Kaoru Mitoma’s meteoric rise from university team to Japan’s World Cup squad in the space of three years is something to behold.
The 25-year-old was playing for the University of Tsukuba as recently as 2019 and didn’t make his J1 League debut until a year later with Kawasaki Frontale.
“I was still in university three years ago, so I feel time has flown by. But I feel I have equally developed during that time,” he said.
“And I have learnt a lot by changing the environment I play in too. So I feel where I am now is the result of all the challenges I’ve overcome.”
It’s a typically modest answer from a player who has made quite an impact with Albion in the last few weeks of the Premier League campaign before the World Cup.
Despite only starting two Premier League games, Kaoru’s explosive displays have certainly brought him to Albion supporters’ attention.
Now he will have the opportunity to show the world what he’s capable of in Qatar, in a tournament that got him into the sport in the first place when the competition took place in Japan and South Korea in 2002.
“I think I watched it with my family. But I remember everything from the player names to the match details, so it was a very memorable tournament for me.
“I am excited, but I don’t know what it’s like to play on this stage yet and it’s such a short tournament, so I want there to be no regrets. It was my childhood dream to play at the World Cup.
“I saw and felt how passionate everyone was for this tournament and it was what made me fall in love with football, so I have many memories.”
Kaoru doesn’t anticipate World Cup fever will grip Japan until the tournament starts though, with baseball and sumo wrestling the two most popular sports back home.
“There’s not a lot of build up yet and it’s always the case actually, but the national trait is always to become enthused as soon as the tournament begins. So I feel that as the games progress, the enthusiasm will grow more and more.
“I think the majority of people will watch it at home on their TVs, but there are plenty of bars where people can watch the game together. It’s a time when a lot of people who cannot watch normally get to see the games. So I feel the whole nation always pays attention to this tournament.”
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Japan fans are in for an interesting ride though, with their country in what could be argued is this tournament’s ‘group of death’, as they face Spain, Germany and Costa Rica.
“It will be a tough group stage, for sure,” Kaoru reflected. “But hardly ever would we get the chance to play such good opponents at the World Cup, so I feel it will be a great chance to showcase Japan’s abilities to the world.
“[Alexis] Mac Allister’s Argentina look very exciting. As do Brazil. In the last tournament we lost to Belgium, so we would like to seek revenge against them too.
“I think it means a lot to any footballer to be a part of the World Cup and I want to throw everything that I have into this tournament.”