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Monday, July 2, 2012

Hasegawa thriving at FC Tokyo after change of scenery

Staff writer

Swapping the sea air for the big city may not be everyone's idea of a fresh start, but FC Tokyo midfielder Ariajasuru Hasegawa has enjoyed a new lease of life since moving to the capital from Yokohama F. Marinos over the offseason.

News photo
Fresh start: FC Tokyo's Ariajasuru Hasegawa (left) has raised his game since joining from Yokohama F. Marinos this year. KYODO

Hasegawa, born in Saitama to a Japanese mother and an Iranian father, came through the youth ranks at Marinos before making his debut in 2007, but his career in Yokohama never really took off in five first-team seasons with the club. A consistent run in the starting lineup always seemed out of reach for a player who often struggled to impose himself on games, and when newly promoted Tokyo showed an interest in signing him over the winter, it was little surprise to see Marinos let him go.

Yokohama's loss, however, has been Tokyo's gain. A goal against Kashiwa Reysol in the season-opening Xerox Super Cup helped Hasegawa lay down a marker ahead of the new campaign and he has never looked back, helping Tokyo into eighth place in the table and winning himself a national team callup for last month's friendly against Azerbaijan.

"There's no doubt that my decision to come here was a good one," the 23-year-old said at Tokyo's training ground ahead of Saturday's 3-1 defeat to Jubilo Iwata. "I haven't achieved anything yet, but since coming here I have been able to contribute to the team and that has given me strength and allowed me to improve. I had a difficult time at Marinos, but coming here has given me confidence.

"Of course there was some anxiety coming to a new club, but playing games is the most important thing for a player and at Marinos I was in the team some weeks and others I wasn't. Of course when you move to a new club there are no guarantees, but I wanted to challenge myself and improve."

Having started all but three of Tokyo's 16 league games so far, Hasegawa has certainly made his presence felt. Saturday's loss to Jubilo may have compounded an indifferent run of form for the capital city club in recent weeks, but Hasegawa has his sights set on bigger things.

"We're not in bad shape, but recently we haven't been able to string together a run of wins," he said of his team, which has won two, lost three and drawn one of its last six games. "If you win one but then lose the next game, it's difficult to move up the table.

"Unfortunately we were knocked out of the Asian Champions League, but we are still in a good position in the J. League. We start from the knockout stage of the Nabisco Cup and at the end of the year there is the Emperor's Cup as well, so we're aiming for those three titles. If you don't approach it with confidence then it's a waste of time."

Such confidence has not gone unnoticed — not least by national team manager Alberto Zaccheroni. The Italian awarded Hasegawa a callup for Japan's 2-0 friendly win over Azerbaijan in May, and although the midfielder did not leave the bench, the experience left a deep impression.

"Regardless of football it was a big honor to represent my country," Hasegawa said. "Getting called up was the result of all the hard work I had put in up to that point, but that doesn't mean I can sit back and be satisfied. I have to keep aiming higher, and that starts with what I do at FC Tokyo.

"I didn't have so long with the squad but I had confidence in my abilities. A national team game is a completely different atmosphere from a club game. It was a new experience for me, and those three days were very important."

Given his father's birthplace, however, Hasegawa could easily have been pulling on a diferent national team's shirt.

"When I heard myself being talked about in terms of playing for Iran's national team I was very surprised and very happy," he said. "But I've lived my whole life in Japan, and I'm determined to play for Japan.

"It may only be a little bit, but my dad being Iranian has definitely had an influence on me. I can tell he has a slightly different way of thinking to Japanese people. He's very positive, and I was brought up to think about others before thinking about myself. I can feel that my background makes me different from other people. There aren't many mixed-heritage players."

In the wider world of Japanese sports, however, Hasegawa certainly has a good role model. Pitcher Yu Darvish — himself of mixed Japanese-Iranian parentage — has made a big splash since joining the Texas Rangers in Major League Baseball this year, and Hasegawa has nothing but admiration.

"It makes me very happy to see how well he is doing," he said. "I haven't achieved anything like Darvish has, and baseball is a different sport, but when I see him doing well it acts as an incentive for me as a Japanese-Iranian. It's a source of immense pride.

"But whether you are mixed race or not, it's about what you do on the field that affects people. That's what gives people the confidence to feel they can do it too. So I'd like to be a football player who can inspire kids in the same way that Darvish does in baseball."

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