Letting his soccer do the talking - The Province

No longer lost in translation, Japanese star is catching on quickly

Marc Weber

Takashi Hirano stands in his favourite spot, just outside the 18-yard box, and curls in a beautiful free kick in practice.

It's a mirror image of his dramatic 86th-minute equalizer three weeks ago in Puerto Rico.

"Taka. Good, or no good?" asks a teammate.

"Good," he responds with a grin.

Laughter all around.

Hirano's grasp of English hasn't improved to the point where the Whitecaps' defender/midfielder can engage in a lengthy conversation, but a few simple words have gone a long way with his teammates, both for in-game instruction and down-time tomfoolery.

"A huge improvement," said defender/midfielder Jeff Clarke, who has been lined up next to, in front of and behind the former Japanese international this season.

"He's integrated well because of it. When guys are joking around, you can tell he's understanding what's being said. It's just easier for him to mesh with the guys, and that's what team sports are about.

"And the better he speaks, the more elaborate instruction you can give him, or more tactics you can put into the game."

If Hirano reads this article, he'll no doubt look up "tomfoolery" in the handy translation device that he carries around to bail him out of a language jam.

He's also been taking English lessons, but for this interview, corresponded by e-mail with the aid of a translation program.

"[English] is not that easy for me," he wrote, graciously taking time away from his wife Akane and one-day-old son Kanata, his second child.

"Those words I learn from my teammates, it is very useful for me."

Language has never been a barrier with a certain group of Whitecaps fans. The Taka Fan Club has grown to 150 members, and they have a permanent place in section K at Swangard Stadium.

People have signed up for the fan club from as far away as Nagoya and Osaka.

"I was surprised that many people come to see me," wrote Hirano, 34. "They also help me to play a lot."

The Whitecaps have ventured into some different marketing tactics, including promoting Hirano in ESL schools, and interest has increased among the local Japanese media.

Weekly newspaper Vancouver Shinpo has always covered the Whitecaps, but they've increased their attention and narrowed their focus this season.

"We are talking with Taka after every home game this year, putting his success and condition in the newspaper," wrote Shinpo reporter Akihisa Otsu.

"The Japanese community is not so big in Vancouver, but Japanese people like to play baseball and soccer. So when a Japanese player comes to a local team here, everybody will pay attention."

The Whitecaps have brought in an interpreter on occasion so they could sit down with Hirano and discuss tactics, as well as make sure he is happy here.

He is. Hirano wrote: "If they ask me to play again, it is grateful for me. I definitely want to play with my teammates again."

Whitecaps head coach Teitur Thordarson can empathize with Hirano. In 1981, Thordarson arrived at R.C. Lens in France without a word of French, and no one on the team spoke English.

"He is a fantastic player, a fantastic person and he is tackling his situation very well," said Thordarson.

"It's not easy to come to a new country, new team. It is still a little concern, but he is trying and we are trying. Finally, now, I feel that when he's on the field, it's not a problem."

Especially when the Whitecaps earn a free kick, in that certain spot, just outside the box.

Then, no words are needed to determine the kick taker.
© The Vancouver Province 2008