What you should know about FIFA – that’s the football World Cup, which you couldn’t watch last night, but want to sound smart about, at the office water-cooler today.
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Here’s your name-dropping check-list for Day 12, JAPAN vs SPAIN
“It is often called miracle, but I believe it is inevitable” reads the caption on Ritsu Doan’s Instagram post, celebrating what is arguably his biggest moment of his footballing career. When you score a goal to help Japan beat Spain and qualify for the world cup knockouts as group-toppers, it should be THE moment. But it is hard to place it above his goal against Germany in their opening game, which for plenty of reasons was an emotional ride.
After Doan equalised in the 75th minute against Spain, Takumo Asano scored in the 83 minute – a goal that is going to be spoken about for long for the controversy that came with it – to take Japan into the knockouts and in the process send Germany back home. After defeating the four-time champions in the opener, to deny them a place in the knockouts for the second successive time in World Cups would be an icing on the cake for Doan.
Before leaving for the World Cup, Doan had been subjected to constant jibes in the Bundesliga (the German league) where he plies the trade for SC Freiburg. Ten days back, Doan had already handed them a harsh lesson.
“Before I came to the World Cup, people in Germany were saying it would be an easy game against Japan,” Doan told reporters. “I gave them a bitter smile while hearing this and I thought ‘don’t be silly’. As a man, I think the best way to shut them up is with such a result so I’m pleased it turned out that way.”
But going into the final round of fixtures on Thursday, Germany had every chance to qualify. If anything all the predictions were about Spain topping the group with a win over Japan and Germany coming second defeating Costa Rica. The Germans did defeat Costa Rica 4-2, and even as they were breathing it easy at the half-time, Japan were still rank outsiders to go through.
Trailing a goal behind, it was Doan, called the “Japanese Messi” for his dribbling skills, who brought the Blue Samurais back into the contest. He has something else in common with Messi – a lethal left-foot. It was that powerful strike from just outside the box which gave Japan the equaliser and one that is going to make the big European clubs stand up and notice.
Doan is just 24, but he has already played for five clubs. Having started his career at Gamba Osaka and winning Asian Young Footballer of the Year award, the Dutch club Groningen came calling, where he spent two seasons before moving to giants PSV Eindhoven. His impressive outing in the Eredevisie meant, Bundesliga clubs – which have become the go-to destination for Japan players because of the ability to connect with social life and food – knocked on the door. Doan moved to Arminia Bielefeld on loan for the 2020-21 season before Freiburg signed him ahead of the current season.
In the Bundesliga, he is among the top five players for intensive runs and inside the top 15 for sprints. Although he is one of the big stars back home, Doan has high aspirations. “If I were to say I’m happy, that would mean I’m playing for Manchester United, Real Madrid or Barcelona,” he told ESPN in a recent interview. “That was my dream when I was young. So the bad thing is that I’m not happy but the good thing is that, because I’m never happy, I want to become better and better all the time.”
While it is quite common for players to show full loyalty to the club they are part of, Doan is frank in his assessment and future. “It is a bit strange that I’m still 24 but I’ve already had five clubs, but I can honestly say they are all great clubs and now I’m happy to play for Freiburg. But if everything is going well, I should be playing at a bigger club. That’s why I’m not satisfied,” he said in the same interview.
It is quite remarkable that Doan has set his eyes on playing in England or in Spain. It is in total contrast to other Japan players, who mostly play in Bundesliga – eight from the current World Cup squad are part of German clubs – as they find it easy to get along with the people. It is easy to find authentic Japanese food in Germany – food plays a major role in terms of Japanese standard of living – and over the years have found the environment to be safe. But Doan’s big aspirations mean, he has to step out of that comfort zone and with performances like this, the call may not be far off.