The Japan national soccer team, which is aiming to qualify for its seventh consecutive World Cup, will announce its final Asian qualifying round squad soon, and 23-year-old Aoi Tanaka, who plays for Fortuna Dusseldorf in Germany, is likely to be selected. He scored the first goal of the match against Australia on October 12, and contributed to the victory, which gave Japan a chance to participate in the World Cup.
The final Asian qualifying round for the World Cup to be held in Qatar next November began in September.
With a yellow light already on for the World Cup, what was needed was the emergence of an obvious savior to change the somber atmosphere.
In the fourth game of the season against Australia, Ao Tanaka was among the 11 players sent out by coach Hajime Moriyasu. Playing in a midfield that had been changed from a 4-2-3-1 system to a 4-3-3, Tanaka scored a valuable first goal eight minutes into the first half. In the position of the so-called inside half that Tanaka played, he was required to join the offense and defense in a well-balanced manner, and for that reason, the relationship with the surroundings became important.
Tanaka, who made his first appearance and first start in the final qualifying round, did it as if he had been playing in the national team for a long time. In the midst of a fixed membership, the activity of a new player after a long absence was fresh, but rather than joy, it brought relief that the possibility of going to the World Cup would not disappear.
He was a key player in the Kawasaki Frontale team that won six titles in his four years with the club, thanks to his one-on-one ability to keep the ball in play and his sense of smell to detect a pinch. Tanaka, who started every game at the Tokyo Olympics this summer, plays for Fortuna Dusseldorf in the German Bundesliga 2. Tanaka, who started every game at the Tokyo Olympics this summer, is now playing for Fortuna Dusseldorf in the German Bundesliga.
In September, an interpreter was present at an interview meeting set up by the club for the local media. The interpreter will support Tanaka until he is able to communicate to some extent, but he plans to leave the field when he is no longer handicapped.
At the beginning of the interview, an unexpected question came from the German media.
“You always smile, is that also your motto in life?”
Tanaka answered with an expression that looked both a little troubled and smiling.
“Yes, I do, and I hope to live happily.
The interview session began with a somewhat relaxed atmosphere.
After two seasons in the first division (18/19 and 19/20), Fortuna has always been a promotion contender in the second division. I asked him how he saw the current state of the club (11th place at the end of the 12th round), having moved here from the J.League champions on that basis.
“We are aware that we are a club that always aims for the top, but of course soccer is not that easy, so sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. I hope we can express more of Ao Tanaka in the next game.
His answer was ambitious. But even so, the real question is, is it possible to aim for the national team even if you are playing in Germany’s second division? The local media also seemed to be concerned about this. The local media seemed to be concerned about the possibility of Tanaka playing in Germany’s second division and becoming a member of the national team.
I think it’s possible (to be called up to the national team even if you belong to a club in the second division),” he said. However, at the moment, there is a gap between me and Wataru (Endo) (Stuttgart, Germany), who is in the same position, so there is definitely a gap in stage. I need to catch up with him as quickly as possible. Being selected for the national team is not my goal, but when I think about playing for the national team, I think it is necessary to raise the stage of the game that we are playing on a daily basis.
Tanaka is also on a fixed-term transfer from Frontale. Tanaka is on a temporary transfer from Frontale. He was asked if he is thinking of returning to Japan after his rental period is over, and how he sees his future. He was asked about his determination.
“Of course, as a footballer, it is normal to aim for the top when you come abroad. But first I want to focus on getting results at Fortuna.
It would be great if he could get promoted to the first division as a member of Fortuna, and it would also be great if he got an offer from a strong club. But he was determined to get a result here first.
At the end of the interview, the German journalists asked Tanaka to say something in German. The interpreter told Tanaka, “Introduce yourself.
“Oh, you’re going to introduce yourself again? I’m Ao. I’m Ao and I’m from Japan. I’m 22 years old (at the time). I’m 22 years old (at the time) and I live in Dusseldorf,” he answered smoothly. It was apparent that Tanaka, who had just arrived in Germany, had been receiving such requests frequently.
After the interview with the German media, the author was given some time to talk. I was asked to refrain from asking questions at the German media interview because of the time and effort required to go through an interpreter. Instead, I was given time to ask questions directly in Japanese.
I asked him again about his experience at the Tokyo Olympics. I guess it would be correct to say that I was hoping for a gold medal and ended up in fourth place.
“I wanted to win a medal, but it was a competition that made me think a lot. I wanted to win a medal, but it was a tournament that made me think a lot, and since there will be no more Olympics, I feel that I need to work harder for the World Cup.
What did it make him think about?
“We were confident in our performance, but our opponents were a step or two ahead of us. Of course we had to compete with them, but my feeling is that if we win one game out of ten and still win a medal, it doesn’t mean we are stronger.
We need to be strong enough to always win against Spain in the semifinals and Mexico in the third place match, both as a team and as individuals. I felt that the distance between us and that level is much greater than I thought it would be. I felt that there was this much of a gap between us, and this is where we stand.
The Tokyo Olympics was the tournament where I was confronted with the reality of the situation.
From now on, he will be aiming for the World Cup in Qatar with the A team. As for Tanaka personally, there is no need for him to stay in the German second division, and depending on his own performance, the German first division and other parts of the world will open up. As I mentioned earlier, the higher the stage you play on, the more you can give back to the national team.
I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to do that,” he said. But I can’t control the fact that I’m going to a different place (transfer), so that’s a different issue. Right now, it is really important for me to leave results with this team, and since there is not much time left until the World Cup, I really need to leave results.
He also reiterated his thoughts on his senior colleague Endo, with whom he is competing for the same position.
“When I look at him from afar, there’s no doubt that he’s more impressive than me, so I think I need to get results on the European stage to catch up with him. My goal is not to make the national team, but to play in the World Cup, so I think I have to play better than the players in the same position.
In his first start against Australia, he played in the midfield with Endo. He is a strong ally of the national team, although he may have to fight for his position in the future.
From summer to autumn, Tanaka’s environment changed dramatically. After the Olympics, he joined the Japanese national team, moved overseas, and became a regular. Still, the challenges in Europe and the road to the World Cup have only just begun. The road ahead is wide open.
Reporting and writing by： Yoshiko Ryokai
Born in Saitama Prefecture in 1975. Graduated from the Department of History, Faculty of Letters, Japan Women's University, and started reporting on soccer in 2001, and became a writer after covering the 2003 World Youth Cup (now U-20 World Cup) in UAE. Has covered four World Cups and three Summer Olympics, and has lived in Dusseldorf, Germany since March 11, 2011.