In mid-May, he was matched up with his favorite carbonara at a cafe in Genk. The “assist king” is looking full of life before the final match.
Even after 6 pm, the sun had not set in Genk (Limburg, Belgium) in spring, and citizens were chatting over coffee on an open terrace in the square. Compared to the hustle and bustle of urban life in Japan, Genk is a fairly quiet place.
Junya Ito (29) seemed genuinely embarrassed as he began filming on a street corner in Genk.
The flamboyant blond hero, who scored four consecutive goals to save Japan’s worst start to a World Cup Asian qualifying campaign with two losses and one win, is not fond of people noticing that he is Ito. He is a shy man who does not like the attention.
When Ito scored a goal, he exploded with joy, but when we asked him to look back on that moment, he said,
“I was playing desperately thinking, ‘We have to win’ and I just happened to score a goal.”
He was very indifferent. On the other hand, he was very realistic about the cross from the right side that led to Takumi Minamino’s (27) first goal against Saudi Arabia (Japan won 2-0), the biggest game of the qualifying round.
“That one goal was huge. I was thinking, ‘Please score!’ And when it did, I was like, ‘Nice!’”
Ito was modest about his own goal, but he expressed his feelings for the team and his fellow players as he spoke about the assist.
Ito described his strong points as his one-on-one play with the defender, and his crossing. In February 2007, Ito, who had made a name for himself in the J-League as a dribbler, moved to Belgium to hone his strengths.
In the three and a half years he has been with the club, the six coaches have been Belgian, German, Danish, and Dutch, and their tactics have varied from attacking to counter soccer, but the coaches have always used Ito in their games. Ito gained a wealth of international experience.
“I played in the Champions League (CL) and Europa League, and I was able to play with confidence against teams from many different countries. In the CL, I played against Liverpool, and you can only play against the best of the best in the world if you come here.”
In his first year with Genk, Ito won the Belgian league championship, and although the team did not do well this season, finishing eighth in the standings, Ito was the leading assist with 16 points.
Ito’s confidence grew as he continued to play in Belgium, and he was able to produce results for the Japanese national team, and he brought that momentum back to Genk to show his ability. Such a virtuous cycle was born for Ito.
When he was playing in Japan, he could not have imagined that he would become the player he is today.
“I didn’t think I would be able to do this.”
His answer was filled with frankness.
Players of the same generation, such as Takashi Usami (30) and Gaku Shibasaki (30), were all talented players who had been called the “platinum generation” since they were teenagers. Before turning pro, however, Ito was an unknown player who only made it to the top 32 in Kanagawa Prefecture when he was a student at Zuyo High School. “I’m not a member of the ‘platinum generation,'” he says with a touch of self-deprecation. Even when he was selected for the national team, he had to decline because of his shyness, saying, “I didn’t have any friends.”
His turning point came when he entered Kanagawa University. However, after playing in games since his freshman year, Ito realized that his abilities were on par with the best players at other schools, and he felt that he could become a professional player.
Ito was lucky enough to catch the eye of a Kofu scout who was following Sho Sasaki (32, now at Hiroshima), a player three years his senior at Kanagawa University, and Ito joined the club. From there, he moved to the prestigious Kashiwa, where he earned his first call-up to the Japan national team and a ticket to Genk.
Ito’s move to Europe at the age of 26 was a late one, given the recent trend. It was not until he was almost 30 that he became a mainstay of the Japanese national team.
“Everything in my career is connected,” he said. “Maybe if I had gone to a different place and played soccer properly, I could have become a top player earlier. But that’s just a case of ‘what if’. On the other hand, my career might have ended earlier.”
For 23 years since he started playing soccer at Kamo SC (Yokosuka), which he joined in the first grade of elementary school, he has always been given opportunities to play in games, and he has steadily worked his way up the ladder one step at a time until he has made it to the World Cup tournament.
Ito is a tough guy. He competes for the top team minutes every year at Genk, and as a member of the Japanese national team, he repeatedly travels long distances to the Middle East, East Asia, and Australia.
“I hardly miss a game. I think the best reason for this is because I haven’t had any serious injuries. It is very tiring to play in a series of matches, but I am managing somehow.”
Ito says that he inherited his speed from his father, who is also a professional softball pitcher, “I hear he’s faster than me. (laugh)”. However, his toughness cannot be explained, only by “a gift from heaven”. When asked, he says he doesn’t like running.
“I don’t like running. I don’t mind running for soccer, but other than that I can’t bring myself to do it,” Ito says.
When he was asked about the secret of his ability, he said, “Before I turned pro, I used to dash up the hill in front of my house with my brother,”
In the World Cup group leagues, Japan was to play Germany and Spain, two of the strongest countries in Europe. When the matchups were decided, there were screams in Japan that they were a group of death.
“I am looking forward to it, because we will be playing against strong teams.” Genk’s coach is German, and he said, ‘Good luck.’
How will they play against Germany and Spain?
“We need time to get the upper hand, but I think our basic strategy will be to be patient and create chances when the other team has a lot of time on their hands. I am sure there will be space behind their defense, so we will try to take advantage of that.”
“Japan has a long-held dream of advancing to the last eight of the World Cup, and we will have to play games against strong countries to reach the final eight. It will be difficult, but we will give it our all.”
Ito has an unforgettable phrase,
“I always keep in mind the phrase, ‘When times are tough, do your best’. I don’t remember when or who said it to me, but I do remember that phrase, and it comes to mind sometimes when I’m going through a very tough time. It doesn’t feel like my parents told me that.”
Ito’s words, which were spoken to him by someone long before he became a pro, are now completely his own. The World Cup this fall will be a hard and grueling competition. Ito will be using this motto as a guide as he goes on a rampage on the pitch on the biggest stage of the tournament.