HAUTE-GARONNE, FRANCE - Japan defender Gen Shoji has already endured a bruising experience against one global superstar in Cristiano Ronaldo, but hopes that experience will work in his favor when he confronts another in the shape of French World Cup winner Kylian Mbappe on Sunday.
Shoji gets his chance to shut out Mbappe, one of soccer’s hottest properties, when his Toulouse team take on mighty Paris Saint-Germain in Ligue 1.
The 26-year-old, who arrived in France in the winter transfer window, came off worse when Ronaldo bagged a hat trick in a 4-2 win for Real Madrid over the Kashima Antlers at the 2016 Club World Cup.
“With my Japanese club, we tried to stop Ronaldo collectively. In France, when we defend, I feel as if the individual duel is more important so I will have to adapt the way I do things against Mbappe and the others,” said Shoji.
“To compare Ronaldo and Mbappe, I will have to have played both of them. I should have a better idea after the game but it will be complicated.”
Shoji, a native of Kobe, left Kashima — his only previous club — after 11 years and has helped Toulouse to a respectable mid-table place in Ligue 1.
“I wanted to have new experiences,” said Shoji, who admitted he has had to quickly adapt to a vastly different culture in France.
“You have to get out of your shyness. In Japan, if you are a little reserved someone will come to you; here, if you don’t make the effort, no one will come to you.”
To help him integrate in La Ville Rose (The Pink City), Toulouse has drafted in Japanese compatriot Toru Ota, who has played in the women’s teams at Lyon and PSG.
She interprets for Shoji in the dressing room and translates tactical tips being passed on to the pitch from the bench. A French teacher is also in the process of being hired.
Shoji opted against joining Toulouse after the World Cup last summer because he wanted to help Kashima win the Asian Champions League for the first time.
With that ambition achieved in November, Shoji was free to move to France in a €3 million deal.
“He learns very quickly. He has been a good purchase,” said Toulouse coach Alain Casanova.
For his part, Shoji believes that from a technical perspective “the Japanese championship is perhaps better” but “Ligue 1 is superior when you add in the speed and physicality.”
“I was very surprised by the quality of French football,” added the 15-time capped international.
“But you will see and I do not know when, maybe it will be after me, but one day, Japan will go very, very far at the World Cup,” he predicted.
In his brief Ligue 1 career, Shoji has endured some sobering experiences — a 5-0 rout at the hands of Lyon was particularly painful.
“In Japan, with Kashima, we won all the time. I have never thought that I have made a bad choice. I don’t have any experience of a team that has these kind of difficulties,” he said. “It’s important to have this kind of experience.”
Casanova is confident that Shoji will be a success story in France. To help his new recruit, he has even picked up a smattering of Japanese.
“I have mastered the main words — hello and goodbye!,” Casanova said.