As Eiji Kawashima explained following the FIFA World Cup™: "After we got knocked out, I realised I could only improve if I started playing in a tougher league.” Now, two months on, the former Kawasaki Frontale goalkeeper is back with his Japanese international colleagues having made the move to promoted top-flight Belgian outfit Lierse. It may be too soon to prove or disprove his theory, but the 27-year-old was in imperious form as he helped Japan defeat their FIFA World Cup™ conquerors Paraguay 1-0 in a friendly on Saturday, a result which gave new coach Alberto Zaccheroni the perfect start to his reign.
The second Japanese custodian to pursue his career in Europe after Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi – who spent time with Portsmouth and Nordsjaelland – Kawashima is keen to make the most of his new start in Belgium after two previous trips to the Old Continent yielded no more than training time in Italy. The switch has left him needing to adapt to life alone in Lier in the Belgian countryside, but he also finds himself under pressure to cement his starting place in the national team. Superb against England in a FIFA World Cup warm-up game, that performance lifted him ahead of Seigo Narazaki in the pecking order and earned him the gloves for what proved to be an impressive personal showing on South African soil.
Currently preparing to face Guatemala in Zaccheroni’s second test as coach, the polite and affable No1 agreed to share his thoughts with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: As a goalkeeper, how did it feel to be beaten on penalties in the FIFA World Cup Round of 16?
Eiji Kawashima: When it happened, it was a horrible feeling and a huge disappointment. I’d stopped two penalties in warm-up matches before the World Cup, so I was confident. I really thought I could save at least one. I was optimistic, but in the end they scored all of them and we were eliminated. We need to forget that, though, and in my case I already have. I never look back. This is a new start.
Following your performances in South Africa, do you think Japan have made a definitive step up to becoming one of the world’s leading teams?
We’ll find out in the near future. What’s certain is that we proved to the whole world that we know how to play football. We played in an attractive and disciplined manner and we showed ourselves in a positive light, but now we have to be even more aggressive. That’s the key. We’ve grown in confidence and the foundations are solid, so given that we have to be able to advance. But I’ll say it again: we need to be more aggressive. We came in for a lot of criticism before the World Cup. People were hard on us. Our campaign changed things and everyone was pleased with our results and how we played. That puts even more pressure on us because now we have to please people even more, and that could be difficult.
Does the arrival of a new coach mean all the players begin on the same footing again?
Competition always exists, but it’s good that everyone feels they still have to prove themselves to secure their place. That’s a good thing for the team, and it’s good for me as well. It makes us stronger. In personal terms, I need to concentrate on what I have to show I can do. I also speak a little Italian, so hopefully that’ll help me communicate well with the coach.
What tactical benefits are you expecting an Italian coach to bring?
I’m expecting him to provide us with more aggression. We played a different style of football to the other teams during the World Cup – more disciplined but less aggressive. In Italy, I learned very quickly that tactics are primordial, especially in defence. The coach will bring us a new way of looking at things and maybe a new system as well. I’m sure it’ll all be for the good of Japanese football.
Is it essential to retain stability at the core of the team?
You can’t always play with the same starting XI. The change in coach can only have a positive impact on our team unity and desire to work, which were already huge. This squad has always worked well together, with tremendous desire. We need to learn from the World Cup and continue to make teamwork our chief quality.
Turning to your own situation, how have you adapted to life in Belgium with Lierse?
The club were interested in me before the World Cup. As for me, I wanted to come to Europe: that was my ambition. It was also important to really feel wanted; I wouldn’t have come just for the sake of it. Lierse were able to show me that they really wanted me and despite some tough results for the moment [five defeats in five games], I’m very happy with the decision I made. We’ve arrived from the second division so it’s not going to be easy, but it’s a fantastic experience. All we need now is to transform that into good results.