East Asia Japan

Japan Football Great Honda Joins Neftchi Baku

Keisuke Honda, one of Japan’s most storied footballers in recent times, has finally found a new club. Having left recently-relegated Brazilian top-flight side Botafogo in December and seeing his impending move to Portuguese top-flight side Portimonense SC broke down in the last minute due to transfer regulations, Honda has finally joined a new club as he seek to force himself into the Japan national team’s squad for the upcoming Olympics – Azerbaijani giants Neftchi Baku.

Honda was unveiled as Neftchi’s newest signing on Monday, the 34-year old midfielder joining the Oil Workers as a free agent. The first Japanese to score in three World Cups who had represented the likes of CSKA Moscow and AC Milan in his career, Honda admits that he “did not have any other options” as he penned a short-term deal until the end of the 2021 season with 8-time Azerbaijan Premier League winners Neftchi.

“I made a lot of mistakes and failures, that’s why I’m here,” Honda said in his Monday online press conference in Baku, as quoted from AFP and Channel News Asia, “Everybody said to me, why don’t you return to Japan and play there? But for me it’s not interesting anymore. I like to challenge myself. I’m maybe a weird person, but that’s me.”

Despite announcing his retirement from the Japan national team in 2018, Honda hopes that he could force his way into the Samurai Blue squad for the upcoming summer Olympics in Tokyo, which was delayed from last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The former Pachuca and Melbourne Victory man, who is also the general manager of the Cambodia national team, is optimistic that he could become one of the three over-aged players in Japan’s under-24 team which is being prepared for the event.

“Nothing is impossible,” Honda said, “I haven’t been selected so far so I have to show to the national team head coach that I’m good enough for him. I have ambition to show that I can play good again here. I think it’s possible.”

Whilst players of Honda’s stature rocking up in the Azerbaijani top flight is a rare occurrence, such arrivals had happened before. Chelsea legend Michael Essien turned out for Sabail FK from 2019 to 2020 once his contract with Persib Bandung was terminated at the end of the 2017 Liga 1 Indonesia season, while Hannes Þór Halldórsson, the Icelandic goalkeeper who participated in his national team’s famous 2-1 win over England in Euro 2016 as well as saving a penalty kick from Lionel Messi in Iceland’s first-ever World Cup match in 2018, was Qarabag’s third-choice goalkeeper from 2018 to 2019.