Muto's mission: Why Japan's new pin-up boy is making Chelsea wait
There was a period around Christmas last year when virtually every train in western Tokyo had moving images of Yoshinori Muto peering back down upon weary travellers.
The advertising campaign was for one of the sponsors of his club side, FC Tokyo, and featured pictures and video of the now 22-year-old at various stages throughout his childhood and adolescence.
As a boy with his mother, as a young player just starting out on his footballing journey and — somewhat incongruously for much of the footballing world — as an economics student at the capital’s prestigious Keio University.
Linked heavily in recent months with a move to English club Chelsea, Muto’s road to the top has been a circuitous one.
Moreover in an era where European clubs are snapping up Japanese and Korean midfielders at an increasing rate, it’s a rarity to see forwards being the target of such regal clubs, but Muto is far from your average player.
He joined his hometown side, FC Tokyo, as a 16-year-old and immediately impressed in a series of performances through the various youth age groups where he was regarded as more of an attack-minded midfielder rather than the powerful frontman he has become.
In a country where such moves are not exactly commonplace, but equally not unheard of, Muto then left Tokyo to enter university where he starred for Keio’s football side before returning to his original club as a ‘special designated player’ — a system designed to allow J.League clubs to field university players.
After making just the one appearance in 2013, last year was a watershed one for Muto, featuring regularly in both league and cup action and immediately earning rave reviews.
His 13 goals from 33 league appearances was an exceptional return for a ‘rookie’ player who was still on several occasions utilised in a wider, often left-sided, role. That earned him a maiden national team call-up in a home friendly against Uruguay in September.
He appeared off the bench in that match and it was immediately obvious that all the traits he’d exhibited in domestic action would not desert him on the bigger stage — the instinctive movement, the perceptive sense of space, the slashing pace, the ability and confidence to run at opponents and powerful shots were all on display in a 32 minute cameo.
Four days later he was introduced at half-time against Venezuela and within six minutes had his first international goal.
A surging run that began near the halfway line saw him brush off a defender, power towards the penalty box with speed, controlling the ball with his right foot before lashing a fierce left-footed effort into the bottom corner of the goal.
The celebration showed off his other great asset for a Japanese footballing public that has a healthy female following — the dazzling white teeth and smile that has already seen him on the front page of fashion magazines.
He appeared, off the bench, in each of Japan’s matches at a disappointing Asian Cup and this year has been all but unstoppable in the J.League.
With Tokyo 2-0 down and just 15 minutes left in their opening match of the new season against defending champion Gamba Osaka, Muto single-handedly turned the contest.
An outrageous volley from well outside the box and then a second in stoppage time rescued a point before he scored in three of his next five matches, several of them special strikes as well.
He is, in many ways, a typical Japanese footballer — technically outstanding, equally capable with either foot. He is also polite and measured away from the pitch.
Yet Muto also possesses something a little different, a determination and drive that few of his native contemporaries hold.
Strikers, and that’s what it seems the versatile player is likely to become, in Japan are often reticent to shoot or wayward when they do — preferring rather to create than finish.
Muto is hungry for goals, direct and quick, and also level-headed enough to not immediately fall for the overtures of a club of Chelsea’s ilk.
When the speculation first emerged he responded by saying he’d need to weigh up the offer, considering what’s best for his future development.
It’s a moment of introspection that few footballers anywhere across the world possess and it’s why he’s already so adored in Japan.
Pin-up boy looks, polite and respectful, a recent economics graduate, last year’s rookie of the year, one of the league’s leading performers, a regular in one of Asia’s best national teams and the target of one of Europe’s finest club sides — all at the age of just 22.
The list of honours being chalked up by Yoshinori Muto might soon be too broad even to fit onto Tokyo’s lengthy train carriages.