The look of a delighted Ritsu Dōan has become one Freiburg and Japan fans know well. - © Imago
The look of a delighted Ritsu Dōan has become one Freiburg and Japan fans know well. - © Imago

Ritsu Dōan: Who is the Freiburg winger dubbed 'Japan's Messi'?


He's been referred to as the "Japanese Messi", but who is Freiburg's Ritsu Dōan? has the lowdown on the super sub who scored against Germany and Spain to send Japan through to the 2022 World Cup knockouts...

Stats correct as of 1 January 2024

Ritsu Dōan

Age: 25 (born 16 June 1998)
Club: Freiburg
Position: Winger
Country: Japan (42 caps, seven goals)

Key stats

Dōan grew up in the town of Amagasaki, to the west of Osaka. His older brothers were mad about football and Ritsu quickly caught the bug too, getting key encouragement from one of his early coaches at primary school, Yo Hayano. After boyhood spells with Urakaze and Nishinomiya, Dōan received offers from several big clubs as a teenager and opted for Gamba Osaka, becoming part of a golden generation who won the club's first-ever treble at U15 level in 2012.

Dōan made his senior debut in May 2015, at 16 years and 344 days, in a 3-2 win over FC Seoul in the Asian Champions League. A week later, he became the youngest player in the club's history to play in the J1 League, against Kashima Antlers. In all, he netted four goals in 25 senior appearances for Osaka - the first coming on his first Asian Champions League start in 2017, in a 3-3 draw with Adelaide United.

Named Asian Youth Player of the Year in 2016, Dōan also impressed at the FIFA U20 World Cup in 2017, scoring three goals to help Japan reach the knockout stage. After a brilliant run and finish against Italy, he was even referred to as "the Japanese Messi" on the official Twitter page. It was only a matter of time before European clubs started showing an interest in Osaka's teen sensation, and he duly signed on loan for FC Groningen in summer 2017. After an impressive maiden Eredivisie campaign - nine goals and four assists in 29 appearances - he was signed on a permanent deal, inheriting the No.7 shirt.

In 66 games for Groningen, Dōan notched 16 goals and seven assists, earning himself a move to PSV Eindhoven in summer 2019. He endured a difficult debut campaign at the club, though, and thus, in September 2020, joined Arminia Bielefeld on a season-long loan. The promoted side faced a battle to remain in the Bundesliga, but Dōan was one of their key performers in the fight for survival. He was Bielefeld's joint-top scorer with five goals - together with centre-forward Fabian Klos - and grabbed a trio of assists, as well as getting the better of the world's best goalkeeper - Manuel Neuer - in defeat to Bayern Munich. He returned to parent club Eindhoven after keeping Arminia up, scoring 11 times across 39 appearances in the Eredivisie, Dutch Cup, UEFA Europa and Conference Leagues, before securing a move back to the Bundesliga with Freiburg.

Dōan scored a memorable equalising goal as Japan beat Germany 2-1 at the 2022 World Cup. - IMAGO/Javier Garcia/Shutterstock/IMAGO/Shutterstock

Dōan scored on his Bundesliga debut for Freiburg in August 2022 (in a 4-0 win at Augsburg) and also netted in his first appearances for the club in the DFB Cup and UEFA Europa League. That was only one small part of a year to remember as he netted massive goals at the 2022 World Cup for the Samurai Blue against Germany and Spain to seal their progression from the group stage. Heading into the 2023 Asian Cup, he has registered 10 goals and 11 assists across 69 competitive games in a Freiburg shirt.

Plays a bit like: Xherdan Shaqiri

While comparisons with Lionel Messi may be a little far-fetched, the 24-year-old does share traits with former Bayern midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri, now of Chicago Fire. Both men are of fairly diminutive stature - Dōan measures 5'8", while Shaqiri is a shade shorter at 5'7" - but that low centre of gravity makes them formidable dribblers of the ball, and they aren't shy about throwing themselves into challenges either. The pair also share a magic left foot and like to get involved in setting goals up as well as putting them away.

Did you know?

Dōan isn't the only member of his family to have become a footballer. His older brother Yu also plays professionally, although admittedly not at the same level as Ritsu. He is a defensive midfielder who has had spells with various clubs in Japan's lower leagues, most recently Ococias Kyoto. 

Watch: Doan was Freiburg's matchwinner against Leverkusen in 2022/23

What they're saying

"Ritsu is technically gifted, can take on one-on-ones and knows how to pose a threat to goal. Ritsu showed at Bielefeld that he can play in the Bundesliga - we'll also need that from him. It's nice that it's all worked out with a year's delay." - Freiburg sporting director Klemens Hartenbach on Dōan's signing in 2022

"Despite his young age, he has a lot of international experience. Our team will benefit from that, and from the playing skills he's already demonstrated in the Netherlands and with the Japan national team." - Bielefeld sporting director Samir Arabi