Keisuke Honda – Japan’s Footballing Icon

keisuke honda

After a disappointing 20th century for football in Japan, we have seen quite a spectacular growth of the game in the 21st Century; and central to all that has been Keisuke Honda.

Even though he’s a free agent nowadays, Keisuke Honda is one of the most versatile players to have come through the Japanese system.

Rest assured that when players like Takefusa Kubo make it big in Europe they would have someone like Honda to thank for paving the way for them.

So we will be looking into his well travelled journey through the years.

Early Years and the Start at Nagoya Grampus

keisuke honda nagoya grampus
Keisuke Honda started his career at Nagoya Grampus

Keisuke Honda was born and raised in Settsu, Osaka. Therefore, he considered starting his career at Gamba Osaka, the local football team.

However, to their disadvantage, he could not make any significant inroads and didn’t get the call from their youth team.

Honda used to study in Seiryo High School and was one of the best football players coming through in that institute. Many of their sports teachers used to regard Honda highly and speculated that he can make a breakthrough in the national team.

In 2004, his first major step up came at the J. League Cup. He got presented as the Special Designated Youth Player. This turned out to be the stepping stone of his professional career.

After graduating from Seiryo High School in 2004, he set his sights upon his professional career. His first destination was the J1 League Side, Nagoya Grampus.

At Nagoya Grampus, he played for three and a half seasons. In his third season in 2007, he scored eight goals and was involved in 15 goals for the season. In a total of 105 appearances for the J1 side, he scored 13 goals.

However, Honda was unable to land a trophy for them. Despite the lack of silverware, Honda stated that he was proud of what he achieved in terms of his first taste in professional football and remained optimistic for further improvement.

VVV-Venlo

keisuke honda vvv
Keisuke Honda was key in VVV-Venlo’s promotion season

In January 2008, Keisuke Honda moved from Nagoya Grampus to the Dutch side, VVV-Venlo.

He spent two years in the Netherlands and what an eventful period it was.

He suffered relegation to the Dutch second division, after which he was able to produce the best domestic campaign of his career in 2008/09.

In that season, he scored a career-best 16 goals which ensured that VVV-Venlo were able to win the Dutch second division to get promoted to the Eredivisie.

Move to CSKA Moscow

keisuke honda cska moscow
Keisuke Honda moved to CSKA Moscow in 2009

In December of 2009, Keisuke Honda moved from the Netherlands to CSKA Moscow on a four-year deal.

VVV-Venlo issued a statement in which they said that CSKA matched the fee that they had demanded, believing it to be around €6m.

Honda’s debut for the Russian club was the stuff of dreams. It was a UEFA Champions League knockout match against Sevilla. However, what was even more dramatic was his impact on this tie.

The tie was nicely poised after the first leg, and Honda proved to be the difference in the decisive game as his magnificent free-kick sent CSKA Moscow to the Champions League quarter-finals.

This result also made Honda the first Japanese player to score in the Champions League knockout stages and to be on the winning side of this competition.

Honda’s first trophy with CSKA was the Russian Cup when he came on as a substitute in a 2-1 win over Alania Vladikavkaz. Three days later, he scored his first brace for the club against Krylia Sovetov Samara.

In a rematch of the Russian Cup final in 2011, Honda once again proved to be the difference as he scored his second brace to ensure a league win over Alania Vladikavkaz.

With CSKA Moscow, Keisuke Honda played his second Russian Cup final in 2013 against FC Rostov. He once again was the center of attention as his two goals ensured his second Russian Cup title.

In the summer window of 2013, he only had six months on his club contract. He had clearly stated that he didn’t want to renew his contract with the club and was open to moving to a big club.

With so many big clubs approaching, he chose to go to Italy and join the illustrious AC Milan.

AC Milan

Keisuek honda ac milan
Keisuke Honda spent 4 years at AC Milan

In December 2013, CSKA Moscow announced on their website that Honda’s time in Russia was up and he had decided to move to Italy.

The next month, AC Milan manager Massimiliano Allegri stated that the Japanese international had completed his move to the Italian club. This move was a free transfer as Honda signed a three and a half year deal.

Despite having to compete with players like Kaka and Saponara, Honda became a regular with Milan.

Honda’s debut came against Sassuolo in a 4-3 win. A few days later, his first goal came against Spezia in the Italian Cup knockout game. His first league goal was against Genoa.

However, Honda couldn’t capitalize on his fantastic start to life in Italy. Many Italian outlets considered his output to be disappointing. Some media outlets stated that this wasn’t the player that was bought by AC Milan from CSKA Moscow.

In the summer of 2014, Fillipo Inzaghi replaced Seedorf as the new AC Milan manager. After his appointment, Inzaghi stated that he had plans to revamp Honda’s career at AC Milan.

Under new management, Honda scored his first Serie A goal of the season against Lazio. He followed this performance with another goal against Parma in a 5-4 thrilling win.

He continued his great goal-scoring run against Empoli and Chievo before scoring his first brace for the club against Verona in a 3-1 away win.

