Japan Asian Players in Europe

COLUMN: Japanese football’s future becomes the present in Groningen’s Ritsu Doan

In October 2015, the Guardian listed the football world’s top prospects born in 1998 in their annual roundup of young players. The list included Martin Odegaard, who had already made his Real Madrid debut, American winger Christian Pulisic, who would play in his first Bundesliga match just three months later, and North Korean striker Han Kwang-Song, who was yet to make the journey to Italy. Listed amongst those names was Ritsu Doan, the 17-year-old who had made his top team debut for Gamba Osaka that year.

In the two and a half years since his Guardian write-up, Doan’s development as one of Japan’s foremost talents on the pitch has proceeded favorably.

In 2016 he earned most of his playing time for Gamba Osaka U-23, scoring 10 goals in the J3 League. Last year he propelled Japan to the knockout tournament of the FIFA U-20 World Cup with three goals in the group stage in South Korea. Four weeks later, Doan’s loan to FC Groningen was announced. The midfielder quickly adjusted to his new environment, earning a starting role on opening day and particularly impressing in the second half of the season with constant results when played on either wing.

Doan has scored nine goals in his debut Eredivisie season, earning recognition as the team’s most valuable player from club supporters. His biggest impact may have been felt in the March 18 match at AZ. Down a goal to the league’s third place side in the 82nd minute, Doan received the ball with his back to the goal outside of the penalty area. He trapped and turned toward the goal while surrounded by opposition before unleashing a left-footed rocket past the outstretched hands of the goalkeeper and into the upper corner of the net. It was a play that showed the immense potential hidden in this Japanese attacker.

His talents have been readily recognized by the club, with general manager Hans Nijland touting Doan as “a jewel of the Eredivisie” in a recent interview. “He’s scored a lot of goals and he hasn’t gotten injured,” Nijland added. “He’s cheerful and positive and good with the ball. He’s a very impressive player.”

The €2 million transfer fee and minimum salary for a non-European player required to bring Doan from Gamba Osaka were not simple investments, but neither were Groningen going to quietly let go of the East Asian talent who could bring even larger benefits to the club in the future.

After one local newspaper’s survey saw 97 percent of respondents answer in favor of signing Doan on a full transfer, the club exercised their transfer option on April 23 and announced that the player would sign a new contract through the end of 2021.

“It is incredible to be able to adapt and develop so quickly at such a young age in a completely different culture,” Groningen technical director Ron Jans said in praising the signing. “He has grown during the season and has become increasingly important for the team.”

Before the announcement, Doan revealed to Dutch football magazine Voetbal International that he wanted to play “at least another year” in Holland, noting the Eredivisie’s fast transition between defense and attack compared to that of Japan.

“Even if I can’t go to [the 2018] World Cup, I still have a chance. I’m still young and I can still improve much more as a player,” Doan said.

With his impressive performances in the Eredivisie, Tokyo 2020 contender Doan has shown that may not only impact the future of Japanese football, but also the present. “If I keep playing as I have been, there’s a chance I could go to Russia,” Doan told Voetbal, showing unshakable confidence in potential selection as one of Akira Nishino’s final squad of 23 players.

In light of the Samurai Blue’s recent struggles on the pitch and chaos at national team headquarters, Doan deserves serious consideration for the team in light of his performances in Holland. While a call-up for Japan’s final pre-World Cup friendly against Ghana may be an unlikely surprise, even a failure to participate in the spectacle in Russia would not take away from Doan’s progress over the last year.

In 2015 it would have been incredibly optimistic to predict that Doan would be performing at such a high level in a European first division less than three years later. But he is amongst a generation of talented young players who were not yet born when Japan secured their historic first World Cup appearance in 1998. With their talent and drive, those players are bringing Japan closer to the future many anticipated was much further away. Doan’s entry into the national team is not a question of ‘if’ but rather ‘how soon’, and it will be exciting to see just how far he can progress in the next two and a half years.

Mario Kawata is a Germany-based writer for Football Tribe Japan. He can be found on Twitter at @Mario_GCC