Japan's Mike Havenaar reflects on his growth as a player: 'I felt I still had to improve because I wanted to become the top scorer'

The J-League's rising star discussed his upbringing, his career, the Samurai Blue, Holland's Eredivisie and more in an exclusive interview with Goal.com's Cesare Polenghi
Interview by Cesare Polenghi | Asia Managing Editor
Edited by Dan Orlowitz | Japan Football Editor

After several years of obscurity in Japan's second division, Mike Havenaar believes he has found the patience and passion required to succeed in the high-flying Japanese national team as well as lift struggling J-League side Ventforet Kofu to safety.

One thing he's still adjusting to, however, is his infamous nickname. The Dutch-descended striker is nearly constantly referred to as "194-centimetre-Havenaar-Mike" by Japanese media.

"I think everyone knows it by now, so perhaps it's time to drop it …" laughed Havenaar when asked by Goal.com if he was tired of the label during an exclusive interview.

Born in the western city of Hiroshima after his father, Dido, came to ply his trade with Mazda FC (now Sanfrecce Hiroshima), Havenaar's family moved north to Sapporo before landing in Yokohama, near the capital city of Tokyo.
Proud father | Shimizu S-Pulse coach Dido Havenaar, who coached son Mike at Yokohama F. Marinos

"[Moving around frequently] wasn't easy, but it also gave me the chance to meet and befriend a lot of people. In the end I got used to it, so it was okay," he said.

As a teenager, Havenaar spent time with the youth squads of Consadole Sapporo and Yokohama F. Marinos before eventually making the Marinos top team. There he and Dido became the first father-son combo in J-League. But Mike struggled, earning just 24 league appearances with no goals in two seasons.

"I wasn't that good and probably I was also too impatient," he reflected. "I wanted to play, and to do well, but I believe in the end, my eagerness resulted in the opposite effect …"

But Havenaar found his momentum in two seasons in the second division; first at Avispa Fukuoka in 2008 and then in Sagan Tosu the following year.

"In particular, [Sagan manager] Yasuyuki Kishino taught me about the importance of playing with passion," he said. "He gradually started me, and I really did not want to disappoint him. By playing more, I think I improved."

Havenaar converted an impressive 15 goals in 2009. But his breakout season would come the following year with Ventforet Kofu, a small club that aspired to return to J1 for the first time since 2007.

A valiant effort | Havenaar's 17 goals may not save Ventforet from relegation

"I had scored 15 goals in Tosu, but I felt I still had to improve because I wanted become the top scorer. With this in mind, I came to Kofu to give it another try in J2 and to help the team to make it to J1," he said.

Havenaar succeeded in both. Not only was he the top J2 scorer with 20 goals, but Ventforet finally returned to J1. His 17 goals this season have him level at the top of the scorer chart with Australian Joshua Kennedy, and he's also made his long-awaited breakthrough with the national team.

Havenaar’s two goals against Tajikistan in October’s World Cup qualifier helped earn him Goal.com’s World Player of the Week and Asian Player of the Month honours.

"They are good players. I mean, really, really good," he said reverently when discussing his Samurai Blue team-mates.

The 24-year-old also described Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni as meticulous: "[Zaccheroni] explains every minutia, especially regarding how to defend."

But Havenaar was hesitant to put a finger on why he and Korean-descended Tadanari Lee were the country's top candidates to start up front.

"Japanese strikers are very good, but sometimes you have the feeling that something is missing."

- Mike Havenaar

"Japanese strikers are very good, but sometimes you have the feeling that something is missing," he said.

With Ventforet threatened by relegation and Zaccheroni encouraging his players to challenge themselves in Europe, Havenaar may have an eye on his ancestral homeland. Although he can speak Dutch and enjoys Kroketten (Dutch croquettes) when visiting his grandparents, he doesn't regret not playing for the Oranje.

"I was born in Japan, I grew up here in Japan, I have all my friends in Japan… I feel more Japanese than Dutch," he said.

Since childhood his favourite Eredivisie club has been Ajax, who notably have yet to sign a Japanese player. However, on Thursday, scouts from Vitesse watched Havenaar score, albeit in a losing effort.

“[The Eredivisie] seems a good league to begin with in Europe, many great players started there to move on to great careers.”

-Mike Havenaar

“It seems a good league to begin with in Europe, many great players started there to move on to great careers,” Havenaar said on the prospects of playing in the Eredivisie.

Though he admitted to being alone in his joy when the Netherlands triumphed 1-0 over Japan in South Africa, Havenaar swore that his stance would change in a rematch were he to don Japan’s emblematic blue kit.

“I'd do the best for my team, of course. I'd do my very best to help Japan to win!” he said.

And for supporters hoping that Havenaar will add height to their team, there’s always his younger brother, a promising centre-back at Nagoya Grampus' youth team.

“In all honesty, I haven't had many chances to see him play, but he is taller than me!” the elder sibling laughed. “Sure [I’d like to play him]... to beat him, of course!”

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