Since taking part in their first World Cup finals in 1998, Japan have secured their place at football’s most prestigious tournament in another four editions.
Maya Yoshida is eager for that proud tradition to continue. He does not want to be part of the first Samurai Blue side that fails to reach the showpiece event since their debut in France. A nation expects. Nay, it demands.
But these are worrying times for Japan as Yoshida’s men host Saudi Arabia today in a crucial World Cup qualifier, three points behind the unbeaten Group B leaders, and in third place, a point behind Australia and one ahead of the UAE, who beat them 2-1 in September.
“To be honest we are struggling,” the Southampton defender tells Sport360 exclusively. “Everyone thinks we should go to the World Cup easily, but it’s not easy. There’s always pressure playing for the national team because everyone expects us to win.
“Yes, I want to play in another World Cup after Brazil, but we need to go step by step. We need to stop talking about it, but get there.
“The Saudi game is very important, we need to get three points against the team that is first. We need to match them because this group could be decided in the final games.
“I don’t think there is such a big difference between the countries anymore. Maybe before Japan was ahead, but not now.
“The Gulf teams are very good technically and Australia also tried to change their style. It’s not kick and rush anymore and they try to play football. Before we played more passing football, now it’s a little faster, high intensity.
“This qualifying campaign is much tougher than I expected. We couldn’t play well from the start against the UAE. There are many reasons why we lost, and I don’t want to make excuses, but anyway, we need to win in Asia all the time.”
The fact that four-time Asian champions Japan have many players who ply their trade in the stronger European leagues brings added expectation.
While Yoshida has been with the Saints since 2012, joining from Dutch club VVV-Venlo, there is also Shinji Kagawa, back at Borussia Dortmund, striker Shinji Okazaki – a Premier League title-winner at Leicester City – and AC Milan midfielder Keisuke Honda.
Reading’s Oman keeper Ali Al Habsi remains the only Gulf footballer currently in English football, but Yoshida, 28, believes it is time for that to change. After Japan’s loss to the UAE, he was left impressed by ‘number 7’, striker Ali Mabkhout, and ‘number 10’ Omar Abdulrahman.
Both have been linked with moves abroad, with playmaker Abdulrahman – who had a trial at Manchester City in 2012 and is on the three-man shortlist for 2016 AFC Player of the Year – repeatedly questioned why he has chosen to stay at Al Ain rather than test himself at a higher level.
“People have talked about him playing in Europe, especially at Manchester City, and he’s in the final of the AFC Champions League now with Al Ain, which is good news,” adds Yoshida, who left his homeland for Venlo six years ago to follow his dream like other Japan legends such as Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura.
“He’s a good player, but I think it’s good timing to make another step, to come to Europe, not immediately to City or the Premier League either, but to another league where he can learn and adapt, like I did in Holland with Venlo. That experience helped before I came to England.
“Honda did the same from Grampus. I’m sure if [Abdulrahman] comes to Europe, he will learn many things and will be another one or two levels step up. He’s just 25.
“There’s a lot of pressure here and it’s not easy when you are an international as well, all the travelling, the jet lag, the attention, but how many players from the UAE have gone to Europe and played in a big league? None? So maybe he can be the first one to make a good way, a path, for others to follow.
“For every country you need a pioneer. This way, it is not easy for that person, but it’s so good when you make it.
“It’s not only on the pitch, but off it. You have to be a role model and it’s a massive honour for me to play in the Premier League, to play for my country.
“When I watched Nakata, Shunsuke, when they started playing in Europe, it made it easy to imagine we will play in Europe one day. It inspired all of us.
“I was always watching Liverpool or Chelsea games and my hero was Steven Gerrard. I used to play defensive midfielder so used to watch him and Claude Makelele at Chelsea before I moved to defence.”
Yoshida’s versatility has been useful to the Saints as he covers the backline with Jose Fonte and Virgil van Dijk the preferred centre-back option. But he has still helped his side to the League Cup quarter finals and beating Inter Milan in the Europa League.
“Yes, I would like to play more games, but this is the Premier League and that’s my point, it’s not easy,” he adds.
“You have to accept you might not play every game, you might be on the bench and take your chance when it comes. So it might be better for someone new to go to a smaller league, Germany, Holland or France and show your ability and then go higher. If [Abdulrahman] does that, it’s a big opportunity for him and for the UAE.
“It is important for the UAE league and helps Asia when you have players at a higher level. We all support each other, whether they are from Japan, Korea, China or UAE. We may be rivals at our clubs, but we are also mates. We try to lead Asian football, make it better.”
While playing his own part, the success of Okazaki at Leicester has helped further.
The Foxes shocked the world by winning the championship and he adds: “We always used to meet up and talk about it and he’d say ‘it will never happen, and we are going down maybe’. It’s incredible what he did. It’s great for Japan when he does well like this.”