By any standards, Shinji Okazaki's rise to prominence has been meteoric. He debuted just 18 months ago and since then the 23-year-old has already accrued 16 goals at a strike rate of better than a goal every other game.
Last calendar year proved memorable for Okazaki who scored 15 times for Samurai Blue, including firing the momentous goal against Uzbekistan which sealed qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. His scoring tally also earned him extra recognition after being named as having the year's top international goal tally by the Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS).
Japan have perhaps found a retort to critics of their goal return in the diminutive striker, perhaps their most promising forward since Kazuyoshi Miura. But for Okazaki, his new status just adds to his motivation for more goals. “I do not think I’m the team’s ace striker. But in terms of improving my skills, feeling pressure is perhaps not a bad thing,” he said.
Among his 16 international goals, Okazaki singled out the match-winner against Uzbekistan last June as the turning point of his playing career. Only nine minutes into the decisive match he latched onto Kengo Nakamura’s pass to ensure Japan’s qualification with two games to spare.
“That was the best moment and the goal was the most important for me while all the other goals pale into insignificance,” Okazaki said, “I entered the match under great pressure but I proved I could deliver in big games. I felt I have grown up after that game.”
Indeed, the goal became a shot in the arm for the Shimizu S-Pulse hitman, who turned the remaining year into a personal goal-spree, scoring eight times in just four matches, including hat-tricks against Hong Kong and Togo. With Okazaki scoring freely, Japan won ten of their 15 matches in 2009 with two draws. However, it was one of their three losses - a 3-0 defeat against the Netherlands - which troubles the young striker most.
Japan created good chances in the opening half, with both Okazaki and Nakamura close to breaking the deadlock. But the tide turned on 69 minutes when Arsenal forward Robin van Persie put the Netherlands ahead with further strikes from Wesley Sneijder and Klaas Jan Huntelaar blowing out the winning margin.
The lopsided scoreline left many sceptical about Japan’s prospects in the 2010 FIFA World Cup where they will again take on the Europeans in the Group E game on 19 June, but Okazaki thinks differently. “Despite the loss, I have the confidence that I could do something against the big teams. Actually I had several scoring chances throughout the 90 minutes and the outcome would have been totally different had I converted any of them.”
Okazaki has continued his prolific international form in 2010, opening the scoring in their 2-0 win over Bahrain in the qualifying for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup. With the FIFA World Cup just around the corner, pressure is mounting on Japan who have set their sights on a semi-final goal, however Okazaki seemingly feels no pressure.
“It doesn’t matter to me whether we could win matches in the World Cup,” says Okazaki. “My job is scoring goals. Every opponent is tough but if we prepare perfectly, we can reach our goal.”