Soccer / J. League

Endo aiming for medal in Rio

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Urawa Reds defender Wataru Endo is expecting a feisty atmosphere in his first Saitama derby against Omiya Ardija on Sunday.

But the Japan Under-23 captain knows the stakes will be even higher at the Rio Olympics this summer.

Urawa takes on Omiya with both teams currently enjoying a rich vein of form, with Urawa on top of the J. League table midway through the first stage and Omiya fifth in its first season back in the top flight.

League positions, however, count for little amid the blood and thunder of a local derby. Passion will be running high after Omiya’s stint in the second division last year temporarily put the fixture into cold storage, and Endo is keen to sample the occasion after joining Urawa from Shonan Bellmare over the winter.

“This will be my first experience of the Saitama derby and I know that the fans are always really passionate about this game,” Endo told The Japan Times on Friday. “We have to go into the game with the same passion not to lose. But I don’t just want a good result. I want the team to play well too.

“The Saitama derby is a special game but I want to prepare as normal. I think that’s the best way to approach it. Don’t pay it too much mind, don’t get nervous and play as you always do.”

If Endo stays true to his word, Omiya will find him a formidable obstacle. The 23-year-old has slotted seamlessly into Urawa’s defense since the club outbid five other teams to sign him, and manager Mihailo Petrovic is impressed by his new charge’s cool head under pressure.

“I don’t really like to talk about individual performances, but I thought Endo was so calm in one-on-one situations today,” Petrovic said after Urawa had beaten Kawasaki Frontale 1-0 on April 24 to go top of the table.

“That calmness spreads to (fellow defenders Ryota) Moriwaki and (Tomoaki) Makino and has a good effect on them. He was also very calm when he was winning one-on-one battles against world-class players like Jackson Martinez and Ricardo Goulart when we played Guangzhou in the Asian Champions League.”

For his part, Endo is happy with the way he has settled in at Urawa but refuses to rest on his laurels.

“I wouldn’t give myself the full 100 points just yet,” he said. “Maybe 65. We’re winning, but there is more I can do in attack and defense. I don’t want to be satisfied with what I’ve done so far — I want to keep improving.

“I thought Urawa’s attacking style would make this the easiest team to fit into. I thought this would be the place where I could best show my qualities. I’m playing regularly and I think I can have a good season.”

Urawa fans will be hoping that Endo can help the club capture its second J. League title 10 years after its first, but that is not the only prize the Ibaraki Prefecture native is aiming for this year.

Endo was captain of the Japan Under-23 side that booked its place at this summer’s Rio Olympics by winning the Asian Under-23 Championship in Doha in January, and he believes a medal is a realistic target.

“Winning a medal has been our goal all along, and if we play the way we want to for the full 90 minutes then I don’t think that’s beyond us,” said the versatile Endo, who was used as a defensive midfielder in Doha. “I can’t say I’m 100 percent confident, but if we play with confidence then we’ll have a chance of winning a medal.”

Japan has been drawn in a first-round group with Colombia, Nigeria and Sweden at the Aug. 3-20 Olympic tournament, with a potential meeting with host Brazil lurking in the quarterfinals.

Endo acknowledges that Japan will not start among the favorites, but after beating London Games champion Mexico in a friendly in March, belief is beginning to grow.

“Winning the Asian championship was proof of how much the team has improved, and make no mistake, beating Mexico has given us confidence too,” he said. “But we still have things to work on. There’s a balance of being confident and knowing we’re not quite there yet.

“The most important thing for us now is for each player to play for their clubs and show what they can do there. That’s what we need to do if we want to win a medal. It’s very important that everyone is aware of what they’re doing.”

Japan is looking for its first men’s Olympic soccer medal since winning bronze at the 1968 Mexico City Games, having reached the semifinals only to end up empty-handed four years ago in London.

“At the last Olympics, the team came very close to winning a medal but didn’t get one,” said Endo. “I was happy that they were winning but watching on TV it was frustrating that they didn’t get anything. I want to change history this time around.”