Sanfrecce captain Toshihiro Aoyama has been an integral part of Hiroshima’s charge to the semi-finals of the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2015, and the defensive midfielder is proving that actions speak louder than words on the football pitch.
The Japan international is a key cog of Sanfrecce’s miserly defence and its sweeping attacks. He has been instrumental to Hiroshima winning three J.League titles in four years, and capped off the 2015 season by being named MVP of the two-legged final. Aoyama is ever-reliable and not the type of player to berate a team-mate. But in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com ahead of Hiroshima’s last-four meeting with River Plate, the quietly spoken Aoyama exuded a firm confidence that his team will be up for the challenge.
In recent years, Sanfrecce has developed the mental strength to withstand sustained pressure, as well as unshakable teamwork that allows this quality to flourish. This was evident in the quarter-final against TP Mazembe. Hiroshima struggled initially to crack the African champions’ defence and were stretched at the back themselves several times.
“The first half of the Mazembe game resembled some of the tough matches we had this season,” Aoyama said. “I just told everybody to stay composed and grind it out. Mazembe played well, so 0-0 would have been a fair score at half-time.”
However, with the first half nearing an end, defender Tsukasa Shiotani scored the opener from a corner to completely change the game’s complexion. “That goal helped us gain control of the pace of the game, which we’ve done several times this season,” Aoyama explained.
Football is a team sport, and we’ll do what we think is necessary to match them. It’ll be important that we play as an entire team.
The semi-final against River Plate is the perfect test of whether the ability Sanfrecce displayed this season can hold up against a team on the international stage. Despite River Plate being one of football’s biggest clubs, Aoyama admitted he knew surprisingly little about the Argentinian and South American champions.
“To be honest, nothing really springs to mind when I hear the club’s name,” the 29-year-old said. “However, I played against them once in an under-age competition. They weren’t a physically robust side, but their skills, dribbling, passing and timing were far beyond anything Japanese players could do. They were physically similar to us, but those distinctive skills really stood out. I assume the senior team possesses these same qualities.”
Breaking down River Plate will not be simple. Although Aoyama, who has played his entire career for Sanfrecce, is well aware of the challenge, he is confident Hiroshima will have plans in place that could enable his team’s golden run to continue.
“All we can do is give our best until the very end. That doesn’t change, regardless of whether our opponent is stronger or weaker than us. We’re prepared to do whatever it takes to win, whether we play 90 minutes, 120 minutes or even go to a penalty shoot-out. We’ll have to scrap for everything and keep running. River Plate might be superior to us when it comes to passing or some other aspects of the game. But football is a team sport, and we’ll do what we think is necessary to match them. It’ll be important that we play as an entire team.”
Sanfrecce finished fifth in their previous Club World Cup appearance in 2012, but this year’s team has shown improvements across the board compared with three years ago. Nevertheless, Aoyama knows Hiroshima will need to play at its best to topple the South American side. “We played well against Mazembe, but River Plate will undoubtedly be very tough,” he said. “If something doesn’t work well, we’ll stop doing it. Fortitude is tested when a plan fails. At times this season, we played a different style of football to the tactics we used in the Mazembe game. We might have to do that in the next game, too.”
Aoyama believes the Purple Archers have added some vital components to their arsenal since 2012. “We’ve tightened up our defence, and we’re sharper and quicker to launch counter-attacks,” he said.
Fellow Asian club Guangzhou Evergrande FC have advanced to the other semi-final where European champions FC Barcelona await. Next season, Sanfrecce and Guangzhou will compete in the AFC Champions League to determine the continent’s top team, and Aoyama is determined to make a statement of intent during Japan 2015.
“I have to accept Guangzhou are the Asian champions, but the team that wins the last game is the strongest. So I will do my best to ensure Hiroshima finishes above Guangzhou,” he concluded.