SAITAMA — Less than two years ago, it was almost impossible to imagine a national team without Keita Suzuki.
But as Japan prepares to take on Ghana in the Netherlands on Wednesday, the Urawa Reds captain is at home with other things on his mind.
Reds have plummeted from second to ninth in the J. League table after a scarcely believable run of seven straight losses, the slump reaching a farcical nadir when Vissel Kobe took just 18 seconds to open the scoring in the latest of those defeats.
Japan’s best-supported club has seen more than its fair share of drama over the years, and the 28-year-old Suzuki has experienced the full gamut of highs and lows since making his debut in 2001.
But the latest crisis is the first the midfielder has had to deal with since being elected captain at the start of the season. With the club in need of a leader now more than ever, he is not taking the role lightly.
“I feel the responsibility but I’m not alone,” Suzuki said at the club’s training ground. “There are a lot of leaders on our team, a lot of players with national team experience, and they help me. That gives me strength. But on the other hand, I do feel as if I need to do something to change the situation.”
Teams on a losing streak are often impatient to get back on the pitch and set the record straight, but the current international break has left Urawa waiting an extra week to get that chance.
Suzuki, however, believes the enforced hiatus provides a timely opportunity for Reds to take stock ahead of Sunday’s match against Montedio Yamagata.
“We are in the middle of a bad slump, so I think this is good for the team,” he said. “We can talk things over and work in training, and I think we can use this break to turn things around. Our team is still young, and it gives us time to stop and think about where we’re going wrong and what we need to do.
“The atmosphere is not so bad. I’m interested to see what goes on in this break, all the discussions we can have and how we can change things. From what I have seen I think we can do it.”
The break also gives the players time away from their numerous and demanding supporters. A full Saitama Stadium is an intimidating place for opposing teams to visit, but the expectations can also be a heavy burden for the home team to shoulder.
“Some players draw strength from the crowd, and some feel the pressure,” Suzuki said. “This year the fans have been through a lot, and I think they feel there is going to be a change. We’re trying our best out on the pitch and we feel the pressure, but the fans can help us.”
Despite the club’s problems, the fact that Suzuki is playing at all is a triumph in itself. Sidelined through injury and a serious bout of tonsillitis for most of last season, he says the time away from the game was difficult to endure.
“Last year I felt like quitting,” he said. “It was tough for me mentally. I couldn’t eat anything and as a result I lost more than 10 kg. During that time I was called up to play for the national team and that just sent me into a spiral.
“I was playing too much. I had been playing for a long time without a break, so looking back now I realize it was good to get some time off. But at the time I couldn’t even look at a football.”
Suzuki has since re-established himself at his club, but he has yet to recover the form that made him the linchpin of Ivica Osim’s national team, where he started in every game of the Bosnian’s reign from summer 2006 to the end of 2007.
Suzuki has not appeared for his country since last March’s World Cup qualifying loss to Bahrain, a result that prompted current manager Takeshi Okada to publicly reject the direction Osim had taken in order to mold the team in his own image.
But Suzuki dismisses the notion that he has been cast aside to sever links with the past, pinning the blame on no one but himself.
“The national team is going in the right direction and they know what they have to do, but I miss being involved,” he said. “I haven’t been happy with the way I have been playing, but I never give up wanting to get back in the team. The World Cup is next year, and it’s the same for every player.
“But I need to improve my performances. Being at the World Cup is one of my goals, but I am also focused on helping Reds. Playing better and better here will give me the confidence I need to make the national team, and if I can get my old form back I expect to be there. But first I need to improve.”