Confidence is a word that comes up frequently in conversation with Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima. Some might see it as little more than an empty buzzword, but for Kawashima and his team-mates it represents a genuine philosophy.

It is a mantra that renowned Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni has championed tirelessly since taking charge of Japan, who were already full of self-belief after their showing at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. “He constantly inspires us with confidence,” Kawashima, of Belgian top flight outfit Lierse, told “Not only confidence in ourselves, but in our team-mates as well.”

Since impressing at South Africa 2010, Japan have gone on to cement their status as heavyweights of the Asian game under Zaccheroni. Indeed, the Samurai Blue lifted the 2011 AFC Asian Cup hosted by Qatar in January, with a victory that bore all the hallmarks of the former AC Milan manager. “He puts a lot of focus on small details, because he knows they can often make the difference at the highest level,” said Kawashima. “He brings his own touch while keeping the stability we needed. Since he arrived, we’ve all been trying to help each other reach a higher level.”

More than a group of friends
“We’re constantly looking to make progress, asking ourselves what extra things we can do for the team or our partners,” said Kawashima, who was voted man of the match for his display in Japan’s 1-0 extra-time win against Australia in the Asian Cup final. The former Nagoya Grampus Eight and Kawasaki Frontale custodian was initially called up to Japan’s South Africa 2010 squad as back-up, but he rose up the pecking order thanks to an excellent display in a warm-up match against England.

Kawashima has since continued his fine form for Japan, despite a testing first season in Europe with Belgian side Lierse. “I hadn’t expected the season to be so difficult,” said the keeper, who saved two spot-kicks in Japan’s penalty shoot-out win over Korea Republic in the semi-finals of the continental tournament at the start of the year. After a shaky start to the season behind a porous defence, Kawashima was criticised by the Belgian press and faced the task of proving himself to the Antwerp public.

There were no complaints from Kawashima, though, and he endured disappointing results, fan pressure and managerial changes to emerge stronger at the other side. “I needed this European experience after the World Cup,” said the former U-20 international. “I’m learning a huge amount here, and I have to be a lot stronger mentally and physically. It means I have to work extremely hard, but my motivation is constant.

Improvement needed up front
Kawashima will not be able to watch the preliminary draw for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil in Rio de Janeiro this Saturday, as he will be turning out for Lierse in their first match of the new season. However, he will have the whole of Sunday to reflect on Japan’s qualifying group, which they are likely to start as favourites. The preliminaries begin in September, and Kawashima will no doubt approach the campaign with a mixture of caution and characteristic confidence.

“There are so many different playing styles in Asia that it’s really not easy to qualify, even if we have managed to qualify with greater ease in recent years,” said Kawashima. “This diversity of styles is the main obstacle. We’ll need to be well prepared.” To that end, Zaccheroni has arranged a friendly against South Korea on 10 August. And after goalless draws against Peru and Czech Republic in June, Japan will be all too aware of the need for greater sharpness in attack.

“We need to take more risks up front,” added Kawashima. “We really need to be more efficient in attack, as that’s our weakness. In the last two friendlies, we lacked that little extra something to make the difference.” Kawashima’s dream is for Japan to “do better in Brazil than in 2010”, and with a bit of fine tuning, there is no reason why that dream should not become a reality.