On the field, Hirano's communicating

Veteran from Japan has little English, but his game speaks for itself

Marc Weber
The Province

Friday, April 11, 2008

He barely knows a lick of English, but in the universal language of soccer, Takashi Hirano's game speaks in loud, clear tones.

The longtime Japanese League standout and 1998 World Cup competitor has impressed this preseason, his sure left foot and veteran poise hinting that he could be the Vancouver Whitecaps' best offseason acquisition.

He's certainly their most intriguing, which is saying a lot considering they've also added an Icelandic head coach, a Jamaican-born forward, a Bolivian-born midfielder, a Palestinian-American defender, and twins.

"He has been adjusting to this fantastically well," said head coach Teitur Thordarson, who will start Hirano at left back but could use him at left midfield.

"He's adapted into the group, into the way we're doing things, and he has been absolutely one of our best players in the preseason.

"Of course we would have liked to have been able to communicate a little more with him, get him talking about himself, but we are working on that. On the field, there's no problem."

Thordarson said he makes good use of the chalkboard to give Hirano a clear understanding of what's expected of him before training sessions and games. The players are using simple terminology and the occasional hand motion.

"You want to keep it as concise and clear as possible," said veteran midfielder Jeff Clarke. "Sometimes it's a bit of charades out there, and it's worked so far."

Hirano's resume is impressive. He has played under current Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger with J-League power Nagoya Grampus Eight, a club that also featured international stars Gary Lineker and Dragan Stojkovic. His World Cup credentials speak for themselves.

But his last season with Nagoya was 2000 and now he's 33, so there was still an element of wait-and-see for the Whitecaps.

It didn't take much seeing.

"The guy looked pretty good [on DVD]," said Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi, "but when you actually get them in, sometimes they don't look like the same player.

"In his case, you could tell from the first time he touched the ball that he had a pedigree."

Lenarduzzi signed Hirano to a one-year contract plus an option -- a move he hopes will help boost the Whitecaps' Japanese fan base.

"He has fantastic experience and quality," added Thordarson, who also played under Wenger when the Frenchman was an assistant with AS Cannes in 1984-85.

Wenger's attacking style can be felt in Thordarson's approach, and that's made things a little easier for Hirano, who enjoyed his taste of the North American game when on trial with the New England Revolution of MLS in 2007.

"It's still in my style of playing, the way Arsene taught me," Hirano said through an interpreter. "I wanted to play soccer internationally. I didn't know anything about the soccer style in North America but I found it interesting [on his MLS trial] and I wanted to give it another chance. I'm getting comfortable now. I'm learning what each player wants from me during the game."

And, off the field, he's learning that his lack of language can at least provide some comic relief.

"He's good for the dressing room because he's trying to learn English and the young guys are teaching him bad words," laughed Clarke.