CLEARWATER- Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima says four years of playing in Europe since the 2010 World Cup have helped make him a better defensive leader and more formidable shot-stopper.
The 31-year-old from Saitama, a standout for Belgian runners-up Standard Liege, will be a key figure for the reigning Asian champions, who launch their World Cup bid June 14 against Ivory Coast with Greece and Colombia also awaiting in the group stage.
"Goalkeeper is an important role," said Kawashima. "I have to talk to the defenders and keep everybody communicating. I have to be a leader for the defence."
Kawashima certainly was that at the 2010 World Cup, when he began as a backup to Seigo Narazaki but took the starting role after a strong showing in a warm-up loss to England, then surrendered only two goals over four World Cup matches in the Blue Samurai's run to the last 16 at South Africa.
"I think I am (a better leader now)," Kawashima said.
"I have got more experience in Europe. I have been with two teams. Both teams had different systems and there were difficult times. I'm experiencing the world standard."
After nine seasons in Japan, Kawashima departed in 2010 for Lierse, where he was twice named the team's Most Valuable Player before inking a three-year deal with Standard Liege.
Kawashima was only the second Japanese goalkeeper to play in Europe, following Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, who played for England's Portsmouth in 2001-02 and Denmark's FC Nordsjaelland in 2003-04.
Kawashima backstopped Japan's 2011 Asian Cup title run but later the same year was taunted by offensive chants during a Belgian league match that invoked Japan's nuclear reactor disaster, an over the top insult that later brought an apology.
"We have been building up for four years to this moment our confidence for the World Cup," Kawashima said of Japan's team. "We've been through many difficult moments. We didn't give up."
For his part, Kawashima has a simple objective for this World Cup - denying goals to opponents.
"The biggest thing is not to give up as many as in the last World Cup," he said.
That won't be easy. He blanked Cameroon 1-0 for Japan's first World Cup win on foreign soil, surrendered a lone goal to the powerful Dutch in a 1-0 loss and downed Denmark 3-1 before a goal-less draw and 5-3 penalties loss to Ecuador in the round of 16.
But this time, Japan have greater scoring threats, including Manchester United striker Shinji Kagawa and AC Milan forward Keisuke Honda, and a more balanced squad than that on offer in 2010.
"Last World Cup, we were very good defensively. Our confidence was high and we worked very hard," Kawashima said.
"This team is structured also for the attack. Now we have more combinations and ways to attack."
And with Kawashima guarding the goal, Japan's defensive unit figures to be even more battle-hardened as well.