Prolific striker Hisato Sato and classy midfielder Kazuyuki Morisaki might be nearing the end of their stellar football careers, but the Sanfrecce Hiroshima veterans are determined to prove there is no substitute for experience as the J.League side chase glory at FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2015.
In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Sato and Morisaki spoke about Sanfrecce’s prospects as they count down to their second appearance at the global club showpiece.
In a repeat of FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2012, Sanfrecce open this year’s tournament with a game against Auckland City FC in a play-off for the quarter-finals. Sato scored three times at that tournament as his team finished in fifth place, but even now the Japanese international feels frustrated by the 2-1 loss to Egyptian club Al Ahly which ended their adventure.
“I’m still disappointed that I squandered a chance to score a second goal,” Sato said. “Our opponents grabbed their chances to score but we failed to capitalise on our opportunities.
"It would have been a thrill to beat the African champions, then the South American champions, and then pit ourselves against Europe’s strongest team for the first time. However, we failed to do that. Of course, Al Ahly was an excellent team, and Mohamed Aboutrika had a huge impact in that game.
"This year’s African representative, TP Mazembe, also have some accomplished players. To avenge our defeat in 2012, we first have to beat Auckland City and advance to the game against Africa’s champions.”
The Sanfrecce side that participated in Japan 2012 was fresh from clinching the club’s maiden J.League crown. Sato was 30 at the time and in sparkling form, so he relished the chance to take part in a global showpiece rather than watch it on TV.
In 2007, Sato travelled to the International Stadium Yokohama to watch the final between Boca Juniors and AC Milan and observe first-hand Filippo Inzaghi, the Italian striker on whom he had modelled his game. Eight years on, Sato feels the weighty responsibility that comes with being a senior player in the team.
“I played with my current coach, Hajime Moriyasu, for one season at Vegalta Sendai. It was his final season as a player,” Sato recalled. “That was 2003, and I had finally cemented a regular spot in the starting line-up. I never dreamed that we’d win the J.League and take part in a tournament like the Club World Cup together as a player and coach.”
Sato is now 33, just one year younger than Inzaghi was at the 2007 tournament. The 2012 J.League Most Valuable Player is excited he has another chance to shine on the world stage.
“Three years ago, I was the captain and my role clearly was to stay on the pitch for 90 minutes and convert any chances that came my way," he continued. "I still need to score, but I also have to be more involved in setting up attacks.
"Sanfrecce has introduced some new players over the past three years, and the younger ones have developed a lot. We can play superb football regardless of which players are on the field. I’m confident we’ll perform better than we did in 2012.”
Hiroshima born-and-bred, Morisaki is also relishing the prospect of testing himself against some of the world’s top clubs. The 34-year-old midfielder with silky ball skills and great vision adheres to the mantra preached by Moriyasu: “A strong team doesn’t win. A winning team is strong.”
The team strategy of quick passing and constant movement off the ball that guided Sanfrecce to consecutive J.League titles in 2012 and 2013 remains unchanged, but Morisaki believes this year’s squad is even more focused on winning and is imbued with a resolve to secure victory, even if it takes until the final whistle.
“We stay true to our own style of football,” Morisaki said. “But to ensure we don’t lose even if we play well, we adapt whenever the situation changes during the game. This was why, in the end, we won the title this season.”
During the two-leg J.League final, Sanfrecce edged Gamba Osaka with a mix of experience and tactical ingenuity that is the envy of other Japanese clubs. Morisaki, who has played his entire career at Hiroshima, is keen to see how Sanfrecce’s football ability stands up to teams from other countries, especially powerhouses from Africa, South America and Europe.
“I admire FC Barcelona, so I would love to play against them,” Morisaki said. “Getting to that stage will be tough. Auckland City is a strong team, so we will need to take each match as it comes. There are no easy games at this tournament.”
When asked how he had changed over the past three years, Morisaki replied with a smile, “Well, I’m older now.” After a slight pause, he reflected on how he has developed during this period. “I don’t think I have changed much, but I was able to experience many things at the previous Club World Cup and my team has overcome many obstacles to reach this point,” Morisaki said. “We’re representing Japan, so I want to play responsibly and with pride.”
Hiroshima have steadily improved since their appearance at the 2012 Club World Cup. Three domestic league titles in the past four years is compelling evidence of the team’s growing depth of talent and ability to perform in crucial games.
Morisaki, who along with twin brother Koji was instrumental in building Sanfrecce into the dominant team it is today, hopes to pit his skills against Barcelona’s midfield maestro Sergio Busquets. “I want to focus on helping my team win,” he concluded.