PELE Memories Live On As Japan’s Honda Embraces ‘Final’ World Cup
JAPAN icon Keisuke Honda’s dream of winning the World Cup began when, as a six-year-old, his father showed him footage of Brazilian legend Pele on an old VCR.
And although restricted to a substitute appearance so far in what is his third, and almost certainly final campaign, the former AC Milan star has not given up on that unlikely dream becoming reality.
“I’m feeling that this World Cup is my final one,” Honda said at the team’s training base in Kazan yesterday.
“I’m 32 years old and four years is pretty long. Right now I can’t decide about (what will happen) four years later, so I’m spending all my energy on this World Cup.
“That’s why I really want to succeed at this World Cup, with these teammates.”
Honda, who came on for the last 20 minutes of Japan’s 2-1 win over 10-man Colombia — the first for an Asian team over South American opponents — will be hoping for more when the Blue Samurai host Senegal in Yekaterinburg tomorrow.
With both sides sharing top spot in Group H after Senegal stunned Poland 2-1, he believes his experience could be key against both the Africans and final match opponents Poland.
“I’m an experienced player, I’m confident and know what we have to do for the next game against Senegal,” he added.
“Even if we lose against Senegal, I know how to avoid the pressure and how to prepare for Poland.”
But the midfielder, known for his free kicks and versatility in attack that have helped him to 36 goals in 96 appearances including seven in Japan’s qualifying campaign, almost never made it to Russia at all.
Among several experienced Japan players to fall foul of former coach Vahid Halilhodzic’s attempt to radically change their approach after he took charge in 2015, Honda’s World Cup dream only took shape when the France-Bosnian was sacked in April.
When he was sacked, the decision could not have come sooner for Honda.
“I don’t have any regrets (about the change of leadership),” Honda, who now plays for Mexican side Pachuca, said in a documentary that aired in Japan in mid-May.
“To submit myself to the kind of football Halilhodzic played in order to get picked, that would be shameful for me.”
Although former JFA technicaI director Akira Nishino took over the reins, Japan had only three months to prepare.
A string of disappointing results from matches in the lead-up to Russia, including a 2-0 defeat to Ghana in Yokohama and a 2-0 defeat to Switzerland in Lucerne did not augur well for the 63-year-old Nishino, who led Gamba Osaka to the 2008 Asian Champions League.
It took a 4-2 win over Paraguay in Innsbruck, Japan’s final friendly before Russia, to restore a degree of faith in the Blue Samurai.
Although it’s early days yet, Honda is living the dream. And even if Japan don’t succeed, he still feels “amazing” to still be representing the national side.
“My target was (to win) the World Cup when I was a child because my father showed me the video of Pele playing in the World Cup,” Honda explained.
“Since I made that my target, I’ve just focused on that.
“This World Cup is my third. It’s pretty nice, it’s amazing in fact..
“I really am happy to be playing soccer at 32 years old, I don’t really want to have regrets after this World Cup.
“I really hope I can do something for the team.”