Since Japan first played at a FIFA World Cup™ at France 1998, the landscape of their team has vastly evolved ahead of what will be their fifth consecutive appearance. Where their side once comprised of entirely players within the nation's borders, now more than half their squad can be found dotted around the globe, playing in some of the world's top leagues. One of this star's plying their trade abroad is Maya Yoshida, who passed through the Dutch Eredivisie on his way to joining Southampton in the English Premier League.
The centre-back is now preparing to take his opening bow at the tournament, when the Samurai Blue kick off in their opening game of Brazil 2014 against Côte d'Ivoire. He sat down with FIFA to talk about the impact of foreign-based team-mates, last year's FIFA Confederation Cup and the inspiration he takes after watching South Africa 2010 from home.
FIFA: Maya, during the 1998 World Cup, no Japanese players were playing in foreign leagues. Now, however, there are 12 players who are playing on abroad. How do you think the Japanese players have changed or developed through playing beyond your own shores?
Maya Yoshida: I feel that being able to compete fiercely with world-class players on a daily basis is very important when entering international competitions. Having those experiences is what has changed the most for me. Compared to four years ago, there have been an increase in the number of Japanese players on foreign teams, and I believe that even more players will be playing abroad after the World Cup.
Personally, how have you grown through playing in Europe?
When I play in Japan, I almost always play with Japanese players. However, playing in England and Holland, I had the chance to play with various players, such as players from England and Holland who are physically strong. By changing my environment, playing with European and South American players, which was quite unusual at first, became a normal thing for me. Playing international matches changed from something that was very special and unusual to something that was very normal.
What kind of influence has Alberto Zaccheroni had on your team?
I think our coach really understands Japanese people. He helped us to learn how to compete with world-class European teams while still maintaining the Japanese style.
How did competing in the Confederation's Cup help you to prepare for the World Cup?
Brazil is the host of both the Confederations Cup and the World Cup, and we really got to experience this country, both on and off the pitch. Other than things such as the heat and the environment, we got to experience Brazil in areas outside football such as the food and life inside the hotel. I think the fact that we've experienced this country once already will make a huge difference. Although we didn't get very good results in the Confederation's Cup, I think competing against teams that are said to be the best in the world was a valuable experience for us.
The Japanse Football Association's motto is Yume wo Chikara ni (Change your dreams into power). What is your dream for the World Cup?
Out of the huge football-playing population in the world, only a handful can play in this competition. Four years ago, I was watching the World Cup on TV at home and longed to be on the pitch. Achieving better results than the previous World Cup squad is my dream. Actually, it is more of a goal than a dream.
Is there anything that you recall from back when you were watching the World Cup on TV in your home?
Back then, Japan had achieved better results in the competition than people had expected. That was the year that many players I had experience of playing with in Japan showed their talent, such as [Keisuke] Honda and [Eiji] Kawashima. So, the World Cup felt like something that was very close to me. That was when playing in the World Cup changed from an abstract dream to a concrete goal within me. What was a dream four years ago is now changing into a goal, now that I am actually in Brazil.