“It’s really exciting for us all because we know we’re making history,” were the words of Japan midfielder Hiroshi Kiyotake, whose country have reached the semi-finals of a Men’s Olympic Football Tournament for the first time since Mexico City 1968. At that competition 44 years ago it was eventual winners Hungary that ended Japan's gold-medal dreams in the last four, though they did bounce back to take bronze.
Here at London 2012, Takashi Sekizuka’s charges are determined to improve on that performance, a goal they continually state to the assembled press pack – a group that is increasing in number at every training session and media event. Indeed, expectation and interest levels continue to grow, with the squad at the centre of it all having successfully built on their opening group-game victory over pre-tournament contenders Spain.
Barring their path in the semi-finals will be Mexico, the team Japan beat to claim bronze back in 1968, though Kiyotake instead appears totally focused on the merits of his own side. “We’ve got a very strong team and plenty of confidence in our own ability,” the Nuremberg player told FIFA.com. “But we’ve still got room for improvement, such as keeping our concentration better after scoring a goal to avoid getting in trouble at the back.”
The confidence Kiyotake mentioned received a significant boost in their 3-0 quarter-final win over Egypt, with the Japanese scoring more goals in one game than in the entire group phase.
“It was a great match, it was really exciting,” said the right-sided midfielder, who created Japan’s first two goals to take his assist tally to three for the tournament. “We went 1-0 up in the first half but we really wanted to give ourselves some breathing room after the break. Those were our instructions for the second half, so we ended the game really pleased we’d managed to achieve our aims.
“I must admit that I struggled to sleep the night before the game, but I still had the feeling I could contribute to us winning the game,” continued the fleet-footed wideman with a grin. “I’d visualised helping us score a goal so I’m very pleased to have made that actually happen. Besides which, playing and winning in front of 70,000 people at such a magnificent and emblematic ground at Old Trafford is something to be really treasured.”
And having tasted victory on Manchester United’s home patch, Kiyotake and Co now have the opportunity to travel to London, where they will finally get to sample life in the Olympic Village and take to the field at Wembley Stadium. “We’re taking part in the Olympic Games, so it’s really exciting to be getting the chance to savour the authentic atmosphere of London 2012,” said the 22-year-old, who dedicates every one of his footballing successes to his wife and children.
“It was our objective to reach this city but we’ve got a couple more steps left to take to fulfil our mission of winning gold,” he added, before leaving the final word to Olympic Samurais’ coach Sekizuka. “We’ve got a lot of ground still to cover,” said the supremo, refusing to even contemplate a possible final appearance. “So I can’t start feeling proud of my players yet. For now, we’ve just got to focus on getting ready for our semi-final.”