Relegation was not a word Yasuyuki Konno expected to hear much when spring ushered in the new J. League season back in March.
As the leaves begin to fall off the trees and Konno and his FC Tokyo teammates languish in 14th place in September, however, a new wind of realism is blowing through the capital city club.
After winning the Nabisco Cup and finishing fifth in the league last season, 2010 looked like it could be Tokyo’s year. The national team squad for February’s East Asian Football Championship included four players from Hiroshi Jofuku’s side, with 27-year-old defender Konno leading the charge for a hungry group of players confident after a breakthrough season.
Whispers of a first-ever title had grown into fully fledged battle cries by the time the league kicked off, but it was not long before the guns fell silent at Ajinomoto Stadium.
The form that made Tokyo such a contender in 2009 gradually dropped out of view, replaced by under-performing players, dwindling belief and rank bad luck. Only goal difference is keeping the club out of the relegation zone ahead of Saturday’s visit to Jubilo Iwata, and Konno knows nothing can be taken for granted.
“We need all the points we can get, and this is a huge game,” he said at Tokyo’s training ground this week. “Our aim at the start of the season was to win the title, but we didn’t start well and our opponents were watching us and studying what we did.
“We realized just how hard it is in the J. League. Now there’s no talk of us winning the league. We’re just concentrating on each game and trying to win as many as we can.”
The “too good to go down” tag is one that has affixed itself naturally to Tokyo, and with Naohiro Ishikawa, Sota Hirayama, Shuichi Gonda and Naotake Hanyu on the payroll it is no surprise. As one of the team’s dressing room heavyweights, however, Konno is not about to allow for complacency.
“Of course I feel a responsibility,” he said. “There is no way I want to see this club go down to the second division, and I have to live up to my responsibilities to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“We haven’t been winning, so it’s not all sweetness and light at the club at the moment. But the players are all determined to change the situation, and we are giving it everything. The atmosphere is not a bad one.”
Tokyo’s cause has not been helped by the post-World Cup departure of Yuto Nagatomo. An impressive showing in South Africa earned the marauding left-back a move to Italian side Cesena, and Konno admits his teammate has been hard to replace.
“It was disappointing for the team, but we are professionals and there’s no point dwelling on it,” he said. “I don’t want to say that we are losing just because Nagatomo has gone. If we can turn this around and the players can all step up as individuals, we can fill the hole he has left behind.”
Konno’s own chances of making an impact on the world stage were boosted when Takeshi Okada named him in his World Cup squad this summer, even if the defender’s hopes were tempered by a failure to establish himself as a regular in 38 appearances since 2005.
Then, on the eve of the tournament, Okada changed tack. Poor results signaled the end for a string of first-team stalwarts, and Konno found himself drafted in as a right-back for friendlies against South Korea, England and Cote d’Ivoire.
“I’ve never really been a regular in the starting lineup and I haven’t had so many chances to stake my claim,” he said. “Suddenly I was given my chance, and I wanted to grab it and show what I could do. It was a big boost for me.”
Then disaster struck. A knee injury against the Ivorians ruled Konno out of Japan’s World Cup opener against Cameroon, and left him watching from the sidelines for all but two minutes as replacement Yuichi Komano made the position his own.
“When I got injured I thought it was a serious one, but I wanted to stay with the team and do whatever I could, even if it wasn’t much,” Konno said. “The injury had me really worried, but the medical staff got me back to fitness and in the end I was really glad I stayed with the team.
“The thing I remember most is when we got through to the knockout stage after the game against Denmark. All we needed was a draw, so the celebrations after we beat them were something that I will always remember.”
The injury may also have cost Konno a move to Europe. Several of his teammates took advantage of the world spotlight to secure a transfer overseas, but Konno is in no hurry to leave his current club behind.
“After the World Cup I wasn’t desperate to move overseas,” he said. “Moving abroad depends on the timing and having an offer from a club. I’ll continue to work hard here, and if a good offer comes in, then I’ll give it some thought. But moving overseas is not something I’m thinking about all the time.”