Prior to the AFC Asian Cup Qatar 2011, Japan centre-half Maya Yoshida had only made one appearance for his country. Yet over the course of the last two weeks, the 22-year-old has belied his lack of international experience to become a bedrock of the Samurai Blue defence.
Though he missed his side’s semi-final win over Korea Republic through suspension, Yoshida, who plays his club football for VVV-Venlo in the Netherlands, is ready to return for Saturday’s final against Australia. And as he tells FIFA.com in an exclusive interview, he and his team-mates are not contemplating anything less than victory.
His only previous outing in the blue of Japan came last year in an Asian Cup qualifying match against Yemen, just a month after he left Nagoya Grampus Eight for the Eredivisie. Although he went into Qatar 2011 as a peripheral figure, he appeared in Japan’s first four games in the competition and immediately proved his worth by heading a stoppage-time equaliser to force a 1-1 draw with Jordan in their group opener.
Japan’s journey to the final can be traced back to that game-saving goal, and as Yoshida explains, not only did it boost team morale, it also inspired him to strive for more: “It was a real catalyst for me. I want to give everything I have now and keep it going. I need to keep on developing.”
A star performer in Japan’s advance to the knockout phase, Yoshida then almost let the side down by getting sent off after 63 minutes of their quarter-final against hosts Qatar. Redoubling their efforts in his absence, the ten-man Japanese came from behind to earn a thrilling 3-2 win sealed by Masahiko Inoha’s injury-time strike.
As Yoshida confirms, those battling qualities are a hallmark of Alberto Zaccheroni’s side: “We never let our heads drop. Every member of the team has a burning desire to win and I hope that’ll help us become the champions of Asia. We’ve cleared a lot of hurdles together, especially in the last game against Korea Republic, which was a really tough match. I missed it because of my suspension but I could see for myself the courage of my team-mates. They put in a tremendous performance and I’m extremely proud of them. I hope I can do their efforts justice in the final.”
I was convinced we’d come through in the shootout because we’ve got a great keeper in Eiji Kawashima. Deep down I knew we’d be in the final.
Japan got a taste of their own medicine in that semi-final when Hwang Jae-Won struck a dramatic equaliser in the final minute of extra time. As Yoshida looked on nervously from the stands, however, Zaccheroni’s charges held their nerve in the resulting penalty decider.
“I was really annoyed when the South Koreans equalised,” he recalls. “It’s hard for me to imagine what my team-mates must have been thinking right then. It was a big blow for us but I was convinced we’d come through in the shootout because we’ve got a great keeper in Eiji Kawashima. Deep down I knew we’d be in the final.”
All that stands between Japan and the continental crown are the Australians, with the two sides – the highest-ranked teams in the AFC – coming face to face at the Khalifa International stadium on Saturday. “Australia are not what you’d describe as a typically Asian side,” says Yoshida. “They have a lot of big, well-built players, though we have plenty of assets of our own. We’re fast and we have some extremely good players, and we also have the ability to play good football and take control of the game. That said, we need to be watchful at the back and brace ourselves for a physical challenge.”
Yoshida is also well aware of the task facing his colleagues up front, who look set for a hard afternoon’s work if Socceroo shotstopper Mark Schwartzer’s record of one goal conceded in five games is anything to go by. Nevertheless the former Grampus Eight man has every faith in his team: “The Australian keeper is very good and has looked really solid up to now. But if we can just surprise them and get the one goal, we can put ourselves in with a great chance of winning.”
Yoshida’s displays at Qatar 2011 are sure to attract interest from teams across Europe, and given the parlous position his Dutch club are in, just one place off the bottom of the Eredivisie, he could well be receptive to offers. “Venlo are going through a bad patch at the moment and we’re in the danger zone,” he says. “We could well find ourselves back in the second division, which would be a big disappointment for the club and not good for me.”
And his goals for the future? “I’ve still got a lot to do to develop my game, but if we can win here in Qatar that’s only going to help me. We want this title and we want to take our place in the Confederations Cup. It’s an important competition and I only hope we can qualify for it. And it goes without saying that we want to be at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil as well.”