Japanese football star Keisuke Honda speaks during a press conference in Phnom Penh on Sept 9, 2018 on the eve of a friendly match between Cambodia and Malaysia. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy
Japanese football star Keisuke Honda speaks during a press conference in Phnom Penh on Sept 9, 2018 on the eve of a friendly match between Cambodia and Malaysia. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

Keisuke Honda is Japan’s biggest football star and a look at his record shows why. The 32-year-old has played 98 times for his country and appeared at three World Cups, the last of which came in June when he helped the Samurai Blue reach the second round in Russia. He then called time on his international career.

Early this summer, the blond-haired forward looked as if he may hang up his boots altogether after leaving Mexican club Pachuca. After all, Honda, a UN Foundation Global Advocate for Youth, has plenty of other interests, including a string of football academies around the world and a venture capital fund with Hollywood star Will Smith.

So, it was something of a surprise when he signed for Melbourne Victory in Australia’s A-League in August.

But then Honda has never gone down expected routes. After his early days Japan, he established himself in Europe and the Netherlands after arriving in 2007. But, having tasted success, instead of heading to the glamour leagues of England or Spain, he went to Russia and CSKA Moscow.

In January 2014, there was finally a move to a big club, but by then AC Milan were not the force of previous years, and his time in Italy was not perhaps as perfect as Honda, who grew up supporting the club, would have wanted.

Now, he is a ‘marquee player’ in Australia, which means he is able to be paid outside the league’s rigid salary cap. It also means that he has a responsibility to be something special on and off the pitch – win games and new fans.

The fact that the player had retired from the international game must have been welcome to Melbourne. There will be no long trips back to Japan and elsewhere around the world when summoned by the national team. So, the attacking midfielder could stay fresh to focus on domestic challenges.

Even so, clubs around the world are accustomed to losing their best players for a while during international breaks when they leave to represent their countries. But losing their best players to go and coach another country? That is highly unusual.

Coach of Cambodian national team

Just days after arriving in Australia to sign for Melbourne, Honda was announcing another deal: a coaching job with the national team of Cambodia.

“I asked the Football Federation of Cambodia if I could be the national team’s head coach while still continuing to play, and they said they would make me an offer if I was serious,” Honda said when he touched down in Phnom Penh in October ahead of his first match, against Malaysia. “I won’t be able to attend every match but I want to be involved with Cambodian soccer as much as I can.”

It remains to be seen how much that is. Somehow, he is going to juggle two jobs that are 7,000 km apart. The problem would be solved by video conferencing, he explained, and other such technology. Melbourne are still between seasons so the Cambodia-Malaysia game was not a huge problem but that domestic situation will soon change.

His official title is that of General Manager – a job more suited to someone without any coaching qualifications. It sounds suitably vague, conjuring images of a mentor giving advice, providing experience and perhaps using contacts to help the Angkor Warriors. But after his Phnom Penh touchdown, Honda looked, sounded and acted like the head coach. Officially, that job has been given to Felix Gonzales, a 30-year-old Argentine coach who has been working in the more obscure corners of Japanese football, but for all intents and purposes, Honda seems to have been in charge.

He seemed to be giving training sessions. Then he was doing the talking in pre-match press conferences. During the game, he was in the dugout, in the head coach’s position, initially wearing sunglasses and then communicating during the game using hand signals and body language. And after the game, which ended in a 3-1 win for Malaysia, he talked about things “his” team did well, plus those they were less successful at.

The reaction in Cambodia has been positive, with fans back in Japan curious. But it would be understandable if there is some concern Down Under. The next game that the Cambodia team faces is in the middle of next month. And just five days after the visit to Singapore, Melbourne kicks off the 2018-19 A-League season.

It is unlikely that even the accommodating Australians will let their new star head to Southeast Asia so close to the start of the new campaign and the world may get a glimpse of its first long-distance coach.

Whatever happens, it is going to be fascinating.