Mid-table mediocrity tends to signify a season that won’t live long in the memory. Without having something to raise the pulse, be it silverware, European hopes or relegation fears, that year of action can be left gathering dust at the back of the mind soon after the final whistle blows. That’s unlikely to be the case for Mike Havenaar, who has seen it reignite his FIFA World Cup™ dreams again.
An 11th-place finish in the Dutch Eredivisie with ADO Den Haag symbolises a year that has brought him back into the Japan fold and the top of his game, after trying times left him questioning his place in, and his love for, football.
After pulling on the shirt of Japan at the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013, as well as being a regular face in helping Samurai Blue reach the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil, the striker of Dutch heritage had hoped to get the call from Alberto Zaccheroni to return to South America. But he was passed over and an ill-fated move to Cordoba from Vitesse followed, where Havenaar admits “there were a lot of problems”. After less than six months in Spain, he ended a frustrating 2014 without a club.
But the most challenging period was still to come. As his time without a team stretched into the new year, his confidence and fitness plummeted. “It was tough maintaining my condition, while there was a lot of stuff going on in my mind too,” he told FIFA.com.
“My motivation was so bad that it was difficult to get back up. But the important thing was that I didn’t stay down and started playing football again.” That opportunity came in Finland, of all places. He joined HJK Helsinki after three months out of the game, though adjusting from league debuts in front of 70,000 fans in the Bernabeu to 1,200 in Rovaniemi less than eight months later was a shock to the system.
“The first few months were very difficult,” the Hiroshima native admitted, where temperatures rarely get far below freezing – which is certainly not the case in the Finnish capital. “But it didn’t matter where I played, I started to enjoy football again. My father always told me when I was younger that being a footballer is the best job in the world and that’s what I thought too. As soon as I got a new team I started working hard again, and it paid off.”
That it was fatherly advice which kept him going is apt, as Havenaar Jnr was about to follow in some familiar footsteps. “A good offer came from ADO, my dad’s old team,” Mike explained, whose goalkeeping father Dido began his career there. “He said it was a good club and had enthusiastic fans, and he was excited as well. It was nice,” the Japanese international said with an audible smile, recalling that turning point.
“A lot of fans knew my father. It’s nice seeing old pictures around the stadium and in the museum, then you catch sight of your dad with this very weird haircut,” he laughed. Mike’s career has often featured shades of his father’s path through football, no less than starting out at Yokohama F Marinos while Dido was the club’s goalkeeping coach.
“It was kind of difficult,” the forward hesitantly recalled. “The players know that your dad is also a coach, so they realise they can’t say anything bad in the locker room,” seemingly akin to a son whose father teaches at their school. “But I didn’t really care, it was only for a year or so.”
I want to become the physical figure in the Japanese national team, winning the duels and being the target man.
Despite his physique making him fit the bill for a goalkeeper, standing at 6’4 (194cm), there was never any inclination to ape his dad’s career to the letter. “As a kid I always enjoyed playing with the ball at my feet, rather than saving it. On my days off from school I went to my dad’s training a lot, and after he would stand in goal and I would kick the ball at him. I think through that I became more of a striker than a goalkeeper.”
Having passed up the chance to learn the keeping trade from a professional, Havenaar Jnr is particularly happy his choice to score, rather than save, was vindicated. “If I hadn’t made it as a professional I may well have thought if I’d become a goalkeeper I would have!” But with a heptathlete for a mum, he may have always been destined for sport.
Despite his Dutch upbringing, a move to Vitesse was far from a smooth transition. “I really didn’t understand all the players, as I had only heard my parents talk Dutch to me!” he admitted. “Then everyone is talking to me, and with an accent – I didn’t understand a thing - for the first few weeks I thought I wasn’t in the Netherlands! I tried to talk in Dutch as well, but if they didn’t understand I’d just talk in English.”
Back in blue
But revisiting his parents’ roots has seen a return to his best form – scoring one in every two games in the Eredivisie in a 4-3-3 set-up that suits his poaching style. This caught the eye of new Japan boss Vahid Halilhodzic and saw him back amongst the squad, with Havenaar’s target-man talents something of a rarity amongst their pool of players. From the forward’s perspective, the Bosnian’s side could be an environment he can thrive in.
“He is more of a coach who wants to go on the counter-attack, which is a bit different,” Havenaar explained. “He also assesses those who are playing, wanting those on the field to know that when I come on he wants a lot of crosses. He wants to get everything out of us.
“I want to become the physical figure in the Japanese national team, winning the duels and being the target man, but I need to show myself and score some goals to stay in the team.”
Having been with Japan as they booked their place in Round 3 of Asian qualifying, Havenaar believes they are one of the favourites to reach Russia 2018, even if the challenges are plentiful in Group B. “UAE are a really upcoming team, with a lot of good young players, while Iraq have done well for a long time also and Australia of course are one of the biggest teams in Asia.”
There’s particular motivation for the former Ventforet Kofu striker to make it to Russia, having had a taste from the stands during Korea/Japan 2002 aged 15. “I went to see England-Argentina, with David Beckham’s penalty,” he said, recalling the games from the Sapporo Dome, where his father coached at the time. “I also watched Germany beat Saudi Arabia 8-0, where Miroslav Klose scored three goals, as well as Italy-Ecuador. It was a nice experience to see these players play in front of you.
“At my age, I think [Russia 2018] is the last World Cup I will have a chance for. It’s every child’s dream to go to a World Cup and I’d like to take this chance, as it’s my final one, I think.”