Few sides win major competitions without significant contributions from their goalkeepers. Japan custodian Eiji Kawashima proved the point on Saturday by playing an instrumental part in his side’s 1-0 win over Australia in the final of the AFC Asian Cup Qatar 2011.
The hero of the Samurai Blue’s semi-final defeat of Korea Republic, the SK Lierse keeper was in outstanding form again at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, pulling off a string of excellent stops to pave the way for Japan’s fourth continental title.
After receiving a richly deserved Man of the Match award, the 27-year-old shot-stopper spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about his stunning showing against the Socceroos and the challenges that lie ahead for him and his country.
FIFA.com: Eiji, congratulations on your win. How does it feel to be the champions of Asia? Eiji Kawashima: It feels amazing. Winning this trophy is a wonderful achievement for us.
Australia played well and created lots of chances. What was the key to winning the game?
We went out there to play our usual game but they made it hard for us to do that. We had to stay patient. We held on and things worked out for us in the end.
The match looked destined for penalties. Were you ready for that?
Yes (laughs). It was on my mind, but luckily we managed to get that goal in the second half of extra time.
You denied Harry Kewell in a one-on-one situation with 18 minutes remaining in normal time. Was that the turning point of the match?
One goal can make all the difference in big games like this, so it was vital for us not to concede and I’m delighted we managed that today.
You saved two penalties in the semi-final shoot-out win over Korea Republic and you’ve put in another great performance here today. What is the secret to your current form?
It’s my job to stop the opposition from scoring and protect my goal, that’s what I try to do in every game. I always give everything I have and try to keep on improving, though I’m not entirely satisfied with my performance because there are things I still think I need to work on. That’s why I’ll be on the training ground as soon as I get back to my club tomorrow.
You were named Man of the Match for your superb display in the final. How much does that mean to you?
I’m happy to be Man of the Match but I wasn’t playing on my own out there. My team-mates all did really well too, and I’ll be sharing this award with them because it also belongs to them.
Four years ago you were understudy to Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi and now you are Japan’s No1. How do you feel about the progress you are making?
I took part in the last Asian Cup and I’ve seen for myself how Japanese football has developed. It’s a privilege to be in the national team, but I’m not the only one who wants to make football history in our country. It’s a goal all the players are working towards and we are thrilled to have achieved that by winning a fourth continental title for Japan.
What lessons have you learned from this tournament and your international career to date?
On a personal level I’ve gained in experience and I’m continuing to improve as a goalkeeper. That’s what makes this win such an important one for my team-mates and I. We can’t afford to stop now though, we have to keep doing what we’re doing.
Japan have produced some very fine goalkeepers in the last few years, namely Kawaguchi, Seigo Narazaki and yourself. What is the reason for that sustained excellence?
To be honest, I really don’t know. Maybe it’s got something to do with Japan’s successes in the Asian Cup. We’re part of the elite now and we’ve learned a lot in the process. Japanese keepers haven’t really made much of an impression in Europe, though, which is why I’m doing my very best to show what I can do and succeed there.
You are currently with Belgian club Lierse SK. Do you think winning the Asian Cup will help with your career?
Although the Asian Cup isn’t the same as playing in Europe, it’s been a really good tournament for me. Facing the Australians has also been a positive experience because they play a European-style game. We’re also going to be appearing in the Copa America this year and I’m sure I’ll learn a lot from that too.
Japan will also play in the FIFA Confederations Cup 2013, which you’ll obviously be hoping to take part in.
Asian football is developing fast and as a team we’ve come on a lot in this competition. We need to keep moving forward, though. It will be fantastic to take part in the Confederations Cup and pit our wits against the champions from the other continents. It’ll give us another chance to acquire yet more experience.