Picture the scene: Italy and Japan are deadlocked at 3-3 with 79 minutes gone and the east Asians desperately searching for a historic victory that would keep alive their hopes of qualifying for the semi-finals of the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013. Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni decides to bring on one of his prize attackers, so off goes Ryoichi Maeda and in his place comes fellow Japanese striker…Mike Havenaar.
Like many of the spectators who saw his name appear on the big screen, you could have been forgiven for thinking that there was some kind of mix-up. The sense of confusion was no doubt heightened by the appearance of the substitute himself, a strapping lad measuring 1.94 metres tall and with distinctly European looks. In fact this was no error, although the intriguing background of this 26-year old Japanese centre-forward is one worth delving into. Which is why FIFA.com sought out the man himself, who provided some insightful and humorous responses in an exclusive post-match interview.
Choosing between East and West
Mike Havenaar was born in the Japanese city of Hiroshima on 20 May 1987, after his father, Dutch footballer Dido Havenaar, emigrated to the country when he signed for J.League side Mazda FC. Havenaar senior arrived in the Land of the Rising Sun with his wife and daughter on what was intended to be a short-term jaunt. But as the months turned into years, the family settled down to the point that they decided to make the move permanent. Over time, the family welcomed two new additions in Mike and his brother Nikki, who was born in 1995.
So it was that Mike grew up in a typical European household that served as the sole reminder of his distant roots. "When I was little, I spoke Dutch with my parents but Japanese with all of my friends. Initially I felt somewhat torn between the two countries but as I got older, my love for the country where I was born grew. When I had to make a decision about my nationality, there was never any doubt," explains Havenaar, whose accent and gestures seem to combine the two cultures.
Despite Havenaar’s love for his adoptive home, he obviously didn’t fit the mould of your average Japanese youngster. Nevertheless, this only made him even prouder of his heritage: "I know it sounds strange, but my team-mates understood very well who I was, they listened to me and regarded me as one of their own. The same thing applies today, in the national side. I know that I’m different, but that doesn’t prevent me from being equal to everyone else," he says cheerfully.
A destiny mapped out
Havenaar realised from a young age that his was destiny would be decided on the football pitch, where he has all the attributes to succeed, not least an imposing physical presence that is unusual among Japanese footballers. "There aren’t a lot of tall players in the country, so for sure the fact that I’m big has always been an advantage in my career. You only have to look at the current national squad, with me being the only tall forward," points out Havenaar, who has already hit four goals in 16 appearances for the Samurai Blue.
After a highly successful spell with J.Leaguers Ventforet Kofu, Havenaar decided to try his luck in Europe. There was only ever going to be one destination: the Netherlands. So, he made the reverse journey to that of his parents a quarter of a century earlier and signed for Vitesse, where he has chalked up 16 goals in 46 matches. "At first I had trouble acclimatising, but since then the Dutch side in me — which I had kind of forgotten — has really come to the fore. Today I feel great, just like at home actually."
Thanks to his experience in the Netherlands and Japan, the rangy target man now has a rounded appreciation of the differences between both cultures, both on and off the field of play. "In terms of football, the Dutch league is much more physical," explains Havenaar. "That has also helped me to develop another facet of my game. As for life in general, I can say that I prefer Japanese food, it’s the best in the world! And the girls are prettier, smaller and slimmer…wait, that might not be a good thing to say. Dutch girls are very beautiful too!" he adds with a laugh.
The Japanese international gives a more measured response regarding his team’s performances in the FIFA Confederations Cup. Despite two defeats in as many outings since the start of the campaign, Havenaar nevertheless retains a positive outlook. "The important thing for us, beyond the results, was to progress as a team. We played against stronger opponents than those we come across normally. From here, the key is to store up a wealth of experience so that we can use everything we have learned a year from now, at the World Cup," reflects Havenaar, the Dutch striker with Japan in his blood. Or is it the other way round?