Maya Yoshida, Japan’s national team captain, wants to make sporting history at the World Cup in Qatar in about six months, but in order to do so, he must be picked and healthy enough to play in soccer’s premier event for the third time in a row.
A World Cup knockout stage victory has proven too difficult for the Samurai Blue, who have alternated between group-stage and round-of-16 elimination in the six championships since their debut in France in 1998.
“I want to get past (the round of 16) for myself and also to create Japanese sports history,” Yoshida said.
Japan has been drawn in Group E, including European giants Germany and Spain, for the World Cup, which runs from November 21 to December 18.
While Japan’s chances of reaching the knockout stage for the fourth time are slim, the 33-year-experience old’s on pitches throughout the world allows him to approach the assignment with a more mature viewpoint.
The former Southampton and now Sampdoria center-back is regularly compared to Japan defenders Yuji Nakazawa and Marcus Tulio Tanaka, both of whom played important parts in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, a similarity he claims has haunted him throughout his career.
“I hated being judged against them when I was young, from the time I first got into the national team until before the (2018) World Cup in Russia. It was like being followed around by ghosts,” Yoshida said.
He believes that the only way to avoid being evaluated against Nakazawa and Tanaka is for Japan to reach their first World Cup quarterfinal.
Yoshida stated that he had the opportunity to personally ask Nakazawa last summer during an interview what he needed to do to exceed him as a defender.
After initially humbly saying Yoshida already has, Nakazawa told him, “I guess you’ll have to make the last eight (at the World Cup),” Yoshida said. “I informed him that I agreed.”
When it comes to club soccer, the parallel falls apart because neither Nakazawa nor Tanaka played professionally abroad.
Yoshida has seen minimal minutes with his Italian team near the close of a difficult and injury-plagued season. As an overage player, he captained Japan’s under-24 side under Moriyasu at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics, helping them reach the semifinals.
The Japan brain trust is hoping that some much-needed recuperation during the off-season, as well as regular game time early next season, will allow Yoshida to arrive in Qatar in top form.
If he can, the setting is prepared for him to stand out from the crowd by leading Japan to unprecedented heights.