STUTTGART, Germany--VfB Stuttgart defender Gotoku Sakai’s ability to observe and adjust to a game is one of his greatest strengths.
In Stuttgart’s last Bundesliga game of the season against VfL Wolfsburg on May 5, Sakai, playing at right-back, had spent much of the first half watching Arthur Boka on the left flank charging up field. At halftime, with Stuttgart 1-0 down, he suggested they balance their attacks.
In the second half, Sakai was able to get into crossing positions and assisted in both the tying and winning goals as Stuttgart staged a late comeback to win 3-2.
Sakai, 21, got his start with the Albirex Niigata youth team. He represented Japan at various age levels, and was recruited for the senior national team for the first time in January 2010 for the Samurai Blue’s AFC Asian Cup qualifying match against Yemen. He didn’t make the Japan squad for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, but was picked along with current Borussia Dortmund midfielder Shinji Kagawa to accompany the team because of his potential. He was sent on loan to Stuttgart from Albirex Niigata in January.
Sakai says he was able to adjust to his new team in Germany fairly quickly because he has a Japanese father and German mother. He says his German roots help him make dynamic attacks and give him the boldness to express his opinion to his teammates, while his Japanese side helps him stay calm and make good judgments during games.
However, he was surprised by the physicality of the German league. According to Stuttgart officials, Sakai was nowhere near his best condition when he first joined the team’s training camp and was seen as more of a long-term investment than an immediate prospect. However, when another Stuttgart full-back was suspended for three games, Sakai was chosen to fill in and made his debut in the Feb. 11 match against Hertha Berlin.
“I was worried, but I knew I had time to make up for it even if I messed up because I was on loan for 18 months,” Sakai says.
Sakai played well, showing his offensive abilities, and was a starting member for 14 consecutive games during the last leg of the Bundesliga season. His team earned nine wins, two losses and three ties. Stuttgart finished the season in sixth place, winning a place in the UEFA Europa League qualifiers.
Sakai adds depth to the team’s attacks and can play on either flank. He is confident with both feet, sometimes taking free kicks with his non-dominant left leg.
Thanks to his performance in the Bundesliga, a reporter for Germany’s nationwide paper Die Welt in April suggested in a column that Sakai be recruited for the German national team with Germany now suffering from a shortage of full-backs to play with Bayern Munich defender Philipp Lahm.
Sakai remains loyal to Japan. “I’m happy that they think highly of me, but I know I still lack skills. And I want to play for Japan,” he told reporters.
The under-23 team that will represent Japan at the London Olympics will be playing at the Le Festival International Espoirs de Toulon et du Var in France in late May, and the Asian qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup Games will begin in June.
“I’m just waiting for (the Samurai Blue) to call on me. When the team asks for me, I hope I can do my best,” he says.
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