Maya Yoshida preparing for major upset at 2022 World Cup

Yomiuri Shimbun photos
Maya Yoshida poses during an interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun in Dusseldorf, Germany.

Maya Yoshida, the captain of Japan’s national soccer team, has spent most of his career in Europe, where he has plied his trade in the world’s top soccer leagues.

He has had stints in England’s Premier League, Italy’s Serie A, the Eredivisie in the Netherlands, and now the German Bundesliga, where the defender currently plays for FC Schalke 04.

At the upcoming World Cup in Qatar, Japan is in the same group as previous World Cup winners Spain and Germany. The seasoned defender, who will have faced some of Japan’s group-stage opponents at club level, spoke to The Yomiuri Shimbun about his career and how his experience heightens his determination to help the national team defy expectations in Qatar.

Yoshida had long dreamed of playing in the English Premier League. That dream came true in 2012 when he joined Southampton FC, where he spent 7½ years playing football in one of the toughest leagues in the world.

“Looking back, the time I spent in England was incredible,” Yoshida said. “At that time, Southampton had just been promoted to the Premier League and had a lot of momentum, so I was able to absorb various things.”

Despite his attachment to England, Yoshida made the move to Italy in January 2020, which gave him an opportunity to broaden his abilities in Serie A, and also to develop as a person outside of football.

“I’d always wanted to be a ‘one-club man,’ playing for one team throughout my career like [former English international] Steven Gerrard at Liverpool, so leaving Southampton was hard,” Yoshida said. “Even after I left, I spent a lot of time asking myself if I’d made the right decision.”

Looking back, he now knows he did.

“Although Italy and Britain are both G7 nations, Italy is totally different from the U.K.,” he said. “Putting soccer aside, I found it interesting that even though so many things were different in Italy, everything still worked.

“I thought it was similar to Japan, with its long north-south axis and seasonal food. I’m also glad that my spoken Italian reached a decent level. I experienced a new world, developing not only my football skills, but also other aspects of my life.”

Inside enemy lines

This summer, Yoshida joined Schalke, but the once-formidable club has been struggling since gaining promotion to the Bundesliga, Germany’s top division. As vice-captain, 34-year-old Yoshida has faced a new set of challenges in a popular team full of youth.

“I once watched a Schalke game when my friend [former Japanese international Atsuto] Uchida was in the squad, but the view I get from the pitch now is completely different,” he said. “The support from fans in the stadium was beyond my imagination.

Yomiuri Shimbun photos
Maya Yoshida captains Japan in a friendly match against the United States.

“Gelsenkirchen, where Schalke is based, is not a wealthy area. I get the impression supporters work hard to buy tickets so they can attend Schalke games. The stands are filled with supporters from the time we start our warm-up before the match. That doesn’t happen in England or Japan.”

With Japan set to face Germany — a soccer giant that has won the World Cup four times, including a victory as West Germany — in its opening match in Qatar, Yoshida said his presence in the Bundesliga becomes more meaningful.

“More than 80,000 fans filled Dortmund’s stadium at this season’s Ruhr Derby [against Schalke],” Yoshida said. “When I saw the ‘yellow wall’ [of more than 20,000 Dortmund supporters] behind the goal, I thought to myself, ‘This is why I came to Germany.’

“I felt happy that I’d made the switch to the Bundesliga. You can’t sharpen your skills unless you’re in that kind of high-pressure situation.

“Many things influenced my decision to play in Germany, and the opportunity to learn about [our group-stage] opponent was among them. In tight games like the one against Dortmund, you can be in a situation where one positioning error could decide the match. I feel like I’m learning a lot in Germany.”

To narrow the gap between Japan and the world’s top teams, Yoshida has repeatedly stressed that Japanese footballers need to be playing on Europe’s best clubs. Over the past four years, the number of Japanese players in European leagues has increased, but only a few are playing for major clubs.

“Among the mid-ranked World Cup teams, Japan has caught up in terms of the clubs Japanese footballers are playing on,” Yoshida said. “However, powerhouses such as Brazil and France are advancing at an even faster pace. We need to make up some ground at the World Cup by getting some good results.”

In Qatar, Japan has set a goal of advancing to the quarterfinals for the first time. The result in the first group-stage match against Germany will be critical.

“Our chances of winning the match is definitely not zero, and the first game is always difficult for every team,” Yoshida said. “We beat Columbia in our first match at the last World Cup, but the result might have been different if our opponents hadn’t gone one man down due to a red card. Sometimes things just go your way.

“We’re hoping to betray expectations in a good way. We’re quietly getting ready so we can pull off a major upset.”

— The interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Sportswriter Satoru Hoshi.