Umesaki: Japan is on the up

Leading up to the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007, Japanese midfielder Tsukasa Umesaki has received more than his share of useful lessons about expectations on the world stage. With a high-profile European loan spell and an appearance at the prestigious Toulon tournament already under his belt, the star playmaker is now very much aware of the great challenge awaiting him and his team-mates in July.

Too young to appear at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Netherlands 2005, Umesaki sat down with to discuss his excitement and his impressions of what Japan must do to make a real impact on the global stage.

Featuring uncommon power for a player of relatively small size, he possesses the skill to dribble past several opponents at high speed. Capitalising on such ability to set himself apart from other footballers in his age group, the rising star became just the third Japanese teenager to make a full international debut.

Now enjoying his third season with J. League outfit Oita Trinita and his second as a regular starter, Umesaki has caught the eye of European clubs as well. From January of this year, he spent five months on loan with French Ligue 2 side Grenoble. While that experience did not go as well as expected, Umesaki gained his first true taste of world football, allowing him to realise his own shortcomings and whetting his appetite for this summer's FIFA U-20 World Cup. Canada 2007 is finally about to start. How are you playing at the moment?
Tsukasa Umesaki:
I feel very good about my game. Since returning to Oita, I've already appeared in a lot of matches. Now, I'm back to being fully match fit.

It is good to hear that you are back to your best after ending your loan spell with Grenoble. Do you now agree with critics who said it was too early for you to go overseas?
When I was younger, I watched with great admiration as Hidetoshi Nakata played in Italy's Serie A. Ever since then, it has been my dream to emulate him. Last year, I played in a lot of matches for Oita and even got a call up to the senior team. The more success I experienced, the more I wanted to play abroad. I really wanted to experience European football for myself. I figured I'd have no regrets, as I was about to achieve a goal I'd had for a long time.

Unfortunately, you weren't able to make many appearances for Grenoble. Can you explain why your stay there was still of great benefit to you?
For one thing, I became aware of how little I know about professional football. I really learned how important it is to take care of yourself in everything you do. A player's whole day revolves around football, even when he's eating or sleeping. At Grenoble, there were many lads around my age, but their mindset was much further advanced than mine. My own lack of maturity really hit home.

You mean you felt first-hand the differences between Japanese and overseas football?
Over there, they know so much more about the physical aspects of the game. I was amazed at how they played with such speed, power and control even when the pitch was in bad shape. I found it very difficult to impose myself in such circumstances. In many ways, I realized there are several levels of football beyond the one I have been playing at. At Grenoble, I had to compete against four other left-sided midfielders all around the same age as me. Among my rivals at the same position, there were French youth and Olympic internationals, as well as a player called up to the Congo senior squad.

Did you come away with any insight into what Japanese teams can do to compete against top-class opposition?
I fully agree with what senior coach Osim has been saying. The only way we can succeed against more powerful and skilful sides from Europe, South America or Africa is to have a superior work rate. A highly organised system where each member gives everything for the team gives us a chance against such opponents. Having said that, when we attack, it will still be up to individual players to make the key breakthrough.

How are the U-20 team's preparations coming along?
As a whole, we're really starting to play our own brand of football. We've also got more accustomed to the strategies coach Yoshida has designed to help us match up against the rest of the world. Now, we're really starting to see the results.

Was the victory against Germany in Toulon, where you came back from a goal down to win 2-1, an example of such progress?
Yes, exactly. The match against Germany was the perfect example of how well we can perform when playing our own game. We conceded the first goal and it looked like we were going to fall apart for a time, but then we tightened things up and really brought out our own style of football in the second half.

On the other hand, things really turned out badly in the next match, a 5-1 loss to France.
I didn't have the opportunity to appear in that match, myself. From what I could tell, we failed to pressure the right areas and this opened up way too much space for the French team. Against such an experienced side, we suffered a heavy loss. It reminded us how important it is to keep things compact so we can limit the room our opponents have to operate in. This will be crucial in Canada, where every team will be full of highly skilled players.

Finally, looking forward to the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007, tell us why this tournament is so special to you.
Two years ago during Netherlands 2005, I was in Portugal on a tour with the U-18 team. I watched that tournament live on television, and, from that point, I've had my heart set on participating in this year's finals. These upcoming matches will be the last we play together as an U-20 side. We've been together for two and a half years and enjoy a great camaraderie. So now, in Canada, we are determined to show how much we've developed as a unit by finishing up with a string of really positive results.

Personally, as one of the team's playmakers, I would love to set up a few goals. By creating chances and looking to score myself, I hope to gain an invitation to join the U-23 team. And, of course, I want to continue stepping up to the next level.