FFT Chats with... Japan's record-breaking superstar, Shinji Ono

He was the first Japanese footballer to win a major European trophy and the youngest from his country to participate in a World Cup. FourFourTwo catches up with former Western Sydney Wanderers superstar Shinji Ono, who is in Singapore with long-time friend and current teammate Sunakawa Makoto to conduct clinics with the Global Football Academy.

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Shinji, to start off, can you take us back to 2002 when you won the UEFA Cup (now known as the Europa League)?

SO: I just remember when I won the trophy in 2002, the moment was unforgettable. I did not get a big title before that in my football career and till this day, it remains my biggest title.

That Feyenoord team had the likes of Robin van Persie and Jon Tomasson, was that the best team you played with?

Maybe if I was not injured so often, I don’t know what would have happened

SO: Yes they were the best team I played with. The head coach (Bert van Marwijk) was also one of the best coaches around at that time and also the best I have ever met. He was tactically sound and his individual (man-management) was great and made it comfortable for everyone to play with each other.

You were also the youngest Japanese footballer to play in a World Cup. What was it like at that time for you, to be selected at such a young age?

SO: When I was selected in the World Cup squad, it was a surprise to me. I did not expect to go with the team. I only played the last 11 minutes against Jamaica (in their final group stage match), but it felt like more than 11 minutes.

What are your memories of participating in three World Cups (1998, 2002 and 2006)?

SO: Of course it is a dream for every footballer to win the World Cup, not just for the players but for the supporters as well, but we could not achieve winning it, so that was a shame.

Like many footballers, you suffered a number of injuries during your career. Do you think you would have been an even better player without those injuries?

SO: Maybe if I was not injured so often, I don’t know what would have happened. Obviously injuries are not preventable. It was very difficult to sustain those injuries. I kept motivation because it was difficult – when you’re playing well and suddenly sustain an injury, you have to try to come back to the same level.

Alongside good friend and current teammate Sunakawa Makoto

Is there anyone in the current Japanese team that reminds you of your playing style?

SO: For me, (Shinji) Kagawa is the best Japanese player and currently I do not think anyone in the team plays like me because everyone has their individual abilities. Having said that, I am not special!

How long have you known Sunakawa Makoto?

SO: I have known Sunakawa for 20 years! When we were high school students, we used to play against each other. His team was one of the best and mine was also the same. That year, we played against each other and my team lost 1-0 to his team and four months later, we played again and this time, my school won 4-2. For me, he plays very well and he is special. He has great passing and vision. He is an incredible player.

Sunakawa, you have been playing in the Japanese League for almost 20 years now, has the quality improved?

SM: The quality is improving for the past 20 years that I have been playing, but there is no longer as many special players as there were in the ‘90s. The talent pool is lower now, everyone is the same but not special and you are also not able to spot the big talents.

READ ON to learn about Shinji's time in Australia, his thoughts on Japanese players in Europe and his 'Perfect XI!'