You would never know Takuma Asano was about to play on the biggest stage of his career and had just signed for Arsenal judging by his relaxed demeanor. Sitting in his team’s hotel lobby, avoiding the middle-of-the-day heat that the Amazon brings in Manaus, Asano shows no sign of anxiety; he’s ready.
Any 21-year-old faced with the kinds of opportunities Asano has before him would be forgiven for focusing on themselves and their careers, especially at such a pivotal developmental stage. When asked about his Olympic dream, unprompted, he wanted to make sure he mentioned his family right off the bat.
“It’s always been one of my dreams to play in the Olympics,” Asano said in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com in Manaus ahead of Japan’s opening match against Nigeria. “It’s definitely one of the biggest football tournaments in the world. Everyone knows about the tournament. It’s really exciting to be part of it. Ever since I turned professional, my family is always wishing for me to be in the Olympics, so it’s definitely good for my family and myself as well.”
Asano grew up in the Mie prefecture in the Kansai region with five brothers and one sister, where his mother cares for the family at home and his father is a truck driver.
“I always thank my parents,” Asano said. “Having many brothers and sisters, they made me humble. Everybody in my family had an opportunity to play football, so definitely I’m thankful to my parents. It just makes me humble.
“Since I’ve been here in Brazil, I’ve already talked with them a few times by video call. They’ll definitely be watching on TV!”
*His family was also pivotal in helping him make a recent major career decision: to join a major European football club, a dream Asano has had from an early age.
“I’ve always wanted to play abroad and I had a few offers before but I was never sure if I should go or not,” Asano said. “Once I was called up for the top national team where there are a lot of players playing abroad. Playing with them made me think that I also want to play and challenge in a foreign league.
“And then I had the offer from Arsenal. Of course, I was still not sure whether to go or not. I talked with my family and friends and felt good about the decision after talking with them.”
Asano had made significant career strides in Japan, being named J-League’s young player of the season in 2015, but as soon as Arsenal’s interest was confirmed, he was introduced to the world.
“I’m ecstatic about everything! With the Olympics and also for Arsenal—I’m still not sure if I’ll actually play for Arsenal right away in the coming season, but definitely I’ll try my best.
“My motto is to give 100 per cent for what’s ahead of myself, so I just want to give my best to everything, whether it be for the Olympics or the new season. Even for my career after the Olympics, I definitely want to try to make the top national team.”
*Ready to lead
*To say 2016 has been a breakthrough year for Asano would be an understatement. Buoyed by a positive performance at the FIFA Club World Cup 2015 with Sanfrecce Hiroshima and being called up to Vahid Halilhodzic’s senior national squad with Japan earlier in the year, Asano went on to help Japan lift the AFC U-23 Championship in Qatar. He scored two goals in Japan’s dramatic 3-2 win against rivals Korea Republic in the final.
“Having been called up to the national team, I see myself as one of the leaders to bring good results with this team,” Asano said. “Without playing well in this team, definitely I don’t have a chance to play at the next level. First things first, we’ll try to do well here and put in good performances in this tournament and then go to the next level.”
In the last Olympic Football Tournament, Japan were defeated 2-0 by Korea Republic in the bronze medal match in Cardiff. Asano made it clear that just because they lost, it didn’t leave him any less motivated to help his country get to the podium next time around.
“Although we couldn't get a medal in the last Olympics, the team performed really well in the tournament,” he said. “They definitely gave me inspiration to go and get a better result this time around.
If he does manage to score goals in Brazil and win a medal for his country, you can bet he will be thinking of his family first. And back in Japan, they will be waiting for a video phone call from Rio, ready to celebrate with their hero.