Japan were playing Germany in the opening match of their 2022 FIFA World Cup campaign. Ritsu Dōan had just scored to level the match at 1-1, but the Samurai Blue still had more work to do if they wanted to defeat a former champion at the World Cup for the first time ever.
That is when Takuma Asano wrote his name into Samurai Blue history.
The forward, fresh off the bench, ran in behind the defense, took down a long ball with a sumptuous first touch, held off a defender then ripped a shot into the top of the net from a tight angle for one of the best goals Japan have ever scored at a World Cup.
The goal propelled the Samurai Blue to their first-ever win over a World Cup champion - a feat they would match two matches later when they topped Spain to win Group E and advance to the knockout stages in consecutive tournaments for the first time in team history.
Long before Asano was finishing the comeback of the four-time world champions and launching the Samurai Blue into one of their best World Cups ever, he was an 18-year-old signing for Sanfrecce Hiroshima out of Yokkaichi Chuo Technical High School.
Asano entrusted the launch of his career to the Viola and it proved to be a spectacular decision. He immediately integrated into the youth program and, within the year, he had made his first team debut for a Sanfrecce side that would win the 2013 Meiji Yasuda J1 League.
Asano made more appearances in 2014, but it was in 2015 that he became a first team regular and truly broke out. He played in every league match and 48 across all competitions, scoring 18 goals. He helped the Viola win J1 and earned the league’s Rookie of the Year award.
With blistering space, a cool first touch and the willingness to make every run into the box or back to defend, Asano had blossomed into a star at just 20 years old.
Asano made his first appearance for the national team in 2015 and, the following year, won the U-23 Asian Championship for his country.
That 2016 campaign proved to be massive for Asano, who didn’t just continue to star for Sanfrecce and make an impact for the Samurai Blue, but he also went abroad for the first time.
German club VfB Stuttgart brought Asano on loan and he helped them earn promotion to the Bundesliga in his first season there. He played in the German top flight for Stuttgart and then with Hannover before moving to Serbia’s Partizan Belgrade, where an 18-goal season lit up the league and saw VfL Bochum bring him back to the Bundesliga in 2021.
Asano has been a crucial part of Bochum’s fight in the first division of German football and the German national team was well aware of the danger he presented when he stepped on the pitch in their World Cup opener. That familiarity provided them no help, though.
Asano’s run was too good, his touch too perfect, his strength too much and his finish too powerful for Germany to stop him. It was an array of skills honed long ago, when his career first started at Sanfrecce Hiroshima. And, nine years later, those J.League skills took centerstage at the World Cup.