It might not be immediately obvious from his name, but Mike Havenaar represents one of Japan’s most valuable attacking assets as they enter the final stage of qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. It is the latest step in an unorthodox career for the son of Dutch immigrants now plying his trade in his parents’ homeland.
In 1986, Dutch goalkeeper Dido Havenaar left ADO Den Haag to try his hand at the Japan Soccer League. The Land of the Rising Sun was not renowned for attracting foreign players – especially Europeans – at the time, but at 29 years of age, Havenaar embraced his role of footballing pioneer, settling in Hiroshima with his wife, a former national heptathlon champion.
Their son was born the following year, on 20 May 1987, and seven years down the line, the family became naturalised Japanese citizens.
“I really like Arnhem as a city, and it took just six months for me to feel at home here, but Japan is where my roots are,” said the tall striker to FIFA.com, fresh from Vitesse Arnhem’s recent success in a play-off for a place in next season’s UEFA Europa League.
With his father currently coaching goalkeepers at Shimizu S-Pulse and his younger brother performing in central defence for Nagoya Grampus’ youth team and the national U-17 side, Japanese football has become a veritable family affair for the Havenaars.
We’re better than we were, and we’re still improving. I’ll say it again, we’re looking more solid with every passing match.
Since 2005, Havenaar, who netted five goals in the Eredivisie this season, has played at U-18, U-19 and U-20 level before being called up to the senior Japan squad by national coach Alberto Zaccheroni in September 2011 for a FIFA World Cup qualifying match against Korea DPR.
The following month, he recorded his first goal in a Japan jersey against Tajikistan. But having made just 17 appearances in the Dutch top flight thus far, the forward - who signed from Japanese second-division outfit Ventforet Kofu, for whom he scored 20 goals in 30 matches - is still undergoing an apprenticeship in European football.
“The intensity involved in winning the ball and the speed of the game have been the two areas where I’ve had to adapt the most,” he said. “To get better, I still need to work on those aspects of my game. Football is really quite different here, and it takes time to adjust. I’d hoped to play more often and score more goals,” continued the frontman.
“I’ve still got work to do to get to where I’d like to be,” he explained. “Playing professional football was always a dream and ambition of mine. It goes without saying that it was something I always wanted to do.”
How much of a factor is paternal influence? “It isn’t at all, really – my dad doesn’t play an important part in my career choices. We often talk about football, but I wouldn’t say he has a particular influence over me,” replied Havenaar junior.
Forging a successful career in his parents’ native continent is very important to the Vitesse player, however. He knows that his height will be a major advantage when it comes to achieving that goal, but that in Europe more diverse skills are required. “The fact that I’m tall isn’t everything, because I still have lots of things to work on in order to establish myself in Europe. I’m aware of that, and I know what I need to focus on,” he said.
The Samurai Blue's qualifying campaign for Brazil 2014 should enable Havenaar to continue to develop and mature as a player. He views Italian coach Zaccheroni as the ideal man to oversee that career progression “He’s the coach that Japan needed,” said the rangy target man.
“His tactical approach suits the way we want to play the game. He brings a huge amount to the team. With him in charge, we’ve got better and better with each game; I really do think that we needed a foreign coach to compete with the top European and South American nations,” he continued.
Havenaar is clearly optimistic that Japan can book a place at FIFA’s flagship tournament in two years’ time, even though a significant hurdle awaits them in Group B of the final round of Asian qualifying. “Australia are a good team and will make it difficult for us,” he said.
“But we’ve beaten them in the past and we can do it again. We’re better than we were, and we’re still improving. I’ll say it again, we’re looking more solid with every passing match,” he concluded in a calm and confident tone. Having made his mark in Japan and the Netherlands, Havenaar is now hopeful of doing the same in Brazil.