If Cameroon, the Netherlands and Denmark think they know what to expect from Japan at this summer’s World Cup, one glance at Sota Hirayama should be enough to change their minds.
Years of attractive buildup play with no end product have prompted national team manager Takeshi Okada to look for alternatives should his team’s expansive passing style fail to hit the mark in South Africa, and the FC Tokyo striker certainly offers something different.
At 190 cm and more comfortable with the ball in the air than at his feet, Hirayama is an artisan in a team of artists. After the bruising Japan has taken so far this year, however, he is an option the manager may be tempted to cash in on when he names his final 23-man squad on May 10.
“I really want to go to the World Cup, but I’m not taking anything for granted,” Hirayama said at Tokyo’s training ground earlier this week. “If I don’t get picked I’m sure I’ll be disappointed and it will hurt, but I can still play football and there is always another World Cup in four years. I also have ambitions that I want to fulfill with my club, and if I don’t make it, I will just have to work harder.
“But my height is an advantage. Other teams might be expecting the Japanese players all to be short, so it’s in my favor that I’m tall.”
Hirayama has not had much time to impress, making his international debut as recently as January in an Asian Cup qualifier against Yemen. Japan’s lineup for that match was an experimental one with Okada keen to rest his regulars during the J. League offseason, but Hirayama was not content to simply play the role of understudy.
Instead he came off the bench to score all three goals in the 3-2 win, becoming the first Japanese player to hit a hat trick in his international debut since Takeo Wakabayashi bagged four against the Philippines in 1930.
“I was getting a lot of balls played into me and there was a lot of movement in attack,” Hirayama said. “Everything was very fast and things were constantly happening. The feeling I had was not just one of happiness to be playing, but also one of determination to win the game.”
Relief, possibly, also came into his thoughts. Hirayama was a teenage prodigy who made his name at the National High School Tournament, and was selected for the Athens Olympics squad while studying at Tsukuba University before signing for Dutch side Heracles Almelo.
His time in the Netherlands came to a disappointing end, however, and the fanfare that surrounded his 2006 arrival in the J. League soon fizzled out when he found himself dropped to Tokyo’s bench.
“I wasn’t playing, and it was the first time that had happened to me,” he said. “The first time I was left out of the team was really difficult to take. But at the same time it made me realize that if I wanted to get my place back I needed to keep working.”
Last season was a watershed of sorts for Hirayama, with the effort he put in behind the scenes finally paying off as he helped Tokyo recover from a slow start to secure a fifth-place league finish.
The change in him was palpable despite notching only four league goals, creating many more for his teammates with his aerial strength and showing a marked improvement in his intelligence and decision-making.
“I haven’t changed anything in particular, but mentally I’m much stronger now,” he said. “My preparation is better and I’m much more focused on my football. My concentration has improved, and I think that has allowed me to grow as a player.”
But whether that takes him as far as the World Cup is anyone’s guess until Okada names his final squad. Other strikers have staked their claim, and Hirayama has not appeared for Japan since two scoreless performances at the East Asian Football Championship in February.
Whatever happens, the 24-year-old intends to continue enjoying his time on the pitch, taking pleasure from the one thing that makes every striker tick.
“Goals are the best medicine for a striker,” he said. “No matter what shape you’re in, if you score it gives you confidence. If you have confidence, you play in a positive frame of mind. That’s a very important thing.”