seen picking up litter from the side of the pitch at the end of matches. And then there’s his infectious appetite for the game and sense of fun, which is best encapsulated by his regular goal celebration: hands joined together to form a triangle above his head. As Kyogo explains it, the gesture was dreamt up to represent a fungus, all because a friend once made a joke about his sprawling mop top. “My hair is a mushroom” he says, smiling. 

If the Celtic marksman does not take himself too seriously, opposition defenders clearly do. Despite missing four months of action through injury around the turn of the year, Kyogo still managed to find the back of the net 20 times in all competitions last season, helping the Hoops reclaim the Scottish title after that League Cup triumph against Hibs. He announced himself to Europe last season too, not least thanks to his slick control and finish against Ferencváros in the Europa League, a goal voted as the best of the competition’s group stage.

Hence the whispers of Larsson’s name. But just as tempting are comparisons to another club icon: Shunsuke Nakamura, Celtic’s original star from the East. With the Glasgow giants having taken part in the Champions League again this season after a four-year absence, fans have cast their minds back to Nakamura’s sumptuous free-kick against Sir Alex Ferguson’s star-studded Manchester United at Celtic Park in November 2006, a swerving, left-footed masterpiece that sent the hosts through to the knockout stage for the first time.

Kyogo was just 11 at the time but – as with Larsson – this is club lore he has already swotted up on. “I’ve seen this on YouTube as an adult and just watching it makes me feel excited,” he says when Champions Journal fires up the video. “The direction and speed are absolutely perfect. I’ll never get bored of watching it. The fans have their hands on their heads. ‘What?’ There’s just no way of stopping that strike, [and to produce it] in this amazing atmosphere, against this fantastic opponent – it’s simply perfect.”

One man who had an even better view of that memorable free-kick is current Celtic captain Callum McGregor. He was a ball boy that night and a young fan of Nakamura’s set-piece skills. “I was actually sat next to the dugout as that goal went in,” he tells us. “You can just see both sets of staff: one, absolute elation, and the other one thinking, ‘How did that go in?’ Naka could deliver those sorts of moments. His dead-ball situation was absolutely second to none and he would produce that on a regular basis.”

For Kyogo, the former Japan midfielder was an inspiration – and a trailblazer. “Japanese players like Shunsuke and Koki Mizuno flourished at this club,” he says. “This helped to create the image in many supporters’ minds that Japanese players are impressive.” 

That work is now being carried on by Kyogo himself. This partly explains why Celtic’s Japanese contingent has swelled since his arrival, with Reo Hatate, Daizen Maeda and Yosuke Ideguchi all following in his footsteps last winter. It helps as well, of course, to have a manager in Postecoglou who brings deep knowledge of the Japanese game from his previous spell in charge of Yokohama F. Marinos.

“To be honest, any club I would have gone to, I would have signed him,” says Postecoglou of Kyogo. “I had experienced him first hand – the talent that he has, the impact he had in Japan – and I knew that talent was transferable, for sure. I’d watched his development in Japan and there are different pathways you can go through, but he came out of university, went into the J2 League, then J1, and every time he went up a level you could see that he was improving.
Furuhashi in action in the Champions League

“It’s a market we haven’t been into so much in recent years,” says McGregor. “But suddenly we have a manager who’s worked in Japan previously and knows it really well. Now we have three or four Japan internationals in the team, which gives you a better chance of being successful in Europe as well.”

Even so, Postecoglou made a bold statement when he swooped for Kyogo as his first signing. The first Australian coach to helm a major European club, Postecoglou faced an army of critics when he took the reins in June 2021, with many questioning whether he would last beyond Christmas. The fanbase was hurting after being denied a tenth championship in a row by arch-rivals Rangers in 2020/21, but the 57-year-old never doubted where he would look for trophy-winning inspiration. 

“To be honest, any club I would have gone to, I would have signed him,” says Postecoglou of Kyogo. “I had experienced him first hand – the talent that he has, the impact he had in Japan – and I knew that talent was transferable, for sure. I’d watched his development in Japan and there are different pathways you can go through, but he came out of university, went into the J2 League, then J1, and every time he went up a level you could see that he was improving. 

“Then he had the added benefit of getting tutelage from one of the best in the world in Iniesta – training with him every day. I knew from speaking to him and speaking to people around him that he was really ready to go to Europe and make a career for himself. 

“And he hit the ground running – he had to. He was pretty much my first signing and, as any new manager will tell you, your first signings are important because it sets down a marker for the kind of football manager you’re going to be, and also your ability to judge a player. So I had to get it right with the first one, but I was absolutely 100% certain that Kyogo was going to be a hit.”

