Japan stars vow to honour Matsuda's memory
© AFP

Japan have vowed to carry on in the fighting spirit of former teammate Naoki Matsuda as they prepared to face rivals Korea Republic in a home friendly, while hundreds of fans attended his funeral.

Matsuda, a gutsy defender who helped Japan reach the 2002 FIFA World Cup™ last-16 round on home turf, died last Thursday at age 34 after falling into a coma with a heart attack during training two days earlier. "I believe there were so many things he still wanted to accomplish. It was really unfortunate," Japan and CSKA Moscow midfielder Keisuke Honda told Japanese media.

"But I have seen and heard people around him vow to carry on his will," said the 25-year-old, who powered Japan to the last 16 at last year's FIFA World Cup in South Africa. "In a sense, we must make his death not the end but the beginning of something."

Wolfsburg midfielder Makoto Hasebe said: "All we can do is look forward and move on. I believe that is what Matsu-san would have wished. Having said that, our next game will be very important."

I have seen and heard people around him vow to carry on his will. In a sense, we must make his death not the end but the beginning of something.
Keisuka Honda on honouring Naoki Matsuda

While the national squad remained in Sapporo to fine-tune for the friendly there Wednesday, some 1,300 people including present and past teammates and fans attended the memorial service for Matsuda in his hometown of Kiryu, northwest of Tokyo.

French coach Philippe Troussier, who piloted Japan through the 2002 World Cup campaign, remembered Matsuda as a "key man" in his flat three-man backline. "He was like my son and he died too young," Troussier, now manager of China's Shenzhen Ruby, said after the funeral.

However, Matsuda was also remembered for encouraging his World Cup teammates to be flexible in their defence. Being relatively tall for a Japanese at 183 centimetres (six feet), he was capped 40 times for his country. His international career ended in 2005 when he fell out with then national coach and Brazilian legend Zico.

In their last encounter, Japan beat Korea Republic 3-0 on penalties in the Asian Cup semi-final before winning a fourth continental title against Australia in Doha last January. It was the Blue Samurai's first win over their cross-strait rivals in six matches since 2005.

Alberto Zaccheroni, who became Japan coach after the 2010 FIFA World Cup, has called up 14 Europe-based players for the Sapporo friendly, including Borussia Dortmund star Shinji Kagawa. Korea Republic coach Cho Kwang-Rae has called up nine Europe-based players but three of them - Bolton midfielder Lee Chung-Yong, Hamburger SV striker Son Heung-Min and Sunderland frontman Ji Dong-Won - pulled out due to injury or club commitments.