Pompey put faith in 'the Japanese Beckham'

Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi is No 1 back home but at Portsmouth he will have to bide his time
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The Independent Football

He may have spoken in a voice so soft that it would be barely be heard from the goalline to the penalty spot, but Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, the rising son of Japanese football, was ready for the red-top question about what he knew of his new club. "Pompey was founded in 1883 and won the FA Cup championship in 1939," he recited, without so much as sneaking a glance at the glossy 12-page brochure produced especially for the occasion of his introduction to Fratton Park yesterday.

Quite an occasion it was, as well, with Barry Davies imported as MC, live coverage on BBC local radio and the return to the south coast of a good number of the 300 Japanese media representatives who recently attended their country's international against Nigeria down the road at Southampton. It seems unlikely that there was ever quite so much fuss about a player being given the number 37 shirt for Portsmouth.

It is a shirt – or jersey, since the new man is Japan's No 1 goalkeeper – that Pompey's bean-counters fervently hope will be sold in vast quantities in his home country. According to David Baldwin of Essentially Sport, the agency that first brought him to the club's attention: "He's the Japanese David Beckham, the No 1 pin-up there. He has a website with 27 million people registered." Baldwin claims that when the midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata moved to Serie A with Perugia, the deal was worth almost £100m in commercial terms, with Perugia selling 500,000 shirts in Asia and making £27m from television deals. His estimate of the contracts he is currently working on to show all Portsmouth's games in Japan, either live or recorded, is of "seven-figures plus".

So no pressure on Portsmouth's manager Graham Rix to ditch Dave Beasant and stick his new boy straight into the team against Preston on Saturday then? There will be harsh words if he does, and the harshest will come from Beasant, who has already been quoted as being distinctly unhappy, not least because he believes the new man, at barely 5ft 10in, to be too small for the rigours of the Nationwide League. Moreover Beasant (6ft 4in and 14st), kept two excellent clean sheets in the past week, against Sheffield United and Norwich, and has helped push the team closer to the First Division play-off places.

Even the eminently polite Japanese media contingent, delighted to have something to do other than asking Arsène Wenger when Junichi Inamoto will get a game for Arsenal, felt obliged yesterday to raise that question, which was smoothly handled by Rix. "Dave Beasant is 42, a lot older than me, and he's playing very well," Rix said. "But Yoshi is a top-class goalkeeper. He's a very professional man and understands no one has the right to walk into the team." Significantly, Rix later added: "We mustn't put him under too much pressure from the start." Even if Japanese television executives are growing tired of shots of the substitutes' bench.

Portsmouth's chairman Milan Mandaric admitted: "Hopefully we will see a lot of Pompey shirts over there in Japan. For us to build Portsmouth Football Club we need that international dimension that Yoshi will bring us. His popularity in Asia is very important to us. But the commercial side was not an influence. The most important thing is his playing ability."

That ability – as opposed to physical presence – is not in dispute. Kawaguchi has played 52 games in goal for Japan, including all three at France 98, when he established himself as first-choice by performing particularly well in 1-0 defeats by Argentina and Croatia. In his last 11 games for the national team he has been beaten only four times, against opposition of the quality of Brazil, France and Spain.

"I like English football and am looking forward to the English football atmosphere," he said, sotto voce. He should at the very least get more opportunities in the near future than Arsenal's Inamoto (15 minutes as a sub so far) or Bolton's striker Akinori Nishizawa (one Worthington Cup tie against Walsall), and is quietly – very quietly – confident.