ONE of the reasons Japan are expected to go further in their co-hosted World Cup finals than South Korea is down to the extra European experience amongtheir playing squad.

Four times as many Japanese players have found their way to Europe as Koreans, and while Italy-based Hidetoshi Nakata is the most famous, he is being challenged in the popularity stakes. One of the leading pursuers is attacking midfielder Shinji Ono, now at Feyenoord in Holland.

The Ono circus is big business. More than 30 Japanese journalists have followed Ono since his arrival in Dutch football last summer. The player and his girlfriend are supported by their own secretaries, assistants and translators.

Language is the key. Ono says: “It is difficult enough coming into a better class of football without having to struggle with the language. But the positive side is the excitement of learning about a new country and meeting so many outstanding footballers.”

Ono was encouraged to move to Europe by Japan’s national coach, Frenchman Philippe Troussier. But he has not found the transition easy.

“I cannot honestly say howmuch I have improved so far,” says Ono. “I have not had too many opportunities to play in my favourite role in the centre of midfield.”

Ono’s hero was and is Diego Maradona. “He inspired my interest in football. Very quickly it changed from being an interest into a passion and all I wanted to do was play football, even though baseball is the big team sport in Japan.”

When the time came to turn professional, in December 1997, Ono found every one of the 16 clubs in the J.League were offering a contract. He chose Urawa Red Diamonds and rocketed to national and international notice.

At the end of his first season he was voted Footballer of the Year and, in April 1999, he captained Japan’s youngsters to runners-up spot at theWorld Youth Cup in Nigeria.

Borussia Dortmund were the first European club to make him an offer, but he preferred to sign for Feyenoord “because I thought a less physical sort of game would suit me better. Like all the Japanese I am on the small side in build and, at first, every tackle was tough. I am still getting used to that.”

Feyenoord are cautiously happy with the progress Ono has made. Coach Bert Van Marwijk says: “He is young but he is a quick learner. The only thing he must learn is to be a little less hesitant and to commit himself more, physically. One good thing – he doesn’t like taking the easy option of passing back to his defenders when under pressure.”

Ono’s priority this year, however, is less with Feyenoord and more with Japan at ‘their’ World Cup.

“We have Belgium, Russia and Tunisia in our group and the games will all be hard. But the event will be fantastic – especially for football in Japan.”

Club Feyenoord (Hol)
Country Japan
Born September 27, 1979, in Numazu
Previous clubs Urawa Red Diamonds
International caps 24 (2 goals)