Even at this early stage, the FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011 has provided plenty of memorable moments, though none as poignant as those involving Japan. Before both their group games thus far, the team have filed out onto the huge pitch at the Estadio Universitario de Monterrey and stood with quiet dignity before the crowd, expressing their gratitude with the aid of a giant banner to all those who helped after disaster struck the country in March.
The message of appreciation has not been limited to that straightforward and sincere ‘thank you’ either. The Samurai Blue have also set about providing a spectacle in their two outings, with forward Masaya Matsumoto one of the key entertainers.
Standing just 1.69m tall, the diminutive super-sub came on to notch Japan’s only goal in their 1-0 win over Jamaica and followed up with an impressive late cameo in their 1-1 draw against France – both performances suggesting the JFA Academy Fukushima player is especially anxious to leave his mark.
With energy to burn and a positive outlook, Matsumoto is clearly playing with all his heart at Mexico 2011, battling for every ball, bursting forward at lung-busting pace and investing each pass with delicate intent. The 16-year-old has sparkled for his side, giving them a fresh edge, and never more so than in their opening match against the Reggae Boyz of Jamaica. Not content with scoring five minutes after being sent on in the 56th minute, he racked up a whole host of chances before the game was out, including an inspired volley that sailed just wide six minutes on from his breakthrough strike.
"I’m delighted to have given my team-mates and my country our first three points,” he said afterwards, quickly bringing a group of reporters under his spell. “I noticed in the first half that spaces might be opening up which my colleagues couldn’t see in the heat of the action. When I went on, I just made the most of them. I’m delighted that ended up making the difference.”
It was only later, however, that the typically reserved youngster broached the subject of his home town for FIFA.com. “It’s a unique experience to play in a World Cup and score a goal,” he began. “We’re getting the chance to play in such big stadiums and in front of so many people.” Looking slightly embarrassed, he added: “There are still lots of people suffering in Fukushima right now. I hope this goal, for what it’s worth, can bring them some solace.”
The thoughtfulness behind those words is typical of a player who has proved himself equally unselfish on the pitch. While some might balk at being started on the bench, Matsumoto harbours no resentment about his role as an impact substitute. “I’m not sad, disappointed or bitter,” he said. “I’m just happy to be here and to be able to offer my team something when my coach decides to send me on.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the player he most looks up to is Brazil’s Kaka, another model of generosity in the modern game. “I hope to have a great international career. He [Kaka] is an example for me to follow.” Despite his tender years, Matsumoto is already setting a fine example of his own.