When Japanese U-20 goalkeeper Akihiro Hayashi says his goalkeeping idol is Chelsea and Czech Republic great Peter Cech, one can immediately see the resemblance. Of course, he is not yet ready to be placed in such illustrious company, but the big, nimble shot-stopper has the promise to be one of the best Japan has ever produced.
And though his side waltzed their way to a 3-1 victory over Scotland in their opening Group F match, the 20-yer-old will certainly be called on to do more for his ambitious side in the upcoming matches against attack-minded Costa Rica and Nigeria. As he told FIFA.com after training on the Monday after the victory, it's a challenge he is ready to take on.
"We just have to get out of the group and into the round of sixteen," Hayashi commented with a determined look on his face. "For Japanese football and for the team, the next match is very important for us to get full points. The win in the first match was vital for us, but so too are the next two games. Right now, we just need to really concentrate on every match as it happens."
Rising up the ranks
Though he is still a student at Ryutsu Keizai University - the only player in the side not with a Japanese club - the 1.92m-tall youngster is piling up impressive performances and drawing notice from both professional teams and even the full national side. He trained with the seniors this year in February and March after earning raves at the Asian Youth Championship.
At that tournament, he was the undisputed hero of the hard-fought semi-final clash with rivals Korea Republic, beating away numerous Taeguk efforts and making two crucial saves in the penalty shootout to send his team through to the final. His good form had his confidence shining through against Scotland, where he controlled the box against the bigger and more aggressive Europeans.
"I think I played well," he said without seeming to disturbed by Scotland's consolation goal that came from a rebound. "I made a few mistakes on the ground and high balls are always challenging, but those are things I am working on now."
Keeping the beat going
Looking ahead to their next match against the skilful Costa Ricans, Hayashi picks out striker Jean Solorzano as a main threat before stressing: "All we can do is play like we know how, and that's by being positive. As long as we stick to the Japanese style, we will be ok. We just have to be patient and not over-extend ourselves, and I need to stay focused on my job."
The Asians, who lost to Korea DPR in the final of the Asian qualifying tournament, have been remarkably calm since arriving in the Pacific city with a large Japanese expatriate community, and the poised net minder confirms that it is one of their strengths: "Yes, we are very laid back as a team. On match days we are very focused, but one of our strongest qualities is that before the matches we are very relaxed."
In order to keep things light, he has been occasionally practising one of his hobbies at the team hotel, playing piano. When asked if there's a correlation between the tinkling the keys and protecting his side's goal, he says with a laugh "Well, maybe it helps with my rhythm." And so far, Hayashi and his Japanese team mates have been keeping just the right beat.