How Takashi Inui conquered Spain and then the world

Words By Euan McTear Illustration by Philippe Fenner
July 13, 2018
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On the evening of Monday, July 2nd, Google searches for Takashi Inui spiked to an all-time high. The 30-year-old winger had just scored one of the best goals of the World Cup to put Japan 2-0 up on the night against Belgium and he was permitted his 15 minutes of worldwide fame, before Jan Vertonghen scored to begin the Belgians’ comeback. Few knew of Inui before the start of the tournament in Russia, but by the time he and his Japan teammates returned home, he was labelled by many as one of the World Cup’s breakout stars.

At the age of 30, Inui isn’t a promising youngster. His 2018 World Cup campaign, with two goals and an assist, may be the highlight of his career, but Inui’s arrival on the global stage has been a slow, steady and structured journey. First, he set his mind on conquering Spain. Now he has conquered the world.

In 2011, aged 23, Inui moved from the J1 League to Europe. Although his landing spot was Germany, he was determined that his final destination would be Spain. “I always wanted to play in Spain and, along with my agent, we realised that the first step towards this was to play somewhere nearby, in Europe,” the player explained in a recent interview with LaLiga. “So the first step was to go and play in Germany, but my goal was always to play in Spain.”

With his LaLiga dream in mind, Inui signed for German second division side VfL Bochum and he was impressive in the 2011/12 season, so much so that he earned himself a move further up the ladder to Eintracht Frankfurt, who had just been promoted to the Bundesliga, in the summer of 2012. Nine goals, 20 assists and lots of hard running in his three years there presented Inui with his golden ticket, a move to LaLiga.

The transfer wasn’t exactly as he’d have planned it in his head, as it was a modest move to the grey Basque valley town of Eibar, with its population of just 27,000, while he’d also have to take a pay cut to make it happen. But this was what he wanted. “An offer came from Spain and because it came from Spain I wanted to listen to it, even if it meant lowering my salary and putting that money towards the paying off of my release clause,” he said afterwards in the aforementioned interview with LaLiga. “To be honest, I had no idea where Eibar even was, but I didn’t care because it was in Spain and I could try out playing in Spain. That’s why I accepted the offer.”

From Eibar’s point of view, it was a risk to hire a player from Japan. They were preparing for just their second ever season in the Spanish top flight and they had one of the league’s smallest budgets, so it was a nervous decision when they agreed to pay €300,000 for Inui, making him their most expensive player ever.

“Analysing the player from a physical point of view and looking at his structure and his strength, he didn’t fit too well and even more so when we’re a club that focuses less on the international market and when we’re a club that consider language and adaptation as important,” sporting director Fran Garagarza later told Ecos del Balón. “But the market presented a good opportunity to us. We saw that he wanted to play in the Spanish league, even earning less than he had at Frankfurt. This hunger made us think that maybe we should take this risk. It wasn’t easy to take this decision because it was hard to imagine a Japanese player in Eibar. Now it’s easy to picture it, but at the time it wasn’t.”

So Inui signed for Eibar and was suddenly playing in the same division as Lionel Messi, his favourite player. Given that he didn’t speak any Spanish and not much more English, his adaptation was difficult and lengthy. He could speak some German after three years in the country, which permitted communication with German-speaking Eibar assistant Iñaki Bea, but no direct dialogue was possible with head coach José Luis Mendilibar and it took a while for the pair to get on the same wavelength.

Although Inui set up a goal in his first game for Eibar, he didn’t score or assist again until the January of his first season at the club, finding the back of the net and then winning a penalty in a 2-1 victory over Espanyol, the first match for which his family came to Eibar’s Ipurua Stadium to see him play.

The player finished that 2015/16 season in better form, before performing even better in 2016/17, which finished with Inui scoring two wonder goals in a 4-2 loss to Barcelona at the Camp Nou on the final day of the season. That performance in front of a global audience, who were tuning in to see Barça’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to beat Real Madrid to the league title, was the next step in Inui’s rise. Against his idol Messi, Inui had been the one to grab many of the headlines.

In 2017/18, he then put together his best season in Spain by scoring five times and assisting a couple more goals. Admittedly, these numbers don’t exactly jump off the page, but that’s because Inui’s impact cannot be measured solely by stats. As a skilful and pacey winger with an eye for a pass, he has been so useful in transitioning Eibar’s play from defence to attack, even if he’s not always the one finishing the chances.

Eibar fans loved him and supporters group Eskozia La Brava purchased a Japan flag to hang behind the eastern goal each match. Other regular viewers of LaLiga appreciate his usefulness too, and that’s why Real Betis have already been credited by so many in the Spanish media with securing one of the deals of the summer by managing to sign Inui as a free agent, with his Eibar contract having run out. Ahead of a Monday night match against Basque side Alavés in March, Real Betis directors met with Inui’s representatives in a hotel in the Basque capital of Vitoria-Gasteiz and organised the widely praised deal.

Inui will now be playing for a Europa League team and will reach an even wider audience in 2018/19. He made Eibar the third-most watched LaLiga team in Japan, only behind Barcelona and Real Madrid, but at a bigger club like Real Betis he can further boost his stardom.

Watch: New Real Madrid signing Alvaro Odriozola

Already, Inui has conquered LaLiga by becoming one of the most respected players in the Spanish league and he has now taken a World Cup knockout match by storm too, nearly taking his country to their first ever quarter-final. It may not have been overnight, but Inui’s rise has been spectacular. And he’s not finished yet.

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