Lingering right knee injury forced Atsuto Uchida to retire

Atsuto Uchida of Japan and club football team Schalke 04 poses during a portrait session at Veltins-Arena on April 25, 2013 in Gelsenkirchen, Germany.

Former Japan and Schalke defender Atsuto Uchida said Monday that not being able to give everything on the pitch due to a right knee injury for which he had an operation in 2015 led to his decision to retire.

“I’ve been playing not to injure myself all the time, and began to feel it was disrespectful to be standing next to teammates who were giving 100 percent,” said the 32-year-old, who played the final game of his career in a 1-1 home draw for Kashima Antlers on Sunday against Gamba Osaka.

“I’m not thinking at all on what if I hadn’t had the injury. I’ve pushed myself and got this far. This was my limit.”

The Shizuoka native started his career at Kashima out of high school in 2006 and helped them win three straight J1 titles from 2007 before spending seven years in the Bundesliga with Schalke, where they reached the last four in the Champions League and won the German Cup in his first season.

The pacey defender also won 74 caps for Japan, making the country’s World Cup squads in 2010 and 2014. He was one of the standout players for Japan at the latter in Brazil when he played in all three games under Alberto Zaccheroni as they bowed in the group stage.

Blessed with a vision and decision-making ability rarely seen from a right-back, Uchida quickly established himself at Schalke and appeared in the first-ever head-to-head meeting between Japanese players in the Champions League when he faced Inter Milan’s Yuto Nagatomo in the quarterfinals in 2011.

Schalke lost to Manchester United in the semifinals, but Uchida said a scene from the campaign is still fresh in his memory.

“Against Valencia, in the match we booked our spot in the last eight, the whole stadium was shaking as I watched my team go out on the counter from the back for the third goal. It was so striking that I could even feel I joined Schalke solely for this game.”

Following a 21-month layoff due to the operation and a brief spell at Union Berlin in the German second tier, Uchida in 2018 returned to Kashima, the club where he honed his skills early in his career in a rigorous training environment.

The niggling right-knee injury stopped him from returning to top form, however, and Uchida said he felt he was not showing what he should be to younger teammates.

As one of the standout exports from Japan to Europe, Uchida hopes his fellow compatriots will have the chance to play in Europe to go for broke.

“Watching the Champions League final and J. League matches, I feel the gap has gotten bigger to an extent it made feel they were two different sports. I wouldn’t say the J. League’s level is low, but there’s a difference.”

“I don’t want them to just learn things there but go for it. Not everyone gets the chance and I hope they have long careers like Makoto Hasebe, Eiji Kawashima and Maya Yoshida, and establish themselves.”

Uchida is not yet sure what the future holds but is confident there is at least someone happy with his decision to hang up the boots.

“I can’t narrow it down to one or two. I’m not confident of doing things away from soccer so hopefully I can do something with it.”

“With my soccer (playing) career ending, my daughter was happy she could play with me. It’d be great if we could go to kindergarten and come home holding hands together.”

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