The Incredible Story of Dan Ito

FourFourTwo recently had the pleasure to talk with one of Asia’s most well-travelled footballer, Dan Ito, and he had a tale to share for the ages… 

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Playing in the same generation as Hidetoshi Nakata and Boboyuki Zaizen, Dan Ito arguably failed to reach the heights of success his aforementioned peers enjoyed.

But Ito is still a fairly popular figure back in the land of the Samurais and has featured prominently in the media, due to his background in playing across 19 countries to fulfil his dreams of being a professional footballer.

FourFourTwo managed to catch the journeyman during his recent visit to Thailand and here is his story.

FFT: Honestly, your life is very interesting... so could you please tell me your story, starting from when you were a child?

Dan Ito: I was born in Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan. When I was young, I could do many sports including baseball, football, and ice-hockey - which I did best in.

Actually, Hokkaido is well-known for our winter sports and also hosted the winter Olympic in 1972 or three years before I was born.

I led the school team to wins in many tournaments and I even capped the national team and was recognised for my abilities when I was 15.

FFT: So why did you become a footballer instead?

Dan Ito: I felt that I lost my passion for ice-hockey because I already won in every tournament and was capped many times. I was very popular and there were some high schools which specialised in ice-hockey and they tried to get me to join them.

But that was when I decided to try the world’s most popular sport, football, and gave it my all since.

FFT: Were you serious about football immediately when you were in high school?

Dan Ito: Yes, I had a chance to join Noboribetsu school football team, quite a famous team in Hokkaido.

It was far from my house and took about 90 minutes of travelling by  bus and I had to stay at apartment there. On hindsight, it was a good choice to stay so far away as if I had stayed in a town closeby, I might have gone out for sightseeing and lose sight of my goals.

It was only the second best school in Hokkaido, but I chose it as it was more challenging that way and that suits my character.

FFT: When you played at high school, did you face any famous names?

Dan Ito: Umm.... I am not sure... I just remembered that I had very tough training regimes, twice a day. Once in the morning and evening, two hours eachs.

Our coach would order us to run and run without any water, it was as though we were training to be soldiers. There were no sport science then, but we were a strong team and we successfully became the Northern champions from a pool of 500 schools.

We were satisfied with our performance but were unable to be national champions like popular teams Okinawa, Tokyo or Osaka.


Ito during his younger days

FFT: Who were you influenced by to become a professional footballer?

Dan Ito: Hahaha, when I was young ... Japan hadn’t started its professional football league yet. We were semi-pros and the media did not provide as much sports coverage as it does today.

I had only "Captain Tsubasa" (a popular cartoon character) to make me love football. I read the comic and tried to imitate Tsubasa’s move, so he Is my idol.

FFT: When did you really want to be a professional footballer?

Dan Ito: After I finished high school, I entered Sendai University. At that time, the young skillful high school players were scouted and invited to join club academies.

However, none selected me, so I joined the university team instead.  During that period, there were lots of professional teams playing warm-up match with my university team.

That was our chance to compete with the younger players like Shinji Ono (Feyenoord former midfielder), Shoji Jo (Japanese National Team and Real Valladolid former forward), or even the goalkeeper Kawaguchi (Yoshikatsu).

Sometimes, we lost to the professional club but that's normal. But, sometimes we beat them and I also scored in those games, giving me the confidence that my skills were on par with these players.

FFT: You really did it by signing the contract with Vegalta Sendai in 1998

Dan Ito: Yes, I had a good relationship with Sendai, it was my second home.

Initially, I had planned to sign with Consadole Sapporo, my hometown club, after I graduated from university.

Unfortunately, the club's policy was to target the high school players who had just graduated instead and at 22, I was too old for them.

I signed the contract with Sendai while I was still in university, as their coach Tagekatsu Suzuki was impressed by me whenever I featured against Vegalta Sendai and gave me a deal.

FFT: Was Nobuyuki Zaizen, a former Muangthong United player, your teammate at that time?

Dan Ito: Yes, I joined the club one year before him. In my first year, I played regularly at the club, but I missed many games in my second year because of injury and Zaizen became the main man in the squad instead.

He was, at that time, more talented and famous than Hidetoshi Nakata, and he had also just came back from Croatia.

Unfortunately, after that, he was chronically injured and could not make the Japanese national team.