In January 2014, Keisuke Honda fulfilled a childhood dream when he signed for AC Milan. Many players wax lyrically about “achieving a long-standing ambition” when they make a move to another club. For most, it’s just part of the spiel in their unveiling, but for others, it’s actually the so-called gospel truth.
One can imagine that for Honda, it was the latter. And from a marketing perspective, signing the Japanese international appeared to be a major coup. After all, Honda is arguably among Japan – and Asia’s – biggest names. Milan, of course, have a massive fan-base in the Far East, and as such, the excitement from supporters in the region was significant. Yet, just over two years later, he is being linked with a move away from the San Siro, with MLS being bandied about as a possible destination.
Furthermore, the player himself has cut a frustrated and disillusioned figure – that is, when he actually sets foot on the pitch. The troubling question is: What has gone wrong for Honda and his Milan dream?
Honda and Milan: A case of wrong place, wrong time?
It goes without saying that Milan have been in decline over the past decade. For Rossoneri fans, it must seem like ages ago when they clinched their seventh Champions League title in 2007. Four years later, in Massimiliano Allegri’s debut season, they would win the Scudetto. That would prove to be the last time they got their hands on the domestic crown. This, of course, was before Juventus’s resurgence and dominance, and when both Milan clubs were reigning supreme.
Unfortunately, when Honda arrived, Milan were already in free-fall. In 2012, they finished second. In 2013, which happened to be the break-out year of Stephan El Shaarawy, they ended up in third. The ensuing season also marked their last appearance in the Champions League, for they have now gone three terms sans European football. Eighth, tenth, and seventh. That’s where the Diavolo have placed since Honda’s transfer from Russian outfit CSKA Moscow. Their eighth placed finish also was the worst result since 1998; that is, until they ended up in tenth spot the following term. And last campaign, having given up on Champions League football, they were pipped to a Europa League berth by none other than Sassuolo – a team who only made their Serie A debut in 2013.
Hence, for a lack of a better word, Honda could not have picked a worse time to sign the dotted line for his current club. And if the timing was awful, the constant changes on the bench surely did not help his cause one bit.
The managerial merry-go-round
Five. That is the number of managers Milan have had since Allegri’s January 2014 sacking and Vincenzo Montella’s arrival this past summer. Swapping managers like players change boots is not unusual for clubs like Palermo, who hire, fire, and re-hire at least five times per season. But for a team of the Diavolo’s stature, it speaks of serious internal turmoil. To compare, between 2001 (starting with Carlo Ancelotti’s appointment) and 2014 (when Allegri was fired), Milan had a grand total of three coaches. Three managers in 13 years, versus five (four if one wishes to exclude perpetual caretaker boss Mauro Tassotti) in less than three.
And predictably, Honda has suffered from the constant changes on the bench. In his first full season, he made a total of 30 appearances across all competitions, which increased to 36 in the 2015/2016 campaign.
But this term, he has appeared just three times. The only time he has started was during Milan’s surprise 3-0 loss to Genoa. And even then, he didn’t play the whole match as he was hauled off in the 61st minute. Yet, as Milan continue to impress – they presently sit in third spot as Montella’s project begins to take root – there is no room for Honda in the Rossoneri renaissance as we have seen so far this season.
From high ambitions to disillusionment
The player himself has not made any secret of his growing marginalization at the club, and has spoken out against the fans and the management several times in the press over the past few months. Certainly, that won’t help his cause, but it will be a major source of concern for Japan. After all, any country with a serious shot at qualifying for the World Cup needs all their players playing regular club football.
Unfortunately, a decision Honda made back in 2010 may have played into his personal quagmire. After succeeding in the Netherlands, he was on the radar of many major European clubs, including Milan. However, he decided to head to Russia, a place that many view as a step down rather than an improvement. And once there, CSKA Moscow were determined to hang on to him, which, given his impressive performances for them, is no surprise. Despite the aggressive reported overtures from big sides like Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, and Chelsea, the Russian outfit dug in their heels. Honda, who signed in January 2010, was not able to depart until January 2014, which was exactly the full term of his four-year contract.
But, as the saying goes: “Hindsight is 20/20”. At 30, Honda is not over the hill just yet, meaning that there is still room for one last hurrah at another European club. That is, if anyone is actually interested. The harsh reality is that he presently faces a major stumbling block: one needs to actually play in order to be noticed. That’s not something that appears to be happening any time soon for him at Milan.
Still, there is the option of MLS; one can look at how Sebastian Giovinco has revived his career since moving from Juventus to Toronto. However, it has come at a price: namely his exclusion from the Azzurri due to bad perceptions about the league.
Will MLS prove to be his salvation? What’s next for Keisuke Honda?
Honda, fortunately, does not fall into that category, as he will always be a part of the Japanese national set-up. Still, surely he and his fans must be eagerly awaiting to see when they can all wake up from a dream that has turned into a nightmare with his current club. That will come in the form of a new opportunity, whether it be in his native Japan, America, or elsewhere in Europe. Or, Montella may have a change of heart – or be forced into a change should injuries strike.
But until then, Honda’s disappointment does not appear to be ending any time soon.