The Japanese player scored against Germany and Spain in the World Cup.

Ritsu Doan, sometimes referred to as the “Japanese Messi”, started playing football at the tender age of four and joined the Gamba Osaka academy at twelve. Coaches never praised him, he says, instead encouraging his ambition to improve while providing opportunities to climb the ladder. Having scored against Germany and Spain to send Japan through to the 2022 World Cup knockouts as group winners, he is now keen to improve his goal tally at SC Freiburg to secure a top spot for his team in the Bundesliga table.

Read the interview here:

How is your name pronounced correctly?

“Lits. Because Japanese people cannot pronounce ‘R’, so we pronounce R-i-t-s-u like ‘Lits’. So, you don’t need to say ‘Rits’, you can say ‘Lits’. That’s better.

Where are you from in Japan?

“I am actually from Amagasaki and I was born in Hyogo. I started my career at Gamba Osaka. It is all close together, so when people ask, I always say that I am from Osaka. Most people know Osaka and it is the biggest city in the area.”

How many siblings do you have?

“I have two older brothers. They made me cry all the time when I was young! When we were playing football together, I didn’t want to lose every time against them but of course they were better, so I was crying many times. Now we’re still in contact, we call each other many times, so they are very nice brothers for me. I like them.”

When did you start playing football?

“Since when I was three, four years old, I started going to the football school two times a week, like a hobby, like for fun. Then, at 12, I started going to the Gamba Osaka academy, it was getting serious, and at that time I was thinking I wanted to be a football player, so that was a very big turning point for me.”

What was it like joining the Gamba Osaka academy?

“When I was 11, they called my mum, so I was very happy about that. She was very happy because my second brother went to Cerezo Osaka, their rival club, but my second brother also wanted to go to Gamba Osaka because we knew that Gamba Osaka was better than Cerezo Osaka at that time. Now it’s a little bit more 50-50. So when I had the chance to go to Gamba Osaka, my Mum said ‘Yeah, you have to go’. It was a very nice time, I was very happy.”

Looking back, how would you describe your development as player being part of the academy?

“I played, but I was not the most important player. I was just one of 11 players on the team. But after two or three months, I was already playing with the U15s first team, despite being 13 years old. So, I grew up fast at that time. It was a good time.”

Do you remember any coaches from that time?

“Yeah, one guy I have in my head now was Mr. Kamogawa coming from Gamba Osaka academy, and he was the coach of the U15s. He always told me never to be satisfied: ‘You think you’re the best but you’re not! Someone is always better than you, you have to see the world, so don’t be complacent, never stop training, always try to stay hungry to grow to be a better player!’ This is what he always said to me. He never gave me compliments like ‘Good job!’. So, at the World Cup, for example, I could see a lot of players who were better than me, so Mr. Kamogawa’s words were always in my heart and in my head. I met him during the holiday after the World Cup and spoke with him. That was nice. We talked like when I was a kid, nothing special. He never said to me ‘Good job’ after the World Cup either! But I hope one day he will say that because he asked to take a picture with me.”

Do you remember when you moved up to the first team?

“Yeah, when I was 16, and the first team had a training camp, two or three of their players got injured and they needed replacements to play 11 vs. 11. So, they called the academy asking: ‘Who is the best player in the academy?’ And another guy, not Mr. Kamogawa, called me and said: ‘You have a chance to play there, go and show your skill!’ So I went. Honestly, I didn’t expect to join the first team after this camp, but I played very well, and afterwards they called me saying: ‘Hey, you need to sign up as a professional football player’. I was surprised, but it was the best moment for me and my career.”

How did you feel at the training camp?

“I wasn’t scared at that time, I don’t know why. Normally a young guy playing with the first team would be scared, thinking ‘I don’t want to lose the ball’, but at that time I was fully myself and showed my quality. It was a great moment after the training camp when they called me, and my mum was very happy.”

Was it your dream to play football in Europe?

“I had a dream when I was a kid to play in Europe. I went to the FIFA U20 World Cup at that time, and I was thinking I wanted to show the world that I deserved to play in Europe. Then one club from Groningen in Holland called my agent saying they wanted me. It was nice negotiating with them, I was very happy to talk to them. I played there for two seasons and had a great, great time there.”

How did your parents react when you had the opportunity to play in Europe?

“It was the most difficult moment for me during the first five months because I told my parents that I wanted to go and they were crying. They wanted to stop me, but I said ‘Hey, stop the talk, I want to go!’ And I went. But honestly, in my heart I was

crying too. I don’t normally cry, and I couldn’t show it to my parents because I had told them I wanted to go! So it was a little bit of a difficult time for me, but my teammates were very nice, they helped me a lot, so it was a good decision for me. After five months of being on my own I asked myself: ‘What do you really want?’ I talked to myself every day, there was so much stress in my head at that time, but when I look back now, it was an important time for me. During that half year I became stronger.”

