Munich – Before the summer of 2013, 1. FSV Mainz had only ever had one player from the Far East in their ranks. Former South Korea international Cha-Du Ri’s career may have been long and distinguished, but his brief spell at der Karnivalsverein between 2006 and 2007 was hardly memorable, making just twelve appearances in as many months for the Rhineland club.
Fast forward seven years and things are a little different. Under the guidance of former head coach Thomas Tuchel, Mainz’s trio of Asian stars - Shinji Okazaki, Ja-Cheol Koo and Joo-Ho Park - shone last term as die Nullfünfer qualified for the UEFA Europa League for the first time since 2005, when Jürgen Klopp was at the helm.
Okazaki’s contribution, in particular, was indispensable in guiding Mainz into the Bundesliga’s top seven, but few could have expected the 28-year-old to make such a significant impact. After netting just 13 goals in 85 appearances during a two-year spell at VfB Stuttgart, the striker was deemed surplus to requirements at the Mercedes-Benz Arena and was promptly snapped up by Tuchel on a three-year contract last summer.
A change of shirt brought a change in fortune for Okazaki, who bagged nine goals in his first 17 Bundesliga outings last term, before scoring against his former employers in a 2-1 victory for FSV on the opening day of the Rückrunde. A further seven league goals followed, including his 30th-minute strike against 1. FC Nürnberg on 28 April, which made him the highest-scoring Japanese player ever in a single Bundesliga campaign.
Koo eyes improvement
Like Okazaki, full-back Park will be looking to pick up where he left off last season. The 27-year-old international, who joined the club from Swiss outfit FC Basel 1893 in July last year, enjoyed a tremendous first season at the Coface Arena, earning a to South Korea's World Cup squad in the process.
Park’s international colleague Koo, meanwhile, is preparing for the start of his first full season at the Coface Arena. The playmaker only managed a single game over the entire 90 minutes since his move from VfL Wolfsburg in January, but the South Korea captain has shown glimpses of what he can do during his short time at the club, scoring a spectacular strike in only his second appearance against SC Freiburg on Matchday 19.
Koo is now aiming to show the Mainz supporters his true potential this campaign. “Celebrating with the fans in the stadium is a great feeling,” he said earlier this year. “There’s a fantastic atmosphere and that support helps you out on the pitch. The connection between fans and players is very intense in Mainz and that makes football fun.”
Back to full fitness
Okazaki, Park and Koo joined up with the rest of the Mainz squad at their training camp in Birmingham last week, having been granted an extended summer break by Hjulmand following their involvement in Brazil. All three endured disappointing campaigns in South America, with Japan and South Korea both finishing bottom of their respective groups with just a single point from three matches.
Back in their club colours, the trio took their pre-season bow in Thursday's 1-1 draw with Turkish side Besiktas JK, and former FC Nordsjælland coach Hjulmand is pleased with their progress ahead of Mainz’s first competitive fixture of the new campaign – against Greek outfit Asteras Tripolis FC in the Europa League. “They still a little short of match fitness, but they’ve been working very hard ,” he said. “They’re definitely raring to go.” Ominous words for the rest of the Bundesliga.