Japan had beaten Germany and Spain, earning their way into the knockout stages of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. And if a pair of former world champions in the group stage wasn’t enough, awaiting them in the Round of 16 was 2018’s runners-up Croatia.
The Samurai Blue started brightly, showing no fear of the Kockasti and making their case for a spot in the final eight, but they didn’t have a goal to show for it. That is until Daizen Maeda made his mark.
The always-moving striker was bundling around the box, looking for any opportunity, and when Maya Yoshida was able to redirect a cross to the front of the net, Maeda won the race to the ball. He bashed it into the back of the net and the Samurai Blue were ahead in their Round of 16 clash.
Maeda’s goal was enough to earn Japan an opportunity to advance on penalty kicks, but they would fall short from the spot. Still, his goal was a moment in Japanese football to remember and the perfect Maeda goal.
Before Maeda was making things happen at the World Cup, he was just a boy from Taiki High School signing with Matsumoto Yamaga in the J2 League.
Maeda made his debut not long after for Yamaga in 2016, but was sent on loan to fellow second division side Mito Hollyhock the following season. There, Maeda made his mark with a 13-goal campaign, earning a spot back at Yamaga in 2018 when they went up to the top flight.
There was plenty of buzz around Maeda, a hardworking forward who could make an impact from either wing, underneath a No. 9 or as an outright striker buzzing around the box. His effort was second-to-none and he made his chances count in front of goal, earning him his first caps for Japan at Copa America 2019 and attention from abroad as Marítimo in Portugal took him on loan.
Maeda returned from Portugal to Yokohama F·Marinos, a club which enters every season with title ambitions and thought Maeda would fit in perfectly. After getting his feet wet at the club in 2020, he established himself as one of the best strikers in the J.League the following year.
Maeda’s spectacular 2021 season saw him score 23 goals and win Top Scorer. His exploits pushed Marinos into the title race and put him in the sights of Celtic FC from the Scottish Premiership, who signed Maeda for 2022.
In less than a year at Celtic, Maeda has proven himself to be the impact player that everyone in Japan knew he was. He’s scored 12 goals for the historic club, putting himself in the perfect form for the World Cup.
Maeda went to Qatar and did everything he’s always done - ran, fought and took whatever chance he could get. He did it on the biggest stage, nudging Japan towards knockout stage glory, but it was the same Maeda he’s always been, from Taiki High School, to Matsumoto Yamaga, to Mito Hollyhock and Yokohama F·Marinos.