Having been crowned MVP at last year's AFC U-19 Championship after helping Japan win that tournament for the first time, Ritsu Doan is aiming to shine on the global stage at May's FIFA U-20 World Cup. The diminutive midfielder is also looking to reprise a piece of his nation’s football history.
In 1999, the year after Doan was born, a talented Japan side took the U-20 World Cup by storm, finishing surprise runners-up – their best achievement in the tournament to date. Spearheading that golden generation was Shinji Ono, a midfielder who had picked up the AFC U-19 Championship MVP award before inspiring Japan’s run to the final in Nigeria. Now, with Doan having become just the second Japanese to claim the Asian qualifiers’ top individual award, the ambitious youngster is aiming to take up the former Feyenoord star’s mantle.
"He (Ono) is a great player and of course I want to become a good footballer like him," the 18-year-old Gamba Osaka winger told FIFA.com. "Those players (Japan’s 1999 U-20 side) are our heroes; they lifted Japanese football to a new level. It will be important for us to put in good performances (in Korea) if we are to follow in their big footsteps."
Born to a football-loving family, Doan started playing the game with his two brothers. But he didn't consider pursuing a football career until the coach of his junior school team gifted him a DVD of Diego Maradona. "When I watched this DVD, I was obsessed and inspired," he recalled. "I just couldn't resist the temptation of dreaming of playing with great stars like him. I was aware that I could only achieve this if I became professional."
His dreams having been kindled, Doan quickly emerged as one of the country’s top prospects and was selected by Japan for the 2014 AFC U-16 Championship. He was one of the team's biggest stars during that campaign, although it ultimately ended in disappointment as they missed out on a place at the following year's FIFA U-17 World Cup.
Despite that near miss, the competition proved to be a launching pad for Doan’s career. Last year, he returned to the Asian stage stronger and ready to help Japan make up for that missed opportunity two years earlier. Doan excelled throughout the group stage from his role on the right wing, then scored in the 4-0 quarter-final win over Tajikistan that sealed his team’s place at Korea Republic 2017, before capping a fine tournament by converting from the spot as Japan overcame Saudi Arabia on penalties in the final.
"I was very happy that we became champions,” he said, reflecting on Japan’s historic maiden success in the U-19 tournament. "We entered the Asian competition knowing that our fans had high expectations. When we reached the final, we spoke to each other of 'doing something which had never been achieved', and we managed to do that. Now we are Asian champions and can play with greater confidence.
"Personally, I felt honoured to be named MVP but I was not satisfied with my performances,” he added. “I didn’t play the way I wanted. My team winning the title made it possible for me to earn this award. I’m not sure if I am worthy of it but of course I’m happy that I contributed to the team."
Besides his excellent showings with Japan’s youth sides, Doan has made similarly impressive progress at club level, breaking through to the first team at Gamba Osaka. And it is another member of Japan’s 1999 U-20 World Cup side, Yasuhito Endo, who acts as his guiding light at the J.League outfit.
"He is my role model and he really inspires me," Doan said of his 37-year-old team-mate and club captain. "We have often been in the same room during training camps and we always talk about football."
Surrounded by memories of Japan’s greatest football achievements to date, the youngster also believes it is significant that he was born on 16 June 1998 - two days before his country’s FIFA World Cup™ debut in France. "It feels like destiny for me," he concluded. "I will do my best to gain experience in the years ahead and become a unique player - a player who can lift Japanese football to an even higher level."