By Nick Mulvenney
DOHA (Reuters) – Japan will invoke the spirit of the Samurai warrior in their clash with Croatia on Monday as they look to banish the memory of their exit from the last World Cup and reach the quarter-finals for the first time.
The heartbreaking defeat by Belgium in the last 16 four years ago, when they gave up a 2-0 lead and lost to a stoppage- time goal, still haunts Japan and veteran defender Yuto Nagatomo said they were desperate for redemption.
“I have never forgotten about that battle against Belgium. Sometimes scenes from the match suddenly come back to me and the last four years have been very tough,” the full back, who is playing at his fourth World Cup, told reporters on Sunday.
“But I think we have grown mentally as well as physically and … as far as I can see, this team is the best and the strongest that has ever competed for Japan at the World Cup.
“So tomorrow, we intend to beat Croatia and enjoy a new landscape and I am looking forward to shouting ‘Bravo!’.”
The former Inter Milan stalwart said he had taken to shouting the Italian word “Coraggio!” in unison with young players at the start of the campaign to emphasise the importance of playing courageously.
Nagatomo, who believes Japan have the most united team at the World Cup, said he had also drawn on Japanese cultural references to drive the point home.
“I use the analogy of the Samurai, before they go to battle, they polish their weapons and try to improve their techniques,” he added.
“But if they are scared during the battle, they will not be able to use their weapons and their techniques fully. It’s exactly the same with football.
“In order for us to maximise all the tactics that we have been discussing and practising in the last four years, we need courage. So tomorrow, I would really very much like to showcase how courageously we are fighting.”
Nagatomo said beating Germany and Spain to top their group had given the team huge confidence as they look to win a last-16 clash for the first time in four attempts.
Coach Hajime Moriyasu said he had also tried to engender in the younger players an idea of the history of Japan at the World Cup, including the Belgium defeat, so they understand the significance of what they are trying to achieve.
“We have a long history of participating in the World Cup,” he said.
“We have had a lot of experience and we are going to use all the lessons that we have learned to play the match tomorrow, all the things that we have done as a football nation.”
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, Editing by Ed Osmond)