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No room for sentiment as Okada separates men from boys

by Andrew Mckirdy

In the end it was simply a matter of fine-tuning for national team manager Takeshi Okada as he named a familiar squad for the World Cup on Monday. Of the few rabbits he did pull out of the hat, however, Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi should be regarded as anything but a sentimental choice.

Kawaguchi, Okada’s No. 1 goalkeeper at the 1998 World Cup and a member of every finals squad since, had not been called up for international duty since January 2009 and has been absent for his club, Jubilo Iwata, ever since breaking a leg in September last year.

That did not stop Okada from including the veteran in his 23-man roster on Monday, and for a squad containing only eight members with previous World Cup experience, the advantages of taking a player with 116 caps are obvious.

As the third-choice goalkeeper in South Africa, Kawaguchi has practically no chance of making it onto the pitch. His influence on the training ground, in the hotel and on the sidelines will prove invaluable nonetheless, and if the 34-year-old can be as much of a motivating force as Germany’s Oliver Kahn was in 2006, Japan will reap the benefits.

That Okada overlooked 23-year-old Shusaku Nishikawa — explaining: “I didn’t choose anyone just to give them experience for the future” — set the tone for the serious work ahead. What we are left with now is a hard-nosed, no-frills selection that suggests the manager has accepted the need to hunker down for a tough fight against physical opponents.

Nothing illustrates that more than his decision to include 185-cm Albirex Niigata striker Kisho Yano, whose season-best league goalscoring record stands at a paltry eight, but who will sweat blood if called upon. Flair players such as Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Ono and Naohiro Ishikawa have been squeezed out as Okada emphasizes the need for hard work and power, and there is little room for youth either.

After taking an 18-year-old Ono to France in 1998, Okada seems to have concluded that the World Cup is a man’s game. Takayuki Morimoto and Atsuto Uchida are the youngest squad members at 22, while the overall roster carries an average age of almost 28.

A string of ineffective, lightweight performances have no doubt factored heavily in the manager’s thinking, and the fact that defensive midfielder Junichi Inamoto has gone from fringe hopeful to potential starting member in the past six months is a case in point.

It does, however, leave the squad short of the kind of off-the-cuff creativity that wins matches at the World Cup. Keisuke Honda and Daisuke Matsui are certainly capable of producing moments of magic, and Morimoto could also be an interesting option coming off the bench.

But the surfeit of solid, unflashy utility men such as Yasuyuki Konno and Yuki Abe ultimately leaves little room for mavericks, and Okada must now hope he has enough invention in his starting lineup to compensate for a lack of stardust in reserve.

Having named his final 23 while rivals hedge their bets with provisional squads of 30, the die has already been cast.