In 1977, Yasuhiko Okudera made history when he signed for Cologne, thus becoming the first Japanese player to play professionally in Europe when the game was still amateur in Japan. We examine the soccer career of the first Asian to score in the European Cup, as well as his transition to life in Germany and his ambitions for Japanese football.
Yasuhiko Okudera earned his move to Cologne by making a name for himself with Furukawa Electric in the corporate Japan Soccer League. The midfielder knew that it would be a tough challenge because it had not been long since West Germany won the 1974 World Cup, and the Bundesliga was one of the toughest leagues in the world.
“I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do well there,” Yasuhiko Okudera said. “My first season was a real struggle, not so much in terms of style of play, but to adjust to the lifestyle. It wasn’t until my second season that I felt I had a handle on things.”
Yasuhiko Okudera made an immediate impression with his pace and crossing on the soccer field. As a left-winger, he scored twice in the last two games of Cologne’s title race against Borussia Monchengladbach at the end of his first season. A year later, he scored in his club’s European Cup semi-final against eventual champions Nottingham Forest.
While playing out of position at right-back, Yasuhiko Okudera caught the eye of Werder Bremen coach Otto Rehhagel while playing for Cologne for three seasons.
“I am delighted to have been offered a contract at Bremen,” Yasuhiko Okudera said. Otto Rehhagel told me I was going to be a right-back and that we would be playing a zonal defense: I had no idea I would have to learn that since almost everyone else was using man-to-man marking.”
After five years in Germany, Yasuhiko Okudera was able to thrive in Werder’s colors. At Werder Bremen, Yasuhiko Okudera said, he was at the top of his game. Neither the language nor my environment presented any problems to me.”
During his nine-year stay in Germany, Yasuhiko Okudera played 259 games and scored 34 goals. He returned to Furukawa Electric (now JEF United) in 1986 before hanging up his boots two years later.
In 2013, he was appointed president and global ambassador of the English Championship side Plymouth Argyle. After returning to Japan, Yasuhiko Okudera spent time as president and general manager of the Japanese League second-tier team Yokohama FC.
Yasuhiko Okudera said that more Japanese who have played overseas should return to Japan and share their skills and knowledge. Japanese clubs have played in FIFA Club World Cups, but it’s hard for Japanese players to play against overseas teams regularly. If Japan were in Europe, we’d be a stronger football nation today.
Takehiro Tomiyasu and Take Kubo, for example, play in Europe, but Japanese club officials and players can learn a lot from overseas. So I want more Japanese people to know about soccer, and I want to help take Japanese soccer to the world.”
Now Yasuhiko Okudera works as a television commentator and is looking for in Japan playing in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Main Image: SV Werder Bremen