Postecoglou was proved right, and soon after Kyogo’s League Cup final exploits he was looking to the East again. “With the other boys, it was a similar scenario,” adds the manager. “We’d played against them – Daizen [Maeda] I’d actually coached as well. They are all different, they all have different personalities and they all play differently. But I know they’ve been exposed to a really high level of competition in Japan, and all of them had this really strong desire to have a career over here in Europe. So I was confident that from a playing perspective and a personal perspective, in terms of their character, they would be a good fit.”

“The direction and speed are absolutely perfect. I’ll never get bored of watching it”

Again, the impact was instantaneous. Just take Hatate, who hit his straps with a goal at Hearts in his second appearance after the winter shutdown. The 24-year-old midfielder then truly announced his arrival with a scintillating long-range double and an assist in Celtic’s season-defining 3-0 win over Rangers in early February. As for Maeda, he scored on his debut against Hibs and notched another five league goals before the end of the campaign, his selfless running and defensive discipline adding another cog to the championship-winning team that Postecoglou was building. 

Ideguchi has been the slowest off the mark thus far with only five appearances last term, the midfielder having been plagued by niggling injuries since his arrival. However, his compatriots – especially Kyogo and Hatate – have been outstanding value-for-money acquisitions, helping Celtic return to the apex of the Scottish game. The expectation is that they will continue to improve. 

Indeed, it is easy to forget how quickly the Japanese signings managed to settle into a new football and cultural environment, even if Maeda and Ideguchi had prior experience of playing abroad with Marítimo and Greuther Fürth respectively. Crucially the club – and McGregor as captain – did everything they could to make sure the players’ off-field requirements were taken care of, so that they could express themselves where it matters most: on the pitch.

“The club hired Aki, who’s here as translator and player welfare officer for the Japanese boys, but to be fair to them they speak decent English,” says McGregor, highlighting the role of the Japanese translator who was given a commemorative Premiership medal for his services to the team last season. “They’re really lively, nice, bubbly characters and they wanted to integrate straight into the squad. We’re a good group of players anyway, so we all got on really well really quickly, and obviously Aki played a big part in that.

“When they signed I dropped them a message and let them know that if they needed anything, they could always get in touch. Or, if they needed to speak to the club about anything, that I was always there to facilitate that as well. But it’s just letting the guys know you’re there to help. You’re not trying to hold anyone’s hand or baby them, but you let them know you care; you want them to settle in quickly.”

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. 

Insight
Just another day at the office

What do you do after scoring one of the most memorable goals in your club’s history? Keep calm and carry on, says Celtic legend Shunsuke Nakamura

It’s perhaps Celtic’s most memorable goal in the European Cup since Stevie Chalmers’ winner against Inter in the 1967 final. Celtic are at home to Manchester United in the 2006/07 Champions League and the game is goalless with nine minutes to play. Nemanja Vidić brings down Jiří Jarošík and Celtic are awarded a free-kick. Thirty yards out, Shunsuke Nakamura places the ball, waiting for the referee to line up the wall and blow his whistle. 

The Japan international pauses, taking his time, then whips a vicious, curling, dipping free-kick over the wall and high into the top corner. Edwin van der Sar dives high to his left, but can get nowhere near the ball. A packed Celtic Park goes wild. The home fans have more reason to cheer when Artur Boruc saves Louis Saha’s penalty with seconds left, ensuring Nakamura’s strike takes Celtic through to the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time.    

“Until then I hadn’t done anything, so I thought this was my first and last opportunity to do my job,” says Nakamura. “When I put the ball down it was quite far out, but I had no hesitation in how to kick it. During free-kicks, there is no pressure. And the fans, the Celtic fans, are great, passionate. There was nothing to fear even if I had missed the kick. My opponent was Van der Sar, but I focused on the kick as much as I could. I wasn’t thinking about anything, my mind was empty. It didn’t feel like time had stopped – rather, I don’t really remember it. Afterwards, when I saw it on TV, I thought, ‘Why was I so happy?’ The ball curved a lot. I really surprised myself. The coach, [Gordon] Strachan, was also surprised, and asked me why I had shot from so far out!

“It seemed unbelievable and I didn’t really know what had happened. The fans cheered and all of a sudden I was excited. And even more, I had been able to score against Man United. I was really happy.”

So how did it feel to be the hero, the man who had scored such a spectacular winner against such a storied side? “Everyone was talking about it a lot but, personally, I’m the kind of person who gets over it pretty quickly. I went to the gym to recover and didn’t go out to eat with people, but just went home and continued to lead my normal life. That’s the kind of person I am. I switched my mindset to the next match.” 

Celtic fans, meanwhile, are still enjoying the moment.

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