Whether he's battling on the football pitch, shooting a TV commercial or taking it easy at a neighborhood cafe, Yuto Nagatomo is always the picture of calm, cool and collected.
The 25-year-old defender on the Japan national soccer team says that maintaining a sunny disposition enables him to meet challenges head-on and nurtures his love for the game.
He didn't always feel that way. And it took a struggling club team and the example of his team captain to turn thing around.
A tough 2011-12 season with Inter Milan in Italy's Serie A saw the club sink into sixth place and go through two different managers by midseason.
Nagatomo and other main players faced harsh criticism from the fans and press. But Nagatomo took special notice of how Argentine captain Javier Zanetti handled the adversity.
“He's always calm...under any circumstance,” Nagatomo says. “He told me he erases all negative thoughts after the game ends. That’s why he is always able to smile. That kind of attitude had a major impact on the struggling team.”
Nagatomo decided to bring this attitude to the Samurai Blue. He began learning how to control and calm his naturally pessimistic attitude.
“I write down my feelings and face my pessimism or negative feelings," he says. "It’s not easy. I’m able to do it more unconsciously now, but I still can’t always do it.”
Nagatomo says if he controls his emotions when his performance is a bit off, he stops panicking under difficult circumstances. He also thinks about how he should control his feelings even when he is feeling good.
“I want to be able to maintain the same emotional state whether we win or lose--or whether I’m in good or bad condition,” Nagatomo says. “If I let my feelings be controlled by the results of the game, I won’t be able to maintain a certain level of performance throughout the season. I would get emotionally exhausted as well.”
In Japan's 3-0 win over Oman on June 3 in a World Cup qualifier, Nagatomo provided an assist to Japan’s first goal in the 11th minute, changing the team’s outlook for the final round of qualifiers--a yearlong journey that lasts until June 2013.
Oman’s defenders had been focused on Shinji Okazaki, who began running toward the goal first. No one noticed midfielder Keisuke Honda heading to the goal after Okazaki. When Honda raised his left hand signaling that he wanted the ball, Nagatomo fired the ball he received from Maeda to Honda standing in front of the goal. Nagatomo’s accurate cross helped Japan get its important opening goal of the match at a packed Saitama Stadium.
“I was happy Honda scored the goal," Nagatomo says, "because there was a time when he was injured and couldn’t play with us."
Nagatomo also played strong defense to help keep Oman off the scoreboard before Japan scored twice to close out the scoring courtesy of Ryoichi Maeda in the 51st minute and Okazaki three minutes later.
Nagatomo says he felt comfortable with the change of rhythm in the second half and that he likes to actively participate in offense as well as defense.
“Even when there are fewer chances to shoot a goal, each opportunity becomes a defining moment," he says. "That’s the kind of player I want to be."
But he also considers his team’s victory the top priority, even if he has to give priority to defensive work.
One of Nagatomo’s role models is Inter Milan attacking midfielder Wesley Sneijder.
“Sneijder is good at hiding where he is looking and when," Nagatomo says of the Dutch footballer. "Opponents can’t read his next move. I’m not the genius type, so I probably won’t be able to reach his level. But I don’t think it’s impossible for me to imitate him. Anyone can polish their skills."
Nagatomo also takes a few away-from-the-pitch lessons from Zanetti, who volunteers on his days off. Becoming a top-class soccer player involves more than just gaining technical skills, it also takes giving back to the community. That’s what Nagatomo has learned.
After blowing past Oman, Japan took to the pitch in the same venue five days later as Honda scored a hat trick and the Samurai Blue pounded Jordan 6-0.
Nagatomo & Co. are hoping their success at home will translate abroad as Japan will compete against West Asian nations like Oman, Jordan and Iraq on enemy turf between November 2012 and June 2013, in the final half of World Cup qualifiers.
These teams are ranked lower than Japan, but the games will not be easy for Japan to win, as the home teams will get big boost from their fans. Japan fans back home will also have high expectations of their team when it is on the road.
“When Japan lost two games in a row during the third round of qualifiers, there was a lot of media criticism," Nagatomo says. "But I think that was a good experience. Winning the World Cup is our biggest dream, and I think it’s possible for us to achieve that. Until we make this dream a reality, there will be many challenges. If we let our feelings break during those adverse circumstances, we won’t be able to make dreams come true.”
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