Lukas Podolski shines for Vissel Kobe, helps J.League's global brand

Lukas Podolski has started his Japanese career with a bang. If the German forward continues in the same vein, the J.League is going to have its biggest star since its heady heyday of the 1990s.

With the Chinese Super League hogging the global headlines with its world-famous recruits, Podoski hit back for Japan on his debut last weekend.

Fans had been waiting for months for the ex-FC Koln junior to arrive, and it was worth it. As he finally turned out for Vissel Kobe, he scored twice, with both goals equally memorable. But there were also hints at what may lie in store for both the Kansai club, and the league in general.

His opener early in the second half broke the deadlock against Omiya Ardija. There seemed to be little danger when he received the ball, with his back to goal outside the area. The white-shirted opposition perhaps did not expect what was to come as he turned, and hit a low shot first time into the corner of the Omiya net.

The visitors quickly hit back to level the scores, but just after the hour, the Polish-born "Poldi" did it again. Kotaro Omori floated over a cross from the left, and there was the new man, rising above two defenders to head the ball past the diving Nobuhiro Kato for the second time.

Once again, almost 20,000 spectators rose to their feet to acclaim their new hero.

"I can't put into words how happy I am that I scored two goals and we won 3-1 in my first game," Podolski said. "This is my first step and I want to keep moving forward."

What perhaps most did not know at the time was that the 32-year-old was wearing special boots featuring Captain Tsubasa. The legendary eponymous hero of Japanese comic books helped inspire a generation of talented players.

Podolski may end up doing something similar. The debut has set the bar high and was one of the best introductions since the J.League kicked off back in 1993. In those early days, the crowds were as big as the imports who arrived: Zico, Dunga, Gary Lineker, Toto Schillaci and Dragan Stojkovic.

Such names helped the country's first professional league quickly establish itself in Japan's sporting landscape. There was a dip in interest after a few years. But while the superstars went home, the foundations that remained were strong, and at some point in the first decade of the new century, the league could confidently say that it was the best in Asia.

It is up for debate as to what is the continent's number one league these days. Japan's championship is not what is was. Compared to the past, imports, coaches and defenders have declined in standard, while the Chinese Super League (CSL) was buying all kinds of stars. The level in the J.League may or may not be higher overall. But in terms of attendances, profile, reputation and excitement, China has clearly moved ahead.

Recent big-name signings in Japan were not successful. Freddie Ljungberg arrived at Shimizu S-Pulse in 2011, though the former Arsenal star did not last long or make much of an impact. In 2014, Diego Forlan signed for Cerezo Osaka, the final piece in the jigsaw that would bring a first title. Instead the Flaming Pinks were relegated.

Podolski may turn out to be different. Kobe fans had been hoping for a tilt at a first league title, so to be sitting in mid-table at the halfway point of the season was disappointing. Now there is optimism.

Arriving at the start of July to be greeted by fans of Kobe, he spoke of leading the newly rich and ambitious team -- backed by Japanese e-commerce company Rakuten -- into the AFC Champions League for the first time.

His goals gave his new team a win that puts them within six points of third place. If the former Arsenal and Bayern Munich favourite can lead the new team into the Champions League, then more clubs may see the reported $5 million that Kobe paid out as a worthy investment and follow suit. The $2 billion and 10-year deal signed by the league in 2016 to stream its games online means more money.

The recent attempt by former giants Tokyo Verdy to bring Francesco Totti east was encouraging. The J.League has a good standard, with talented local players, but needs a little more glamour, especially as many of the best local players go to Europe.

With the signings in the CSL slowing down due to new rules introduced, the J.League has a chance to snatch some of the spotlight back.

A couple more marquee names, and a few more goals from Podolski, should do the trick. His second game in Kashiwa Reysol on Saturday is eagerly awaited. Kobe have fielded media requests from all over the world, and, locally, there's strong retail demand for Podolski's new No. 10 shirt.

Vissel Kobe fans already have a new hero in Podolski, with the J.League, at last, having a figurehead, with true international pedigree.