INTERVIEW: Yoshida believes UAE duo are ready for Europe

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • G+
  • Mail
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • G+
  • WhatsApp
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn
Yoshida goes up against Mabkhout.

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.

Japan results so far

  • LOSS: 1-2 UAE
  • WIN: 0-2 THAILAND
  • WIN: 2-1 IRAQ
  • DRAW: 1-1 AUSTRALIA

“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.”

Recommended

Most popular

Asia Angle: Five big WCQ questions

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • G+
  • Mail
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • G+
  • WhatsApp
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn
Five burning questions...

It’s time for Matchday Five in the final round of qualification for the 2018 World Cup.

Twelve teams have been split into two groups of six with the top two from each going straight to Russia. The two third-placed finishers enter the play-off route.

Sport360 asks five questions before the big day.

CAN SAUDI ARABIA TAKE A MASSIVE STEP TOWARDS RUSSIA?

After four games, Saudi Arabia sit on top of Group A with a very solid ten point haul. There has been a little luck (three penalties for all the team’s goals in the first two games) but the Green Falcons have improved as the group has progressed.

The only dropped points came at home against Australia and the 3-0 win over the United Arab Emirates was as important as it was impressive.

But a trip to Japan is perhaps the toughest yet. It is the first time in the group that Saudi Arabia will play a real away game outside their own borders (OK, they played Iraq in Malaysia but there was no home advantage for the Iraqis) and it will be both chilly and red-hot at a full Saitama Stadium.

Japan need the win but have not been as impressive as usual. UAE won in the Land of the Rising Sun and Iraq were unlucky to lose to a 95th minute goal.

A draw would be a fine result for Bert Van Marwijk’s men while a win would be special. There is confidence that it can be done. Should Saudi Arabia take all three points, they could have a six-point cushion between them and the play-off place. They would take some catching.

Follow every Asian Cup qualifier with our Live Score Centre

CAN JAPAN AND SOUTH KOREA GET BACK ON TRACK?

The two East Asian giants are not exactly struggling but both sit in third place in their respective groups with seven points. It is possible, though unlikely, that they could both be top of their groups by Wednesday morning.

But if Korea lose to Uzbekistan in Seoul and Japan lose to Saudi Arabia in Saitama then hopes of automatic qualification will really be in the balance. Neither team has yet to find its fluency in this stage and the pressure is on both coaches.

Should defeat visit these corners of East Asia then both Uli Stielike and Vahid Halilhodzic could well find themselves out of a job.

You have to go back to 1994 when Japan did not appear at the World Cup while 1982 is the last Korea-less global football fest. The road to 2018 could look a lot different by the end of this week.

Follow every Asian Cup qualifier with our Live Score Centre

CAN UAE RECOVER FROM SAUDI SETBACK?

It all started so well for the Whites with a historic 2-1 win in Japan. Then came a home defeat to Australia and victory against Thailand. Six points from the first three games was a solid start but the 3-0 loss in Jeddah was painful with all three goals coming in the final quarter.

The defeat put some pressure on coach Mahdi Ali, a man who has done so much to improve the national team but could fall victim to the rise in expectations that are a natural by-product of progress.

UAE have to beat Iraq, not just to stay within touching distance of automatic qualification but to show that they can bounce back from bad results. It will also make the second half of the group very interesting indeed.

Follow every Asian Cup qualifier with our Live Score Centre

CAN LIPPI END QATARI HOPES?

After three defeats in three games, Qatar’s win over Syria keeps hopes alive. But the Maroons need to keep winning and it won’t be easy in China for two reasons.

China may be bottom of the group with one point but now have Marcello Lippi in charge. This game is the first for one of the most successful coaches in history and the Italian just being there is going to lift the hosts.

And then there is the fact that the game is taking place in Kunming. The city, not far north of the border with Vietnam, is almost 2000 metres above sea level and it takes some getting used to. The Chinese players have been there since the start of the month.

The 2022 World Cup hosts can’t afford to lose if they are to keep their, already slim, hopes of an automatic place in Russia alive. Qatar beat Russia in last week’s friendly meeting and need more of the same in China.

Follow every Asian Cup qualifier with our Live Score Centre 

CAN IRAN KEEP ANOTHER CLEAN SHEET?

Iran has played four, won three, drawn one, scored four and conceded none. It is not going to be a roller-coaster ride to Russia but that won’t bother coach Carlos Queiroz one little bit. The important thing for the former Real Madrid boss is that Iran qualify for a successive World Cup for the first time ever.

That is likely to happen and the chances will only improve should Iran defeat Syria on Tuesday in neutral Malaysia. Iran are well-organised and with enough individual talent throughout the team to make a difference when it matters.

If Iran win, they could go six points clear of the play-off places and will be at least four ahead. For a team like that doesn’t look like conceding never mind losing, that would be a formidable lead.

Follow every Asian Cup qualifier with our Live Score Centre

Most popular

#360view: Adbulrahman must seize the moment and head west

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • G+
  • Mail
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • G+
  • WhatsApp
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn
Asia's best: Omar Abdulrahman.

The next three weeks of Omar Abdulrahman’s celebrated career should finally provide the catalyst towards a long-predicted move to Europe.

Even by his own stratospheric standards, 2016 has been a year to savour for ‘Amoory’. An incredible eight man-of-the-match gongs have been collected in 12 games on the way to the AFC Champions League final with Al Ain, while the assists have flowed as the UAE chase a spot at World Cup 2018.

Such divine displays have produced a packed immediate schedule. Continental supremacy can be gained for the Boss during the two legs against South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors on November 19 and 26, while he is the runaway favourite to receive the AFC Player of the Year accolade in Abu Dhabi on December 1.

If both individual and team glory follows, Amoory must ask himself: ‘why hang about?’ There is no more time to waste for a player who at 25 is heading towards his peak. Choose the brave option now and both himself and UAE football will never look back.

This could be the spark for their ascension towards Asia’s top table, smashing through the glass ceiling which has inhibited their performances since a breakthrough 2015 Asian Cup. There is simply nowhere else to go in Asia for a talent who would have joined Premier League giants Manchester City in 2012 if work permit issues had not appeared.

Further interest has never been a problem. In the aftermath of the City collapse, Portuguese giants Benfica led a lengthy list of suitors. After he lit up the 2015 tournament Down Under during the Whites’ inspiring run to third place, a plethora of Emirati agents were contacted by their counterparts from the old continent as they sought to set up a deal for the frizzy-haired wonder.

If the club’s second ACL crown is claimed against Jeonbuk, could an arrangement be reached with a grateful Al Ain to relinquish their hold?

Such a move would require drive, determination and fearlessness. No Emirati has found a permanent home in Europe’s major leagues. Such a historic switch is overdue. An escape from the cozy confines of Hazza bin Zayed Stadium and the Arabian Gulf League should have been made years ago.

Abdulrahman possesses ability which is commensurate with the likes of Australia’s Tim Cahill, South Korea’s Son Heung-min and Japan’s Shinji Kagawa. All had or are enjoying fine careers away from familiar surroundings.

Instead, the situation of Amoory is reflective of the issues which has inhibited the development of Gulf footballers for generations. Coming from countries blessed with immense wealth from natural resources and a cultural background which makes assimilation into European dressing rooms troublesome, it is a path rarely trodden.

Saudi Arabia icon Sami Al Jaber is the only player of similar standing who made the move, though his protracted loan to Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2000 was to come to a premature end.

It is up to Amoory now to seize the moment and avoid a similar fate. He may never get a better opportunity to fulfil his destiny.

Most popular