Sakai: Japan will go to seventh World Cup
Sakai figured prominently as Japan reached last-four in Olympics
Former Hannover 96 man reflects on his decade-long European adventure
Defender aims to help Japan to a consecutive seventh World Cup
Hiroki Sakai's goals have always been simple; 'play better than the previous game.' That attitude is unwavering ahead of Thursday's opening game against Oman in Asia's third qualifying round for the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar™.
Hajime Moriyasu's Samurai Blue entertain the West Asians in the opener before travelling to Doha to face China PR as they look to get off their campaign to a good start. A solid opening could be vital in a group which also features Australia, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam.
"Even before the draw [of the third round], I didn't have any preferences of which teams we would have liked to face," the 31-year-old Urawa Red Diamonds defender told FIFA.com. "We don't pick a rival to play against. The overall levels of Asian teams have drastically been on the up over recent years and all the teams making this stage are strong.
"We managed to go through the second round with good wins, but it was not easy. The amount of travel and restrictions made it hard for us, but we made sure to pick up the necessary wins to progress.
"My answers are always 'to play better than before' when asked about my goals. I don't really set big ambitions. I just want to focus on the matches awaiting us in the short run and keep going forward as long as possible."
Sakai proved one of the most consistent performers for Japan's Olympic side as they reached the last four at Tokyo 2020. Excelling from his right-back position, he was also on target in the 4-0 rout of France as Japan won a group which also featured Mexico and South Africa.
"Playing as one of the over-age players, it meant extra responsibility for me. We reached the semi-finals which was probably the minimum target for us. Our ultimate goal was to win the gold medal. I felt sad that we failed," he reflected.
Sakai did form a solid defensive partnership alongside captain Maya Yoshida and Wataru Endo - the other two overage players. And he is confident their partnership they will continue through the senior World Cup qualifying round.
"I've played together with Maya and Wataru so many times for the national team," he said. "They are both players of great qualities and I respect them a lot. Their leadership allows me to thrive in my role and play my game freely."
World Cup encore
A product of Kashiwa Reysol youth academy, Sakai spent his early years with the J League giants before making a high-profile move to Hannover 96 in 2012. He played for the Bundesliga side for the next four seasons before leaving for France to join Marseille in 2014 where he spent another five seasons.
"I spent nine years and a half in Europe. During that period, I matured mentally. This was the most important thing for me as either a footballer or a person.
"The four years at Hannover were memorable for me. It was my first steps in Europe and things were different from Japan. In a sense, my days in Germany laid the foundation for my career in Europe. Then when I moved to France and played for a big club like Marseille, I learnt that there is a high level of determination and responsibility required and it helped me grow stronger."
Sakai's spell with Marseille culminated during the 2017-2018 season where they finished in the top four in Liga 1 and reached the Europa League final to ensure he went to the 2018 World Cup in optimum form. Having not featured at Brazil 2014 despite making the 23-man squad, Sakai made his World Cup debut in the group game against Colombia which Japan won 2-1.
"I felt good mentally and physically going towards the World Cup," he said. "So in a way, my performance at the World Cup in Russia was not a surprise for me. I was confident that I could compete at the highest level before the tournament and I was proved right."
Sakai now enters the decisive qualifying round hoping for a World Cup encore.
"Japan have represented Asia for the past six World Cups and my focus now is to help make it a consecutive seventh time so we will compete in Qatar next year."