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Japan star Keisuke Honda signs deal to play in Azerbaijan

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Globe-trotting Japan star Keisuke Honda admitted to “mistakes and failures” as he pitched up in Azerbaijan’s league, but refused to give up on playing at the Tokyo Olympics.

The 34-year-old midfielder, who spent three-and-a-half years at Italian giants AC Milan, signed for Azerbaijani outfit Neftci until the end of the season on Monday, having been without a club since leaving Brazil’s Botafogo in December.

It is quite a change in fortunes for Honda, formerly a mainstay of the national team and the first Japanese player to score at three World Cups.

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Honda, who has already played for clubs in seven different countries including Mexico, Australia and Russia, said he “didn’t have any options” after a February move to Portugal fell through because of transfer regulations.

“I made a lot of mistakes and failures — that’s why I’m here,” Honda, his trademark bleach-blond crop grown out into an unkempt mane, said at an online press conference from Baku.

“Everyone said to me: ‘Why don’t you go back to Japan to play?’ (but) it’s not interesting for me any more. I’m maybe a weird person, but that’s me,” he said, adding that he likes to “challenge new things”.

But Honda, who retired from Japan’s senior team in 2018, believes he can still force his way into the squad for this summer’s coronavirus-delayed Tokyo Olympics.

“Nothing is impossible, but it’s not an easy situation for me,” said the attacking midfielder, who hopes to be chosen as one of three over-age players in Japan’s under-24 squad.

“I haven’t been selected so far so I have to show the head coach of the national team I play good here. I have ambition to show I play good again here. I think it’s possible.” And Honda also shrugged off suggestions that his role as general manager of Cambodia’s national team, which he took up in 2018, will interfere with his playing career.

“I manage my time with the great people who work on the Cambodian national team project,” he said.

“First, I can just spend a lot of time as a player, and second I spend time on the Cambodian project with great people… It’s not difficult to manage the time.” Honda said playing for Neftci is his “priority for now”, but refused to speculate on his plans beyond the Azerbaijan Premier League season, which ends in late May.

“I never felt that I would come to Azerbaijan when I started playing soccer,” he said.

“I didn’t expect when I started playing football that I would play in eight countries. But now, to be honest, I really want to play in more countries.”

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