By Tetsuya Kazama / Yomiuri Shimbun SportswriterLONDON — The bruises covering Maya Yoshida’s body chronicle the battles fought by the Japan and Southampton defender during his six years in the English Premier League.
The 29-year-old on Thursday played his 127th Premier League match, the most by a Japanese player in the league’s history. Yoshida dreamed of playing in the English top flight as a teenager and has worked hard to hone his skills in a league where he competes against the world’s top players.
He is currently aiming to book a spot at the upcoming World Cup in Russia, which would mark his second appearance in the tournament.
In a recent interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun, Yoshida said of his battle scars: “Can you imagine how bad they are? There are countless scars and bruises all over my legs.”
The center-back rolled up his T-shirt to reveal a roughly 10-centimeter scar on his back, saying, “This is what happened when I collided with [French international Olivier] Giroud in a recent match against Chelsea.”
“That sort of thing’s a daily occurrence here,” he added with a wry smile.
Born in Nagasaki Prefecture, Yoshida began his career with the academy for Nagoya Grampus, one of the top teams in the J.League. As an academy player, Yoshida pined to join a foreign club within three years after making the first team.
He achieved his goal after debuting for Grampus in 2007, earning a transfer to Dutch top-flight club VVV Venlo in 2010. His performance attracted the attention of Southampton, and two years later, he transferred to the Premier League, often described as the world’s highest level of soccer.
Yoshida squares off against top-level strikers in almost every match he plays.
“Strikers here score on one-shot opportunities. Whenever I get into a jam, they’ll capitalize four out of five times, if not every single time. Strikers will miss three such chances in Japan, and even two in the Netherlands.”
In the Premier League, he found it did not work to use a passive defensive style, in which a defender backs up and waits for an opponent to make a mistake. Yoshida instead developed an aggressive style and sought to take the ball away from his opponent.
He also faces stiff in-house competition for his spot. In the past, he has competed for the center-back position with players such as Dutch international Virgil van Dijk, who transferred to Liverpool in the middle of this season, and Jose Fonte, a member of the Portugal national team that won the 2016 UEFA European Championship. After almost every match, Yoshida habitually reminds himself, “I’m in a do-or-die situation every day.”
Few Asian-born defenders have excelled in the Premier League. However, Yoshida has made his presence felt in England and is occasionally selected to captain games for Southampton. He attributes his success to his philosophy of “going all-out [in every match].”
While playing for the Grampus academy, he had a heated quarrel with an older teammate during a game, calling him out for his sloppy performance. Yoshida has maintained his unrelenting attitude, regardless of where he plays.
Yoshida came back from a left knee ligament injury in an April match against powerhouse Arsenal. As the league comprises many of the world’s top teams, he occasionally finds himself exhausted after a match, falling to the pitch and struggling to stand up.
“Boldly speaking, if I can do well here [in England], I can also do well with the national team. I believe I’ll be rewarded for my days of hard work, hopefully in the form of a World Cup callup.”
In mid-May, Yoshida will publish an autobiography in Britain, entitled, “Unbeatable Mind,” which will discuss his unshakable spirit on the pitch.
Ready to atone in Russia
Yoshida’s mentality is distinctly different from that of four years ago, when he made his World Cup debut at the Brazil tournament.
“I’m able to keep my composure. I’ve had many experiences in the Premier League and in international competitions that have boosted my confidence,” he said.
Yoshida played in his first World Cup immediately after his second season at Southampton, in which he only made eight league appearances. “I felt excluded at the club. I was consumed by anxiety, like, ‘Am I good enough?’” he recalled.
In Brazil, the defender played the full 90 minutes in each of Japan’s three group games, which ended in a draw and two losses. He remembers thinking to himself after the tournament, “I couldn’t give it my all.”
Since Brazil, Yoshida has appeared in at least 20 matches each season for his club. All of Japan’s opponents in Group H at the Russia tournament are expected to field big names such as Robert Lewandowski of Poland, Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez of Colombia, and Sadio Mane of Senegal.
“I’ll just focus on stopping them — I think I can enter the tournament with my usual mind-set,” Yoshida said, words that reflect the experience he has accumulated.
He said he was surprised by the dismissal of former national team manager Vahid Halilhodzic, but calmly added, “If a player fails to produce results, he won’t be used, and in the case of a manager, he’ll be replaced. If you want to prove you’re right, you have to win. That’s the law of the soccer world.”
Yoshida believes “momentum” will be a key factor at the World Cup. In its Group H opener, Japan will face Colombia, a team that scored four goals against Yoshida and the Samurai Blue at the 2014 World Cup. He aims to vindicate the loss, saying: “The minimum result is a draw. If we win, we’ll get some pretty good momentum.”
Yoshida played for Japan at the 2012 London Olympics as an overage player. As captain, he helped the team beat tournament favorite Spain in the group-stage opener, and advance to the semifinals. Ahead of this summer’s World Cup, Yoshida shared his pledge for the tournament: “At the [London] Olympics, I gave it my all to the extent I felt I couldn’t stand up [after a match]. I want to give 100 percent [in Russia].”Speech