Eight Bundesliga-based players played at the world cup for the Japanese national team. Why is the Bundesliga so attractive for Japanese players? What role does Shinji Kagawa, for example, play in this?

“I think it’s come from Shinji Kagawa. A lot of Japanese players want to play in the Bundesliga because Shinji Kagawa was the best player in Japan at that time. I’m one of them, I had my dream to play in the Bundesliga also, and when Bielefeld called me, it was very exciting. In my heart, my decision was very quick: one second, and I said ‘I want to go’. It was easy.”

Have you been on the pitch together with Shinji Kagawa?

“I played with him one time on the national team. Yeah, he’s very professional. I’m still in contact with him sometimes, not often, but I went to dinner with him once last year, I think. He’s my idol, and I think he is for a lot of Japanese players. He’s also a very nice guy, very stable. When other players talk to me, I sometimes feel they try to show off saying ‘I’m a big guy’. Kagawa doesn’t do that. He always speaks in the same manner. He’s a great professional, I like him.”

Were you in touch with your teammates from Freiburg throughout the World Cup?

“They asked me how the World Cup was going, and after the Germany game, many players texted me saying ‘congratulations on your goal and the win’. Yeah, Gunni and Ginter played there, but other players who didn’t play supported me personally from afar, so I was happy when they texted me.”

Have you also talked with Christian Gunter and Matthias Ginter?

“Yeah, we talk, like how was the World Cup, how do you feel, because in my opinion, Gunni and Ginter should have played there, because when I’ve played against them, I felt they played well. They’ve played a very good first half of the season, so they would have deserved to play at the World Cup, in my opinion. So, I asked them, why didn’t you play on the national team?”

What do you love to do off the pitch? Do you have any hobbies?

“During the first half of the season we had many games, so we didn’t have much time to go out, but when we do have a day off, I don’t like to stay at home all day. I always want to go outside. From Freiburg I can go to Basel or Zurich in Switzerland, just one hour and a half away. I like to go shopping, so I go there to buy clothes or something like that.”

German and Japanese food cultures are very different. How did you deal with the change?

“Yeah, it’s hard, honestly. The food culture is totally different. But I hired a chef, my private chef from Japan, so he stays with me in Freiburg and has helped me a lot. He can cook anything. If I want to eat Chinese food he can cook it, if I want Italian, he can do that too – anything. I will invite you next time, if you want! Beer? No, I just know sausage and potatoes is the main dish in Germany, with beer. Normally I don’t drink alcohol during the season, but after the season, after the last game I always drink a beer. When I was in Bielefeld and we stayed in the Bundesliga, we drank some nice, cold beer. I had very nice teammates there.”

In your view, what is the secret to Freiburg’s current success?

“I think it’s simple, it’s one team. We’re one team. Especially those who don’t play, on the bench, they cheer on the players on the pitch, and when they get to the pitch, they do their job. I’m a new player, and just like the other players I work together with the coach, so the players know his ideas, and we know each other. We share the same idea, so that’s why we are doing very well this season at the moment.”

Are you surprised by the success?

“Not very surprised. Because before I came here, I spoke with the coach and the sporting director, and they told me we will be in the top six in the next year. So I’m not surprised.”

Has the Japanese Freiburg fanbase grown since you have been playing there?

“Yeah, especially after the World Cup. When I score, they want to try to watch the game, so yeah, we have to play well in the second half of the season, otherwise they will think ‘Oh, this is not good!’ So, we have to keep going like in the first half of the season, it’s really important.”

What does it feel like knowing that people are watching just to see you playing?

“I think as a football player, you like it. If someone watches you, how you play, it’s the best. It’s perfect.”

Where do you think you need to improve?

“I think more goals. I had many opportunities to score but didn’t make it. By now I have scored four goals in all competitions this season, but I need ten, in my opinion. Six goals more, that’s a realistic goal. I will make it, I’ll try to make it, and defensive- wise, I’m getting much better now with the help of the coach, so I want to keep going like this for defence.”

Do you have a good relationship with Christian Streich?

“The best. I like him. I like his ideas, I like his personality, he’s always honest. If he’s not happy, he’ll show that he’s not happy, so the player knows. He doesn’t say fake things. If you play well, he is very happy, he celebrates together with the players, it’s wild the way we celebrate. I like everything, how he focuses on the football on the pitch, it’s perfect.”

What are your goals after the World Cup?

“For me it’s very important now to stay hungry after the World Cup. I want more, more, more. That’s what I tell myself every day now. Sometimes I think players who have been successful lose their mental strength. I have to push myself to be better, for the crowd and for myself. That’s important.”

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