Interview with Yukinari Sugawara, Japan National Soccer Team Member: “There is a ine line between confidence and pride” | FRIDAY DIGITAL

Interview with Yukinari Sugawara, Japan National Soccer Team Member: “There is a ine line between confidence and pride”

Yuto Nagatomo, a promising sideback for Moriyasu Japan who went to the Netherlands as a teenager

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He plays a leadership role at a young age in AZ. This season he also contributes as a set piece kicker. Next to him is teammate FW Michael Lard.

“I have only a sense of urgency. I wanted to move to another league this summer, but it didn’t come together. There were times when it was difficult to stay motivated. However, I also have a national team to play for, so I can’t just throw it all away. So I’m trying to change my mindset like that, saying, ‘Maybe there is a future where I’m glad I didn’t transfer this time.’”


He has started five of the six games for the second Hajime Moriyasu Japan since the World Cup in Qatar, and in the 4-1 win over the powerful Germans in September he showed his ability to link up well with right midfielder Junya Ito (30) and score two goals with pinpoint crosses. He is expected to play in Japan’s October series (October 13 vs. Canada, October 17 vs. Tunisia) as well as the North and Central American World Cup ’26 qualifiers, which start next month. The team is expected to qualify for the World Cup in North and Central America, which will begin in September.

“I think the fact that we were able to play good soccer against Germany and win proves that Japan’s level has improved. One of the reasons for this is that the overseas players, who are the main members of the team, are competing at a high level every day.”

With veterans Yuto Nagatomo (37) and Hiroki Sakai (33) out of the squad, Sugawara’s presence in Moriyasu Japan is growing.

In addition, AZ, the Dutch first division club he plays for, is off to a good start this season, with seven wins and a draw, second only to leader PSV (as of October 8), and Sugawara has become an essential piece of the team’s core.

“If you go to the national team, the most successful players are in the top league. I am still in the Netherlands, which is not in one of the five major leagues (England, Spain, Italy, Germany, and France), so I have a great sense of urgency to play at a higher level. This season, I need to constantly fight against this feeling, otherwise I feel that I will become useless. I think I need to think more penetratingly and inspire myself. It’s a battle with myself.”


Looking back, Sugawara has continued to play for the national team since the World Cup in Qatar, and has been asked repeatedly by the press about his response to the competition, but he has consistently replied, 

“I have only a sense of crisis. It is not about what others around you are doing, but how you can improve yourself in order to take up a position. It is true that I was given opportunities in the national team matches in March, June, and September, but I always felt that Hajime Moriyasu, the coaches, and my fellow players were testing me. There is a fine line between confidence and pride. If you feel that your participation in a game is taken for granted, even if it is only by a millimeter, it will definitely show in your play. That is why you should always keep the arrow pointed at yourself, and just keep working on what you need to do without compromise.”

We must never stop moving forward.

Sugawara has been a member of the national team for each generation since his youth years, but he had a bitter experience of not being selected for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 and the World Cup in Qatar in 2022.

“I was not selected because I did not deserve to be a member of the team at that time. It was no one’s fault, and I know that better than anyone else. That is why I rethought what kind of player I am and what I need to do to get to where I want to be. In many ways, I spent more time thinking about myself. There is no doubt that I am where I am today because of that frustration. However, I don’t want to simply summarize the past six months by saying, “I am here now because of that disappointing experience.’ I don’t want to stop until I can say, “I am glad I had that experience,” after 10 or 15 years have passed. I was unsuccessful in the Olympics and the World Cup two years in a row, so of course it will stay in my head forever. But I think I have to use that to become a more dominant player.”


Sugawara, who moved to the Netherlands as a teenager in 2019, has already lived there for more than four full years. However, he did not have time to get a car license, so he had to commute to practice and other events by scooter.

He said, “Just when I was going to driving school in Japan, I got transferred to AZ and the Coronavirus had emerged, so I didn’t really have a chance to get a car license. Well, even if I had a car, I haven’t been able to go anywhere because I’ve had a series of games in the league and for the national team.”

Last season, AZ finished fourth in the league. In the UEFA European Conference League, Europe’s third largest cup competition, AZ reached the semi-finals. As a defender, it is difficult for Sugawara to leave behind easy-to-understand numbers such as goals and assists, but he would like to see results as a team in order to make a move to one of the five major leagues.


“I think this is a year of competition. Numbers are important, but I also want to see how I can play throughout the 90 minutes. First of all, we must achieve better results than last season. I hope that will lead to a good result.”

Far from being complacent or careless, it will not be long before he steps up his game.

In the September match against Germany, he showed off both his offensive and defensive skills by scoring two goals without allowing FW Napoli (Bayern) to do his job.


From the October 27, 2023 issue of FRIDAY

  • Interview and text Masao Kurihara PHOTO Watanabe Koji

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