Yoshida leading by example in hosts' quest for gold

  • Maya Yoshida criticised Japan as "naive and fragile" in 2018

  • Olympic captain was encouraged by their opening win at Tokyo 2020

  • Yoshida promises, however, that the hosts can play much better

Japan captain Maya Yoshida was delighted to make a winning start at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Tokyo 2020. But it was the mental toughness his side showed to grind out the 1-0 victory over South Africa that pleased him most. Experienced centre back Yoshida, who also captains the senior Samurai Blue and is playing at his third Olympic Games, feels that valuable lessons have been learned since Japan led Belgium 2-0 only to concede a last-minute goal to lose 3-2 in the Round of 16 at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.

After that game, Yoshida told FIFA.com his side were “very poor at closing out the game…maybe there was a bit of mental weakness.” Yoshida suggested his team were “too naive and fragile” and felt the Japan Football Association and the players “must think seriously about our future youth development.”

Fast forward to Japan’s opening game at the Tokyo Olympics. The hosts largely dominated the fixture but did not score until just after mid-way through the second half. Speaking to FIFA.com after the match, Yoshida was happy with the patience and control his side exhibited throughout, but insisted there was still room for improvement. “At times, I felt we were too cautious, but our defence didn’t panic and we stood firm. Scoring earlier in the game would have made things easier, but we pushed forward when space opened up and stifled any counter-attacks,” he said. “Even so, I know we can play a lot better. I want to improve on this performance.” Yoshida, who plays for Sampdoria in Italy’s Serie A and spent eight seasons with Southampton in England’s Premier League, has been a pillar of Japan’s defence in recent years. His vast experience and leadership qualities were instrumental in guiding Japan to victory over South Africa. The defender turns 33 in August and is one the three over-age players in the Japanese squad, along with 31-year-old right-back Hiroki Sakai and 28-year-old defensive midfielder Wataru Endo. All three play or have played in the top leagues of Europe and have a wealth of experience at international level, which adds a steely edge to the young Olympic team. Now appearing in this third Games after competing at the 2008 and 2012 editions, Yoshida is determined to contribute to his side’s quest for Olympic glory.

“I really want to make a difference to this team, and I’ve tried to prepare myself to do that,” he said. “We’ve played only one game so it’s too soon to judge if I’ve had an impact, but I want to produce results that will make people glad I was included as an overage player.”

While the World Cup and the Olympics are vastly different tournaments, Tokyo 2020 offers a stage to gauge whether progress had been made in the “youth development” Yoshida alluded to after the collapse against Belgium in 2018. The answer to that question might become clearer in Japan’s next game against Mexico, who kicked off their campaign by thumping France 4-1. According to Yoshida, this upcoming game will be crucial in the context of this tournament and also the long-term development of the national team. “When I first played at the Olympics, only a few young Japanese players were over in Europe. But these days, many young guys are playing there. Of course, other countries are improving, so we must keep up with them and keep improving, too,” he concluded, saying: “That’s why these Olympics are an extremely important opportunity for us. I want this team to play well and go all the way to the final.”