Yuto Nagatomo, his hair dyed red and his face a picture of steely resolve, certainly had the look of a warrior prepared for battle. It is a theme the defender is tapping into this week, and he is desperately hoping that his Japanese team-mates are able to do the same.
The 36-year-old is demanding courage and bravery from his side, and what better way to motivate his compatriots than to evoke the spirit of the Samurai? “I am the one who mentions the Samurai very often,” said Nagatomo at a wonderfully engaging press conference ahead of Japan’s Round of 16 meeting with Croatia on Monday. “This is a great opportunity to show ourselves, to show how we can fight like Samurais.”
Japan have never made it beyond the Round of 16 at a World Cup but, this year, there is a different feel to their team. There is a different confidence, too. They are the erratic disruptors of the tournament, defeating both Spain and Germany but somehow losing to Costa Rica in the space of eight wild days in the group stage.
Nagatomo, formerly of Inter Milan, said he has been screaming the word “coraggio” — the Italian for courage — at his team-mates throughout this tournament. He sees the talent at Japan’s disposal and knows it will count for little if their players are not psychologically prepared for the challenge of a World Cup knockout match.
“I use the analogy of the Samurai,” said Nagatomo, who has made 141 international appearances. “Before they go to battle, they polish their weapons and try to improve their techniques. But if they are scared during the battle, they will not be able to use their weapons and their techniques fully. It is exactly the same with football.
“In order for us to maximise all the tactics that we have been discussing and practising in the last four years, we need courage. Against Croatia, I would really very much like to showcase how courageously we are fighting.”
The view of Hajime Moriyasu, their coach, is that Japan have always had a well-drilled and hard-working team. This year, though, he sees a higher level of individual quality and physicality. The Japan of 2022 are more than just a well-functioning unit, as they now have stars who can make the difference against the most powerful nations.
“Japan has always been a team that can play an organised game,” said Moriyasu. “That has always been part of our training. But unless the individual players are strong, this is not really sufficient. Of course there are tactics, but in the last four years I have really felt that the individual players grew themselves and became much more capable.”
Most impressive, perhaps, is the strength in depth of this Japan squad. Of their four goals at this tournament, three of them have been scored by substitutes. Ritsu Doan, the Freiburg forward, has twice struck from the bench, while Brighton winger Kaoru Mitoma has been majestic as a second-half impact player. There are few wingers who can dribble as effectively and thrillingly as the 25-year-old.
“All of the players are manifesting this courageous play,” said Nagatomo. “I can really feel we are united as one, and this is Japan’s strength. I think we are the most united team in the World Cup. No matter who is pitched in or playing [from the start], we are playing well. That is the thing that has changed since the last World Cup.”
Four years ago, Japan were around 20 minutes from the quarter-finals. Two goals up against Belgium in Russia, they seemed certain to go where no Japanese team has ever gone before until the game was transformed by the arrival of Marouane Fellaini from the Belgian bench. Japan conceded three times, with the winner coming in the 94th minute.
For the players involved, it was a traumatic occasion. “I have never forgotten about that battle against Belgium,” said Nagatomo, who is playing in his fourth World Cup. “Sometimes scenes from the match suddenly come back to me and the last four years have been very tough.
“But I think we have grown mentally as well as physically. As far as I can see, this team is the best and the strongest that has ever competed for Japan at the World Cup.”
With their warrior mindset, energetic substitutes and penchant for comebacks, Japan have been one of the revelations of this tournament. To them, these self-styled Samurai warriors, this World Cup journey is only just beginning.
Japan World Cup 2022 squad
Goalkeepers: Shuichi Gonda, Daniel Schmidt, Eiji Kawashima
Defenders: Miki Yamane, Hiroki Sakai, Maya Yoshida, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Ko Itakura, Shogo Taniguchi, Hiroki Ito, Yuto Nagatomo, Yura Nakayama
Midfielders: Wataru Endo, Hidemasa Morita, Ao Tanaka, Gaku Shibasaki, Kaoru Mitoma, Daichi Kamada, Ritsu Doan, Junya Ito, Takumi Minamino, Takefusa Kubo, Yuki Soma
Forwards: Daizen Maeda, Takuma Asano, Ayase Ueda
Who is their best player?
Going into the the tournament, Brighton newcomer Kaoru Mitoma had been dazzling for both his country, and his new club.
Former Brighton manager Graham Potter spoke about Mitoma after the winger made his debut as a substitute, claiming that he was "going to cause full-backs a problem".
"He has got that ability to go by people that is quite unique," Potter added.
In their 2-1 win against Germany it was goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda who took the official player of the match accolade, but Telegraph readers voted winning goalscorer Takuma Asano as their top performer.
What are Japan's fixtures and results?
Japan will face Croatia in the last 16 of the World Cup in Qatar. The match will be played at Al Janoub Stadium on Monday, December 5 and will kick off at 3pm.
November 23: Germany 1 Japan 2
November 27: Japan 0 Costa Rica 1
December 1: Japan 2 Spain 1
What is Japan's World Cup record?
Japan have appeared at every World Cup since 1998, and have progressed to the round 16 in 2002 – during the tournament they jointly hosted with South Korea – 2010, and 2018. 2018's iteration saw them exit the tournament after a particularly lively match against Belgium, who ended up finishing third in Russia.
In 2019, Japan competed in both the AFC Asian Cup, where they reached the final, losing to Qatar, and the Copa America, which they were invited to participate in for the second time.
Japan qualified for the 2022 World Cup by coming second in Group B of the AFC qualification tournament.
Argentina | Australia | Belgium | Brazil | Cameroon | Canada | Costa Rica | Croatia | Denmark | Ecuador | England | France | Germany | Ghana | Iran | Japan | Mexico | Morocco | Netherlands | Poland | Portugal | Qatar | Saudi Arabia | Senegal | Serbia | South Korea | Spain | Switzerland | Tunisia | Uruguay | USA | Wales
Japan are currently a best price of 79/1 to win the World Cup.