When Makoto Hasebe joined Wolfsburg from Uruwa Red Diamonds in January 2008, many experts wondered if the Japanese midfielder would be able to assert himself in Germany's top flight. To their surprise, the 26-year-old made an immediate impact, playing in 16 of his new club's 17 remaining matches that season and scoring his first goal for Die Wölfe towards the end of the campaign.
"The Bundesliga is a lot more physical and quicker than I was used to," Hasebe told FIFA.com. "The quality here is of a very high level. I'm very impressed with the fans. The stadiums are always full and the atmosphere is fantastic. I really like it here."
Having helped Urawa win the J.League in 2006 and the AFC Champions League one year later, Hasebe picked up another medal last season when Wolfsburg seized their maiden Bundesliga crown. His contract is currently due to expire in the summer, but the 26-year-old yet to confirm where he will be playing his football next season.
"I'm fairly open about the future," he explained. "I'd like to stay in Wolfsburg as I really like it here. Either way, I definitely want to continue playing football in Europe. My favourite clubs are VfL Wolfsburg and Uruwa Red Diamonds in Japan."
South African dream
At club level, the defensive midfielder is already well on his way to becoming an established Bundesliga player as well as an integral part of the Japanese national team. Though his dreams of an appearance at 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ were dashed when he was omitted from then-coach Zico's final squad, Hasebe is hoping to prove himself on the biggest stage in South Africa this summer.
"I think I should be in the starting eleven," he stated with a confidence borne of his ever-presence in Japan's unbeaten Asian Zone qualification campaign [six wins, three draws]. "For me, appearing at the World Cup would be a great, great honour. It's been my dream since I was a young kid."
Asked to assess his side's chances in South Africa, Hasebe had this to say: "We've been dealt a difficult draw but I'm optimistic. We lost a friendly match against the Netherlands 3-0 in September, but it was 0-0 until late in the second half. Cameroon obviously have Eto'o - he's a fantastic striker. Denmark were also good in qualifying and beat Portugal and Sweden easily to first place in their group."
Hasebe feels that competing against some of the game's top players in Europe continues to be an education, and that Asian players back home could also learn a thing or two from following his lead. "They need to become more athletic and add a bit more power to their game," he said.
While some feel Japan will have their work cut out securing one of the top two spots in Group E, the team itself is not short on ambition. "Our coach has set us the goal of reaching the semi-finals. That's our aim," insisted Hasebe. Aside from confidence, Takeshi Okada's troops also have one other thing in abundance: "Our biggest strength is our teamwork. We stick together and every player fights for one another."
If Hasebe is indeed to achieve his dream of making the last four at South Africa 2010, then his side are going to have to work on their shooting skills in particular. Hasebe, himself, has only managed one goal so far for Japan, in a 4-0 win over Hong Kong.
"I certainly need to score more often," admitted the man capped 27 times for his country. And if the midfielder can add a few more to his international tally come June, he might just fulfil another lifelong ambition and come face to face with his idol, Liverpool and England star Steven Gerrard.