Takuma Asano was named the Best Young Player of the 2015 J. League season. It may not be long before he becomes the best player in the league, period.
To a hero’s welcome of 500 fans at Haneda international airport, Asano and his Japan teammates came home shortly before midnight Sunday from Doha, where Asano helped his side to the Asian Under-23 Championship with a pair of goals in the final against South Korea the evening before.
Asano came off the bench midway through the second half with Japan down 2-0, cutting into South Korea’s lead with his first goal. After Shinya Yajima equalized, Asano capped his brace in the dying minutes to win it for Makoto Teguramori’s men, who will head to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics as Asian champions.
“We got better with each game,” said Asano, who will get a much-needed week off before rejoining Sanfrecce Hiroshima for a preseason training camp.
“The going got tough for us but we somehow found a way to win. That led to confidence and helped us grow as a group. Me personally, I struggled to score during the tournament but in the final, I was so determined to win the game for us.
“I was putting too much pressure on myself but watching the other guys get the job done motivated me. I felt like I had to follow their lead. Not one player on the team was about to give up and I wanted to make an impact the moment I got in the game.”
One would expect someone who grew up with five brothers and a sister would be clamoring for attention, but Asano, already capped three times for the senior national side, is as humble as they come.
Last season in his third year out of high school, Asano came on strong down the stretch, helping Hiroshima capture its third J. League championship in four years and to an impressive third place at the Club World Cup, nearly stunning South American champion River Plate in the process.
More often than not, the accolades might go straight to the head of a 21-year-old J. League player, but not Asano.
“I have to do a much better of job finishing,” he said. “My teammates set me up a number of times yet I didn’t take the chances I had. I had the two goals in the final, but I wasted so many opportunities. It’s something I can’t ignore and I have to make the effort to work on my game.
“There’s not one player on this team whose place is secure. We all have to fight for a spot and I’m no exception. At the very least, I want to score 10 goals for my club this season.”
Asano is nicknamed “the Jaguar” by his peers and fans for his feline-like pace and his speed is such that, barring injury or an unforeseen incident, he will almost certainly be one of the 18 Teguramori will take with him to Rio in August.
Teguramori has yet to decide if he will call up the three overage players allowed on every team at the Olympics. But even if he does, it should not affect Asano’s standing, as the muscular striker remains the most influential game-changer in Japan at the moment.
“I know there will come a time when I’ll have to make some difficult decisions,” Teguramori said. “The boys know I can only pick 18, and the competition for places will be tough.
“At this point, I haven’t given it any thought one way or the other. I’ll see how we develop in the buildup and then make my decision.”
Once the Olympics, where Japan will try to medal in men’s soccer for the first time since 1968, are out of the way, Asano should become a regular call-up for Vahid Halilhodzic, whose final World Cup qualifying campaign starts in September.
Asano is not hiding the fact that he wants to crack Halilhodzic’s 23 for Russia and at his current rate of development, he won’t have to worry.
“We all think about it,” he said. “Certainly, I want to start getting picked on a regular basis sooner rather than later. Even as I try to take the step to the next level, I hope I can keep playing the way I have been up to this point.”