In 2016/17, Honda was only able to score one goal. However, that goal was a significant one. AC Milan was playing against Bologna in pursuit of a Europa League position.

Keisuke Honda scored the winner which ensured that AC Milan returned to the European stage for the first time in three years.

With that, his time with Milan came to an end.

Pachuca And Other Club Spells

keisuke honda vitesse
From 2017-2020, Honda had spells with multiple clubs, including Vitesse

In the summer of 2017, Pachuca announced the capture of a Japanese international from AC Milan. The Pachuca manager stated that Honda will bring a winning mentality to their squad which will ensure that the club wins major accolades.

Honda’s career in Mexico couldn’t have started any better as he scored on his debut against Veracruz. This was the first of the 13 goals that he would score in his one season in Mexico.

The 2017/18 campaign with Pachuca is the second-best goal-scoring campaign in Keisuke Honda’s career, only behind the 2008/09 campaign that he had at VVV-Venlo.

The 2018/19 season was another good one for Honda as he played in Australia with Melbourne Victory and scored seven goals in 18 appearances.

19/20 started with great hope for him as his ex-coach Leonid Slutsky signed him for Vitesse. He only played for them four times, but as Slutsky was let go, Honda also decided to leave the club.

A spell with Botafogo in Brazil followed and after failed negotiations with Portimonense, Honda remains without a club at present.

International Career

keisuke honda japan
Keisuke Honda is one of the most iconic Japanese internationals of all-time

Keisuke Honda’s international career seems to be as prolific as his domestic career.

After playing in the U-23 Japanese team for three years, he received his first call-up to the Japanese national side in 2008. In 2009, Honda’s first international goal came against Chile.

He came to the spotlight in the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Shortly after scoring the winner against Cameroon, he was hyped to be the best Japanese talent coming through, which eventually set into motion transfer rumours from all the top European clubs in the world.

Honda followed that with one of the goals of the season against Denmark, scoring a 30-yard free-kick. His performance against Denmark also made him Man of the Match for the first time in his international career.

In the 2011 AFC Asian Cup, he was prolific and adventurous for his side once again.

Despite missing out on the penalty in the final against South Korea, he scored in the penalty shootout as Japan won the Championship. And he was named as the Player of the Tournament for his exceptional output.

In the 2014 World Cup, he became the first Japanese player to score in two different FIFA World Cups as he found the net against Ivory Coast. However, it proved to be a consolation as Japan were knocked out.

In the 2018 World Cup, his goal against Hungary ensured that he became the highest-scoring Asian player in the FIFA World Cup history. As Japan crashed out of the group stages, Honda decided to retire from international football.

Managerial Responsibility

keisuke honda manager
Keisuke Honda’s maiden managerial gig is with Cambodia

The managerial career of Honda is truly unique.

It’s not that he is the first player ever to be a player-manager but the fact that the country he is managing is not where he plays his club football nor his country of origin really tells a story.

And while he may be a free agent these days, it was quite interesting when he was still playing for Botafogo.

The country he is managing remotely is Cambodia. He holds weekly conference calls with his players and is on the touchline from time to time too.

In his absence, day to day responsibilities are handled by his assistant Felix Dalmas.


Style of Play

Keisuke Honda is all about creativity as a player. His prolificness in the advanced areas gave him the title of “Emperor Keisuke” within the Japanese fans.

Even though Honda has always felt most comfortable as an attacking midfielder, he is also very effective as a false-nine, winger, and central midfielder.

In CSKA Moscow, he was deployed mainly as an attacking midfielder as he used to create chances for Ahmed Musa and Seydou Doumbia. Honda was one of the biggest reasons behind Musa’s second-best goal-scoring campaign of his career (15 goals), as the Japanese international registered six assists in that season.

At AC Milan, Filippo Inzaghi got the best out of Honda by playing him as a right-winger. His tendency to occupy pockets of spaces resulted in him enjoying great goalscoring form for the club.

As he wasn’t the best regarding tackling and defensive work, his coaches used to give him the free role.

This was notably one of the reasons why he is not as prolific under defensive managers who play in a pragmatic football setup requiring every single player to contribute off the ball.

If he got played as a deep-lying playmaker, a defensive midfielder was played alongside him. However, if he was played as an attacking midfielder, he was given the license to make runs in the box whereas all the defensive responsibilities were given to the two midfielders behind him.

However, with years of experience, he also started showing signs of ball recovery. In the Japanese national side, we have seen him helping out his full-backs to close down spaces for their opponents to attack.

Another exceptional ability he has is his accurate set-piece taking. He is a constant threat to opposition defenders as he can score extraordinary free kicks and deliver accurate crosses too.

Summing it all up, Honda is a complete package. Therefore, the managers over the years have found it very easy to integrate him into different tactical setups as his career has gone on.

If a team is having numerous injuries in a position, Keisuke Honda is always there to answer your call. Many managers demand specialists in every position because of their approach. However, Honda always seems to work into the managers’ plans based on his hard work.

Now as a free agent and in the final years of his professional career, it remains to be seen if he gets a call from any club in the world. We hope that is the case so that Honda enjoys the twilight period of his career as well.

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