Iwata’s painful homecoming

It could all have been so perfect for Auckland City left-back Takuya Iwata. As if taking part in the FIFA Club World Cup in his homeland of Japan was not enough, a duel with Japanese champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima awaited him at the International Stadium Yokohama, with countless friends and family members watching on from the stands. But this homecoming turned out to be painful in every respect for the 32-year-old, who has been lacing up his boots for Auckland since 2012.

After a sensational third-place finish at last year’s Club World Cup in Morocco, Oceania’s representatives fell at the first hurdle this year by losing 2-0. To make matters worse, Iwata was struck in the face by an opposition player’s knee in an unfortunate collision near the end of the match and could not prevent his side’s defeat - despite bravely returning to the pitch with a bandage around his head and a swollen eye after receiving treatment for a cut.

When FIFA.com caught up with Iwata after the match, he was understandably despondent: “I’m very sad about it,” he said. “We wanted to win this match no matter what, but I didn’t perform well out there today. I wasn’t concentrating hard enough, particularly going forward, and just couldn’t make those key passes.”

The Auckland defender went into the match with great expectations. “My motivation was high, plus I’d managed to win a spot in the starting line-up for this tournament,” said Iwata, who was able to draw on significant support throughout the 90 minutes.

“Around 400 of my family members, friends and former team-mates were in the stadium to see me; one of my friends even made the journey here from Australia,” he explained. “They all encouraged me before the match and told me that I should just go out there and enjoy it. I heard them cheering for me during the match. Their support did me a lot of good.”

Iwata will no doubt also be buoyed by the praise of his coach Ramon Tribulietx. “His female fans definitely weren’t happy after he took that blow to the face; it blew up like a balloon,” Auckland’s Spanish boss said. “The fact that Takuya played on regardless speaks volumes for his character – he feels worse about the fact that we lost the game. He’s a great guy.”

The likeable Japanese defender was soon smiling again when asked about his injury. “It’s not so bad; it’s just part and parcel of football,” he said, preferring instead to look ahead to the future. “The Club World Cup is a dream for me. A couple of years ago, I could never have imagined playing in a tournament at this level. Now I’ve been here four times, and I’m very proud of that.”

Now that Auckland City’s FIFA Club World Cup adventure is over, Iwata and team-mates must turn their attention back to their daily routines. As the New Zealand club is semi-professional, all of the players have regular jobs away from the football pitch.

“It’s definitely tiring and energy-sapping to work all day before coming to training with the team,” the defender said. “It was great to be able to concentrate entirely on football here in Japan and prepare like a professional team would. I’ll do everything I can to ensure that we’re back here next year.”

Iwata will be hoping for a far less painful homecoming, should he succeed in helping Auckland to qualify for Japan 2016.