Muto’s chance of a lifetime

My thoughts on Yoshinori Muto’s potential move to Chelsea, for Football Channel… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel,  April 10th, 2015

When I first heard that Chelsea and FC Tokyo had agreed a fee for Yoshinori Muto I, like most observers of Japanese football, was surprised to say the least.

While he is undoubtedly a supremely gifted player who has taken to the professional game incredibly quickly, a jump up from a mid-table J1 team to the Premier League champions-in-waiting is not something that happens all that often.

My information was sound though, and I had no reason to doubt the validity of what I was hearing, which is why I contacted Football Channel with the news. Spreading rumours about potential transfers is not something that is of interest to me personally or professionally, but this, I felt, was worthy of reporting.

The overall response to the piece was divided fairly evenly between disbelief and dismissiveness – both of which I understood. This, after all, is a player who was still at university not so long ago and only made his J.League debut in 2013. Suggestions that I had fallen for a tweeted April Fool were a little irritating – I’m aware the reputation of football journalists looking for scoops is often not the highest, but contrary to popular belief there are certain standards we set ourselves (well, most of us) – but, again, I appreciated that people would be skeptical.

After FC Tokyo moved to make an official announcement on the situation three days after my piece was published the news was picked up by all the mainstream media, though, and the fallout was predictably huge.

Whenever a Japanese player moves to Europe there is a buzz, but this is Chelsea. One of the biggest, most successful, and richest clubs in the modern game looking to sign the new poster boy of Japanese football direct from his J.League club. It doesn’t come much bigger.

Of course, the cynical view is that if he moves to London he won’t play, and that if the transfer is successfully concluded it would be primarily for marketing reasons. While those fears can’t be allayed completely, it is a little simplistic to still be banging that drum in 2015.

And to suggest that Yokohama Tires are able to coerce a club of Chelsea’s reputation to sign a Japanese player is also perhaps overestimating the sway that sponsors have – how many Korean players pulled on the blue shirt during Samsung’s long-running deal with the Stamford Bridge club, exactly?

Football Channel break the news of Chelsea and FC Tokyo's agreement for the transfer of Yoshinori Muto, Monday 6th April, 2015

For the player himself it is understandable that he needs a little time to mull this over. Still adapting to life as a professional footballer in Japan – where the off-field pressures and attention can often outweigh those on the pitch itself – moving to a club in the highest echelons of the world game is stepping up to another level entirely.

However, I do find it a little strange that so many people in Japan have responded so negatively to the news.

In a sense I suppose it could be read as a positive on the development of Japanese football culture – fans aren’t content for their best players to just be at European clubs, but want them to be playing regularly. On the other hand, this idea that football careers have to advance along carefully thought-out paths, progressing one steady step at a time, is also not borne out by the facts. There are no set rules as to how players make it to the top, and often opting for a smaller move in the hope of getting a bigger one further down the line doesn’t bear fruit. Sometimes you have to take a risk and believe in your ability.

Muto may only have started playing professionally last year but he is already 22. Not only 22, but already 22. In the football world, that is not so young. Oscar, for example – a potential soon-to-be teammate of Muto’s – signed for Chelsea for a reported £19million as a 20-year-old. Muto is a talented footballer and, by all accounts, intelligent guy who has been scouted by one of the biggest clubs in the world. The year on his birth certificate is irrelevant, all that matters is what he can contribute on the pitch.

If he does decide to take the plunge and head to London then he will of course have to prove himself worthy of minutes under Jose Mourinho, and that may well come in the form of a loan to one of the club’s associate club in another European league. That would give him the opportunity to adjust to life outside of his comfort zone, and just because other players have been swallowed up in that process and never made it as regulars for Chelsea it doesn’t mean the same fate is guaranteed to befall him.

Ultimately, the player himself has to make the decision that he feels is the best one for him. This is a huge opportunity, though, and one that might only come around once in his career.


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