Yamada hopeful for Urawa

On 14 November 2006, Urawa's Saitama stadium was a sea of jubilant red after the club secured the AFC Champions League title for the first time. Among the many memorable images that day was that of veteran captain and midfielder Nobuhisa Yamada embracing his joyous team-mates on the final whistle before raising the trophy aloft to an earth-shaking roar by appreciative fans.

Of course, there was nothing unusual about Nobuhisa Yamada hoisting another trophy aloft - the captain has been doing so on a regular basis in recent years for the club, including after their maiden title win at the 2003 Nabisco Cup, their J.League title success in 2006 and the Emperor's Cup triumphs of 2005 and 2006. What was different on this occasion, however, was the Yamada had to watch proceedings from the dugout and wait his turn to lift the coveted prize.

The right-sided midfielder was denied a place in the final against Iran's Sepahan after picking up a muscle strain in a J.League fixture against Nagoya on 28 October. Ironically, the injury, which meant four to five weeks on the sidelines, came just days after Yamada and his team-mates had heroically overcome Korea's Seongnam Ilhwa in the Champions League semi-final.

Yamada was born on 10 September 1975 in the Shizuoka prefecture of Fujieda, one of the country's footballing hotbeds. He graduated from the prestigious Fujieda Higashi football school and joined Urawa in 1994. Since then he has shared many ups and downs with the Saitama outfit without previously suffering a serious injury in more than 500 appearances. Indeed, such was the midfielder's durability that he earned a reputation for being an "iron man" among the fans.

Despite their pursuit of both domestic and continental honours and the punishing schedule this would entail, the one eventuality the club did not foresee was the loss of their stalwart captain. Yamada explained to FIFA.com the sacrifices needed for such an assault on two fronts: "It was the first time we had to combine the demands of domestic and international competitions and so, obviously, accumulated fatigue affected all the players. As well as a tight schedule, the travelling was punishing and the matches themselves were very tough. In spite of all this, we became Asian champions because we were hugely motivated and never gave in."

Reflecting on the final against Iranian team Sepahan, the player said: "It was a pity I missed the decider, but I'm really glad that the team won the title. The current Urawa squad are capable of achieving results even when players are missing. We were typically resilient in the second leg as well, even though we were pushed back after the break. I must admit I was a bit nervous until we scored our [second] goal."

Since the current format of the Asian Champions League was introduced in 2002, no J.League team had managed to get past the group stage until this year. It came as no surprise then to see the progress to the knockout phase this year of Urawa and compatriots Kawasaki Frontale immediately raising expectations. With Urawa's coach Osieck insisting his side take it one game at a time, it was not until they defeated their Korean opponents in the semi-final that Yamada felt the Asian title was within their grasp. "Looking back at the Champions League, the toughest match was against Seongnam Ilhwa. So we were determined to win the title after beating them."

Urawa had floundered in the lower reaches of the league table for a while after the club's formation, finishing rock-bottom in 1999 and suffering the ignominy of relegation to Japanese football's second tier. Yamada, who experienced Urawa's "Dark Age" first-hand, is visibly moved by how the club has gone from strength to strength since then. "I'm certain that the team are at the peak of their powers, though my best days are behind me unfortunately," he says with characteristic modesty. "Every player is extremely gifted and, though they all have strong characters, they are able to work together for the good of the team."

The 32-year-old veteran, known for his humility and rare displays of emotion, was asked what part he has played in the club's success in his role as captain. Typically understated, the experienced skipper replied that "I haven't done anything special. They all come together naturally." He went on to add: "Appearing at a FIFA Club World Cup is an important starting point for the team. It's not an ultimate aim, it's just the beginning. We need to keep the momentum going into next year and the year after that."

As a child, he was there to witness a Michel Platini-inspired Juventus defeat Argentinos Juniors on penalties in the 1985 Intercontinental (Toyota) Cup final. A great admirer of Italian football, Yamada says he would "love to win our first match and play against AC Milan. I'm looking forward to seeing how far we can go." He went on to add that "I've only watched Milan from a fan's perspective and I've never observed or studied them as potential opponents. To be honest, it still hasn't quite sunk in, but given where I play on the pitch I might be up against [Paulo] Maldini. I'm really looking forward to it because it's not often you get to play against such an experienced player."

Also eager to see him take on such luminaries of the global game are the Urawa Red Diamonds supporters, who have been willing their hero on in his race back to full fitness. For the tens of thousands of "Red Devils" who are expected to pack the stadium come December's showpiece, seeing their inspirational captain grace the world stage will be a poignant reminder of just how far their club has come.