Japan striker Takuma Asano should have been familiar to Arsenal fans when he scored his country’s winning goal against Germany at the World Cup on Wednesday.
Japan have been a permanent fixture of the World Cup since qualifying for the first time in 1998 and have reached the knockout stages on three occasions – 2002, 2010 and 2018.
But victory over four-time champions Germany, coming back from a goal down, is arguably their biggest ever World Cup result to date.
Ritsu Doan scored with just 15 minutes plus stoppage time remaining, cancelling out a first half penalty from Germany’s Ilkay Gundogan. Asano then netted a well-taken winner in the 83rd minute.
Arsenal fans might be forgiven for initially not realising he was the same player who arrived in north London in 2016 with the potential to be a star of the future. Asano is now much older, having just turned 28 and sporting a bleach blonde hairstyle that almost makes him unrecognisable from the 21-year-old once photographed holding up an Arsenal shirt with Arsene Wenger.
Asano made his name in Japan with Sanfrecce Hiroshima, winning a J1 League title in 2015 and being named the competition’s Rookie of the Year for his nine goals – 18 in all competitions.
Arsenal saw fit to take him to England in the summer of 2016. In that moment, Wenger described Asano as a ‘talented young striker’ and ‘very much one for the future’. The legendary manager also referred to Asano as a ‘player I believe in a lot’ – a tremendous statement of faith.
But by the time Asano left in 2019, he had never made a competitive appearance for the club.
Red tape was the issue. Asano was still new to senior international football at the time and hadn’t played enough games in the preceding two years to meet the work permit criteria.
Arsenal were therefore unable to use him and a loan to Stuttgart in Germany’s second tier was quickly arranged instead. Sadly for Asano, he didn’t set the world alight in a team that won promotion, scoring just four times in 26 league games, and did even less the following year.
Having struggled at Stuttgart, Asano sealed another loan to Germany in 2018 upon missing out on Japan’s World Cup squad due to a lack of playing time at club level. He joined Hannover and vowed to go ‘full throttle’ to make an impact in the Bundesliga.
Sadly, it was more of the same. The player couldn’t realise the potential that had once made Wenger such a fan. He failed to score in 13 Bundesliga appearances and ended up being dropped to prevent a clause obligating Hannover to make the deal permanent from being triggered.
Asano was released by Arsenal that summer, with the news barely making a ripple. He wound up in Serbia with Partizan Belgrade and at last rediscovered his best form. During the 2020/21 season, the striker scored 21 times in all competitions and returning to Germany at the end of his short contract.
These days, Asano is with Bundesliga side Bochum, which brings with it a twist of irony that his catapult to 15 seconds of World Cup fame came against Germany.
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