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Tokyo goalkeeper Gonda sets bar high for coming season

by Andrew Mckirdy

Staff Writer

FC Tokyo goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda is far too modest to accept the plaudits that have come his way after a string of fine performances for club and country last season, but there is certainly nothing humble about his ambitions for the year ahead.

Gonda began 2012 in the best way possible as Tokyo beat Kyoto Sanga to win the Emperor’s Cup final last New Year’s Day, before going on to consolidate his reputation as the newly promoted club marked its return to the J. League first division with a respectable 10th-place finish.

An appearance at the London Olympics also gave Gonda the chance to test himself on the global stage, and the 23-year-old did not disappoint, underpinning Japan’s run to the semifinals with four clean sheets in the opening four games only for the team to finish fourth and miss out on a first medal since 1968.

With Tokyo beginning preparations for the 2013 season last weekend, however, Gonda’s thoughts are currently fixed on the future. Last year’s midtable finish may have been an acceptable starting point for a team still trying to find its way back from relegation in 2010, but Gonda has higher expectations this time round.

“The goal for us this season is to win the J. League,” he said at Tokyo’s training ground earlier this week. “There are also two cups to play for, and we want to win them both. But as a club we have never won the league and that is the main objective for the season.

“The table at the end of a league season gives you a true picture of how you performed, and last year we started well and then ran into some difficulties before going on to finish strongly. It was a season of ups and downs, but we played some good football at times. If we had been more consistent, we would have finished higher.”

Tokyo went into last season as second-division champions, and three victories from three opening games suggested the club was serious about making an impact on its return to the top flight. Teething troubles under new manager Ranko Popovic soon ended hopes of emulating Kashiwa Reysol’s back-to-back J2-J1 title triumph the previous season, however, and Gonda warns lessons must be learned before the new campaign kicks off on March 2.

“We were getting good results at the start of last season, but we were under a new manager and we all knew that we weren’t 100 percent there yet,” he said. “Over the whole season we were able to move the ball well in a lot of games, but we lacked accuracy in front of goal. In defense there were a lot of times where the opposing team had only one chance but still took it, so we have to be more accurate at both ends of the pitch.”

Helping Tokyo’s cause this year will be midfielder Keigo Higashi, who arrives from Omiya Ardija to inject some energy into a team that has lost playmaker Yohei Kajiyama on a six-month loan to Greece’s Panathinaikos.

“I know Higashi from the Olympic team,” Gonda said of the 22-year-old. “He covers a lot of ground, and that was something we didn’t really have before. His running off the ball creates space for others, and he also puts a lot of pressure on the other team as the first line of defense, which makes it easier to link everything together. I think he will be a big plus for us.”

For all the outfield talent at Tokyo’s disposal, however, it is Gonda who the team will turn to for inspiration. The last 12 months have added more feathers to the cap of a player who joined the capital-city club’s academy from elementary school, but Gonda prefers to take things one step at a time.

“You can say that I had good performances all last year, but I don’t think so,” he said. “Last year the team was doing well at first and I was able to contribute, but then we ran into trouble and I couldn’t do anything to help.

“I gained a lot of experience last year, but there were so many games that I could never sit back and take stock of what I had done. Now that we’ve had a break and some time to reflect, I’d like to put that experience to good use next season.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a player of such low-key demeanor, Gonda believes his influence among teammates is simply part of the job.

“The way I look at it is that the position of goalkeeper is a position of leadership,” he said. “You are responsible for defending your team’s goal. So really, rather than me personally, it is the job of a goalkeeper to take on a position of leadership.

“It makes me happy that people think of me as a leader, but the more leaders there are, the better it is for the team.”

With Japan practically assured of qualification for the 2014 World Cup, Gonda certainly has no shortage of motivation for the year ahead. An appearance in an experimental lineup in an Asian Cup qualifier against Yemen in 2010 counts as the goalkeeper’s only senior cap to date, but with the Confederations Cup this summer offering the chance to impress manager Alberto Zaccheroni, the goalkeeper is determined to seize his moment.

“In order to be picked for the national team I have to play well for FC Tokyo,” he said. “I have to be the kind of player that Zaccheroni looks at and thinks: ‘I want to use him.’ “