Striker Shinji Okazaki is hoping to cap his record-breaking season by helping Japan reach the FIFA World Cup™ quarter-finals for the first time in their history at Brazil 2014. Okazaki has enjoyed a stellar first season at Mainz having become the highest-scoring Japanese in a single German Bundesliga season when he scored his 14th goal last Saturday to break Shinji Kagawa's previous record.
Kagawa, now with Manchester United, scored 13 goals in his final season for Borussia Dortmund in the 2011/12 season before moving to Old Trafford. Okazaki has scored more goals this season than he managed in three years at previous club VfB Stuttgart. The 28-year-old's goal-scoring exploits are set to win him a World Cup berth having scored twice for Japan in their 4-1 win over New Zealand in Tokyo last month.
"Our will to survive the World Cup group phase is huge and the fans expect that of us," said Okazaki, with Japan having been drawn in Group C alongside Ivory Coast, Greece and Colombia. "We have the chance to get out of the last 16 for the first time. Many of our players are active abroad, some at top clubs, so the expectations in Japan have grown."
We used the Confederations Cup to test things out, but we lacked the winning mentality.
Having lost all their matches at last year's FIFA Confederations Cup against hosts and eventual winners Brazil, Italy and Mexico, Okazaki says Japan are determined to give a better account of themselves at the World Cup under Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni.
"I'm looking forward to the challenge," he said. "We used the Confederations Cup to test things out and wanted to play nice football, but we lacked the winning mentality, so we need to work on a few things. Zaccheroni works very meticulously and he gives very precise instructions.
"I play wherever the coach tells me to. Recently it was mostly on the right side, but it does not matter where I play - I have to do my job. I am one of the more experienced players and I have to take responsibility."
Tough test in Brazil
Okazaki said the humid conditions on Brazil's north-east coast will be a factor when they play Côte d'Ivoire in Recife on 14 June and Greece in Natal five days later despite their evening kick-off times.
"It's going to be very hot, which will make it very difficult," said Okazaki. "You don't have to change your game, but you have to get used to the climate. We'll be meeting up in Japan, then probably going to camp in Miami - and from there to Brazil."
Having started the season with zero expectations of making the World Cup after lengthy spells on the bench at Stuttgart, Okazaki has got his career back on track under Mainz coach Thomas Tuchel.
"In Stuttgart, I often played on the wing and it got to the point where I didn't know anymore if I was a winger or a striker," he admitted with Mainz amongst the Bundesliga's European places with two league games left. "Thomas Tuchel must take a lot of credit, he didn't give up on me and told me that I am a striker."