Japan’s Shinji Okazaki has collective and personal goals to pursue at the AFC Asian Cup Qatar 2011. With his eyes firmly set on helping the Samurai Blue lift the trophy, the Shimizu S-Pulse striker is also hoping his performances on the international stage will attract interest from one of Europe’s big clubs.
If his national team record is anything to go by, the 24-year-old has the ability to make any future move a successful one. He made his Japan debut in an October 2008 friendly against United Arab Emirates, represented his country at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008 and the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, and top-scored in the qualifiers for Qatar 2011 with six goals.
His international tally currently stands at 21 goals in 38 appearances, a handsome return that includes the solitary strike of a memorable friendly win over Argentina last October. His side’s leading marksman so far here in Qatar, having hit a hat-trick in the 5-0 defeat of group rivals Saudi Arabia, Okazaki has appeared in all four of his country’s games in the finals and is now preparing for Tuesday’s semi-final against Korea Republic. Talking exclusively to FIFA.com, the in-form goalgetter discussed that enticing encounter, his side’s form to date and his career objectives.
"Obviously I’d like to play in a European league, but my aim is to help Japan challenge the best sides in Europe," Okazaki said. "We’re working very hard towards that goal.”
To get there, however, the Japanese will need to improve on displays such as the one they turned in against the tournament hosts in last Friday’s quarter-final, a match they eventually won thanks to Masahiko Inoha’s stoppage-time winner. “I’m happy we came away with a win against Qatar, even though it was a scrappy game,” he acknowledged.
“The good thing is we won through by pulling together as a team. The fans didn’t distract us either. In fact, they brought a bit of life to the game. After falling behind (Japan were trailing twice) all we wanted was to equalise and then get the winner. It was fantastic when Inoha scored at the end of the game.”
Standing between Japan and a place in Saturday’s final are Korea Republic, a side the Samurai Blue have never beaten in the Asian Cup. In their last meeting in the competition, the match for third place four years ago, the Taeguk Warriors sneaked a penalty shoot-out win.
“Games between Korea Republic and Japan are always special,” explained Okazaki. “There’ll be a lot of people following the game back home, and it’s sure to be intense. We’ll need to play well and stick to our style, and though you can’t really predict how it’s going to go, we’re convinced we can win. I know we can make the final and fight for the title.”
The Shimizu star believes the experience he and his team gained at South Africa 2010 will stand them in good stead for the challenges ahead. “Taking part in the World Cup was very positive for me," Okazaki recalled. "I managed to score a goal in the biggest competition there is (Japan’s third in their 3-1 defeat of Denmark in the group phase), which is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life. What stands out most of all though, is that we stuck together as a team and battled hard.”
The Japanese will need to show those virtues again when they take on their near neighbours. And though he stands just one goal behind the tournament’s joint-top scorers, Korea Republic's Koo Ja-Cheol and Ismaeel Abdullatif of Bahrain, Okazaki is ready to roll his sleeves up and put personal targets to one side.
“I’m happy with the way I’m playing and especially with the three goals I’ve got,” he said. “Scoring’s not my only objective though. There are other aspects of my game I need to improve on.”