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Kaoru Mitoma: The Premier League footballer who turned down a professional contract to go to university

Kaoru Mitoma turned down a contract as a professional footballer to attend university.

The then 18-year-old felt he was not prepared for the rigours of professional football when he was offered a professional deal by Kawasaki Frontale in 2016.

He therefore turned it down to attend the University of Tsukuba. There he represented Japan at the 2017 and 2019 Universiade tournaments.

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“I thought it would be better to go to university in order to make it as a professional footballer,” Mitoma told Eurosport. “So I studied lots of things – coaching, sports and nutrition. I learned lots of things.”

His decision paid off and he signed a professional deal with Kawasaki Frontale for the 2020 season. In his first season, he scored 18 goals in 37 games and followed that up with eight in 20 the next before Brighton and Hove Albion of the Premier League made an approach.

He signed for the club on a four-year deal and went on loan to Union SG in Belgium for the first year.

“I’d been thinking about transferring to Europe since I was a child,” said Mitoma.

“I wanted to play in a league at the highest professional level. So when I played in the J-League for a year and a half and was approached by Brighton, I felt I had to go there.”

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Mitoma has played nine times for Brighton in the Premier League this season, scoring one goal.

Mitoma represented Japan at the 2020 Olympics – scoring in the 3-1 defeat to Mexico in the bronze medal match – and he told Eurosport that the Tokyo Games were a learning curve.

“Participating in the Tokyo Olympics allowed me to be aware of my fears and the things that were missing from my game,” he said.

“I was nervous preparing for the Olympics, fearing a lack of ability. I then felt a lot of frustration at not being able to produce results on the big stage. In that sense, I confirmed my fears about my lack of ability.

“But it was also a tournament where I could learn from those fears and use them to develop, and I think I have learned from that. So in that sense, it was a really important experience.”

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Mitoma came to further national prominence when he emerged from the bench to score two goals in a 2-0 win against Australia in March 2022 that confirmed his country’s spot at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

“As for the match and the goal that got us through to the World Cup, it was the biggest moment of my career,” he says. “The last 10 minutes were very tense. I think I played my best game.”

Following that win, Japan were drawn in a tough Group E that also contains Spain, Germany and Costa Rica. Japan begin their campaign on November 23 with a match against Germany.

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