EKATERINBURG, Russia -- Following Japan's 2-2 draw with Senegal, the national soccer team is on the verge of breaking into the World Cup round of 16 for the first time since 2010, thanks in great part to Keisuke Honda's off-the-bench second-half goal that tied the match.
Honda's heroics also gave him the most World Cup goals in Japanese national team history, with four scattered over three tournaments. Paired with his corner that set Yuya Osako up for his game-deciding header against Colombia, Honda is definitely making his presence felt in Russia.
Honda was let loose on the pitch 27 minutes into the second half, with Japan trailing Senegal 2-1. Six minutes later, he was on the right side of the Senegal goal to take a pass from Takashi Inui and blazed the ball past the keeper, scoring on his very first shot of the entire tournament.
It was, in fact, also his first goal for the Samurai Blue side in about a year and nine months. The fact that he scored it at the World Cup, soccer's biggest stage, proved once more that Honda is the sort of player who is strongest at the most vital moments -- a trait that has been pointed out by both observers and the midfielder himself.
"There have been a lot of times where I've had to live under immense pressure. So I acquired that skill (to perform under pressure) naturally," Honda commented. He also puts himself in high-pressure situations, pushing himself to the very edge and using the experience to overcome such difficulties. That is how Honda has always lived his life.
When Honda was a junior high school student, he was a member of a kids' sub-team of Gamba Osaka, of Japan's top-tier J-League. However, he quickly decided to leave Osaka for high school when he was unable to make it onto the youth squad, and took a spot at soccer powerhouse Seiryo Senior High School in Ishikawa Prefecture. In his second year there, he joined a practice with J-League side Nagoya Grampus, and said there and then that he would one day score a goal in the World Cup. People laughed at his teen ambition, but now Honda has four of those goals.
More recently, his uninspiring play had prompted some to label him surplus to Samurai Blue's requirements. Amid the criticism, Honda said before the World Cup commenced, "I feel that I'll score a deciding goal with my first shot (of the tournament)."
Honda has banned himself from using the word "impossible" for several years, and has told people around him, "I won't set any limits on myself."
The veteran has been on the bench to start each of Japan's two 2018 World Cup games, and has spent precious few minutes on the pitch. That has meant fewer scoring chances. And yet he continues to insist, "In my soccer life to this point, I've never thought more positively about being a bench player."
Honda has seen every situation, no matter how harsh, as a chance to overcome obstacles and to grow. That has not changed with this year's World Cup. "It would have been a bad scene if I'd failed to score a goal," Honda commented in the wake of the Senegal match after making the most of a golden opportunity.
Fellow Samurai Blue player Yuto Nagatomo called Honda "a man beloved by the World Cup." He was certainly beloved by his side on June 24 as he stuck out his tongue while his smiling teammates rushed toward him after he scored.
(Japanese original by Yukiko Tange, Osaka Sports News Department)