In the next year of qualifying for the 2014 Brazil World Cup, a man with a very un-Japanese-sounding name will play a key role for the Samurai Blue.
Forward Mike Havenaar is battling for a spot on the Japanese national team as it plays in the final round of the Asian 2014 World Cup qualifiers.
The 25-year-old striker was born in Hiroshima to Dutch parents who became naturalized Japanese citizens. He's being counted on since Samurai Blue forward Tadanari Lee, who was expected to nab a position as a regular, dropped out of the running due to a broken toe on his right foot. Ryoichi Maeda is also a strong contender, but Havenaar’s height, at 194 centimeters, gives him an advantage. Midfield ace Keisuke Honda says, “We have to take advantage of (Havenaar’s) height."
Havenaar had experience representing Japan at Asian qualifiers in various age-designated teams, but he felt enormous pressure when he got called up to coach Alberto Zaccheroni's squad.
“I felt a lot of pressure, even during the third round of qualifiers,” Havenaar says modestly. “Among the national side, I’m the worst. So I gain a lot just from training with the nation’s best.”
Soccer runs in the Havenaar family. Havenaar's father, Dido, played as a goalie for the team representing Nagoya and others.
Mike Havenaar went on to a J.League career of his own, and last fall made his debut with Zaccheroni's national team.
In December, Havenaar made the jump to Europe with Dutch club SBV Vitesse Arnhem. He says he finds it a lot different than the J.League.
One day, manager John van den Brom criticized a player who failed to mark his opponent during a corner kick. The player refused to admit his mistake, claiming that his actions did not cause the team to give up any goals.
In the Netherlands, Havenaar says, it’s common for players to talk back to their team managers. Fights break out almost on a daily basis.
Havenaar is fluent in Japanese, Dutch and English. He says the soccer culture in the Netherlands has been quite a shock for him.
“If this was Japan, (the player) would definitely be taken off the roster," he says. "I feel like sometimes these guys have a screw loose in their heads."
He adds that most players in the Netherlands are hungry to move up to better clubs.
“No one intends to play in the Dutch league for their entire career,” Havenaar says.
With Vitesse, Havenaar has maintained his Japanese approach to soccer. Instead of convincing the manager of his talents with words, he trains hard and lets his actions speak for themselves by producing results on the pitch.
“I want to be picked for games in a way that everyone will be convinced that I deserve to be there,” he says.
When he made his professional debut in 2006 with the Yokohama F Marinos, Havenaar failed to produce results.
“I felt so much pressure and panic that I lost sight of who I was,” he says, looking back.
He slowly gained match time with J2 club teams Avispa Fukuoka and Sagan Tosu, and grew confident. In 2009, Havenaar made 15 goals for Sagan. Thanks to these results, some J1 club teams offered to sign him, but he chose to play for J2 club Ventforet Kofu because he felt there was more he wanted to accomplish in the second division. In 2010, he became the top scorer in J2 after scoring 20 goals. That propelled him and his team back to J1.
“I wanted to gain skills in a way that was good from anyone’s perspective, and move up the ranks,” he says.
After he was chosen for the Best XI in the top flight in 2011, Havenaar made the decision to move to the Netherlands.
“I wanted to make sure that I get better,” he says of his career move.
On the national team, Havenaar has made an impact, scoring two goals during the October 2011 third-round qualifying match against Tajikistan, which helped propel Japan to the final round of preliminaries. Thanks to this performance, Zaccheroni gave Havenaaar a chance to play in the next two matches.
But the competition to remain in Japan's starting lineup will remain tough. Only 23 players can go to the World Cup if Japan earns a ticket.
Havenaar says the 2014 Brazil World Cup--when he’ll be 27--is perfect timing for him.
“This is the global stage that all athletes aim to play on," he says. "I definitely want to go when I’m ready. I hope to contribute to the Samurai Blue.”
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