Set to be the first Japanese field player to see four straight World Cups, evergreen Yuto Nagatomo needs no extra encouragement to express his pride in representing Japan once again in Qatar.
The 36-year-old former Inter Milan man is likely to retain the starting fullback berth he has made his own since his 2010 tournament debut in South Africa, especially after the withdrawal of the injured Yuta Nakayama this month.
"The more World Cups I experience, the more my passion grows. I'm confident of showing a livelier version of myself than ever and having an explosive impact," the FC Tokyo defender told Kyodo News recently.
Nagatomo and his Samurai Blue teammates were criticized for a lackluster start to the final stage of Asian World Cup qualifying, but he won back support from fans after putting the clamps on Real Madrid star Vinicius Jr. in a June friendly against Brazil in Tokyo.
To reach their goal of the quarterfinals, Hajime Moriyasu's Japan need to navigate their way through a tough Group E containing two former winners, Germany and Spain, as well as Costa Rica, but it is exactly the kind of challenge Nagatomo relishes.
"I can display my ability more as the opponents get stronger. It's also extremely good to be facing Germany, one of the title favorites, in our first game in order to prove our ability," Nagatomo said. "It's the best situation possible."
After playing for Cesena, Galatasaray and Marseille on either side of his seven-year stint at Inter, where he learned his trade under Argentina great Javier Zanetti, Nagatomo returned to his first club FC Tokyo in September 2021 and has nailed down a starting spot in nearly every game since.
No Japanese player can rival the depth of experience accumulated by Nagatomo over his 11 years in Europe, and it is something he wants to pass on to his teammates during the tournament in Qatar, along with his positive mentality.
"I've come through many obstacles. I've become extremely strong mentally thanks to that. I have the conviction that I can do the job," Nagatomo said. "I want to be the mental support (for other players) when things get hard."
Expectations among Japan fans have understandably been tempered by the tough draw and are even lower than ahead of the 2018 tournament, when stand-in manager Akira Nishino was lambasted for picking an aging squad.
But Japan had a tournament to remember in Russia that ended with a dramatic 3-2 defeat to Belgium in the round of 16, and Nagatomo is confident he can still match the world's best four years on.
"People rapped the team before Russia saying they don't need old men, and that we also scrabbled back amid the criticism during these final Asian qualifiers," he said.
"I'm 36 but physically fit, I've played against big players in Europe and at the World Cups. I don't forget the experiences that are etched into my cells. I can definitely fight whatever kind of players or teams that come my way."
Only goalkeepers Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, Seigo Narazaki and Eiji Kawashima have been named in four World Cup squads in Japan's history. With the 39-year-old Kawashima seen as the third-choice keeper by Moriyasu for the upcoming tournament, Nagatomo is in line to become the first from the country to take the field in four.
He says that playing on the pitch will also be important to him as the father of three boys.
"My oldest son is four and beginning to understand what his father is doing. But he only started saying he wants to be a footballer after watching Neymar when we played Brazil," said Nagatomo.
"I'll be doing my best to get him to say he wants to be like Yuto Nagatomo, who battles with star players at the World Cup."