Ever since Japan participated in their first World Cup in 1998, the Land of the Rising Sun has produced a number of excellent footballers. One of them, Keisuke Honda, made a name for himself in Russia, developing from a promising, yet unknown talent, into a world class player, able to fight with the big boys. However, as brilliant he was on the pitch, equally challenging he was off the pitch, where a cynical approach to business and an impeccable belief in own abilities made him leave the club in dishonour.
After two successful years in Holland with minors VVV Venlo, the then 23-year-old Honda penned a four-year deal with CSKA Moscow in December 2009 in a deal worth around €6 million.
Emperor Keisuke, as the VVV fans named him, joined CSKA just two months after Leonid Slutsky was appointed head coach, and the Japanese midfielder would quickly become a key player. Boasting technical skills matching the best in the game, as well as a wonderful left foot, making him a set piece specialist, it was no surprise that Honda began his stint with the Army Men in perfect fashion.
In the obvious light of hindsight however, there were signs of the problems to come right from the beginning. While CSKA wanted him to sign a five-year contract, Honda stubbornly demanded it to be a year shorter, as if he already knew that Moscow was just another stop on his way to stardom.
He played 82 minutes on his debut against Sevilla in the Round of 16 in the Champions League as CSKA held the Spaniards 1-1 in Moscow, and two weeks later he scored the winner in the 93rd minute of his debut in the Russian Football Premier League as CSKA defeated Amkar Perm.
Four days after the victory against Amkar, CSKA travelled to Spain to face Sevilla for the second leg, and the Japanese was once again the man behind the decisive goal, as his free-kick goal to make it 2-1 secured CSKA a historic spot in the quarter final as the first Russian team ever to make it that far.
During the summer, Honda once again proved himself on the biggest stage, as he was one of Japan’s key players at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Having been drawn together with Netherlands, Denmark and Cameroon in an even, but manageable, group, the expectations to Japan and Honda were big. In the opening game against Cameroon he scored the game’s single goal, thus kicking off a summer of sports fever in the Asian country, which saw online soccer betting boom as the fans trusted their lads to be successful.
Honda added another goal to his tally ten days later with a magnificent free-kick against Denmark, which granted Japan a spot in the Round of 16. Although the Blue Samurai eventually lost to Paraguay after a nerve wrecking penalty shootout, they had left their mark, and Honda especially had shown that he was a player to keep an eye on for the future.
Although the 2010 season ended without trophies as CSKA were eventually eliminated by José Mourinho’s Internazionale in the Champions League, defeated by Rubin Kazan in the cup, and only finished second in the league, it was clear that Slutsky and CSKA were on the right track, and that the Army Men were building something big.
Nevetheless, it wasn’t all positive. Towards the end of the season, the fans saw the ugly side of Honda for the first time. As the glamour of the World Cup disappeared, and the Muscovite weather became uglier, so did the performances of the Japanese.
He began looking apathetic and lazy, and by October, Slutsky had enough and placed Honda on the bench, where he stayed for four games before eventually returning to the starting line-up for the last two games. Curiously enough, Honda had no problems performing in the Europa League, where CSKA cruised through the group stage, winning 16 of a possible 18 points.
The personal highlight for Honda was a 3-1 victory at home against Palermo, in which he delivered one of his strongest performances in the Red-Blue kit. After going down 1-0 in the first half, CSKA entered the second half as if the fire of hell was burning in their chest, and within the first nine minutes of the second half, they had scored three goals. Honda himself scored the first and assisted the third with a stunning pass to target man Tomas Necid.
After a strong debut season, Honda and CSKA followed up in the 2011/2012 mammoth season, which lasted 44 games from March 2011 to May 2012. Although Zenit St. Petersburg finished as champions, and Honda struggled with injuries during the season, he had eight league goals to his name at the end of the season, and had cemented his place as the best playmaker in the league.
But once again, spectators couldn’t help but feel that he wasn’t playing for the team but rather for himself. In a country that has always praised ‘collective football’, where teamwork and unity was raised above individualism, he was the odd man out. When the rest of the team went to the club physio, Honda had his own personal physio, paid for by himself, and outside of the pitch he never interacted with his teammates. “Over four years, he only attended our team gatherings twice,” Sergei Ignashevich revealed. “I didn’t notice any other hobbies than football. I wouldn’t call him a professional, but rather a robot,”
During his time in Moscow, CSKA turned down multiple offers on Honda. Following the World Cup, his current club AC Milan placed a bid, and six month later Honda reportedly accepted a contract offer from Lazio, who were ready to pay €12 million for the midfielder. Clubs such as Liverpool and Juventus were also reported to be interested, but CSKA kept turning the bids down, waiting for a mega-money offer. During the summer of 2012, Honda even explained that he had already stayed longer in Moscow than he had initially planned:
“Initially I’d planned on showing off my skills at the World Cup and leaving Russia after half a year, but since then two years have passed.”
In the following season, 2012/2013, everything finally came together for Honda and the Red-Blues as CSKA won their first championship since 2005 with Honda once again being among the key-players. With his contract expiring in December 2013, CSKA were eager to extend it, but the ambitious Japanese had had enough.
Having played in Russia for three and a half years, won the championship and two cup trophies, Honda was ready to move on, but the club still hoped they could keep their prized asset.
Over the summer, CSKA negotiated intensively with Milan but the two clubs never reached an agreement. The Russians reportedly demanded €5 million, while Milan wouldn’t give more than three, and the Italian stubbornness was taken for arrogance, which CSKA owner Evgeniy Giner couldn’t accept.
Speaking to Bobsoccer, Giner effectively ended all speculation, stating that: “I’m fed up with all the speculation. We waited for the Italians to realize that and change their attitude, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. We made our position very clear, Honda will not be sold to Milan. Our club will never tolerate being treated with disrespect. Milan and the agents tried to blackmail us and to provoke a conflict between CSKA and Honda.”
Although Giner stayed positive about Honda in the following months leading to his eventual exit on a free transfer, the tone from the powerful club owner later changed. “He cheated us,” Giner told Championat in the beginning of 2016, claiming that Honda had promised to extend his contract, but at the same time already agreeing to join AC Milan on a free transfer.
As the season started, the ugly side of Honda once again turned up, as not for the first time he looked unmotivated and lazy on the pitch, and he became increasingly unpopular among the usually loyal supporters. Not even in the Champions League, where he used to shine on any occasion, could he light up, and in the dying moments of the home game against Manchester City he missed an open chance to equalize the game.
Before the last game of the year, and Honda’s last for CSKA, a crucial away game against Viktoria Plzen which could have granted CSKA Europa League qualification, the Japanese was benched after reportedly denying to play in fear of getting injured before his big move to Milan, which had been announced a few days earlier.
Fittingly, CSKA lost 2-1 with Honda on the pitch for the last 38 minutes, unable to make a difference.
CSKA are perhaps the best Russian club at selling players, and the fans hold no grudge to players who move on to bigger things, fully aware of both the sporting hierarchy as well as the importance of the money coming to the club from the sales. Honda however didn’t reward the club any money from a sale, and his ugly exit tainted what would otherwise have been a great legacy in Russia, where he remains one of the greatest foreign players.
As an example of cruel irony, Honda, who was desperate to move to a bigger and more fashionable club, is yet to play in the Champions League for Milan, and the now 30-year-old Japanese is now spending most of his time on the bench and is regularly linked with a move away from Italy.
Author: Toke Møller Theilade
Brøndby supporter, groundhopper and more importantly Editor-in-Chief at Russianfootballnews.com. As a hopeless romantic, I still believe Fyodor Smolov and Viktoria Lopyreva has a future together.