Marseille (AFP) – A tireless worker who is constantly making progress, Japan’s Hiroki Sakai has won over hearts and minds at Marseille where he is seen as an ambassador of his homeland.
“In France there’s just the two of us Japanese players here so I feel a major responsibility,” the right-back told AFP.
“I’m always telling him — you are our ambassador, you’re in the spotlight,” Japan’s French assistant coach Jacky Bonnevay says.
Ligue 1’s other Japanese representative is goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima, previously of Dundee United in Scotland and now a back-up at Metz, where he has played just a single game this season.
After four seasons at Hannover ended in relegation last year Sakai, who turns 27 next week, has settled well in France.
“I didn’t think I’d play this much, I really do feel like I’ve stepped up a grade,” says Sakai on a seafront terrace in the lovely town of Cassis where he has settled with his wife and two-year-old daughter.
“I didn’t speak any French and had no idea about French football but I’ve done my best and everybody has helped me,” he said.
Bonnevay, who played at OM himself for two seasons between 1985 and 1987, warned him he had to hit the ground running in a demanding environment.
“If you don’t play well you’ll be pushed onto the bench and you’ll not get back in the side,” the coach told him.
Sakai came to OM on the recommendation of another emblematic figure from French football, the Bosnian head coach of Japan’s national team Vahid Halilhodzic.
“When OM called me to find out about Hiroki I told them he was a great lad, disciplined and focused and a nice guy with it,” said Halilhodzic, a former centre-forward and head coach at Paris Saint-Germain who also played for Nantes.
“He just needs to learn to play a little more aggressively,” Halilhodzic added of the defender with 34 caps.
Marseille coach Rudi Garcia has apparently had only one complaint, calling the Japanese’s French poor.
“That’s my big challenge. I have to study. During a match I speak in English with a few words of French,” Sakai admitted.
“But after just nine months I have come a very long way mentally and have fully adapted to life here,” he insists.
“And I don’t think the supporters dislike me,” Sakai says with a cheeky grin.
He admits to frequenting a Japanese restaurant in Marseille but has also acquired a taste for Gallic cuisine.
“The fish here is very fresh and there’s many good things about the produce. I drink a bit of wine and I’m getting used to the food. I’ve even tried rabbit,” he said.
“Sometimes I get the urge for a trip back home but Europe is where my career took off.”
He adds: “And I had no idea how lovely the south of France was. It was always grey and raining in Germany. It’s paradise here,” said Sakai stretching his arm out towards the April bathers on the beach.
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