Striker Shinji Okazaki is hoping to cap his record-breaking season by helping Japan reach the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time in their history at Brazil 2014.
Okazaki has enjoyed a stellar first season at Mainz having become the highest-scoring Japanese in a single Bundesliga season when he scored his 14th goal last Saturday to break Shinji Kagawa’s previous record.
Kagawa, now with Manchester United, scored 13 goals in his final season for Borussia Dortmund in the 2011/12 season before moving to Old Trafford.
Okazaki has scored more goals this season than he managed in three years at previous club VfB Stuttgart.
The 28-year-old’s goal-scoring exploits are set to win him a World Cup berth having scored twice for Japan in their 4-1 win over New Zealand in Tokyo last month.
“Our will to survive the World Cup group phase is huge and the fans expect that of us,” said Okazaki, with Japan having been drawn in Group C alongside Ivory Coast, Greece and Colombia.
“We have the chance to get out of the last 16 for the first time.
“Many of our players are active abroad, some at top clubs, so the expectations in Japan have grown.”
Having lost all their matches at last year’s Confederations Cup against hosts and eventual winners Brazil, Italy and Mexico, Okazaki says Japan are determined to give a better account of themselves at the World Cup under Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni.
“We used the Confederations Cup to test things out and wanted to play nice football, but we lacked the winning mentality, so we need to work on a few things.”
Okazaki said the humid conditions on Brazil’s north-east coast will be a factor when they play Ivory Coast in Recife on June 14 and Greece in Natal on June 19 despite their evening kick-off times.
“We’ll be meeting up in Japan, then probably going to camp in Miami – and from there to Brazil,” he said.
Having started the season with zero expectations of making the World Cup after lengthy spells on the bench at Stuttgart, Okazaki has got his career back on track under Mainz coach Thomas Tuchel.
“In Stuttgart, I often played on the wing and it got to the point where I didn’t know anymore if I was a winger or a striker,” he admitted with Mainz amongst the Bundesliga’s European places with two league games left.
“Thomas Tuchel must take a lot of credit, he didn’t give up on me and told me that I am a striker.”