KAZAN, RUSSIA – After surviving one of the “most difficult” seasons of his Premier League career, Japan defensive stalwart Maya Yoshida said Thursday he is mentally prepared to help his Samurai Blue teammates face the challenges ahead of them at the World Cup in Russia.
Having regularly finished in the top half of the table during Yoshida’s six years at the club, Southampton ended last season in 17th place, with a late surge under replacement coach Mark Hughes helping it stave off relegation.
The Saints began the season under new manager Mauricio Pellegrino, but after just one win in 17 matches the club sacked the Argentine in a bid to preserve its place in the top flight.
“I was thinking that this situation with Southampton and the Japanese national team is really similar,” the 29-year-old Yoshida said. “We were both struggling a lot, (Southampton) through the season and (Japan) through qualification for the World Cup.
“Even after (qualifying for) the World Cup we still had a difficult time, so that kind of experience through the Premier League season helps me, helps us, a lot I believe. I want to bring my experience to the Japanese national team and squad as well.”
While Japan’s firing of manager Vahid Halilhodzic just two months before the World Cup shocked the soccer world, the team is set to enter the tournament with renewed confidence after a morale-boosting 4-2 victory over Paraguay in its final warmup match on Tuesday.
Confidence is something Yoshida has never lacked, however, according to the 189-cm center back, whose role with club and country requires him to constantly be a vocal presence on the field.
The Nagasaki native left home at age 12 to attend the youth academy of Nagoya Grampus (then known as Nagoya Grampus Eight), moving into an apartment with one of the two older brothers who first fostered his interest in soccer.
Yoshida describes the experience in his autobiography “Unbeatable Mind” which was published earlier this year in both Japanese and English. The player’s self-belief and mental toughness is a recurring theme in the book.
“The things in the book are nothing secret for me,” he said. “I’ve had a difficult time and a good time in Southampton, and I wanted to share my feelings, share my experience, for both English and Japanese (fans).”
Despite the difficulties of the past season, Yoshida said he still relishes the challenge of going head to head with some of the world’s best attacking players in the Premier League.
“Every season is different. It’s never the same. There are so many good strikers, but they change a lot, because there’s so much competition (within teams). Every striker has to score a lot, or they’ll be replaced,” he said.
“That’s why every week, every game, I play against such good players. That experience helps with the Japanese national team a lot as well.”
Yoshida and his fellow Japan defenders will face one of the most potent attacks in the tournament in their first Group H match against Colombia in Saransk next Tuesday, but he says they are up to the challenge.
To secure a result, Japan must be able to contain Monaco striker Radamel Falcao and roaming forward James Rodriguez, currently on loan with Bayern Munich from Real Madrid.
“Obviously it’s going to be really difficult for us. I think the first game of such a big competition is always difficult,” Yoshida said. “But after the game against Paraguay, I think all the players are feeling much better than a couple of days ago, and we’re sharing our feelings — how to play, how to defend, how to motivate each other — so I’m looking forward to it.”