Borussia Dortmund have been locked in a spiral of underachievement since they lifted the Champions League 1997 – and even a Bundesliga triumph in 2002 did not throw them out of their malaise. Financial troubles haunted the club, and Dortmund fans accepted that expectations had to be lowered. Now though, sat on top of the Bundesliga table, the question being levelled at die Borussen is ‘where has it all gone right?’

Perhaps crucial to Jurgen Klopp’s team’s success this season has been the form of Japanese midfielder Shinji Kagawa. The 21-year-old has seen his contribution to Dortmund’s form lauded, and the unheralded recent acquisition has hit six goals in 12 league games to sit alongside some dominant displays in midfield and the supporting striker role.

Few people had heard of the Kobe native outside Japan and the paltry sum Dortmund shelled out for the youngster – some €350,000 – hardly indicated that a future star had been captured. Those in the Asian country though knew exactly what the Germans were getting and the word went forth that Dortmund had in fact secured the next big thing in Japanese football.

Whilst countryman Keisuke Honda was hitting his straps at VVV-Venlo in Holland, the younger Kagawa continued to bolster his burgeoning reputation with Cerezo Osaka, mostly in the J2 – Japan’s second division. Kagawa made his debut as a 17-year-old and quickly established himself as a certain starter at the Osaka club. Following a promising opening season that yielded five goals in the J2, the midfielder improved with every campaign, bagging 16 goals the year after and 27 the season after that. It was clear for all at Osaka’s second club – Gamba Osaka being the city’s powerhouses – that they had an outstanding talent on their hands.


Even though Japan were starting to take note of the youngster though, it was not until he starred in the 2007 Under-20 FIFA World Cup in Canada that the rest of the world got a glimpse of Kagawa. Following further impressive displays for Cerezo Osaka, the youngster was soon called up to the senior side where he was handed his debut at just 18 years of age in the Kirin Cup against the Ivory Coast.

Kagawa ended his last season in the J2 with 27 goals and 13 assists to his name, in the process collecting the league’s most valuable player award. However, even with this fine form, Kagawa missed out on a place in Japan’s 2010 World Cup squad, and had to watch from home as his countrymen made the second round. With many back home questioning his exclusion, the young Kagawa concentrated on his football, clocking up a healthy return of seven goals in 11 games for his now-promoted club in the J-League. Interest from Europe was soon forthcoming, with VVV-Venlo, hoping to repeat their Honda trick, and Borussia Dortmund taking a keen interest too. In the end it was the Ruhr giants who won the day, capturing Kagawa for just €350,000.

With the post-World Cup transfer merry-go-round in full swing, Kagawa’s switch to Dortmund was largely overshadowed. With little to no media attention, Dortmund coach Klopp put Kagawa to work in the Europa League, giving him a run-out against Azerbaijani minnows FK Qarabag. The Japanese star made his Bundesliga debut in the 2-0 loss to Bayer Leverkusen, but Dortmund have been unbeaten since, with Kagawa appearing in every game.  The Japanese has been influential in the middle of Klopp’s midfield, pulling the strings, not least of all against derby rivals Schalke, where he bagged a brace.

Kagawa is not just striking a blow for youngster though, but is also boosting the flailing reputation of Japanese footballers in Europe in the process. Many in the Asian nation, particularly young talents, now see a move to Europe as a wise one in terms of their overall development.

Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni must be licking his lips at the attacking talents now maturing in European football and at home, a group which must surely be the best in terms of quality to have been available to a Blue Samurai coach in decades.

With Kagawa now cementing his spot playing behind in-form Paraguayan striker Lucas Barrios, the attacking potency of Borussia Dortmund is hardly something to sneeze at as they look set for their best tilt at the Bundesliga title in years; and with their European form hardly flagging too, Klopp may consider his side as dark horses for the Europa League, albeit acknowledging that they have a tough group with Paris Saint-Germain and two times winners Sevilla.

Kagawa may nee a little more time to show he can continue to perform consistently at the highest level, but the early signs are promising for the young man from Kobe.