The first Japanese football player to play ever for Sevilla FC recalls the adventure that started when he was a kid in Nagareyama.
“That day we had training during the morning at Sánchez Pizjuán. And there were a lot of people cheering for us,” he says, clapping his hands to demonstrate. “When we left our hotel a lot of people outside shouted ‘Ánimo, chavales!’ [go on, guys!] and who knows what else.”
The 21-year-old, born Feb. 2, 1991, stops and digests the moment while he stares at the velvet blue sky. “You know what, on the pitch, I zone out. I just care about playing football, but as we arrived at the stadium, the streets were packed with Betis fans chucking apples and water bottles at our bus and screaming ‘¡Sevilla fuera!’ [Sevilla out!] Unforgettable.”
Last summer, Japanese football player Ibusuki Hiroshi, measuring 1.93 meters, signed with Sevilla Fútbol Club and became the first Asian footballer to join this team, one of the best in the Spanish league. But he was not a newcomer. In a span of three years, Hiroshi played for Spanish football clubs such as Girona FC, Real Zaragoza B and CF Sabadell. He wants to grow as a footballer and now enjoys his Sevilla chapter day by day.
His passion for football began in Nagareyama, a tranquil town of 165,000 people 30 minutes outside of Tokyo. Between the ages of 10 and 17, Hiroshi played for Kashiwa Reysol. His life revolved around a soccer ball. “Normally I woke up at 7 a.m. and went to school from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. From 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., I trained, picked some dinner at the training grounds and headed home directly to bed. That was my routine.
“When I decided to come Spain, specifically to play for Girona, I was 17, but my parents were supportive of my decision and gave me encouragement. I will always thank my parents for their support.” He came to Spain knowing a little English, but no Spanish.
During the first months as Hiroshi travelled with his club, Girona, the architecture and Spain’s religiosity amazed him. “There is something special because here everyone is Catholic, and in every town there is a cathedral. That impressed me because in Japan we are Buddhist and we do have temples, but they are not as big. Each house and building is really different than in Japan.”
The evening becomes chillier by the minute; he wears a blue leather jacket to ward off the cold. With his Andalusian Spanish accent, leaving out the last consonants of words, Hiroshi, or Hiro, as some of his teammates call him, looks back to his first visit to Seville, his new home since last summer. “I played in Seville with Girona against Sevilla Atlético [the reserve team of Sevilla FC], back when it was in Liga Adelante [the second league]. That day I noticed the people’s generosity.” Three years later, he moved here; a big step forward in his career.
Hiroshi made his first division debut in a Betis 1-1 Sevilla, Jan. 21, 2012, in the 82nd minute, coming onto the pitch for Álvaro Negredo, Sevilla FC’s number nine. The crowd in the bars, stadium, and streets were pleased to see the Japanese striker make his debut in perhaps the biggest stage imaginable, the Seville Derby.
The Andalusian capital has embraced Hiroshi, making it difficult for him to decide which town he loves most: Nagareyama or Seville. “I can’t tell which is better because there are differences in food, culture, history and personality. I love Spain and Seville, but I will always love my town. I feel comfortable in both places.” He misses his friends and family; he misses his mother’s cooking, especially her fish, which he says he needs to learn how to cook. At home he predominantly cooks rice, chicken and beef.
Playing mainly in Sevilla FC’s reserve team permits him to go out and explore the city. “It’s not complicated to go out in Seville because I am not that famous yet,” he says, though he admits that the day will come when he will have to sign autographs for more than five minutes. He’s near that moment! Hiroshi is overwhelmed with the people’s kindness with him. “When I go to bars, everyone greets me and asks how I’m doing, and after an hour, they always become my friends. This, for me, is unbelievable.”
On the pitch Hiroshi wears the jersey number 20 (and 28 in the first team), has a potent left foot and is the Fernando Llorente (Athletic de Bilbao and one of Spain’s elite forwards) prototype – good in the air, guarding the ball, elegant first touch and predator inside the box. In the present season with Sevilla Atlético, playing in Segunda B (third league), he has tallied 15 goals.
Now on the verge of completing his first season in Seville, Hiroshi reflects on his present and future as a player. His chin resting in his left hand, he diligently explains the footballer’s dilemma. “I love Seville, but soccer life is not normal. Look, in three years I have lived in four different places – Girona, Zaragoza, Sabadell and Seville,” he lists with his fingers. “Tomorrow I can get an unexpected and good offer from another club, and I will have no choice but to go there. I can’t get really attached to one city.”
Since the age of five, Hiroshi set as his main goal to become a professional footballer, today he hopes to one day play in a World Cup, representing Japan, though he will certainly play for his country in this year’s London Olympics.
In his country, Hiroshi is becoming an ambassador of a sport that 10 to 20 years ago was second-best to baseball. Today, both sports are neck and neck, fighting to become the country’s favorite.
He is proud of the legacy he is developing in the Iberian Peninsula, but he also jokes about it. “Everywhere I go, I’m always the first Japanese player in the club!”
Japanese Footballers Succeeding in Europe
There are other Japanese footballers in Europe. Atsuto Uchida and Shinji Kagawa play in the Bundesliga, the German league. Uchida plays as right back in Schalke 04, a team in which one of Spain’s all time greats, Raúl, is captain. Kagawa, who possesses qualitative speed and technique, plays for the defending champions of the league, Borussia Dortmund.
Yuto Nagatomo plays as full back for Internazionale, one of Italy’s historic soccer clubs. Keisuke Honda plays in Russia for CSKA Moscow, one of Russia’s dominant teams. During the 2010 World Cup, Honda scored two goals for Japan.