Three matches, four goals, all of them coming from the bench. He has carried Japan U-17 through the 2023 FIFA U-17 World Cup group stages, establishing himself as one of the stars of the tournament, and has the hopes and dreams of Japan resting on his shoulders. And all of those, he did not as a player of an established club, but as a simple high school student. This is Rento Takaoka.
Friday’s atmosphere at the Si Jalak Harupat Stadium in Soreang, Bandung Regency, was tense. Japan were taking on Senegal, knowing that a win would assure them a spot in the round of 16. The match itself was cagey, with chances being created being fair and few. Japan head coach Yoshiro Moriyama decided to ring in the changes in order to improve his team’s performance, which include the introduction of Takaoka in the place of Homare Tokuda in the 55th minute.
Moriyama’s strategy worked wonders as Takaoka’s speed and tenacity breathed new life into Japan’s attack. The rest of Takaoka’s teammates soon followed his lead and pushed themselves even further as well, turning Japan into a dangerous force that constantly threatened the Senegalese defense throughout the second half.
And it was indeed Takaoka who found the way for Japan in the 62nd minute. Despite his diminutive stature, Takaoka mustered his strength and rose above the Senegal defenders, glancing home a header that finally broke the deadlock and gave a re-energized Japan the deserved lead.
Ten minutes later the game was settled then and there by Takaoka once again, this time taking advantage of an error by Senegal goalkeeper Macoura Mboup. Takaoka easily snatched the ball away from a distracted Mboup, before performing the simplest of tap-ins into the empty goal to seal the win for Japan.
Takaoka’s performance was so mesmerizing, the Bandung public immediately fell in love with the Nissho Gakuen High School student, chanting his name throughout the remainder of the second half after his first goal, as well as after the full-time whistle had been blown.
The three points, coupled with Argentina’s 4-0 win over Poland in Jakarta at the same time, meant that Japan finished third in their group, qualifying alongside Argentina and Senegal as one of the four best third-placed teams. The Young Samurai Blues have scored four goals throughout their three games – all of them coming from Takaoka.
Surely such form would warrant Takaoka a spot in Moriyama’s starting eleven? The head coach begged to differ.
“Takaoka’s energy, pace, and finishing skills will overwhelm opponents once they’ve been worn down,” said Moriyama, as quoted from Kompas, “I’ve taken that into consideration when creating the tactics for this match. I believe that Takaoka is a forced to be reckoned with for opponents, especially once he’s given a clear run towards the goal.”
In other words, Takaoka’s playing style suit the role of an impact sub better than as a regular starting player.
Despite this, Takaoka implied that he’s not too keen in becoming a super-sub, instead he desired to be involved in the action since kick-off.
“It’s not very convenient but yes, it’s better to contribute since kick-off,” said Takaoka, as quoted from Tempo.
Being a high-school student in the early 2020s, naturally Takaoka found inspiration for his game from the manga series Blue Lock, though rather humorously, he doesn’t know about the legendary Captain Tsubasa, which was one of the best football mangas of all time.
“Captain Tsubasa? Who’s that?” Rento laughed as he was asked on the matter by Tempo.
Despite this, Rento knew all too well about Michael Owen, the former Liverpool, Real Madrid, and Newcastle United striker that he idolized. He found a commonality between his and Owen’s physique and technical skills, and thus based his playing style around him.
“Owen has a short stature like mine, but he’s very quick and sharp. I learned a lot from him about how to play effectively with such posture,” said Rento, “Just because I’m short, that doesn’t mean I cannot score goals, and I can score headers too even though they ain’t that pretty. I love scoring headers from different angles because they often come from excellent crosses.”
Rento also expressed his admiration for Bandung and its people, admitting that he loved its culinary delights. His words to Tempo implied that he will be missing the city very dearly, as he and his Japan teammates will be moving to Solo for their September 20th round of 16 match against Spain at the Manahan Stadium. The winners of that tie will move on to the quarters, which will be played at the Jakarta International Stadium. Should Japan win that too, they will return to Solo as the semifinals and final are being played there.
It’s interesting to see how Takaoka will fare in the knockouts, but based on his impressive performances, he could be well on his way to become Japan’s next big thing, following in the footsteps of Kaoru Mitoma and Takefusa Kubo.