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Rising star Kaoru Mitoma targets World Cup starting spot with Samurai Blue

Kaoru Mitoma poses with a ball on May 13, 2022, in Lier, Belgium. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Already renowned among J-League diehards for his exploits with domestic powerhouse Kawasaki Frontale, Kaoru Mitoma rocketed to national prominence by scoring both goals in Japan's 2-0 victory over Australia in March that sent the Samurai Blue through to the 2022 World Cup.

    The 25-year-old winger turned the Asian Group B qualifying match on its head after coming off the bench in the 84th minute at Sydney's Stadium Australia, staking his claim to a bigger role for the national team.

    The leading vote-getter for the J-League Best XI with Frontale in 2020, Mitoma was part of the Japanese men's team that finished fourth at last summer's Tokyo Olympics, but he has played just three games for Hajime Moriyasu's senior national squad to date.

    He signed with English Premier League side Brighton in mid-2021 before spending the past season on loan to promoted Belgian outfit Royale Union Saint-Gilloise, helping them mount a title challenge in their top-flight return.

    The native of Kawasaki near Tokyo recently spoke to Kyodo News about his first season in Europe, his World Cup aspirations and that famous brace against the Socceroos.

    "(The goals against Australia) were significant for both me and Japan," Mitoma said. "I felt it was crucial to get the result, and that was what drove me."

    "I've thought of myself as the type who is good in big moments, so I'm glad I was able to deliver there."

    Mitoma's involvement with the Olympic team in the lead-up to the Tokyo Games was cut short by injury and eventually limited him to a bench role during the tournament.

    He netted Japan's only goal in a 3-1 bronze medal playoff loss to Mexico that saw Moriyasu's Olympic squad fall short of their stated target of a podium finish.

    "I was sorry to reduce the team's options with my absence," Mitoma said. "I had a slight muscle strain and wanted to improve my condition, but I had no choice but to rest. I really wanted to do my best as always, but I just had to accept the way things were."

    Possessing rare speed with the ball at his feet, Mitoma quickly made an impact in Belgium for Union SG, netting eight goals including a match-winning hat-trick at home to RFC Seraing in October.

    The dangerous dribbler said he had worked on his body since moving to Belgium, with the changes paying dividends.

    "My lower body has developed in particular. I can stop on the turn more quickly, and from there accelerate faster," he said.

    "I've been confident that playing to my strengths will get good results. As I've gotten stronger, I've been able to use (my dribble) more effectively."

    While he has played the "super sub" role to devastating effect at both club and international level, Mitoma hopes to carve out a regular starting spot for the Samurai Blue as he looks ahead to the World Cup, which kicks off in Qatar on Nov. 21.

    "I always aim to be in the starting lineup. Since there are only a small number of international games, chances are limited," he said. "If I can help get results in the games I start, things might change."

    "I have a chance (at World Cup selection) and I absolutely want to make it. I'm not sure how much more I can strengthen my case before November. All I can do is keep improving my skills."

    Taking a longer-term view, Mitoma aims to have an international career that inspires future generations of players.

    "I want to make people dream of playing for the national team. Someone whose play makes children think, 'I want to be like that.'"

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