Almost eight months ago, Keisuke Honda walked into a Milan airport with tinted aviator glasses in a tailored suit, presented in grand style as the latest signing of AC Milan and looking like a rock star as photographers shuffled to get a photo.
He knows fashion, therefore he knows Milan. After all, he has worn luxury watches on both wrists, according to CNN's Misha Janette. He may test the limits of fashion, and he may have bleach-blond hair, but he is also a man that is devoted to his work.
“I try to behave as a professional and how a professional should behave,” Honda said in his opening press conference, per the club's official website. “That’s who I am.”
He was coming from Moscow, and he finally made it to the team that he followed as a kid in Japan. He said he used to watch Serie A every week on TV. This was a professional and emotional choice. “Serie A is the most famous league in Japan,” Honda said. “I can't say just one player.”
And he came in feeling ambitious. Honda chose No. 10, left vacant by Kevin-Prince Boateng but made famous by Rui Costa, Clarence Seedorf and Ruud Gullit. He wanted the responsibilities that came with the jersey.
“I enjoy pressure and high expectations,” he said in an interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t AC Milan).
And perhaps that is why, in half a season with Milan, he disappointed the fans who clamoured for his arrival. They thought he was more.
Honda joined the team after a long layoff with Moscow, which had stopped playing during the winter break. He spent the rest of the season with Milan trying to catch up. He arrived, and coach Massimiliano Allegri was fired. Then Clarence Seedorf played Honda out of his preferred position behind the striker, and Seedorf himself was fired.
Honda only scored twice for Milan, once in Serie A and once in the Coppa Italia. Still, he left for the World Cup with Japan with confidence. He said Japan could win the whole thing.
Of course, they didn’t. Honda scored once—a powerful shot against Ivory Coast—but that was it.
That affected his image back home. When Milan came to Toronto to play a friendly, he was still followed by a pack of Japanese journalists. It happens at almost any of his games, no matter where. One of them told me that the Japanese back home have lost a lot of faith in him. His popularity is lower than ever.
And people in Milan and Italy do not seem to care as much about him as they did on that day in January. Honda is not included in several projected XIs for the upcoming season. He is almost forgotten, the odd one out. These past eight months have been the toughest of his professional life.
This season is all about redemption. He has put in so much work to get to this point, to play for Milan. He called it destiny, per the BBC.
Honda has played in almost every position, from left-back to centre-forward, according to Tim Rich of The Independent. Honda does not complain—at least publicly. Then again, he does not do many interviews, “but one post-match comment from him can be more revealing and interesting than a whole season of fluff from your average soccer star," writes John Duerden of One World Sports.
Honda takes chances. Not many Japanese players have made it to Italy, let alone been successful, despite the league’s popularity in his country.
Yet Honda is here at 28 years old, arguably the peak of his career, trying to fit in.
Because there is so much that Honda can do. He can play on the flank, even if it’s not his strength, and he can play in a deeper midfield position. He can strike ferocious free-kicks, and he can inspire spectacular plays.
Most of all, he needs his teammates to run and find space. If they do, Honda will find them. Almost certainly.
“Honda has the physical strength, the technique and the mentality to more than succeed in the Serie A at Milan,” former Milan and Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni said last December (h/t One World Sports). “You need a strong personality to make it at Milan, and Keisuke has that.”
It all depends on coach Pippo Inzaghi and how he decides to employ the Japanese playmaker—or whether he employs him as a starter at all. Honda could play on top of two midfielders in an attacking 4-3-3 formation, Inzaghi's preferred formation, but it is still difficult to find a spot for him.
On Milan’s wish list right now is Alessio Cerci, lately Douglas Costa and Ezequiel Lavezzi, according to reports in Italy (h/t Football Italia). They are looking for more quality on the market, but they seem to be neglecting the talent they already have.
Honda arrived as a superstar, and now he appears to be an afterthought.