Kawaguchi: Hunger is the key
Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, who at 31 is the team's oldest player, has been a fixture in the national team since Ivica Osim took up the coaching reins after Germany 2006. The captain, a veteran of the two previous Asian Cups (Lebanon 2000 and China 2004), made his 100th senior appearances for Japan on 5 June in a friendly against Colombia.
"At Lebanon 2000 and China 2004, my priority was to establish myself, as I wasn't a regular first-team player at the time," says the keeper. "In 2004 I was also thinking of returning to Japan because I'd had very few chances to play at [my former club sides] Portsmouth FC and FC Nordsjælland," he adds.
This time round, things are different. Kawaguchi has established himself in the national team and built a reputation for dependability. He has also become a very influential member of the squad, shouting encouragement to his team-mates at key moments and helping them maintain their concentration and composure. "While I don't consider myself the voice of experience in the team, the older I get, the more attention I pay to the rest of group. If we're having some difficulties during a training session, I always try to point out the problem and give any help I can to the younger members. Having said that, I still think I'm as hungry and competitive as ever," he said.
As defending champions, Japan came into the 2007 Asian Cup as favourites to make it three continental titles in a row. However, in their opening fixture against Qatar, a game they dominated throughout, the Blues could only manage a draw after conceding a late penalty, prompting a furious Osim to reportedly accuse them of playing "like amateurs".
Japan bounced back in their next game, seeing off the UAE 3-1, before confidently beating hosts Vietnam 4-1 in front of 40,000 partisan supporters to secure their progress. Kawaguchi says his side's gradual improvement during the tournament has enhanced team spirit, but also credits his coach, who he says is "very good at motivating us". "It was tough getting used to the weather here at first, but I think our combination play has improved game by game, and our performance as a team are getting better and better," he adds.
"One of our strong points is that we move the ball round very quickly. But we still make careless mistakes, which is something we need to work on. And though we're getting used to the high temperatures and humidity here, it's still difficult to play in these conditions. We need to remember to play efficiently so as to conserve our energy," the keeper says.
Kawaguchi has happy memories of his appearances at previous Asian Cups, shutting out Saudi Arabia in the final of Lebanon 2000 with a series of spectacular saves, in the process earning himself the Man-of-the-Match award. At China 2004 he also made the headlines, his penalty shoot-out heroics helping his side to a quarter-final win over Jordan. While his record at the tournament has helped raise expectations in Japan ahead of the big match, Kawaguchi himself is not getting carried away.
"We have to be patient, show our hunger for victory in every game and take none of our opponents for granted," the Jubilo Iwata player insists.