The story of Takafumi Ogura's football is one that would make a fine movie, or tragic drama. Ogura himself would probably count his blessings, and speak fondly about the chances he had to take part in the birth and early development of the J.League, appear for the national team, and even play breifly in Europe. However, those who saw the remarkable raw talent displayed by this big kid from the western suburbs of Nagoya, recognised the tremendous promise of a career at the very top of the professional game in Japan, can only experience a sense of sad regret that he never really had a chance to fulfill his true potential.
When Ogura emerged from Yokkaichi Chuo high school, the J.League was still in its infancy, and for a player who was already one of Japan's tof footballing prospects, the lure of a chance to play in Europe was stronger than the appeal of a new and unproven domestic leage. So Oguro went stright to Europe, joining Excelsior, in Holland's second-tier division (named "Division 1, but actually representing the second rank in the Dutch football heirarchy, behind the Eredivisie). By scoring 19 goals in 34 matches, Ogura became the first Japanese player since Yasuhiko Onodera to achieve true "success" in an overseas league. But the successful launch of the J.League, back home, and the promise of a lot more money lured Ogura back to Nagoya Grampus -- essentially his "home town club -- in 1994. At Grampus, Ogura quickly earned the nickname "Lefty Monster", and was identified immediately by teammate Dragan Stojkovic as a future star. He scored 20 goals in his first two seasons (actually one and a half, as he joined Grampus in the summer of 1994), and captured the attention of football fans throughout Japan. By the end of his "rookie" season in the J.League, he was already earning call-ups to the full national team.
But after just three years of unrestrained success, tragedy struck. In February 1996, during a training match in Malaysia where Japan's Olympic team was preparing for the a pre-Olympic warm-up match, Ogura suffered a horrific knee injury which forced him to go under the knife and spend the next year in rehabilitation. As a football player, he would never be the same again.
Over the next four years, Ogura scored only two goals, and though he worked hard to change his style of play, and contribute to the team by making chances for teammates rather than scoring goals himself, as the 1990s drew to a close his star had already fallen. In 2000 he was released by Grampus and joined JEF United, and began a long journeyman's career bouncing from club to club, as a bit player.
Ogura moved from JEF to Tokyo Verdy, to Consadole Sapporo, and finally to Ventforet Kofu where he would end his J.League career. When we met him in Kofu, in 2004, he was again struggling with knee problems, and admitted that he was unable to really turn or accelerate quickly, without pain and a risk of further injury. But despite the tragedy that had cut his period of stardom short, he was determined to continue his career making whatever contribution he could, even if it be on a mediocre Division 2 club.
After spending most of the 2005 season recovering from yet another injury, Oguro was released by Ventforet Kofu and made a breif attempt to continue his career with Tokai Regional club FC Gifu. But he soon realised that his knee was no longer willing to endure the stress of competitive football, and in March 2006 he finally confirmed his retirement, taking up an offer to work as a colour commentator for TV football broadcasts. Though his career numbers are less than spectacular, Ogura's performances in the early years (five full NT caps and an international goal before he turned 20), coupled with his tremendous example of courage and perseverance make him a Hall of Fame player in anybody's book.