When Ko Itakura suffered a partial tear of the medial collateral ligament in his left knee back in September, there were fears it could cost him the opportunity to feature at the FIFA World Cup for the first time.
Having only joined Bundesliga outfit Borussia Monchengladbach in the summer, the classy centre-back had been enjoying a promising start to life with his new club until suffering the injury in training.
Nonetheless, with surgery not required, Itakura slowly but surely returned to fitness, earning his place in Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu’s 26-man squad for the World Cup.
And on Wednesday, his remarkable recovery was complete as he played a key role in the Samurai Blue’s sensational come-from-behind 2-1 victory over four-time champions Germany in their Group E opener — featuring for the full 90 minutes and even assisting Takuma Asano’s winning goal with a searching 60-yard pass.
“I’m feeling very good,” he told ESPN. “We knew it would be a very tough game against Germany but the result was very good.
“It was difficult to get the three points but we did it. Now we have to keep working as the next game (against Costa Rica) is very important.
“Of course, when I got injured, I knew that maybe I could not play at the World Cup, but the medical staff were very supportive and I just want to say thank you to them — both from Borussia Monchengladbach and the (Japan) national team.”
Itakura fully repaid the faith shown in him by Moriyasu after he was given the nod to start alongside captain Maya Yoshida in the heart of defence ahead of Arsenal man Takehiro Tomiyasu.
But it was after Moriyasu switched to a three-man defence at the halftime break, with Tomiyasu coming on and slotting in alongside Yoshida and Itakura, that Japan really came to life before ultimately pulling off a stunning comeback with goals from Ritsu Doan and Asano in the final 15 minutes.
When asked what led Japan to display a constant belief that they could get a result even while trailing, Itakura replied: “This is (what it means to be) Japanese. We always try our best even when we’re losing.
“We have to try and give everything until the end. When we conceded in the first half, it was difficult for our mentality but ewe focused and believed in ourselves, so I’m very happy with the result.”
Despite the joy of a memorable triumph with his nation against traditional powerhouses at the World Cup, Itakura let out a nervous laughter when asked if it might be wise for him to refrain from using social media for a couple of days given the number of his Gladbach fans that would likely be devasted by Germany’s defeat.
“It was difficult (to play) against Germany because I play in Germany, and I like Germany and German people,” added the 25-year-old, with a wry grin.
“But you know — Japan against Germany — I just have to give everything for Japan. Now, I’m just happy.”