KOFU – Ventforet Kofu might be struggling to keep their heads above water this season, but striker Mike Havenaar is making a big splash in the J. League’s first division.
Kofu went into its first top-flight campaign since 2007 hoping to build on the momentum that carried it to a runnerup finish in J2 last year, but the step up in quality has so far proved beyond the reach of the Yamanashi club. Promising early results have spiraled into a steady free fall to leave Ventforet currently six points from safety in the relegation places, with manager Toshiya Miura making way for Satoru Sakuma earlier this month in a bid to escape the drop.
Amid the gloom, however, Havenaar’s form has given room for optimism. The Hiroshima-born son of Dutch former J. League goalkeeper Dido Havenaar has hit nine goals so far in a breakthrough season, picking up from where he left off last year as J2 top scorer with 20.
“For the team it’s not going so well because we’re in the bottom three, but personally I’ve got nine goals and it’s been very good,” the 24-year-old said at Ventforet’s training ground earlier this week. “But the team is more important than myself, and it’s not going so well. The level in the first division is completely different, and I need to learn a lot of things still. But so far I’m doing very well and I hope to learn more and get better with every single game.”
Wins over heavyweights Nagoya Grampus, Gamba Osaka and Kashima Antlers have provided rare moments of glory for Ventforet, but Havenaar — who scored in each of those victories — knows that adding Urawa Reds’ scalp on Saturday will mean nothing unless his team can capitalize on the good times.
“Nagoya had a lot of injured players and we were lucky to win, but that gave us some confidence,” he said of Kofu’s 3-1 victory over the champions in May. “But as it turned out it wasn’t so good for the team because we haven’t been able to win much since then. Maybe for those teams it’s their motivation. We are a very weak team so maybe they think it’s going to be an easy game. But we try our best every game, so maybe on Saturday we can win.”
Havenaar’s form has not escaped national team manager Alberto Zaccheroni’s attention, with the 194-cm forward called up for a training camp prior to last week’s friendly against South Korea. Although Havenaar missed the cut for the final squad, he has no doubt where his allegiance lies despite his Dutch parentage.
“I was born in Japan, I was raised here and all my friends are here,” said Havenaar, who attended Yokohama International School. “I’ve never lived in the Netherlands and I’ve got nothing there. At the World Cup I’m always cheering for the Netherlands, but my heart is in Japan so I would rather be a Japanese national team player.
“It was a big honor to be called up because I had been playing all my life in Japan, and as a professional I wanted to be in the national team of Japan. It was my dream and what I have always looked forward to. I didn’t make the team last time against Korea, but at the camp I had a good experience and I would like to keep my confidence going and get called up again.”
But Havenaar’s pride in his Japanese identity has not always been shared by others. An away game against Kashiwa Reysol in April was marred by racial taunts, raising questions over fan behavior in a season where Shimizu S-Pulse’s Iranian manager Afshin Ghotbi has also suffered abuse.
“During the Kashiwa game they shouted “go back to the white land” and all that crazy stuff,” Havenaar said. “That didn’t matter to me, but after that they were saying things about my mum and dad, and I didn’t feel so good about that so I reported it. The things they say about me I don’t mind, but the things they say about my parents I can’t tolerate.
“It’s not that big a problem, but with the coach from Shimizu S-Pulse it was just stupid supporters in the crowd. It’s not a huge problem, but maybe some people want to say something without thinking what they are talking about.”
Having begun his career at Yokohama F. Marinos, Havenaar’s season has also been clouded by the sudden death of former teammate Naoki Matsuda. Matsuda died two days after collapsing in training with JFL team Matsumoto Yamaga on Aug. 2, and for Havenaar the grief is still raw.
“I went to meet him the day before he passed away, and it was just a sad thing to watch because I have seen him fighting in games,” he said. “He was a veteran player who would always give you motivation when you were playing and a lot of advice in training, so it was just a sad thing to watch.
“I just kept crying the day I saw him alive with all the tubes in his mouth and nose. It’s just something you couldn’t watch. The next day he passed away and it was a very sad feeling inside.”
For all the problems along the way, however, this season has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for Havenaar. For one thing, after growing up watching a father who made 222 appearances for Japanese clubs, he is no longer living in the shadow of a more illustrious name.
“I watched every game my dad played in, and I was born in Japan and brought up in Japan, so I always thought that one day I would play in the J. League as well,” he said. “When my name came up in the newspapers it was always ‘Dido’s son, Mike Havenaar,’ and I didn’t like that. But now it’s just ‘Mike Havenaar,’ and that’s like saying I have become, not a superstar yet, but someone that everyone knows. Now I have my own status.”