No. 1 or not, veteran Eiji Kawashima remains loyal to Japan cause even with change in role for Samurai Blue

Despite no longer being first-choice in goal for Japan, 39-year-old veteran Eiji Kawashima continues to play an important role within a team that has stunned both Germany and Spain to reach the 2022 FIFA World Cup knockout round. Youssef Loulidi/Fantasista/Getty Images

DOHA, Qatar -- Having made his international debut in 2008, it did not take long for Eiji Kawashima to establish himself as Japan's first-choice goalkeeper.

Two years later, he would feature for the Samurai Blue at the FIFA World Cup in South Africa -- the first of four consecutive tournaments he would be present at with Kawashima currently part of the squad at Qatar 2022.

Things are slightly different for him this time around though.

Having been -- quite literally -- the first name on the Japan starting XI at the past three editions of the World Cup, Kawashima is now only No. 1 in jersey allocation with Shuichi Gonda currently the main man in goal for coach Hajime Moriyasu.

The fact that the Strasbourg man is playing a lesser role these days is hardly surprising considering he will turn 40 in March, although he remains in supreme condition, and is no longer getting as much regular first-team football at club level as would be expected from a national team's starting goalkeeper.

Yet, that does not mean Kawashima has not been performing his role for the team in a remarkable campaign thus far, which has seen them claim dramatic come-from-behind wins over powerhouses Germany and Spain to reach the Round of 16 for the second consecutive tournament.

Having always displayed quiet but firm leadership qualities, the sheer experience of the Saitama native makes him a calming presence in the dressing room and a pillar of support for the younger members of the playing group.

In the immediate aftermath of Japan's win over Spain, when it looked like the frenzy of photographers clicking away by the sidelines was at risk of spilling over and into the players on their lap of honour, the powerfully-built 1.85 metre Kawashima was almost playing the role of half-protective big brother, half-menacing bodyguard -- ensuring no harm was going to befall the likes of Takefusa Kubo and Ritsu Doan.

From the warmups in training and before matches, Kawashima almost doubles up as a second goalkeeping coach for Gonda and the bond between them -- and the third option in Daniel Schmidt -- has been emblematic of the 'goalkeepers' union' -- best illustrated when the reserve duo wildly charged straight towards the first-choice to celebrate at the final whistle of Thursday's triumph over the Spanish.

Perhaps most importantly, his sheer availability will help keep Moriyasu's mind at ease, knowing he has a seasoned campaigner ready to be called upon whenever the need arises.

"For sure (this World Cup has been different). For the last three World Cups, I played in all the games," Kawashima told ESPN exclusively.

"But I'm always loyal for the Japanese national team because it is always an honour to be here.

"I'm really excited to be part of this team and what we're achieving, including this amazing result (against Spain). So I just try to give my everything to this team.

"It's been really amazing. This group was really tough -- we had Germany and Spain. It was difficult but we believed in ourselves and it has been a good result."

Known for being fluent in seven languages, the well-spoken Kawashima has exuded a sense of maturity and being grounded even in his younger days.

His ability to accept the fact that he now has to settle for a back-up role behind Gonda could easily stem from the fact that he was once on the other side of the equation -- back at the 2010 World Cup when he was expected to be an emergency option for the Samurai Blue but ended up being promoted to the starting XI ahead of two veterans in the presumed No. 1 Seigo Narazaki and legendary captain Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi.

It is this very quality of being level-headed that is also keeping him from getting overly carried away with what the Japanese have achieved so far in Qatar.

"No, no, no -- we've got to win game by game," Kawashima hastily dismissed, when asked if they could start dreaming of potentially getting to a World Cup final.

"Now we're really confident but also modest. We know our potential, we believe that we can do something.

"We believed in ourselves (that we could beat Spain) -- that was our goal. Now, for sure the next game (against Croatia) will be a difficult game too, but we'll try to do our best."

That much is for certain.

Whether it has been in one of those 95 caps he has already won for Japan, or more recently on the sidelines as a figure of leadership and support for his younger peers, Kawashima can always be counted on to do his best for the Samurai Blue cause.