They say that time waits for no man, but when it comes to Yasuhito Endo you really do have to wonder.
The 34-year-old’s career looked like it was finally winding down in the summer, when he lost his place in the Japan team to Hotaru Yamaguchi just before the World Cup. That came after Endo and his Gamba Osaka teammates endured a dismal start to the J1 season, winning just three of their first 14 games to leave themselves sitting 16th in the table – 14 points behind leaders Urawa Reds.
Never exactly one to be flustered, Endo just kept doing what he has always done, and slowly but surely everything returned to normal.
Gamba won their first five games after the World Cup break – halving the deficit between themselves and Urawa. Then, in November, he earned a recall to the national team.
Honduras were more than obliging opponents on his return, but an assist and a goal in his first 45 minutes back in the No. 7 shirt demonstrated that none of his quality had been lost. His composure in possession and eye for – and ability to execute – passes over a variety of distances meant he totally overshadowed Shinji Kagawa, alongside whom he had been selected at the point of Javier Aguirre’s midfield.
Once Endo was back in the groove there was nothing that could knock him out of it, and with their metronome back in his regular swing Gamba performed the most unexpected of comebacks, eventually usurping Reds to claim the J1 title, and on course for a treble after they also downed Sanfrecce Hiroshima 3-2 in the Nabisco Cup final.
Before meeting Montedio Yamagata in Saturdays’ Emperor’s Cup final, Endo took an evening off to pick up the Player of the Year gong at Tuesday’s J.League Awards. Surprisingly, it was the first time that the 11-time Best Eleven selectee has received the top individual honour in Japanese football.
Needless to say, his fellow professionals were lining up to pay tribute to Japan’s most-capped player (148 games and counting), and his former teammate Lucas agreed that the Kagoshima native may just be immortal.
“In the game he’s really composed – really cool – some might say that he’s cold but look at now, for example,” Endo’s ex-Gamba teammate told me after the awards. “I also won an award [the Special Service Award] and was pretty nervous, but he picked up the biggest one of the lot, the MVP title, and was still perfectly calm and able to give a speech. That’s his personality.
“He’s always like that at team parties as well. With that kind of personality he can probably live until he’s 200, I think.”
Motohiro Yamaguchi, who played alongside Endo at Yokohama Flugels in 1998, was also full of praise for his evergreen former teammate.
“He was separated from the national team for a while, but I think the fact that he was able to totally absorb himself in his club then was really big, in terms of looking after his condition,” Yamaguchi told me after Tuesday’s ceremony.
“It wasn’t completely over for him after the World Cup, he still had the motivation. More than that, from the very start… well, he liked football. He just likes football. He plays with an awareness that he just wants to keep getting better.
“He came straight in after graduating high school and we played in pretty much the same position at Flugels. The most lucky thing for him was that he encountered [Carles] Rexach who was the head coach then and had worked at Barcelona – I think that was big for him. He was able to play in matches really soon. Of course it wasn’t only that and he also had ability, he had that talent of how to kick and stop the ball. But that was big for him, I think.”
There was one incident in particular that Yamaguchi recalled as having opened his eyes to the talent of the 18-year-old he was now playing alongside, against Nagoya Grampus in Flugels’ last season.
“We played the same kind of position. Once I was in the No. 10 position and he was just behind as a volante. I said to him, just with eye contact, ‘I’ll move here to throw the defender off, but really I want the ball here’. The defender didn’t know anything and [Endo] put the ball exactly where I wanted it. Then I thought, ‘huh, he could tell just through my actions.’ That was impressive.”
Sixteen years on and Endo is still surpassing expectations. It is difficult to imagine a time when he isn’t doing so.