Japan supporters will be looking to the goalscoring ability of Shinji Okazaki when the Samurai Blue open third round qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ at the start of September against United Arab Emirates.
The 30-year-old ace-striker is now in his prime, scoring regularly for both club and country. Okazaki netted five times in 36 appearances as Leicester City won the English Premier League in stunning fashion last season. By doing so, he became only the second Japanese player to achieve such a feat after Shinji Kagawa with Manchester United in the 2012/13 season. His international form proved similarly impressive, too, having racked up four goals as Japan won the group in the second qualifying round for Russia 2018.
With continental qualifying commencing in September, *FIFA.com *caught up with the former Stuttgart marksman to hear about his feats with Leicester City, and Japan's prospects of qualifying from a World Cup group which also features Australia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Thailand.
FIFA.com: Congratulations Shinji on helping Leicester City win the English league. How do you rate the title-winning season?
Shinji Okazaki: When I joined the team (a year ago), I was prepared to help Leicester avoid relegation. The aim was also to get 40 points and remain in the Premiership. So what I was thinking about was how to do my job well and fight for a good result in each game. But gradually, things began going in a good direction in unexpected fashion. When we lined up with Manchester United in a decisive match, for the first time had I realised that we could win the title. I thought to myself ‘wow, if we win this game we will be the champions’.
(Winning the championship) was indeed amazing. I could hardly believe it even when we achieved it. And I can imagine how the fans were stunned. Of course, I was so happy to win the league alongside these great team-mates, coaches, supporters and club officials. Meanwhile, though, I kept asking myself if I had done well enough in contributing to the process. Did I score enough goals as a forward? I am not satisfied with myself, although it proved a good season with the team.
*While quite a few Asian players have endured difficulties acclimatising at European clubs, you have proved successful in adapting to a new life. What difficulties have you overcome en route to success?
*If you are asking me if I have fully adapted to the new league and club, my answer is no. I'm still trying to fit in. (After struggling early on), I made improvements and things got better in the second half of the season. But there are still many things that I can do and I have to do.
*You are one of the most successful European-based Asian strikers. What advice would you provide for Asia's young players seeking to move abroad?
*Aside from the gap in the class of football, there are cultural differences and language barriers to overcome. You will have to deal with all these well and it means that you must take on challenges both on and off pitch. To prepare for an overseas move, you have to maintain your thirst for success, work really hard and get yourself ready for those challenges.
*After scoring regularly over the years for Japan, you are now top scorer among the current squad and third on the all-time list. In fact, you are just seven goals shy of the iconic Kazuyoshi Miura. Are you confident of surpassing him and becoming the second top-scorer, or even the top all-time goalscorer for Japan in the future?
*I’m not obsessed with numbers. But if some day I surpass Mr Kazu, I will be very pleased. I want to continue to score for the national team. But in order to meet the criteria of the Japan team, I have to maintain my club form.
*You have figured prominently for Japan in the past two FIFA World Cups. Are you looking forward to playing in your third World Cup at Russia 2018?
*I felt upset (for failing to get good results) in the last two World Cups. And that is why I am very much desiring to make it to my third World Cup.
*How do you rate your group which also features Australia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, UAE and Thailand?
*When the draw was done, I said ‘Yes’ because we are going to play against a familiar rival - United Arab Emirates. We lost against them in the last Asian Cup so we have a good opportunity of taking revenge. But no teams in this group are easy to cope with, even Thailand. If you saw how they played in the last Asian Games, you will feel that the competition in Asia is getting tighter.
*Since sealing maiden qualification at France 1998, Japan has been the team to beat in Asia, progressing to five successive World Cups. What are the major strengths of Japan?
*I would say togetherness. It doesn’t mean that we are just a group of good mates. It means that we are a group of fighters respecting each other. We will prove our strength in September's World Cup qualifiers.
*What changes has new coach Vahid Halilhodzic brought about to the Japan team?
*Undoubtedly the managerial switch has made an impact on the team. I'm learning lot of things from coach Halilhodzic. As players, we should do our best to respond to what he requires us to do.
*What goals have you set for yourself?
*To score as many goals as possible for both club and country. I turned 30 (in April) but despite my age, I want to keep playing in Europe and I aim to raise my performances level.