Should Japan qualify for its fifth consecutive Olympics as is widely expected, for once, the young Blue Samurai will be playing in the shadow of their female counterparts.
With Nadeshiko Japan riding into the Summer Games in London as world champions, they will be the ones expected to capture Japan’s first Olympic medal in soccer since the men won a bronze at the 1968 Mexico City Games, not Takashi Sekizuka’s side.
Sekizuka, however, is far from insulted by his relative anonymity or that of his team. Rather, the former Kawasaki Frontale manager lauds what Nadeshiko has done not only for Japanese soccer but also for an entire country trying to pick itself up from the tragedies of March 11.
“I think it’s wonderful what they have achieved,” Sekizuka said in a recent roundtable with the Tokyo Sportswriters Club. “They went out and showed how strong Japanese women can be.
“Watching them perform the way they did, it makes you only want to work harder.”
Sekizuka enjoyed a fair amount of success in his first full year as both coach of the under-23 national team and as assistant to senior national coach Alberto Zaccheroni.
In January, Sekizuka was part of the party as Zaccheroni’s side lifted the Asian Cup for a record fourth time in Qatar. In June, Sekizuka’s own team made it through a tough home-and-away affair with Kuwait to reach the final Olympic qualifying round, where it currently leads in Group C with a maximum nine points.
The winners of the three groups in the final round qualify automatically for London, but the second-place squads will head to a round robin playoff in late March. The playoff winners then face against Senegal for a possible fourth berth from Asia.
Japan restarts its qualifying campaign on Feb. 5 against second-place Syria but in neutral Jordan, after the match was moved out of Damascus, where the repression of protesters continues.
The switch could prove to be a huge break for Japan, which just beat Syria 2-1 at home in November with four minutes left as Borussia Monchengladbach striker Yuki Otsu came up with the winner.
The 51-year-old Sekizuka, who was shown the ropes of the business as an assistant at Kashima Antlers under Brazilian greats Zico and Toninho Cerezo, admits his first international coaching job has been more trying than he imagined.
While Zaccheroni has the rights to his Europe-based players for official A matches, Sekizuka is guaranteed no one for the Olympic-qualifying campaign.
The talented likes of Dortmund’s Shinji Kagawa, Arsenal’s Ryo Miyaichi and Takashi Usami of Bayern Munich all qualify for the Olympics age-wise, but their clubs would never release them.
And unlike the full national side where so much information on the opposition is readily available, Sekizuka said scouting the other teams at the Olympic level has been an arduous task.
Sekizuka, nevertheless, is prepared to overcome all the disadvantages and lead Japan to the Olympic medal it has coveted for 44 years.
“National teams are expected to produce, regardless of what the situation is,” said Sekizuka, whose team won a gold at the 2010 Asian Games to cap a Japanese double with Nadeshiko. “You just have to accept it.
“There’s no magic trick. You just have to go out and do it.”