With its constantly changing cast and seemingly endless running time, Japan’s Olympic soccer team has begun to resemble a TV soap opera.
So many players have been used over such a long time that it is easy to forget what the team has been working toward — or if indeed it has been working toward anything at all.
In less than a week, the Olympic soccer tournament will begin. Given the time manager Yasuharu Sorimachi has spent preparing for it, you would think he would be more than ready for it by now.
If only things were so simple. Two issues in particular have cast a shadow over Japan’s preparations for Beijing, and drawn the wisdom of Sorimachi’s leadership into question.
The first is the manager’s decision to take no overage players, despite being permitted three older than 23 in his 18-man squad.
This has not been for want of trying. Sorimachi originally intended to call up Vissel Kobe striker Yoshito Okubo and Gamba Osaka midfielder Yasuhito Endo, but ran into trouble when Kobe refused to release Okubo, citing concerns over his fitness.
Clubs are not obliged to release overage players for the tournament, and Sorimachi bowed to Vissel’s demands by leaving Okubo out of his final squad.
His plans were then dealt a further blow when Endo pulled out through illness, prompting the manager to place his faith in youth by naming a fully under-23 roster for the tournament.
Sorimachi’s rationale was that including overage players would disrupt the harmony of the group and the development of the young players, but whether or not he fully believes that is open to debate.
When asked in a recent interview with the Japan Football Association’s Web site if he “miscalculated” on the overage issue, Sorimachi admitted “it was me who said I would like to use them.” Later on in the same interview, however, he claims: “basically, I am not in favor of overage players.”
The manager freely admits he had not anticipated so much resistance from J. League clubs toward releasing their players, and his comments now seem like a hasty attempt to put a positive spin on what has been a fairly limp display by the JFA.
Cynics may even suggest that Sorimachi has weighed up the benefits of calling up overage players — and ruffling the feathers of the clubs — on one hand, against the chances of Japan surviving a very tough first-round group on the other, and decided that if Japan is indeed going to crash and burn in Beijing, it might as well give its young players experience and responsibility in doing so with the minimum of fuss.
Whatever the reasons, Sorimachi is certainly taking a risk. Few, if any, other teams will pass up the chance to call on overage players, and Japanese veterans such as Junichi Inamoto and Shinji Ono would have brought invaluable experience to the young team.
Sorimachi talks of wanting to avoid disruption by omitting overage players, but the changes he has made himself have caused the second bone of contention in the buildup to the Olympics.
The manager’s final squad contained more than a few surprises, with several players who had been ever-present throughout qualifying missing the cut.
Naoaki Aoyama played in 11 of Japan’s 12 preliminary games, while Masahiko Inoha and Tsukasa Umesaki both played their part too. All three will be watching their former teammates on TV.
Sorimachi’s final squad is significantly different from the team which qualified, and he can only hope his decision to leave out the aforementioned trio, not to mention Celtic’s Koki Mizuno, does not come back to haunt him.
With only 18 squad places up for grabs, however, it must be accepted that Sorimachi had to leave some good players at home.
The players he has chosen are a talented group, and results going into the tournament have been encouraging. A 2-1 win over Australia and a narrow 1-0 defeat to reigning champion Argentina suggest Japan can harbor realistic hopes of escaping a group that also contains the Netherlands, Nigeria and the United States. And players such as Atsuto Uchida, Keisuke Honda, Hiroki Mizumoto and Takayuki Morimoto will all be looking to show their skills on the international stage.
But with such a difficult group, and with even stronger teams lying in wait further down the track, success for Japan will be a tall order.
The time and effort the country has invested in its Olympic soccer team — and the esteem Japan holds for this particular competition — have inevitably led to Sorimachi coming under intense scrutiny ahead of the Beijing Games.
If things go Japan’s way, if the strength of the defense can compensate for the weakness of the attack, if Morimoto can find his scoring touch, and if other teams wilt in the heat and humidity, then a respectable run in the competition looks a possibility.
But if things go wrong in the first match against the United States, Sorimachi could well find his chickens coming home to roost.