Striker Hisato Sato recently spearheaded Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s charge to their first J.League crown, but this season’s golden boot winner in the Japanese top flight isn't one to sit on his laurels. He is in excited mood ahead of the FIFA Club World Cup, which begins Thursday.
Sato has played 31 times for Japan's national team, scoring four goals for his country, but he has not yet appeared at a FIFA World Cup™. That alone makes the chance to play at this global club showpiece all the more mouth-watering for the 30-year-old veteran. “I’m looking forward to seeing how Hiroshima’s football stands up to teams from other countries,” Sato said recently. “We'll be prepared thoroughly and we will do what needs to be done so we can win.”
Sanfrecce’s opponents in the tournament opener will be Auckland City FC, the first team to play at four FIFA Club World Cups. The all-amateur New Zealanders are captained by experienced defender Ivan Vicelich, who has no intention of giving the host nation’s representative an easy ride. “We’re in good shape, and we’re planning to be in top condition when the tournament starts,” the Kiwi told FIFA.com.
Tough test from Oceania men
The physically robust and imposing Auckland defence will present some unique challenges for the 1.7m Sato. However, as shown by his tally of 22 goals in 34 games this season, the striker’s clinical finishing and knack for being in the right place at the right time could also present some problems for the Oceania hopefuls.
Sato came through the youth academy at JEF United Ichihara and played for Cerezo Osaka and Vegalta Sendai before joining his present club in 2005. He remained with the team even after they were relegated to the second division in 2007, and he has become very much the face of Sanfrecce. When former team-mate and striker Tadanari Lee left to join English side Southampton in January, some observers suggested Sanfrecce might not have the firepower to make a serious title bid. Sato put those fears to rest, however, with a stellar season in which he often played up front on his own.
Sato’s goal-scoring exploits owe much to the understanding he has forged with attacking midfielder Yojiro Takahagi, whose accurate passing and willingness to shoot from distance have added considerable venom to the attack. Sato and Takahagi played in all 34 games this season, a feat matched by steadfast national team goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa. Takahagi’s sparkling season was partly inspired by a desire to bring some cheer to his hometown of Iwaki in Fukushima Prefecture, which was hit hard by the March 2011 disaster. Indeed, his family’s home was damaged by the tsunami.
“When I play, I often think about how I can help people in areas affected by the disaster, and how I can give them courage,” said Takahagi, a product of Sanfrecce’s acclaimed youth academy.
Sanfrecce production line
Veteran midfield twins, Koji and Kazuyuki Morisaki, also came through the same development programme. Koji, whose accurate free-kicks and corners have been crucial to Sanfrecce’s accomplishments, is proud of what his club has achieved, saying: “I think it’s really significant that a smaller local club like ours won the title.”
Although Sato’s goals have made plenty of headlines, the team’s defence has also played an essential role. The Japanese media have lavished praise on first-year manager Hajime Moriyasu, a former Sanfrecce and Japan defensive midfielder, for carrying on the attack-minded style of football nurtured by his predecessor, Mihailo Petrovic, and adding some steel to the back line. His side conceded an average of just one goal per game during the season, the second-meanest rearguard in the J.League.
Moriyasu might have already exceeded expectations by guiding Sanfrecce to the title, but he hopes to finish the season with a flourish at the much-anticipated club showpiece. Japan’s best result at a FIFA Club World Cup is third, a feat accomplished by Urawa Reds in 2007 and Gamba Osaka in 2008. If Moriyasu’s side gets past Auckland City, they will face African champions Al-Ahly in the quarter-finals. Should the J.League toppers then defeat the Egyptians, a dream match-up against South American champions Corinthians is in store.
Sato, who played with Moriyasu during his days in Sendai, is hoping this remarkable season throws up another surprise or two. “I really want to play against Chelsea or Corinthians,” he concluded.