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Baking for Japan: Asano becomes a national hero both on and off the pitch at Qatar 2022

Before Qatar 2022, Japan had never beaten a former world champion in its history. In the space of only nine days, the “Samurai Blue” did that not once, but twice. Each time coming from behind to seal the win. Each time captured the minds of neutral fans, which dubbed them as the “dark horses” of the tournament, a side that is poised to spring a surprise or two and go as far as possible in the FIFA World Cup.

Sure, history is littered with this type of team, with Croatia being one of them in 1998, when they finished fourth. Or remember the Republic of Korea in 2002, when they also ended up in fourth place in the tournament they co-hosted.

But Japan? Japan had never progressed to the quarter-finals in their history, in seven participations at the FIFA World Cup, therefore they were the team that every neutral cheered for throughout the competition. And they were this close to sealing their first-ever quarter-finals berth, only to be eliminated by Croatia, after a nail-biting game, which saw Japan take the lead, but eventually lose in a penalty shootout.

They scored only once from four shots, with their only penalty converted being scored by striker Takuma Asano, an unlikely hero, who played only 165 minutes at Qatar 2022, but was instrumental in the team’s win against Germany, 2-1, scoring the winning goal in Japan’s debut in the tournament.

“Be a hero. I have told myself that it is work to save Japan. As far as today’s match is concerned, I wonder if I could have been a hero. Since four years ago, I have been imagining a day like this every single day,” said Asano in the mixed zone after the painful loss against Croatia.

But indeed he is a hero, a true star in Japan, hailing from a big family, with Asano growing up in a household with six siblings, including brother Yuya, whom himself is a football player, plying his trade in the Japanese first league, at Sanfreece Hiroshima.

It was also the club where Takuma started football, playing between 2013 and 2016, before being eyed by Premier League giants, Arsenal. At that time, the Gunners’ manager, Arsene Wenger, was no stranger to Japanese football, after having coached in the league 20 years before.

Dubbed as a new wonderkid and Arsenal’s answer for Chelsea star Eden Hazard, Asano was refused a work permit and could never feature for his new side. Instead, Arsenal sent Asano out on loan to the Bundesliga with Stuttgart who, at the time, was in the German second tier.

Scoring four goals in 24 matches for Stuttgart, the German side wanted to make the move permanent, but Arsenal extended the loan, as the work permit could still not be awarded to Asano. One year later, he joined Hannover 96 on loan, another German side, but failed to make his mark there.

Left in no man’s land, Asano was eventually sold to Serbian side Partizan Belgrade, making a big step back, with the move costing Partizan only $1.5 million. With 22 goals in 56 games, the player was swiftly back on the market and he ended up again in Germany, where he currently features for VfL Bochum.

Yet Asano never forgot about Japan and is in constant communication with his siblings. Just as the pandemic’s first wave eased, Takuma came back to visit his family and had an idea. Asano remembered his mother, Toshiko, eating bread for her breakfast after taking her children to school. But the bread was always cold and hard.

He wanted to open a bakery with his siblings and Kohei, one of his brothers, immediately agreed. Now, Asano is the owner of a high-end bread store in his hometown of Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture, called Asatakugram.

“Kohei, why don’t you open a bakery with us? At the time, I was working in a business that had nothing to do with bread or food, but I had always loved bread, so I really wanted to try it. Among my many siblings, we were bread lovers, and even after I started working, whenever I found out there was good bread, I would immediately go out and buy it. We had a thing for bread,” said Asano’s brother.

Soon, the business boomed and after the local hero scored against Germany, it was the best bit of marketing one could have wished for. Immediately, lines formed outside the bakery, and orders filled the next days.

“I can’t get over how excited I am. Today alone, I baked more than 200 loaves of bread, but I can’t keep up with all the baking. We have reservations for a while, but we are full for the next few days,” said Kohei.

Surely, after Japan’s elimination, the enthusiasm will not dwindle, as Asano duly delivered something special in 2022. It was not only bread but the hope and excellency that Japan crave every day.

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