After storied career in Europe, success with Urawa Red Diamonds following return to Japan is Hiroki Sakai's crowning glory

After eight and a half seasons playing in Europe with Hannover and Marseille, Hiroki Sakai's return to Japan with Urawa Red Diamonds has now seen him become an AFC Champions League winner and Most Valuable Player. Kenta Harada/Getty Images

Now into his 30s, it would not have been too difficult to see why the most cynical would have viewed Hiroki Sakai's return to Japan back in 2021 as a sign that his career was slowly but surely coming to a close.

After all, this was a man who had spent the past eight and a half years plying his trade at the highest level of European football -- initially at Hannover in the Bundesliga and then with Ligue 1 outfit Marseille.

Testing himself against the likes of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, and then Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, the powerfully-built right-back was not just based in Europe to make up the numbers but featuring prominently.

In eight full seasons, only once did he appear in less than 25 league matches -- his fourth year at Marseille -- and he was also a UEFA Europa League runner-up with the French club.

During that period, he firmly established himself as Japan's first choice on the righthand side of defence despite stiff competition from namesake Gotoku Sakai (no relation) and can boast three consecutive FIFA World Cup tournament appearances between 2014 to 2022.

But if it seemed as though it was only ever going to go downhill for Sakai once he returned to the J1 League, the reality could not have been further from the truth.

On Saturday, the 33-year-old landed his biggest piece of silverware yet as he captained Urawa Red Diamonds to a third AFC Champions League crown after they secured a 2-1 aggregate win over last season's winners Al Hilal in the final.

And after all those years trying to make a name for himself thousands of miles away in Europe, the crowning glory of his career would come at Saitama Stadium 2002 -- just an hour's drive from his hometown of Kashiwa -- shortly after the final whistle when he was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player.

An award usually reserved for the leading scorers, playmakers-in-chief and midfield generals was bestowed on a full-back for only the second time since it was first given out in the 1996-97 season.

Few would argue against Sakai being recognised as the MVP of the 2022 edition of Asian football's premier club competition, even if the Reds had no shortage of pivotal contributors throughout their title-winning campaign.

Evergreen goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa came up big when he had to, especially in the semifinal penalty shootout triumph over Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, David Moberg Karlsson had been a livewire during the group stage but was absent from the decider, while Yoshio Koizumi was an energetic and creative presence sitting just behind the main striker.

Alexander Scholz was a rock in defence and even central midfielders Atsuki Ito and Ken Iwao deserve a mention for the way they quietly but effectively went about their business in the engine room.

Nonetheless, for the sheer consistency he displayed throughout the campaign -- both when nullifying the threat of some of the most-dangerous opposition forwards, as well as offering Urawa plenty of drive going forward -- Sakai's contributions were unparalleled.

In recent times, the J1 League has seen an influx of stellar names returning after their European sojourns and it is easy -- but unfair -- to assume they are simply coming home to wind down their careers.

Ex-Borussia Dortmund and Manchester United star Shinji Kagawa is the most famous of the lot now back with hometown club Cerezo Osaka and, while his displays have so far been steady if unspectacular, there are other clear success stories.

Even after rejoining FC Tokyo, and at the ripe old age of 36, ex-Inter Milan man Yuto Nagatomo proved he could still compete at the highest level when he starred for Japan at last year's World Cup, while Yuya Osako and Yoshinori Muto -- who both spent plenty of time in the Bundesliga -- are now spearheading J1 League leaders Vissel Kobe's challenge for a maiden title.

For many an Asian footballer whose ultimate aim was to originally make it in Europe, life -- and their careers -- can still go on even when it is time to return home.

Or, as Sakai proved at the weekend in his crowning glory with Urawa, it can even get better.