The odds are stacked against Japan’s men winning soccer gold at the London Olympics, but given the talent at manager Takashi Sekizuka’s disposal, the possibility of a first medal since 1968 should not be completely discounted.
Japan begins its quest to match or better the bronze it claimed 44 years ago in Mexico City with a daunting opening game against Spain on Thursday, before taking on Morocco three days later and rounding off the first stage against Honduras on Aug. 1. There could hardly be a tougher start than a date with the country that won the last World Cup and two European Championships, but with the other group rivals looking eminently beatable, a place in the quarterfinals is a realistic ambition.
For that to happen, Japan will have to avoid a repeat of the meek showing that saw it slink home from Beijing almost before the smoke had cleared from the opening ceremony fireworks four years ago. A side packed with players who now form the backbone of the full national team lost all three of its games against the United States, Nigeria and the Netherlands, scoring just one goal in a dismal campaign blighted by indecision, hesitancy and confusion.
Having won both of its warmup games since arriving in the U.K., the current team heads into the London Games in far better spirits. Striker Yuki Otsu stressed the psychological importance of beating Mexico last weekend in Japan’s final outing before the tournament begins, but similarly the players must make sure their mood does not sink if Spain take all three points from the opening encounter.
That outcome looks distinctly possible given the Europeans’ pedigree, but Japan also has the personnel to make a splash of its own over the coming weeks. Sekizuka’s squad contains several players who have already been involved with the full national team, and the likes of Hiroshi Kiyotake, Takashi Usami and Hiroki Sakai can be confident of making an impact on the global stage.
New Manchester United recruit Shinji Kagawa will miss the tournament as he tries to settle in at Old Trafford, and Sekizuka’s decision to fill only two of the three permitted overage player slots leaves the squad even further short of experience. But Maya Yoshida and Yuhei Tokunaga could turn out to be inspired selections if they can galvanize their younger teammates from central defense, while giving Yoshida the captaincy should also benefit the full national team for years to come if he grows with the responsibility.
Japan’s chances have also been helped by a field that looks decidedly weaker than in previous years, with defending champion Argentina heading a list of absentees that includes Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Nigeria and Cameroon. Of course there is still plenty of quality among the 16 teams competing, and Brazil in particular looks a formidable opponent which Japan may yet have to face in the quarterfinals.
Such a turn of events could well mark the end of the road for Sekizuka’s side, but then tournament soccer does not always work out as expected. Last weekend’s win over a highly fancied Mexico side proves that Japan can compete with the big guns, and although topping the group ahead of Spain is a tall order, it is far from impossible.
In reality, given the debacle of four years ago, simply claiming a place in the quarterfinals for the first time since 2000 would be a worthy achievement for a team that has failed to do itself justice in recent tournaments.
A good start on Thursday would go a long way toward making that happen.