Some players feel the rush of excitement more keenly than others as the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ approaches and close to the top of that list sits Japan international Daisuke Matsui. The midfielder has known since last November that his French club Grenoble were destined for relegation, crippled by 11 straight defeats at the start of the season, and the rest of their campaign unfolded with a procession of almost meaningless games before the expected demotion was confirmed.
As if the frustration of that prolonged descent into Ligue 2 were not enough, ‘Daï’ has other reasons to want to grasp his opportunity in South Africa. “Like every footballer, I’ve always dreamed of taking part in a World Cup,” he told FIFA.com recently. “Because of that, I’m as giddy as a child to be part of the squad, and I’m even more delighted because I was left out at the last moment ahead of Germany 2006.”
Matsui still remembers the pain of that omission, not least since it was far from being the first he had suffered in his international career. After enjoying a few substitute appearances with the senior team in 2003, he was picked for the 2004 Men’s Olympic Football Tournament and seemed set for a starting role in Athens.
“You must be mistaken, because I never got selected for that tournament,” he joked in perfect French. “More seriously, it went very badly for me. I ended up not being a starter and we got knocked out in the first round. I prefer to forget about that experience and a good run this year would help me erase that painful memory.”
Matsui has clearly had his fill of lows and now plans to start wringing maximum pleasure from the professional game, but before he can there will be a few more aches to overcome. Together since 17 May – first in Japan and then in Switzerland – he and his international colleagues have been put through their paces in a rigorous training regime.
“The coach (Takeshi Okada) has chosen to go with an essentially physical preparation programme,” said the 29-year-old. “He thinks the squad is relatively well-oiled as a unit and what we lack above all is lung power. We’re therefore having a lot of training sessions and they’re very demanding. We’re pretty tired by the time evening comes around.”
The important thing will be to do well in our first match.
Okada is also applying pressure to his troops by identifying the semi-finals as their objective. Given that the Blue Samurais face the Netherlands, Denmark and Cameroon in their group, that is an ambitious target. “Our group is extremely difficult,” admitted Matsui.
“All our opponents are undoubtedly on a higher level to us, but if we’re well prepared, then we’ll be able to surprise everyone. The important thing will be to do well in our first match. If we manage not to lose, we’ll be on the right track.”
The former Saint-Etienne, Le Mans and Kyoto Purple Sanga player feels Japan have more than enough quality to advance. “We’ll need to make use of our huge sense of solidarity,” he said. “The squad has a fair amount of experience, even if we undoubtedly lack individual talents. Aside from Shunsuke [Nakamura], we don’t have any stars. It’s team unity and team unity alone that will be our strength.”
With that kind of attitude, Japan could well go far – and even if reaching the last four still seems a lofty aim for a team whose best showing in three final tournaments was a Round of 16 elimination in 2002, the players believe firmly in their chances. “The coach said it and he’s right,” explained Matsui. “If we get past the first round, we can go far. We have to aim as high as possible to increase our motivation to outdo ourselves.”
Or, as the Irish writer Oscar Wilde put it: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss it, you will land among the stars.” After several years spent trying to chase bad memories from his thoughts, Matsui intends to spend the rest of life looking back on good ones.