With all that lies ahead for Japanese soccer in 2012, we don’t have much opportunity to reflect on the great strides made in the sport here over the past year. Among the key dates on the 2012 soccer calendar, the latter half of the final round of Asian qualifying for the London Olympics starts Feb. 5, while final qualifying for the 2014 Brazil World Cup begins in June.
Midfielder Hiroshi Kiyotake looks to be a busy man over the coming months as he will be expected to play a pivotal role on both the Olympic Under-23 men's team and Japan's national squad.
(On Feb. 2, he picked up a left calf injury during training in Doha, the extent of which was not known at press time.)
“You’ve just got to want it more," he says to encourage himself.
Kiyotake made his debut on the national team back in August. After coming on as a substitute during a friendly against South Korea, he set up two goals for the Samurai Blue. After that match, he continued to make passes that led to goal-scoring opportunities for the team, and in the third-round World Cup qualifier against North Korea in November he was a starter for the first time.
"Time has flown by,” he says. “I still don't know exactly what the national team is all about."
While working feverishly for five months, Kiyotake has discovered a renewed sense of what he is lacking.
"I need to do more and more to try and score goals," he points out.
In five matches with the national team, he has yet to find the net himself. He scored only seven goals in 25 matches last year in the J.League with his team, Cerezo Osaka. The reason for his low goal-scoring tally despite his solid technique is that he tends to look for teammates to take the ball, even when he is set up for a shot on goal himself.
In his hometown of Oita, young Kiyotake was a well-known soccer player. He was short--only 142 centimeters when he finished elementary school--but his coaches saw great potential and encouraged Kiyotake to stick with soccer because of his clever ball-handling, his ability to see plays develop and his quick judgment when it came to making the proper decision.
At times, however, Kiyotake feels his talent gets in his way.
"I see options for more solid passes,” he says. “I should just take clear shots, but I end up wanting to work with everyone else to protect the ball."
Kiyotake started thinking about playing more offensively when he was a teammate of midfielder Shinji Kagawa at Cerezo Osaka. Kagawa, 22, now plays for German side Borussia Dortmund and is a regular on the Samurai Blue.
"Shinji definitely sees options to pass the ball, too, but he shoots when he sees a chance," says Kiyotake.
Last season, Kagawa helped his team to a championship, scoring eight goals in the first year following his transfer. Kiyotake tries to identify with his fellow Japan teammate, who is the same age and has stepped up to a higher level.
This generation of Japanese soccer players has been called the "valley generation" in Japanese because of their tender age. Up until their lackluster year of 2009, Japan had made it to the FIFA U20 World Cup finals seven times in a row. The fact that people constantly point out Kiyotake's lack of international experience has strengthened his aspirations to get to the London Olympics. That desire has not changed, even after he joined the national team.
Kiyotake is aware that he is a focal point of attention among his generation of players.
"I want to be a leader and do my best," he says.
Although he is actually shy and prefers not to stand out too much, he runs at the head of the pack during Olympic training and livens things up with his loud voice.
So which does he give priority to, the national team or the Olympic team?
"I want to be on both," he says, underlining the fact that although others express concern over his tight schedule, this year he'll ignore them and pursue his goals.
Following is a Q&A session with Kiyotake.
* * *
Question: Did your mentality change when it appeared you would be selected for the national team in addition to the squad for the London Olympics?
Kiyotake: My sense of responsibility was heightened naturally when I returned to Cerezo from the national team. Last year, the team was not in very good condition so I thought I should try to come back with a positive feeling about being with Cerezo. The main reason is for the team to win, of course, but I try not to feel too much pressure. That's because if I make a mistake, somebody will cover for me, and if I'm tired, somebody can come on as a substitute.
Q: Are you confident in your mental strength? That is essential for displaying your abilities on the big stage.
A: When I was young, my teachers and parents always said, "You're faint of heart." When I was in the sixth year of elementary school, I made a thoughtless remark to a referee in the quarterfinals of a national tournament and got a direct red card.
When I think about it now, what I said wasn't something you'd expect from an elementary school kid. I said it because I was frustrated that time and time again we failed to score a goal. Before I knew it, I was on the bench. Anyhow, I just cried and apologized to everyone on the team. It exposed a weakness that left me unable to control my emotions. Because of that experience, ever since then I've been able to keep my cool when I want to complain.
Q: What do you think your strengths are as a player?
A: I get asked that a lot, but I don't know. I'm not all that fast, but having said that, I'm not a player who dribbles that much. When I see someone I think I can pass to or if I see an open space, then I put the ball there. I basically just do what I should (instinctively).
Q: Your former mentors all say you have a lot of “soccer sense.”
A: I think all soccer players have that, but it's a feeling that I don't know how to explain. It's not something someone teaches you. Occasionally, I surprise myself with my play. Last year, in the first round of the Asian Champions League played in Osaka, the goal I got in the match against Shandong Luneng was like that. I controlled a pass from my teammate with my chest, feinted a kick with my left foot, switched to my right and took a shot. Normally, I wouldn't switch the ball to the other foot, but I looked around and instantly saw the opposing defenders' positions. Then my body moved on its own.
Q: Considering the overloaded schedule, do you want to appear in both the London Olympics and play in the World Cup qualifiers for the national team?
A: I want to go to London and appear in the Brazil World Cup. Even after being selected for the national team, the Olympics are still just as big to me. My memories of the match against Kuwait in the second-round Asian qualifier in Toyota (Aichi Prefecture) in June remain very strong. When I heard "Kimigayo" (Japan's national anthem) at a home game, I got goose bumps. It was broadcast live on regular TV and everybody was so excited. I felt I wanted to stay there and experience it forever. It stirred a deep desire in me.
However, I don't think of myself as being attached to either (the Olympic or national) team. Anyway, first I think the most important thing is to post good results at Cerezo. I have to practice more and develop in a lot of ways.
Q: You've said publicly that you eventually want to transfer overseas.
A: Shinji Kagawa, Akihiro Ienaga (Mallorca of Spain) and Takashi Inui (Bochum of Germany), who used to be with me at Cerezo, have all gone abroad, so all the midfield players I was with have left. That makes me think I'll be next. Even Shinji, who's only in his first year at Dortmund, has had his life changed. I'd like to go overseas to improve myself, too. But I want to play with the team I'm familiar with until the Olympics are over.
Q: Are you not worried about living abroad?
A: In high school I toured places like Brazil, but to be honest, I soon wanted to come back home. I'm not particular about food, so that wasn't a problem, but the water and baths and beds didn't suit me. I don't think there's any country better than Japan. But that'll be another issue if I transfer (abroad).
Q: Last year, you got married and had a child. How do you spend your time at home?
A: I don't talk about soccer at home. There, I can relax. When I was single, I would come home each day after practice and clean up. Even now I help my wife with the vacuuming and mopping. Cleaning refreshes me even more than bathing. It's my hobby. Makoto Hasebe (Japan captain now with Wolfsburg) even wrote about it in a book. He said cleaning clears his mind. When I read it, I thought it was spot on.
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