Seven years later and still pursuing his dream.

Back in 2014, Japan was confused by the release of a new beauty product called Facial Fitness Pao. All you have to do is bite down on the huge wobbly stick and nod your head to make it flap its plastic wings for about a minute. As a result, you’ll supposedly look beautiful for the other 23 hours and 59 minutes that you’re not using it.

In addition to the striking appearance of the product, the makers secured soccer great Cristiano Ronaldo as a spokesperson to ensure people’s attentions were thoroughly gotten.

It was this business partnership that would lead to a fateful encounter between Ronaldo and a young boy named Ryota Iwaoka.

Iwaoka found an advertisement for an upcoming press conference for Facial Fitness Pao in which three people would be randomly chosen by lottery to ask Ronaldo one question. Since the midfielder from Portugal was his hero, he applied and had the incredible luck to have been selected to meet the star.

His father suggested making a good impression by asking a question in Ronaldo’s native language, so the boy asked his Japanese-Brazilian soccer coach to translate: “You are my favorite player and I want to play alongside you. So, how can I become a professional?” He then practiced the question over and over again in a language he had no idea how to speak otherwise.

When his turn came and young Iwaoka walked out onto the stage right in front of his own hero and scores of reporters pointing cameras and microphones, he did what anyone would do in his situation – he completely froze up.

In a state of near shock he still pushed forward and did his best to try and read through his Portuguese question. As he struggled, the reporters all began to giggle, causing Ronaldo to say: “Why they smile? You speak good Portuguese. Very good. They should be happy because you tried very hard.”

The way Ronaldo stood up for the boy would go on to make headlines in Japan, and cement his reputation here as a class act through and through. However, at the time Iwaoka had no idea any of it was going on. He was too focused on trying to get through his question.

The one thing he did remember was Ronaldo’s answer: “Believe in yourself. Work hard, and don’t miss an opportunity when it comes.”

It’s sound advice that you might hear from any athlete, but when the person you worship is telling it to you directly to your face it can carry a whole lot of extra weight. So, Iwaoka kept that advice in his heart for the next seven years.

During that time he practiced hard and became a very talented player at the junior high school level as a midfielder. However, when it came time to start high school, he was looked over by the powerhouse soccer schools he had applied to. Instead he went to Yamanashi Gakuin, of which his junior high was a feeder school, and joined with their B team.

In his second year of high school, he was able to move up to the A team, but never played in a game. It wasn’t until Iwaoka’s third and final year that he was going to be given a shot at playing in games. However, this was in 2020, and as the COVID-19 pandemic caused upheavals to daily life and the soccer program, Iwaoka ended up losing his starting spot to another player before the first game of the year.

The years of setbacks and disappointments Iwaoka had endured since his meeting with Ronaldo would be enough to make anyone give up, but Iwaoka still remembered his hero’s words clearly. He never faltered in his training and continued to believe in himself, waiting for that chance to reveal itself.

As luck would have it, after games resumed later in the year, Yamanashi Gakuin qualified for the national championships. Until this point Iwaoka had yet to set foot on the pitch, but this was the opportunity Ronaldo had told him to prepare for.

In the first round of matches, the teams tend to play their back-ups so as to preserve their star players for the finals and protect their abilities from the prying eyes of rival teams’ scouts. This meant that Iwaoka might finally be able to play, albeit in a defensive position rather than midfielder.

“I thought that these three games were my last chance,” recalled Iwaoka, “I thought I would have the chance to prove myself in these three games and get to the championship I dreamed of. I believed in myself and I played with all my heart.”

And it worked.

Iwaoka demonstrated a keen sense of his position and defended diligently throughout the team’s first three matches, which got the attention of his coaches. After spending the next game on the bench while the starters played, Yamanashi Gakuin advanced to the next round, and an injury late in the match allowed Iwaoka to return to the pitch. There he helped defend an important 1-0 lead to win the game, and earned a spot as a starting midfielder for the next match.

However, in his first and last starting game, Iwaoka was attempting the clear the ball during the 47th minute of play in a 1-1 tie, when his foot collided with an opponent’s. A bone was chipped and it left his foot in a severely bruised and painful state, rendering him unable to play any more.

▼ The second half of the match in which Iwaoka (25) starts. His injury happens about four minutes in, but before that he demonstrates some solid ball handling in the first minute.

Although his time on the pitch ended, Yamanashi Gakuin won the game in a penalty shoot-out and went on to the quarter-finals, semi-finals, and finals. All the time, Iwaoka put on his uniform for each game and watched from the corona-emptied stands or the locker room.

▼ Highlights from the final match

And when 25th-ranked Yamanashi Gakuin defeated high-ranking Aomori Yamada to become the national champions for the first time in 11 years, Iwaoka ran out onto the pitch to rejoin his team in celebration.

He found himself once again facing a crowd of reporters, this time a champion.

“We became the best in Japan!!! I was able to win the championship thanks to the people who supported me for the past three years and those who attended the tournament safely. It was great to play with my friends.” (Ryota Iwaoka)

This is hardly the end of Ryota Iwaoka’s story, though. He still has to become a pro player like he told Ronaldo in Portuguese back in 2014. It’ll be a hard and highly competitive road, but he’s living proof that dreams can come true if you believe in yourself, work hard, and don’t miss opportunities – even when they come from the most unlikely places like the Facial Fitness Pro.

Source: Yahoo! Japan News, Hachima Kiko
Featured image: YouTube/YASO Sports Lovers
Insert image: Pakutaso
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