Japan made history when they beat Germany to open the 2022 FIFA World Cup. It was the first time the Samurai Blue had ever beaten a former world champion, but they’d have to do it again if they wanted to make it to the knockout stages.
2010 winners Spain stood between Japan and the Round of 16, and after Ritsu Doan tied the match at 1-1, they still needed one more goal to advance.
That is when Ao Tanaka became a hero.
Doan made a great play down the right and hit a cross that went clear across the goal. Kaoru Mitoma made a miraculous save, knocking the ball back to the front of goal just barely before it went over the endline, and Tanaka won the race to the cross, nudging it over the line for the winning goal.
It was Tanaka’s refusal to give up on the play, even as it looked like the ball would go out before Mitoma got there, and his ability to read plays quicker than the opposition that made the difference.
Tanaka was in the right place, at the right time, as he so often is. And he sent the Samurai Blue to the knockout stages of consecutive World Cups for the first time ever.
Before Tanaka was saving Japan’s World Cup dreams, though, he was a boy from Kawasaki in the academy of his hometown club - Kawasaki Frontale.
He spent more than a decade playing for Frontale’s youth teams before finally making his way into the first team in 2018, as the club won the Meiji Yasuda J1 League.
By 2019, Tanaka was a fixture in the Frontale midfield, winning J.League Rookie of the Year for his outstanding play in his first full season. He also earned his first caps for the Samurai Blue, taking his talent international.
The 2020 season saw Tanaka take another step forward, dominating matches from his place in the center of the park and earning J.League Best Eleven honors as he helped lead Frontale to yet another title.
Tanaka’s place as one of the best players in the J.League made him a target for European clubs and he made the move abroad in a loan deal with Fortuna Düsseldorf in the German second division that eventually became permanent.
It's no wonder why, with his brilliant reading of the game and ability to keep the midfield ticking on full display in Qatar.
Before he was a World Cup hero, though, and before Fortuna Düsseldorf identified him as a crucial piece to their grand ambitions, he was simply a local boy in the Kawasaki Frontale academy. He worked and grew over more than a decade there, then finally made the leap to the Meiji Yasuda J1 League, where his star began to shine.
Only 24 years old, the boy from Kawasaki’s star will only continue to shine brighter, too.