One of the hottest prospects to move from the J-League to Europe in recent years, Brighton winger Kaoru Mitoma is nearing his World Cup debut this month in Qatar.
Although he was named to Japan's 26-man squad for Qatar on Tuesday, the 25-year-old feared for a time that his World Cup dream might be over before it began.
He hurt his right ankle moments after his 46th-minute entry to Brighton's Oct. 14 English Premier League game but gutted it out until full time.
"The pain got stronger as the game progressed, but I couldn't stop playing," Mitoma told Kyodo News recently. "I have a lot of experience with sprains, so I could roughly tell how bad it was, but I'd have missed (the World Cup) if it was a fracture, and that possibility did cross my mind."
Mitoma was not fully fit when Japan settled for fourth place at last year's Tokyo Olympics when expectations were high for a medal at home.
This time, however, the former Kawasaki Frontale man made a swift return to action at home to Chelsea on Saturday, when he celebrated his first league start with an assist.
"I was pushing myself to be in the best condition (for the World Cup), and that might have led to the timing of the injury," said Mitoma, who received the welcome news a day after the game that he would most likely be fit in time for Qatar.
When Russia hosted the 2018 World Cup, Mitoma was still a student playing for the University of Tsukuba after opting against going straight to Kawasaki's top team from the youth side.
Four years ago during the last World Cup, Mitoma was entirely focused on winning a starting position with his university team, intent on taking one step at a time.
"The World Cup was a distant stage," he said. "I wasn't even thinking I'd be able to become a national team member at that time."
He has risen meteorically since his 2020 J-League debut with Kawasaki, scoring 21 goals and 17 assists in 50 league games for the J1 champions before being snapped up by Brighton.
He adapted seamlessly last term, his first in Europe. On loan at promoted Royal Union Saint-Gilloise in the Belgian top flight, his new team topped the regular season before missing out on the title in the playoffs.
Mitoma made his Japan debut last November and sealed World Cup qualification with a late brace away to Australia in March.
"I got the stimuli I couldn't get in the J-League after moving to Belgium, and I got into the national team when I was starting to feel I could cut it against overseas players," Mitoma said.
"After that, I started getting called up regularly by getting results."
Mitoma did not see game time but watched intently from the bench when Brighton took on a Manchester United side featuring his footballing inspiration, Cristiano Ronaldo, in this season's league opener.
"I came across him during the warm-up and thought, I've finally made it this far. Having players like that on the opposing side really fires me up," Mitoma said.
He has since won the heart of Brighton fans with his exceptional dribbling and hopes his regular matchups against world-class players will serve him well when Japan faces Germany, Costa Rica and Spain in World Cup Group E.
"Winning or losing the first game makes a huge difference at the World Cup, so I'll start off by giving my all in the first game against Germany," he said. "Coming through the tough battles on the winning side means everything."