Japanese players have made a name for themselves playing in the German Bundesliga, and that has boosted the national team throughout this decade. From Shinji Kagawa to Shinji Okazaki, Atsuto Uchida to Yuya Osako and beyond, the turn of the century has seen an immense influx of Far Eastern players coming to the home of the reigning world champions. It’s easy to see why Germans prefer the Japanese and vice versa: the typical work ethic is high and the team spirit and that of unity is a common trait amongst the Japanese and Germans. Another player making his name in Germany is Yoshinori Muto, who has worn the red of Mainz since 2015.
The 25-year-old moved to Germany in the summer of 2015, and while he hasn’t quite garnered the same reputation in Japan, there is optimism for his future. Muto started his career with his hometown club FC Tokyo, developing through the youth ranks while also keeping an eye on his education, focusing on economics at the Keio University, and later joining their university team. A university that keeps a keen focus on sport, at Keio, he was able to focus on work and play and that resulted in a call-up with FC Tokyo, who assigned him as their “Special Designated Player” – a rule which allows professional clubs to field university students.
In 2014, Muto signed his first professional contract with the club, and in his debut season, he bagged 13 league goals in 33 appearances, which is a joint-record in the J-League for a player in his debut season and even made his first appearance for the national team, being touted as a potential starter for years to come following their disappointing World Cup campaign in Brazil. His first goal for the Samurai Blue came against Venezuela in a friendly in September 2014 in only his second appearance. By the end of the 2014 season, he was named in the J-League’s Team of the Season following a stellar first season as a professional footballer.
Just a year after making his debut, he was a keen subject of interest to several European clubs including Manchester United and more prominently, Chelsea, who were keen to continue building their brand in the Asian market following a shirt sponsorship deal with Japanese tyre manufacturers, Yokohama. A £5 million bid was made and confirmed by FC Tokyo’s president, Naoki Agone, which would’ve been a record sum paid for an outgoing player and that was a testament to just how good Muto was. A move never truly materialised, however, and he stayed in Japan and continued to build his reputation, before moving to Mainz just a few months later.
A player that can play on either wing or as an out-and-out forward, his fine dribbling skill and composure on the ball makes him a direct threat in attack. He has shown his ability to carry the ball forward and bring directness to the attack, which can be important to his sides on the counter-attack as evident for both Mainz and Tokyo in the past. At the World Cup, however, he isn’t expected to be a starter, with the likes of Takashi Inui, Yuya Osako and Genki Haraguchi taking up the spots he would ideally find himself in. Nevertheless, he can be a key feature off the bench, especially late in the game with his speed being a key asset.
However, if there are also several aspects Muto lacks. Standing at a mere 178 centimetres (5 feet 8 inches), Muto lacks the physical presence and that has often hindered his aerial game – something that perhaps wasn’t appropriate to his suitors in England. Furthermore, his injury record isn’t exactly a pleasing one, as evident since he came to Europe, as he has spent several weeks out on the side-lines since his arrival in Germany, which has restricted him from being a frequent starter for Mainz and the Japanese national team.
In Germany, he has made history for himself and his nation, often proving to be a key cog for Mainz. Early in his time, he became only the second Japanese footballer to score a hat-trick in the Bundesliga when he scored all three goals against FC Augsburg. And in the 2017-18 season, with Mainz finding themselves in a relegation dogfight, Muto scored what would be the eventual winner against Champions League-chasing Borussia Dortmund to help Mainz stave of relegation and confirm another season in the German top-flight. Recent weeks have also seen interest in him from Newcastle United, and with him still being 25-years-old, it would be a fine investment.
By: Karan Tejwani
Photo: Kaoru Watanabe