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Goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki has experienced three World Cups as a member of Japan squad, but not always as he would want to. He was on bench in 1998, played in all Japan’s matches in 2002 – when they reached the Round of 16 for the first time – and found himself back on the bench in 2006. Despite such ups and downs, the Nagoya Grampus ’keeper has been an integral part of the Samurai Blue setup for most of the last 14 years and has been a solid performer whenever needed. What motivates the 33-year-old? And what is he expecting at this year’s World Cup? Narazaki, who collected his 100th clean sheet in the J. League last season, talked to JFA Web to share his thoughts.

Q: What are your early memories of the World Cup?
I remember the one in Mexico in 1986; it was dominated by the image of [Diego] Maradona, who was brilliant. The next one in Italy I remember much better as I watched most of the games by staying up late or recording them.

Q: Were there any particular moments or players that stood out?
I paid more attention to goalkeepers than players in other positions. I remember the Italy goalkeeper keeping clean sheets as his team progressed, and I also remember that Argentina’s second-string ’keeper played in place of their injured first-choice goalkeeper and won a game in a penalty shootout.
Around that time, I was playing for my junior-high team and was simply curious about what goalkeepers did in various situations. Their performances were really impressive to me.

<JFA Web 2010 World Cup Special>~ Talking to Japan’s players ~Seigo Narazaki: The man between the posts Q: What made you start playing football?
I joined a local boys’ team called Mitsuwa when I was in the fourth grade of primary school (about 10 years old). But before that, when I was much smaller, many friends of mine played football in my neighborhood, so I would often join in and kick the ball around with them.
I also played baseball and some other sports, but always felt that football was more fun than the others. I was big in size but could play with the ball OK, so I played both as a goalkeeper and as an outfield player. But when we faced a penalty, I would go in goal. In a way, I was learning about all these positions.

Q: So did you decide to be a goalkeeper by yourself, or did a coach suggest it?
It was a bit of both. I kind of gave up playing in the outfield, and a coach also suggested that I play in goal.

Q: Were there any players you liked or admired?
Not so much. The only player I liked was Peter Schmeichel. He had a good overall balance and presence, which I admired. I idolized him.

Q: When did you start thinking that you might play for Japan and play in the World Cup?
I’m not the day-dreaming type (laughs); I’m really quite practical. I suppose these things came to mind when I started my J. League career [with the Yokohama Flugels] and after joining the national team squad for the first time [in 1996].
But early on with the national team, I was a newcomer among players I had always watched on television and admired, so it was still too early to think about playing in the World Cup.
However, after getting involved with the qualifiers in 1997 [for France 1998], my desire to play for Japan became much stronger and I felt the World Cup was a much closer and more reachable target.

Q: Since your Japan debut in 1998, you have been to three World Cups – in 1998, 2002 and 2006. You played in all of Japan’s games in 2002, but didn’t get a chance to play in the 1998 and 2006 events. How did you find those three tournaments? Were they different?
Yes, they were. I was on the bench in two of those tournaments – 1998 and 2006 – but the circumstances were quite different. In 1998, I was still young and eager to learn anything I could. Even when I was on the bench, it helped give me the desire to play next time around, and that was a contributing factor in winning a starting place in the 2002 World Cup.
But you always get more from actually playing on the pitch. I can say that for sure after my experience from both sides – as a starting player and as a substitute. Even when I didn’t get to play, I didn’t feel I was inferior to the others. It was the decision of the coaches and I respected their decisions. So, I just tried to focus on what I should do.

<JFA Web 2010 World Cup Special>~ Talking to Japan’s players ~Seigo Narazaki: The man between the postsQ: It seems that you get to play in alternative World Cups; does that mean this year is your turn again?
Ha, ha, ha!! You don’t get your playing opportunity in turns (laughs). But I would love to play in this year’s tournament.
After the 2006 World Cup, I had some ups and downs and some difficult moments, as I picked up some injuries. My playing time was limited and I couldn’t do well even when I was given a chance. I just couldn’t take my chances fully at the time. That’s why I do not want to miss this opportunity and want to do well this time around.

Q: Goalkeeping can be a tough job as you are often required to have better mental control than outfield players. You seem to have quite a strong mentality; how have you developed your mental toughness and control?
It is difficult to have good mental control. When I was younger, advice from my coaches helped me, especially when I was feeling down. But these days, people around me seem to think that I’m old enough to handle everything by myself, so they often leave me alone. I am not a youngster any more, and I guess I am the type of person who can handle things by myself.

Q: When you say that’s a part of your character, have you always been like that?
I’m not sure about that. But I tend to think “things are manageable.” Worrying doesn’t help you much. Even when you have a bad moment, I always think that might spur me on to do something good. If you don’t take things in a positive manner, you can’t move forward.

Q: This is your second time to work with coach Okada on the national team. Have you noticed any changes or differences in him?
I can’t recall what he was telling us in 1998, but he started out as an assistant coach and was then was promoted to the top job. After 10 years or so, I think he is well established as a coach and has got his own style. That’s probably from his experience of managing clubs and winning the J. League. He looks like a coach now, and I don’t think there are many Japanese with the same strict attitude as him.

Q: What does the Japan national team mean to you?
I have played under various coaches on the national team, but whoever is in charge and whatever their philosophy is, the national team should stand alone in terms of its value and responsibility.
The national team is, at the end of the day, the target that all footballers should aspire to; it’s the place where all the best players come together. That alone is one of the great benefits of the national team.
And I want to be one of them and stay with them. To me, that is the driving force of my footballing life and the objective I always have.
Personally, I am not comfortable being the center of attention, but that’s part of being a footballer. The best way to be the center of attention is to play for the national team.
These days you have more options and can play abroad at big clubs in Europe, and that is another kind of motivation for some players. But to me, playing for the national team keeps me motivated as a player.

Q: We now know the draw for the World Cup, so are you getting a stronger image of the players you will face?
I’ve been checking them with visual aids – but just the basics at the moment. For example, I am trying to recall how Denmark played in their qualifying games. But we all have to be aware of how our opponents play.

Q: Japan will also play Cameroon and the Netherlands, teams they have faced before – is that a big advantage when you face them in the World Cup?
Well, we played the Netherlands last year, which may give us some indication as to how they play, but we played Cameroon a long time ago and at home, so things might be quite different this time around.

Q: How are you going to spend the remaining time ahead of the tournament?
I don’t want to waste it. I want to take good care of my fitness and condition, and train and play flat out. That’s all I can do, and I hope it will be enough. And, of course, I want to play in the World Cup and give it my all. I don’t want to have any regrets later or think, “I should have done that.”

(Interview and text by Kumi Kinohara, sports journalist)



Profile ----Seigo Narazaki----

Seigo NarazakiBorn in Nara on April 15, 1976. Stands 187 cm and weighs 80 kg. Started football in primary school and reached the semifinals of the National High School Championship with Nara Ikuei High School. Joined Yokohama Flugels in 1995 and quickly became the team’s first-team ’keeper. Kept a clean sheet for six successive games at the beginning of 1996 as Flugels won eight straight and finished third in the league. After the Flugels disbanded at the end of 1998, Narazaki joined Nagoya Grampus. Became the first goalkeeper to mark 100 clean sheets in the J. League, on July 25, 2009. Called up to Japan team under Shu Kamo in December 1996 but didn’t make his debut until February 15, 1998 (against Australia) under Kamo’s successor Takeshi Okada. Narazaki has played for Japan 74 times (as of March 4, 2010) and was a member of Japan’s World Cup squads in 1998, 2002 and 2006. Also played in the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games as an over-aged player.