Yoshida draws on World Cup 'fight' to help Schalke beat the drop
Schalke head to league leaders Bayern Munich on Saturday in the midst of an extraordinary relegation escape act, with more than a little help from centre-back and captain Maya Yoshida.
Made captain early in 2023 with Schalke dead last in the Bundesliga, the 34-year-old Yoshida has been pivotal to the team's surprise resurgence.
Schalke now sit in 15th, one place and two points clear of the relegation spots, with three games remaining.
Their revival -- which looked unlikely after a run of 10 defeats in 11 games between September and January -- has been built around dogged defensive stability.
Japan captain Yoshida told AFP his experience at the 2022 World Cup, where his side beat Spain and Germany in the group stage, had steeled him for a relegation fight.
"Achieving results at the World Cup wins you respect from teammates and other people you work with. It's extremely important," Yoshida said.
"I came here with experience but the fact I was the captain of the national team which played against your (Germany's) national team and won... people listen to me and understand."
But while claiming points against a Bayern side in the middle of a tense title fight with rivals Borussia Dortmund ranks among the toughest tasks in German football, even considering the feat shows how far Schalke have come under Yoshida's leadership.
- 'Bring Schalke to a better place' -
Yoshida joined the Royal Blues on a free transfer from Sampdoria last July after Schalke were promoted as champions of the second division.
When Yoshida signed with Schalke, he had a decade-long career in top European leagues behind him, plus over 120 international caps, many as captain.
With just nine points from 17 games, Schalke sat rock bottom and looked set for a direct return to the second division, clouding the longer-term future of the seven-time German champions.
In the first game of the second half of the season, Schalke fought to a scoreless home draw against Cologne, repeating the feat the week after against Borussia Moenchengladbach.
An injury to captain and local boy Danny Latza saw Yoshida given the armband.
Schalke lost just two of their next eight under Yoshida, picking up 10 valuable points.
"When the time comes, you just have to summon your energy and fight," Yoshida told AFP.
"The team acquired me. It means I was brought here for the mission to keep the team in the league. I spend my time thinking about how to achieve that mission.
"Things are improving, but we are not in the safety zone yet. We have to accumulate more points. I want to continue working without losing our focus."
"On or off the pitch, I want to help bring Schalke to a better place."
- 'There is nothing else' -
Yoshida's Schalke teammates appreciate the impact the Nagasaki-born defender has had on the club.
Schalke goalkeeper Michael Langer, 38, has been at the club since 2017, experiencing the highs of reaching the Champions League last 16 in 2018-19 and the lows of relegation at the end of the 2020-21 season.
The Austrian told AFP that Yoshida's signing was "a big win for the club" as a footballer but also "as a human being".
"First of all I think he brought a lot of experience to us on the pitch, but also off the pitch. He's a very communicative guy.
"He always has good advice and a clear mind about how football should be.
"He's very respectful and hard working and I think every young player in our team can look up and say 'I have to do it like him because he is a perfect example every day.'
"How he works in training, the attitude, the preparation, he's a full professional."
Yoshida missed two matches with a muscle strain, but returned for Schalke's 2-1 win over fellow promoted side Werder Bremen in late April.
"Our target as a team is to remain in the league and avoid relegation. There is nothing else," he said.