'Flying Dutchman' lifts Japanese hopes

TOKYO - Dutch-born Mike Havenaar does not have a typical Japanese name, but two goals this week suggest he may be exactly what the Blue Samurai need: a nearly two metre striker from the world's tallest country.

Havenaar, 24, has become a new weapon in Japan's World Cup qualifying campaign after scoring his first international goals with what the side have sorely lacked - height.

The 194-centimetre (6ft 4in) striker headed home a brace as Japan demolished a hapless Tajikistan 8-0 at home to top the Group C table with seven points - level with Uzbekistan but ahead of them by virtue of a better goal difference.

The J-League Ventforet Kofu ace made his Japan debut in a 1-0 home win over North Korea in their opening qualifier last month.

He missed two intervening games that showed up a lack of firepower - a 1-1 away draw with Uzbekistan and a laboured 1-0 friendly win over Vietnam - but changed the four-time Asian champions's fortunes in Osaka on Tuesday.

On 11 minutes, he soared above the ground against two Tajik defenders to head in a nearly three-metre-high right cross from Yuiichi Komano, roaring in delight in a sliding celebration.

"It was probably the highest ever headed shot for Japan," the Nikkan Sports daily said.

Two minutes after half-time, Havenaar again scored from a Komano cross and was substituted in the 49th minute.

The business newspaper Nikkei hailed him: "A big, big weapon has joined Japan."

Havenaar was born in Hiroshima in 1987, the eldest son of Dutchman Dido Havenaar, then a coach and player for a local football club.

The Havenaar family moved to Sapporo and Yokohama to follow Dido's work, while Mike grew up to speak Dutch, Japanese and English, and the family became naturalised Japanese in 1994.

Havenaar said that as the Japanese national anthem was played before Tuesday's match, "I thought to myself, 'Oh, no.' I got goose bumps.

"I thought to myself: 'I've come a long way'. It is not that my life has been full of successes. I've probably had more failures than successes. But I have crawled out of there.

"It makes me proud to play in the country's blue shirt and I want to keep doing this."

A left-footed player, he joined Yokohama Marinos in 2006 but was transferred to then second-division Ventforet Kofu in 2010, where he scored a division-high 20 goals last season to help them secure promotion to the top flight.

The Netherlands is widely cited as the country with the tallest people in the world, and Havenaar is reportedly the tallest Japanese international since the start of the J-League in 1993.

The second-tallest player in the current squad is VVV Venlo defender Maya Yoshida at 189cm, while Sota Hirayama, 190cm, scored a hat-trick in Japan's 3-2 win over Yemen in January 2010.

Blue Samurai coach Alberto Zaccheroni said: "I picked Havenaar because I wanted the team to make an effective use of crosses."

Japan's World Cup battles have been previously boosted by players from Brazil - Wagner Lopes in 1998, Alessandro Santos in 2002 and 2006, and Marcus Tulio Tanaka in 2010.