Catania striker Takayuki Morimoto looks set for his first national team callup when Takeshi Okada names his squad for next week’s tour of the Netherlands on Friday, but don’t expect many more new faces.
With such a rare opportunity to test his formula against genuine top-level opposition, the manager is unlikely to be in the mood for experiments.
Japan plays the host nation in Enschede next Saturday before taking on Ghana in Utrecht four days later, and after a diet of Asian World Cup qualifiers and friendlies against second-string also-rans, the experience should prove invaluable.
The Dutch are currently third in FIFA’s world rankings, have already booked their ticket to South Africa with seven wins out of seven qualifying games, and are packed with stars from Europe’s biggest clubs.
That makes Bert van Marwijk’s side exactly the caliber of opponent Japan needs to prepare for next year’s World Cup, but such a stern test has been a long time in coming.
Japan’s last friendly against one of the game’s traditional powerhouses was a 2-2 draw with Germany as far back as May 2006, and only two games — against Switzerland and Austria two years ago — have been played in Europe since the last World Cup.
That is clearly insufficient grounding to compete in South Africa — let alone satisfy Okada’s aim of reaching the semifinals — and with less-glamorous friendlies against Scotland and Togo coming up in October, the manager will be determined to squeeze every last drop out of the Dutch tour.
Shunsuke Nakamura reiterated the need to play strong opponents earlier this year, pointing to Japan’s 5-0 thrashing by France in the buildup to the 2002 World Cup and saying: “If we don’t suffer against the world’s best, we won’t develop.”
Japanese soccer has grown up a lot since then, but for the bulk of the current squad, next week’s challenge will still be a step into the unknown.
For all the experience Yasuhito Endo’s 79 caps have given him, he has played only nine internationals on European soil. Marcus Tulio Tanaka, who players will look to as a spiritual and physical leader in South Africa, has played two.
But the matches are not only about adding new strings to veteran bows. Morimoto has the chance to deliver on his huge promise, and the tour could be a watershed for VVV-Venlo midfielder Keisuke Honda.
The 23-year-old has begun the new Dutch League season in blistering form, and will be fresh, fit and playing in familiar surroundings. A strong showing would put Honda firmly in Okada’s World Cup plans and bring him further attention from bigger clubs, and the tour seems tailor-made for him to succeed.
With so much to be gained, Okada must think carefully before he names his squad. Kirin Cup matches against Finland’s reserves may come and go, but opportunities like this are precious.
Qualifying for South Africa was one thing. The real road to the World Cup starts here.