Japan caused a huge stir by handing Spain an unexpected defeat in the opening day of the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament, and together with Brazil they were one of the first two teams to ensure their passage to the quarter-finals of the competition. The Samurai Blue are undoubtedly one of the revelations of London 2012, and their ambition extends further than a simple last-eight appearance.
“We want to win the gold medal,” goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda told FIFA.com with a grin, fresh from a tour of the impressive Old Trafford arena that will play host to his nation’s knockout clash with Egypt on Saturday.
“We’re quite familiar with the Egyptians. We’ve played a couple of friendlies against them – they’re one of Africa’s most talented teams. We’ll have to really keep an eye on Aboutrika, their captain, as he’s a great playmaker with a very strong shot."
Despite the high stakes, Gonda appears relaxed by the prospect. He places the utmost trust in his team-mates, whose solidity he cites as the key factor behind his own formidable displays between the sticks. Remarkably, Japan and Mexico are currently the only two competing sides yet to concede a goal.
“It comes down to us all working together,” said the Asian keeper, who is a big admirer of Italy No 1 Gianluigi Buffon. "Our great strength is the team spirit that we’ve built. We play as a unit, where everyone helps out in defence and everyone contributes to the attack. We all help each other out during games. And that sense of unity is what is driving us forward.
“In the match against Honduras, where we gave a lot of our fringe players some playing time, you could see that the team spirit was exactly the same. One for all, and all for one” added Gonda, who is aware that Japan’s run has begun to raise expectations in certain quarters.
At the team’s most recent training session, the shot-stopper expressed surprise at the large number of media representatives present, although he denies feeling any added pressure. “I don’t really get nervous,” he laughed. “We know that this is a great opportunity to raise our profile, and although I’m very happy at FC Tokyo, I certainly wouldn’t mind giving Europe a try at some point."
Apart from his obvious medal objectives, there is another reason Gonda has been dreaming of reaching the semi-final, which will take place at Wembley.
“I really want to see the Olympic village and experience the atmosphere with all the other athletes. Things have been excellent so far, but due to our playing in other cities, we still haven’t had the real flavour of London 2012,” said the Japanese custodian, adding that appearing at an event he has so often watched on television is a dream come true.
When asked about autographs that he might go in search of, he picks Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, and states that he would have liked to have witnessed the judo bout in which Masashi Ebinuma secured a bronze medal, due to the Japanese fighter having trained at the same educational establishment that Gonda attended.
In terms of the ambitions he harbours for his own professional career, the goalkeeper does not hesitate to lay them out. “I’d like Japan to win gold in the men’s and women’s football events. But down the line, my dream is to play a part helping Japan win the World Cup.”
But first things first. The encounter at Old Trafford on Saturday will decide whether one of Gonda’s stated aspirations moves a step closer to reality.