Shinji Okazaki is a bona fide legend in England.
I write this because Japanese media focus on Japanese sportsmen overseas to such an extent that it can cause people in Japan to overestimate how much of an impact they are making. This is not the case with Okazaki. He’s a big deal in England too.
In a sense that is surprising because he has his shortcomings as a player (more on that below).
The reasons for his popularity, as I see it, are as follows:
Firstly, and most crucially, he is part of a team that did something extraordinary. The same Shinji Okazaki wouldn’t be anywhere near as famous or admired if he had done the same solid work in a team that came fifth or twelfth, or even second. And he’s not a legend on his own: He’s “Shinji Okazaki of that Leicester team”.
Secondly, he works very hard on the pitch. Fans pay good money to go to football games and invest a lot of emotional energy into their club. Every fan in the ground would give anything to play just once for their beloved team. Some literally dream of it. So they don’t like lazy players but they adore players with a good “work rate” and will forgive them a lot. That’s important for Okazaki because his passing isn’t fantastic, he loses the ball a bit too often, doesn’t get a huge amount of possession and has one even bigger weakness: he’s a striker who doesn’t score much. (Other stuff, he does extremely well.)
BUT, a third reason for his popularity is that Okazaki himself has been the first to admit he needs to score more. This is more than just “disarming”. Fans know that a player who admits his faults is one who is actively working on it and therefore likely to improve. Fans dislike the kind of player who resents criticism or throws blame around (“I am being played out of position”, “I am not getting the right service”, “my team mates are getting in my way”...). And they also think they aren’t committed to doing what they can to fix things.
Fourthly, Okazaki just seems to love football. When he scores he looks absolutely delighted. One fan wrote “he seems to smile with his whole face”. It’s endearing in itself but it taps into something deeper. It’s how the fans would react if, in some alternative universe, they could pull on the shirt and score. Okazaki is happy for the team (he turns to celebrate with them) but he’s blissfully happy for himself, which is an absolutely fine and natural reaction. Compare it to the preening superstars who points to his name on the back of his shirt (“Shout my name! I am the greatest”), or rips off his shirt (“Look at my wonderful body and adore me!) or, worst of all, makes a shushing gesture to opposing fans by placing a finger over his mouth (“I silence you, mere mortals!”) If I were to verbalise Okazaki’s post-goal reaction it is: “Hurrah, we’ve scored! Hurrah for us!”
Hurrah for you Shinji: we’re smiling with you.