Ryo Miyaichi has earned a lot of admirers in the past year-and-a-half, as much for his off-field performances as those on it…
I knew absolutely nothing about Ryo Miyaichi before he was plucked from the obscurity of Japanese High School football by Arsene Wenger back in 2010, and only kept half an eye on him when he was first loaned out to Feyenoord.
More and more Japanese players are making the journey west so I saw no reason to pay special attention to the former Chukyo Dai Chukyo winger.
To me the deal represented a fairly low-risk move by Arsenal: if he struggled to adapt he could easily be shipped out without anybody noticing, while Wenger would again be lauded for having an eye for natural – and cheap (or, more precisely, free) – talent if he turned out to be something special.
His impressive spells on loan at Feyenoord and then Bolton suggest that it may very well be the latter though, and his stock has risen even higher since he was called up to the national team by Alberto Zaccheroni for the final match in the third round of World Cup qualifying against Uzbekistan in Toyota.
I spoke to him in the mixed zone after that game, and gained my first real insight into what had enabled him to progress so rapidly through the ranks.
As well as being an obviously very gifted footballer, his mentality and personality hugely impressed me and he appears to have all the tools to fulfil his vast potential.
I asked if he was ok to try a conversation in English, fully expecting him to say no, but he smiled and said he’d give it a go.
He then expressed himself clearly and openly in his second language for several minutes, after just over a year outside of Japan, and it was clear he was having a lot of fun in England.
“I enjoy it every day, I can play at a higher level,” he said.
“I’m happy to play in the Premier League and also I’m living alone so I am really enjoying every day.”
After the match with Oman I spoke with his next-door neighbour in Bolton, the Wigan Athletic goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi.
He, too, remarked upon Miyaichi’s personality.
“He’s really keen and he’s confident in himself and he can go forward,” he said.
“He’s still really, really young. At that age if you are at Arsenal that means you are a good player.”
I don’t socialise with them so can’t possibly claim to know for sure how other Japanese players in Europe spend their free time, but the impression is that many of them seem to relax together, in effect segregating themselves from their non-Japanese teammates.
As an Englishman living overseas I know full well how nice it is to spend time with people who share a common language and culture.
However, at the same time I know that I must put in the effort to truly benefit from and enjoy my time in Japan.
Miyaichi seems to have no problem with that side of living overseas.
Mixed zones – especially during national team camps, when papers and websites are in need of daily comments – tend to be fairly serious and stressful.
At a training session ahead of the Oman game though, I joined a group huddled around Miyaichi and was surprised to hear them discussing the Omani food that his neighbour had made for him.
Sensing a rare opportunity for some light-hearted conversation I asked what he thought of English cuisine.
“I don’t really like English food,” he replied, almost apologetically.
This is a fairly common response (and completely incorrect one) but I persevered and – tongue-in-cheek – asked what his thoughts were on the traditional fish and chips.
Politely he said with a grin, “Fish and Chips is bad for you.”
Of course, such questioning is not exactly hard-hitting journalism.
Miyaichi’s relaxed and friendly manner is a breath of fresh air though, and the way he deals with the pressures of his newfound stardom off the pitch as well as on it mark him out as one who could really go on to achieve great things.
I did, however, discover something he’s not good at when I asked Al Habsi about the preparation of their dinners.
“I do all of it,” he laughed.
“He’s too young. He has to learn how to cook.”