Japan's Ritsu Doan was a must-watch for Arminia Bielefeld in the Bundesliga in 2020/21 - and now he's back in Germany with Freiburg. - © CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images
Japan's Ritsu Doan was a must-watch for Arminia Bielefeld in the Bundesliga in 2020/21 - and now he's back in Germany with Freiburg. - © CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images

Ritsu Doan: Who is Freiburg's "Japanese Lionel Messi"?


He has been referred to as the "Japanese Messi" and is back in the Bundesliga, but who is Freiburg's new 24-year-old winger Ritsu Doan?

bundesliga.com has the lowdown on the latest young star from the land of the rising sun, winner of the Bundesliga Rookie Award in March 2021…

Ritsu Doan

Age: 24
Club: Freiburg
Position: Winger
Country: Japan (26 caps, 3 goals)

Key stats

Doan 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, Doan received offers from several big clubs as a teenager and opted for Gamba Osaka, becoming part of a golden generation who won the country's first ever treble at U15 level in 2012.

Touted as a hot prospect, Doan made his debut for Gamba Osaka 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, Doan 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 FIFA.com 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 number 7 shirt.

In 66 games for Groningen, Doan 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, he joined Bielefeld on a season-long loan. The promoted side faced a battle to remain in the Bundesliga but Doan 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 his move back to Bundesliga with Freiburg.

It was hard enough catching up to Ritsu Doan on the right wing for Arminia Bielefeld, now he's representing high-flying Freiburg. - DFL

Plays a bit like: Xherdan Shaqiri

Doan is a high-octane wide man who likes to get stuck into the action. Generally deployed as a right-winger at Bielefeld, he was among the top five players in the Bundesliga for intensive runs and inside the top 15 for sprints. He averaged over two shots per 90 minutes and almost 1.5 passes to a shot, having a major hand in keeping Arminia up - and his efforts were recognised with the Bundesliga Rookie Award for March 2021.

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 - Doan 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?

Doan 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. His Europe-based younger brother remains rather more high-profile, though, boasting over 270,000 followers on Instagram.

Watch: One of Doan's most impressive Bielefeld performances came against Leverkusen

What they're saying

"I never dreamed of doing anything other than becoming a professional footballer. I've lived with a ball ever since I can remember. That's why I always knew I would become a football player." - Doan, in an exclusive interview with bundesliga.com

"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

"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