Michihiro Yasuda's dynamic raids down the left flank for Gamba Osaka helped propel the Japanese club to AFC Champions League glory last month, a success that helped compensate for their disappointing J.League campaign. The Kansai outfit's high-intensity game and wealth of attacking options was too much for the cream of Asia to handle, and now the team and their flying wing-back could potentially come up against Manchester United in the semi-finals of the forthcoming FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2008.
Just days before Gamba make their bow in the elite competition, the player dubbed the "Japanese Roberto Carlos" spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about his objectives for the tournament, and why he is brushing up on his English.
"We put our all into an action-packed passing game at Gamba," says Yasuda. "There is no shame in losing if we can play like this [at Japan 2008]. If we show this kind of spirit, we'll challenge for the title and hopefully we'll come out smiling." The event will also include a personal celebration for Yasuda, who turns 21 on 20 December, the day before the final. Mature beyond his years, both on and off the pitch, the left-sided player is already a married man with a young child.
Though naturally right-footed, the Kobe-born star's role in the team is to patrol Gamba's left flank, taking on opposing right-backs and supplying Brazilian striker Lucas Severino and attacking midfield duo Yasuhito Endo and Takahiro Futagawa. Blessed with the blistering pace needed to fly past his man on the way to the byline, he has also won many plaudits for his ability to supply pinpoint crosses with either foot.
While rising through the junior ranks at Gamba, the club's coaching staff showed Yasuda videos of former Brazilian international full-back Roberto Carlos, and the Brazilian legend became the youngster's model. Yasuda is particularly adept at using his quick feet and range of trickery to devastating effect, attributes that caught the eye of national team manager Takeshi Okada and led to him making his full international debut earlier this year.
Yet his game is about more than just pace and technique. His committed displays were among the highlights of Japan's campaign in February's East Asian Football Championship in Chongqing, China, where the Blue Samurai finished runners-up to Korea Republic only on goals scored. Indeed, Yasuda has been capped at every age level within the Japanese national set-up, as well as representing his country at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007 and this summer's Men's Olympic Football Tournament in Beijing.
"With each passing day I'm getting a better feel for what the international game is all about, and I've wanted to pit myself against the best from a very young age," says the player himself, who would be delighted to take on English and European champions Manchester United at Japan 2008. "."
To achieve a dream semi-final encounter with the Old Trafford club, Gamba first have to overcome a tricky quarter-final tie against either Oceania champions Waitakere United or Australia's Adelaide United. Indeed, the latter would be out for revenge after being outclassed by Gamba in November's two-legged AFC Champions League final.
Concerns have emerged about fatigue affecting the Gamba camp, given that the team are heading into this year's FIFA Club World Cup on the back of a gruelling J.League campaign, where they finished back in eighth. However, Yasuda was quick to dismiss any such suggestions: "The Club World Cup is a massive tournament, and any feelings of tiredness will be swept away by the occasion."
Regardless of whether it is Waitakere or Adelaide who take on Gamba in the last eight, the Kansai club will be hard-pressed to match their opponents in terms of sheer physical strength. Indeed, former Japanese international midfielder Teruo Iwamoto, who played for Auckland City at Japan 2006, has described Kiwi football as being "just like rugby".
"We mustn't get into a physical battle with either side," warns Yasuda. "We play at a faster tempo than either opponent and should be able to wear them down and get the better of them using our passing game. If it starts to turn into a battle of strength, we'll need to change the game's complexion by moving the ball around quickly before we are pressurized into mistakes."
While Yasuda takes his football very seriously indeed, he is known at the club for his bubbly personality and love of a good joke. He is also learning to speak English, and hopes to have the opportunity to practice his language skills at Japan 2008. "I'm taking telephone lessons in English once a week and I'm going to brush up on my language skills before the tournament," says Yasuda.
"My favourite English words are 'I love you', but I hope I'll get the chance to say 'thank you' to our opponents after we beat them!" joked the Japan international. Even when faced by the prospect of marking the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo or Wayne Rooney, Yasuda has clearly not lost his sense of humour.