There is much to be gained by Japan participating at this summer’s Copa America, but given the concessions required to send a team to Argentina there could be even more to lose.
The Japan Football Association last week confirmed that it will accept its invitation to take part in the July 1-24 South American championship, just over a week after president Junji Ogura had declined only to agree to reconsider at the organizers’ request a day later.
The JFA, in consultation with the J. League, has stipulated that the majority of Japan’s squad will be comprised of European-based players, in order to cause minimum disruption to J. League clubs now facing a full slate of summer games due to fixture rescheduling in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
That decision was taken with the understanding that the South American federation would be able to force European clubs to release their Japanese players for the tournament, but after FIFA president Sepp Blatter last week conceded that the JFA has only goodwill to rely on, the picture now looks very different.
Stuttgart took the lead by forbidding striker Shinji Okazaki from taking part, with Schalke grumbling about losing right-back Atsuto Uchida and Borussia Dortmund ruling out attacking midfielder Shinji Kagawa. Others clubs may follow with injury and fatigue to their players a distinct possibility, leaving national team manager Alberto Zaccheroni with slim pickings.
The Italian now has two options, and both are far from ideal.
The first is to cast his net deep into the murky backwaters of the European club scene, searching for journeymen who have either long been discarded from the national team set-up or have never been considered in the first place. Players such as Kazuo Homma of BSC Siofok in Hungary or Takayuki Seto of Romania’s Astra Ploiesti would no doubt welcome the chance to play for their country, but it is highly doubtful if the national team would benefit as a result.
Alternatively, Zaccheroni could go against the express wishes of the J. League and plead for a largely domestic-based squad. After having their season so badly disrupted already, however, to ask J. League clubs to lose their best players for a month while they play second fiddle to events taking place on the other side of the world would be shabby treatment indeed.
There are, of course, advantages to playing in the Copa America. The experience of competing against the best South America has to offer can only further the players’ development, and the opportunity to help in Japan’s psychological recovery is there also.
But on balance, is it really worth it? When asked his club’s justification for refusing to release Okazaki, Stuttgart director of sport Fredi Bobic replied: “Is Japan in South America? It’s in Asia, isn’t it?”
And there’s the rub. This is not a World Cup or an Asian Cup, but an invitation to a regional tournament that comes as a bonus, not an obligation. In ideal circumstances it would have been a fantastic opportunity for Zaccheroni’s team, but the events of March 11 have changed everything.
To proceed at all costs would be a major folly. The JFA has already changed its mind once — maybe it would be wisest to do so again.