Yasuhito Endo enhanced his burgeoning reputation by scoring Gamba Osaka's winner against Adelaide United to set up a dream encounter with Manchester United at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2008. And while the midfielder is well aware of the challenge ahead, he told FIFA.com that Gamba should not be overawed by the Red Devils, and that he is looking forward to shaking up the European champions.
"They are the best team in the world," he said, "but the passing game is one of our strengths, and we're ready to take the game to them. We have to be fully committed, because we won't win if we hold back even a little against a team like Manchester United. We have to focus on trying to score and not go into our shells. We won't change our style for this game."
While Manchester United are heavily favoured to prevail against the Asian champions, Endo is hoping Gamba can upset the odds and advance to the final, where they would face either Mexico's Pachuca or Liga de Quito of Ecuador.
"I'm excited about playing against Manchester United, but I'd love to play against every side here, too," said the 28-year-old. "The South American players have superb skills, and Pachuca play an intricate passing game similar to the Mexican national side. They have a tremendous hunger to win, and the build-ups to some of their goals have been fantastic. There's little opportunity to play against teams from other confederations, so I wish this could be a round-robin tournament.
"During my time playing for Japan, I've managed to get some idea of the styles of football played by certain countries and certain continents. But the Club World Cup has a distinctive appeal because it brings together clubs representing different countries."
Japanese football has been dominated by teams from the country's east, such as this season's J.League champions Kashima Antlers, Urawa Red Diamonds, Tokyo Verdy, Yohohama F Marinos and Jubilo Iwata. Endo is hoping Gamba's success in the AFC Champions League and Japan 2008 will redraw the football map and usher in a period of greater success for teams from western Japan, like themselves.
"Until this year, Urawa were the only Japanese team to have played at the Club World Cup. But this time we're here, which changes the equation. We're the only team that can shift the power balance in Japanese football, so it's significant that we're taking part. It's fantastic that a Japanese club is competing in this tournament on its own merit and not just in the slot reserved for the host country."
Until a few years ago, Endo's role in the Japan team was regarded by some as that of a support player to his more illustrious midfield team-mates such as Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura. These days Endo is no longer in anyone's shadow, and is more willing to express himself and his skills on the field. Somewhat surprisingly, though, he struggles to pinpoint the position that fits him best in Gamba's regular 4-2-3-1 formation.
"To be honest, I don't know what my best position is," he said. "During the Champions League, I mostly sat in behind the forwards, but I also played a more defensive role when required. I guess that makes me a central midfielder. Basically, I go wherever I'm needed, whether that means shutting down the opposition strikers or getting forward myself and playing up with our front men. I just want to have an impact on the game."
Endo has cemented his place in the heart of the Gamba and national team line-ups in recent seasons, but his football career had a rather inauspicious start. His first club, Yokohama Flugels, which he joined out of high school in 1998, was disbanded and merged with cross-town rivals Yokohama F Marinos a year later, while his next club, Kyoto Purple Sanga, were relegated to the second division in 2000.
It was only after Endo's transfer to Gamba in 2001 that the dead-ball specialist developed into one of Japan's most consistent players. His international career also has had its share of ups and downs. After helping Japan reach the final of the FIFA World Youth Championship in 1999, Endo was surprisingly left out of the squad for the Men's Olympic Football Tournament Sydney 2000, despite playing well during the qualifying stages. His Olympic misfortune continued this year when a virus forced him to pull out after being named as one of the team's overage players.
At the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™, Endo was also part of Zico's squad, yet failed to see any playing time at the showpiece event. Unsurprisingly, these disappointments on the international stage have only fuelled Endo's resolve to make the most of Japan 2008, as he underlined at the conclusion of our interview.
"This is a tournament between the champions of each confederation, so I'm fired up for this challenge. What's more, if we get a free-kick in a decent position, I'll be ready to step up and have a go." Manchester United, you have been warned.