The Phantom

The noti­on that Japa­ne­se peo­p­le are taci­turn and reser­ved is a dreadful cli­ché. Now, as Hiro­ki Ito lea­ves VfB after three years as one of the most expen­si­ve depar­tures in the club’s histo­ry, it feels as though we haven’t seen him long enough in the white and red.

Over the past years, I’ve intro­du­ced many new sig­nings here and tal­ked with experts and fans from their for­mer clubs. With one excep­ti­on: When Hiro­ki Ito came on loan from Japan’s second league to Stutt­gart in 2021 and was initi­al­ly plan­ned for the second team, I did reach out to Alan Gib­son from, as I had pre­vious­ly spo­ken with him about Wata­ru Endo, but no artic­le came out of it. Alan con­side­red him a pro­mi­sing young play­er, cle­ar­ly too good for Japan’s second divi­si­on, and the­r­e­fo­re moving to VfB. “I hope he grows pati­ent­ly,” he con­cluded our brief exch­an­ge, and I assu­med Ito would be play­ing for the reser­ve team in the near future.

Corner extension to Glory

Well, Ito never play­ed for them, ins­tead appearing in 97 games in three sea­sons with the red stri­pe, in the Bun­des­li­ga, the DFB-Pokal, and in the rele­ga­ti­on play­offs. Over time, he beca­me an indis­pensable part of a team that went through two tough and one out­stan­ding year, during which his strengths ful­ly emer­ged. His visi­on, his play­making, his unu­sual­ly refi­ned left foot for a defen­der. Of cour­se, what remains memo­rable are not only Ito’s tack­les or his two rather wild goals but an exten­ded cor­ner on May 14, 2022.

Throug­hout the three years, we heard and read rela­tively litt­le from the cen­ter-back, and you can hard­ly find an inter­view with him online—which will likely chan­ge with his move to the record cham­pi­on. It almost feels like he’s gone befo­re we tru­ly noti­ced him at VfB. Amid all the rumors about Füh­rich, Gui­ras­sy, or the nego­tia­ti­ons around Undav, it recent­ly went unno­ti­ced that a cen­ter-back has ste­adi­ly play­ed his way into the focus of big­ger clubs. Thus, the move to Munich isn’t enti­re­ly sur­pri­sing, espe­ci­al­ly if he doesn’t want to miss out on the Cham­pi­ons League with his club switch.

The Clause Conundrum

It’s going to be a long trans­fer sum­mer, and Hiro­ki Ito will sure­ly not be the last play­er to stir our emo­ti­ons. After the expe­ri­en­ces of the sum­mer of 2022, a bit more com­po­sure would do us all and the report­ing jour­na­lists some good—unless one’s employ­er demands other­wi­se. I don’t want to throw a Wehr­le-style “Relax a bit” at you, but the multi­tu­de of rumors is just as much a pri­ce of suc­cess as the cir­cu­la­ting exit clau­ses with fixed trans­fer sums. If you don’t want to lose play­ers for free or sell them under pres­su­re and below value a year befo­re their con­tract ends, you must extend the con­tracts accor­din­gly and offer the other par­ty eit­her more money or an attrac­ti­ve exit opti­on. Sin­ce VfB still doesn’t have enough money, only the clau­se remains.

Or you extend the con­tracts at a time when the play­er can­not make demands, as was the case when many of the cur­rent play­ers signed their first con­tracts in Bad Cannstatt. This, howe­ver, requi­res a lot of trust in their deve­lo­p­ment. And final­ly, an exit clau­se and an inte­res­ted club don’t neces­s­a­ri­ly mean that a trans­fer will hap­pen. The clau­se is still trig­ge­red by the play­er, as it is embedded in his con­tract. Not by the club. This was the case with Hiro­ki Ito, and it might also be the case with Ser­hou Gui­ras­sy and Chris Füh­rich. Of cour­se, the­re is no gua­ran­tee that we can com­pen­sa­te for the depar­tu­re of three key play­ers as well as we did last sea­son. But unli­ke twel­ve months ago, we now have some­thing to offer.

Titel­bild: © Mat­thi­as Hangst/Getty Images

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