Capital attraction

FC Tokyo forward Yoshinori Muto is flavour of the month in the J.League, but he needs to keep his feet on the ground to prevent things turning sour… (日本語版はこちらです: http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/09/27/post49747/)

Football Channel,  September 27th, 2014

Yoshinori Muto would be the ideal poster boy for Cerezo Osaka in the year that was supposed to be theirs. Yoichiro Kakitani has gone and who better to replace him as No.8 than the 22-year-old with the boyband good looks, the mazy dribbling skills, and the pink boots?

Thankfully for Muto – and, of course, his club FC Tokyo – he is not caught up in the relegation battle (or the marketing vaccum) in Osaka and is able to concentrate, for the time being at least, on playing football.

Muto, who only turned professional at the start of this season, has come from nowhere to occupy the role of the J.League’s man-of-the-moment, and while I am as impressed as anyone with his ability and maturity I can’t help but feel a little concerned for him.

The hype machine doesn’t need much to whirl into action in Japan (he is surely already odds on to be picking up the Young Player of the Year award come December), and I worry a little how he will cope with the pressure that comes with being a talented forward in the J.League.

The division’s unique brand of family-friendly entertainment often veers dangerously close to being more TDL than EPL – as Javier Aguirre recently alluded to with his ‘testimonial game’ comment – and the treatment of footballers as tarento shows no signs of letting up.

After FC Tokyo’s recent game against Kawasaki Frontale – immediately before which, to give an example of the blurred boundaries between serious top-level sport and light-entertainment, captains Kengo Nakamura and Masato Morishige donned Kamen Rider belts and posed with a man in a costume of the character – I spoke to Muto’s teammate Edu about the phenomenon.

As a Brazilian I assumed he would have plenty of experience of young players being over-promoted, but the 32-year-old surprised me by suggesting that the excitement around players in Japan supersedes even that back home. The striker played in the Bundesliga for seven years and described Atsuto Uchida’s arrival at Schalke to make his point.

“I think in Brazil it’s different – also in Germany it’s different,” he began. “I think Japan is a very special country. For example, Uchida, when he came to Schalke, we could see in the training or when we go to a match many Japanese people; reporters, everybody, you know. That’s why I think Japan is special.” Is there more pressure on these players than in Brazil, I asked: “I think so,” he nodded after a brief pause for consideration.

Yoshinori Muto, Todoroki Stadium, September 20th, 2014

That is some claim to make, and while Muto appears to have the ability to live up to his early promise he is going to have to develop under exceedingly intense scrutiny. Already branded as Tokyo’s ‘ace’, it is Muto’s chiseled features the cameras zoom in on ahead of kick-off. All the time he is tucking the goals away then all will be rosy. When he hits a dry patch though – as he inevitably will – things may get a little tricky for him.

“Sometimes I’ll lose two chances but next time I can score two, three goals,” Edu explained to me after he had, indeed, spurned a couple of chances in the Tamagawa Clasico. (True to his word, he did find the net in the next game, scoring a penalty against Tokushima Vortis.) “When this situation comes to him [Muto] he has to understand this is the striker’s life. He has a long time to play. He will stop scoring for maybe five, six games, then start to score again, and then not score again. It’s like this. A striker’s life is like this. I don’t know, maybe only Messi and Ronaldo score every game.

“He’s a good player, he’s very young but he has quality. He’s strong, he’s fast, he has power, he has good dribbling. Now I think step by step he has a good future. He’s knows how to talk, […] I think he has good family to support him; good father, good mother… He’s a good guy.”

Muto certainly comes across as intelligent and – those awful pink boots aside – it doesn’t seem as if he has become too sidetracked with the trappings of fame and fortune that so often swirl around top level footballers.

“I still haven’t achieved any results,” he said at Japan training the day after his debut against Uruguay. “In order to become a fixture in the national team I know I have to keep doing a lot more.” Three days later he again came off the bench for Javier Aguirre and launched himself into the national consciousness with a confident display and sensational goal. Here’s hoping he can keep such a level head now that he’s ‘Japan’s Yoshinori Muto’.

The responsibility for that doesn’t rest solely in his young hands, and Edu was quick to point out the importance of creating a healthy environment for his talent to develop.

“Of course he’s a good player but every good player needs support from the club, his parents, the people around him,” he said. “This is very important. Now he has to keep this good work, good training, good mentality to keep [going] step by step. If he starts to think ‘Oh, I’m pretty good – a superstar,’ it doesn’t work, you know? I think now he needs good support from everybody.”

That includes the fans and the media. By all means be excited by his potential, but we don’t want him getting carried away with himself and we shouldn’t either.


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