Saransk (Russia) (AFP) – Japanese defender Hiroki Sakai knows that when he walks onto the pitch at the Mordovia Arena Tuesday for his World Cup debut against Colombia he made it there the hard way.
Since joining Marseille on a free transfer in 2016 Sakai has impressed coaches with his desire and drive to overcome a rocky start in Ligue 1 and become a firm favourite among the club’s notoriously ruthless fans.
Sakai’s first few appearances for one of France’s biggest and most passionately supported clubs were, in the words of former captain Jacky Bonnevay, “worrying”.
Sakai frequently gave the ball away, was reticent to get forward from his right-back position, and was caught out in defence.
“I told him: ‘You have to do better. People expect more from you and if you have the fans on your back than you can forget coming back’,” said Bonnevay, once an assistant to Sakai’s former international coach Vahid Halilhodzic.
Marseille “isn’t a normal club,” he added. “It’s the connoisseur’s club, the fans aren’t world beaters when it comes to patience.”
But Sakai knuckled down, worked on his passing and, crucially, was open to switching roles according to the team’s needs.
“Now he can play anywhere,” said Claude Fichaux, one of manager Rudi Garcia’s assistants.
Nominally a right-sided defender, Garcia has deployed Sakai as a left-back and even as the central defender in the 3-4-3 formation that led Marseille past RB Leipzig in the Europa League this season.
Sakai scored his first goal for the club in that game and he was mobbed by team mates.
“There’s a sense around the club these days that he’s really adored,” said Bonnevay.
Fans have not forgotten Sakai’s heroics during the 2-2 Ligue 1 draw against arch-rivals Monaco, when the Japanese defender was riddled by cramps yet still sprinted 80 metres up the sideline to dispossess an opponent.
“He represents what the Marseille public expects: self-denial, sacrifice, courage, discipline. He could die on the pitch,” Bonnevay said.
Four years ago in Brazil Sakai was a substitute but expects to feature prominently in Japan’s Russia campaign.
“It was my dream as a child,” he told AFP before the tournament. “This time I want to play the maximum and go as far as possible.”