Ich Bin Hasebe Makoto: Former Japanese National Soccer Team Captain Makes Bundesliga HomeSports
Creating a Persona
Hasebe Makoto is tough to pin down. In his 2011 best-selling book Kokoro o totonoeru: Shōri o taguri yoseru tame no 56 no shūkan (Priming the Mind: 56 Winning Habits) he portrays himself as being “earnest,” “a leader,” and “calm and collected.” But is this really who he is, or just an image crafted for the public?
Over his 15 years playing in the German Bundesliga, Hasebe has been the very picture of someone who is organized, disciplined, and intelligent. At the same time, fans know he is more than capable of asserting himself when called on.
Hasebe can hold his own in German and is not afraid to speak his mind to the press. Local reporters often seek him out to weigh in on matters concerning the club or his teammates, which he does, sounding more like a manager at times than a player. He is forthright yet laid back, traits that have been important to his staying power on the European soccer scene.
A native of Shizuoka Prefecture, Hasebe was 18 when he joined J. League side Urawa Reds from Fujieda Higashi High School. He was full of youthful vigor and ambition. Far from being a top recruit, though, he had to battle disappointment to earn a spot on the roster.
Hasebe spent his rookie season with Urawa playing in the reserve league, and I still remember one match in particular from this time. His family had made the journey from Shizuoka to watch him play, but Hasebe never got the nod and remained stuck on the bench for the duration of the contest. Adding insult to injury, he was the only player on the roster not to see playing time. It was an embarrassing snub. After the game I spotted him standing off to the side, alone. “They came all this way,” he muttered to himself tearfully, burying his head in his hands.
By his second season, though, Hasebe had earned a starting spot on Urawa’s senior team. He made his debut in a league cup contest, taking the pitch as his family looked on proudly. The event was made all the more moving by his mother clutching a framed pictures of Hasebe’s recently deceased grandfather. What was to be a red-letter day, though, ended in bitter disappointment for Hasebe when he was sent off for a second booking. Even now, I can recall the despondent look on his face at letting down his family and others who had come to support him.
Hasebe overcame these setbacks to steadily forge a reputation as one of the league’s top players. In 2008, eager to play overseas, he set his sights on the Bundesliga. In Germany, he gradually built a reputation for poise and confidence with his exploits in one of Europe’s top leagues, traits he also displayed as captain of the Japanese national team. He solidified his public image with his aforementioned book, in the pages of which he put his intellect on display by expounding on the daily habits and thinking that had put him at the top of Japanese soccer.
Outwardly the picture of confidence, in reality, Hasebe has had to teach himself how to cope with the trials and tribulations of playing overseas. When he joined Wolfsburg from Urawa, for instance, the stress of adapting to the customs and language of a new country and the pressure of playing in one of the world’s top leagues triggered such intense homesickness that he considered returning to Japan after only a month in Germany. To get through, he called his family almost every day to talk through his concerns.
Not wanting to be cowed by his insecurities, though, Hasebe set out to adapt to his new surroundings, including buckling down to learn German. I travelled to Wolfsburg shortly after his move to the club and was impressed with his dedication in this pursuit. Inviting me to dinner one evening, he showed up toting an electronic dictionary (smartphones had yet to catch on), which he used to bombard the young woman serving us with questions.
“I’ve become something of a regular here,” he declared before admitting his patronage was more than culinary in nature—the waitress helped him with his German. I was surprised at seeing this side of Hasebe, but he stressed that it was no time for timidness. “I’m never going to learn to speak with any proficiency unless I step out of my comfort zone.”
Hasebe is a meticulous person, and in a way this has helped him adapt to life in a foreign country. For instance, he carefully schedules each day in advance, including when he will wake up, where he will go, what he will eat, and even when he will arrive back home. This has earned him a reputation for fastidiousness, but as he gains a great sense of satisfaction from following his plans to the letter, it is not a trait that he has to work at.
Such attention to detail stands in contrast to the irregular schedules foisted on professional players by the whims of managers, who might reward a team with extra rest days after a win or suddenly call everyone in for training following a loss. However, here too, Hasebe has learned to adapt and even use the constant shuffle to his advantage, such as by stealing away to places like Paris or Rome when there is a sudden break in the training schedule.
“Living in Germany has taught me to be resilient,” he chuckles. “When events throw a wrench into the works, I just roll with the punches.” Such was the case when Hasebe found himself stranded 360 kilometers from home after an away match.
Bundesliga players are subject to random drug tests after games as part of the league’s anti-doping policy. However, the rigors of play can denude the body’s fluids to the point that a player might need several hours to produce the necessary amount of urine for a test. After one such incident, Hasebe emerged from the testing area to discover that the team bus had departed without him. With no other options, he hitched a ride with one of the club’s staff.
Travelling on the autobahn at around 200 kilometers an hour, the car made the return trip in some three hours. “We beat the bus back,” Hasebe recounts with a laugh. “It was one of many remarkable experiences I’ve had.”
Hasebe’s meticulous planning has become a go-to topic for soccer journalists in Germany, who enjoy prodding him about his eccentricities knowing he will answer in all earnestness. For instance, a reporter might ask whether he still follows his daily routine of arriving at the clubhouse two hours early to warm up, heading straight home after practice to soak in the bath for a half hour, and then hitting the sack by 10:30, fully aware what the response will be.
Hasebe, for his part, does not mind playing the straight man during these light-hearted interactions. “It’s easier to go along with people’s expectations,” he says with a smile. “If people assume something about my personality, like I’m hyper organized, then that’s what I give them. I’ve learned it’s easier to adjust to people’s perceptions, even if it’s not who I really am as a person.”
Preparing for a New Role
Professional soccer players typically get a jump on contemplating their next move ahead of retirement, such as going into business or earning a coaching license. Hasebe, on the other hand, has remained laser-focused as ever on his duties as a player.
However, his stance changed after signing a five-year extension with Eintracht Frankfurt that will keep him at the club into 2027. Hasebe committed to play for the 2022–23 season, but declared that he intends to take it year by year after that. He has also signed a contract giving him a coaching position at the club when he retires, raising the possibility that he will hang up his cleats sooner than later.
“I’ve talked with the team about a coaching spot down the road,” admits Hasebe. Although he suggested that that next season will probably be his last, he stops short of pulling the curtain on his playing career. “It’s more than a year away. I might finish the season and find that I’m not quite ready to call it quits.”
As part of his new contract, Hasebe will take a coaching course provided under governing body German Football Federation’s Players Pathway program with the aim of earning his UEFA B coaching license. Along with his course work and duties as a player, he will cut his teeth as a manager by coaching teenage youth players.
Hasebe has expressed his intent to remain in Germany after he is finished playing, and getting his coaching license will set him on a new career path in his adopted country. He recognizes, though, that the transition from player to manager will take time. “I’m discovering how different the two are. At the moment, I still prefer stepping onto the pitch to watching from the sidelines.”
The passion and poise Hasebe exhibits is what makes him such a thrill to watch as a player. These traits will certainly him serve him as he prepares for the next stage of his soccer career.
(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Hasebe Makoto, center, celebrates with his Frankfurt teammates after winning the UEFA Europa League final in Seville, Spain, on May 18, 2022, giving the club its first major title in 42 years. © Kyōdō.)