Manchester United claimed in 2011 that 190 million of its global fan base of 330 million lives in Asia. The potential signing of Shinji Kagawa could not only mean an upward revision of those figures but would likely herald the first Japanese star of the English Premier League.
Kagawa, 23, has been linked with a move to England for months in the European media and has promised a decision later in May. If he chooses to join the 19-time English champion, Kagawa would be the first of his countrymen to wear the famous red shirt, but not the first Asian.
South Korean star Park Ji-sung has played 200 games for the club in seven seasons and has helped to establish Manchester United as one of the premier football brands in Asia.
Players from Japan, however, have yet to make a real impact in the English Premier League. Junichi Inamoto failed to start a league game during his time with Arsenal in the 2001-02 season, Kazayuki Toda played four games for Tottenham Hotspur in 2003 and teenage winger Ryo Miyaichi is on loan with Bolton Wanderers.
Hidetoshi Nakata, a star of Italy’s Serie A, had one season with Bolton in 2005-06 before retiring from the game.
Shinji Ono, former Japanese international, UEFA Cup winner with Dutch giant Feyenoord and 2002 Asian Player of the Year, puts the relative absence down to playing style.
“In Japan, we often think about the technical points of the game and we think that our style fits Spain, Holland and Germany more than England, which is physical and direct,” Ono told The Associated Press.
With just three Premier League starts in 2012, the 31-year-old Park may no longer be central to the plans of long-serving coach Sir Alex Ferguson. Kagawa, meanwhile, is emerging as one of the hottest football properties in Europe. The attacking midfielder has become a leading player in Germany since joining Borussia Dortmund from J-League team Cerezo Osaka in the summer of 2010.
“Kagawa has the confidence to play anywhere. He already has lots of good experience in Germany with Dortmund,” Ono said. “Now, it’s time for him to go to a big club. Manchester United is a very popular club in Japan and people would be excited if he went there. I would be excited too.”
American Tom Byer, a former professional player in Japan, owns a string of football schools in the country. Kagawa was 10 when he attended one of the summer training camps, where he won a special award.
“We all knew back then he was destined for big things but nobody could have imagined that he may go to Manchester United,” Byer said. “My only concern is that Kagawa has had a few injuries already and playing in England, especially Manchester United, is quite demanding. The club is always competing at the highest level of every tournament and is always the biggest game for anyone to play.”
If Kagawa goes to Manchester United, it will certainly boost the club’s already healthy profile in Asia. United has worked hard to build its fan base across the vast and diverse continent.
In 2011, the club announced a plan for a $1 billion initial public offering on the Singapore Stock Exchange.
United’s official website can be read in Korean, Japanese, Mandarin and Arabic, and lists 12 sponsors from Asian nations. In recent years the team has traveled all over the continent to play friendlies and there are official Manchester United bars and restaurants in eight Asian countries, including Japan. The success of Park at the club has also contributed.
“Manchester United is one of a very select group that can say that they have profited from activities in Asia,” said Ryan McKnight, editor of FC Business, a magazine dedicated to the commercial side of football. “Be it licensing, preseason tours, merchandise or tourism to Manchester, the Asian market represents a huge pillar in the commercial operation United undertakes.”
“Asia will continue to be an important market for United … if it was to move its focus elsewhere then a Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Arsenal or Chelsea would quite happily attempt to fill the void. There is little chance of this happening as United clearly recognizes the value its global brand has in Asia.”
Tokyo-based Byer is in no doubt as to the kind of reaction the move would have in Japan.
“Kagawa signing with Manchester United would be enormous for both Japan and Asia in general,” he said. “Park Ji-sung has represented Asian football beyond expectations and broke the barrier for Asian players but if you consider that currently, Japanese soccer is popular throughout Asia, I believe Manchester United will get a bigger bump than when Park signed.”