After Japan recently became the first nation to book its ticket to the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, expectations have grown that the Samurai Blue have a good chance of emulating their showing at the previous edition in South Africa, where they reached the Round of 16. In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, attacking midfielder Shinji Kagawa and left-back Yuto Nagatomo explained how the tough qualifying process and the upcoming FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil were important stepping stones in Japan’s next quest for FIFA World Cup glory.
After a solid first season with Manchester United, Kagawa has made himself an integral part of the national squad. He missed selection for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa, but is determined to be at the heart of Japan’s campaign this time.
“Natural ability is an essential element of football, but I realised during the final qualifiers that playing hard until the final whistle and not giving up are just as important,” Kagawa said. “Going through those tough games at home and away really underlined that point to me. It was a valuable experience that I’ll use as I build to next year’s World Cup.”
Although the 24-year-old was thrilled at sealing qualification with a draw against Australia courtesy of a last-minute penalty on 4 June, Kagawa is already looking ahead to the showpiece event. He usually slots in on the left side in Japan’s 4-2-3-1 formation, and it was here that he orchestrated many of the team’s attacks against the Socceroos. However, Japan’s inability to convert the wealth of chances it created remains a concern for Alberto Zaccheroni’s side.
“We found a lot of space down the flanks in the second half against Australia, and we need to turn those openings into goals,” Kagawa said.
Going for gold in Brazil
Kagawa’s appetite for goals has grown as he has established himself in the national squad’s No10 shirt. Finding the net will be essential if the Samurai Blue are to have any chance of advancing from a FIFA Confederations Cup group featuring Brazil, Italy and Mexico.
“Our opponents are all excellent teams, so this will be a good gauge of how we can perform away from home with a year to go until the World Cup. We need this sort of preparation, and I want to see how we handle the atmosphere and how far we can go,” Kagawa said. “We’re going there to win, so the question will be how we can achieve that. That’s my mind-set going into this tournament.”
Several familiar faces from the Premier League will be awaiting Kagawa at the FIFA Confederations Cup. Manchester United team-mate Javier Hernandez will be up front for Mexico, and Chelsea’s David Luiz will be at the heart of Brazil’s defence in Japan’s opener against the five-time world champions. Despite the galaxy of stars that will be on display, Kagawa is not over-awed by the challenge ahead.
“All the teams have many fantastic players, and each team has its own individual style. Our defence and attack need to be in sync, and even then we won’t win unless we work hard. But this is why I play the game, and I can’t wait to get stuck in,” he said.
While Kagawa prowls the left channel up front, Inter Milan’s Nagatomo is the tireless full-back tasked with the defensive duties on that same side as well as launching counter-attacks when the chance arises. Nagatomo created a few headlines when he boldly asserted that his objective in Brazil next year was “to win the World Cup”.
“We’re taking part in the tournament, so I want to win it. Each one of us has a clear sense about our role in the team, and although there are many aspects of our game we need to work on, I’m focused on doing what I can so we lift the trophy,” the 26-year-old said.
Nagatomo believes coming through a very challenging Group B in the Asian qualifiers not only showed the mettle of Blue Samurai, but also that they will need to raise their standards if they aspire to lift the trophy at next year’s football extravaganza.
“We battled through several hard games, and I think we showed Japan’s strengths to some extent,” Nagatomo said. “But we still have a long way to go before we can compete with the major football powers. Therefore, as a team, we need to look again at what we must do over the coming year.”
New found edge
Nagatomo was a crucial member of Japan’s squad that reached the Round of 16 in South Africa only to be knocked out by Paraguay on penalties. Three years on, he is confident that the growing ranks of Japanese footballers playing overseas will instil a steely edge the team perhaps lacked previously. More than half of the starting Japan line-up currently plays in European leagues, including Germany, Belgium and England.
“Compared with the previous World Cup, Japan has more defenders and forwards playing regularly abroad, and I think we’ve developed a lot,” Nagatomo said.
Despite this improvement, the 26-year-old knows there is still much to be done, and has some lofty personal ambitions.
“We aren’t at the same level as the powers of world football. We need to all work very hard, and that includes me. We’re aiming to win the Confederations Cup and want to show the world what we’re capable of. As an individual, I’d like people to think of the name Nagatomo when they think of world-class left-backs.”