The Rio Olympics are just over five months away, but with the new J. League season about to begin, Japan’s soccer medal hopefuls have no time to sit back and dream of glory in Brazil.
Japan booked its ticket to the 16-team men’s tournament at the Summer Games by finishing among the top three at last month’s Asian Under-23 Championship in Doha, beating Iraq 2-1 in the semifinals before going on to claim the title with a 3-2 win over South Korea.
But with manager Makoto Teguramori not set to name his final 18-man squad until the summer, none of the players who helped secure qualification can be sure of their place in Rio.
The start of the new J. League season on Saturday gives them the perfect chance to stake their claim, and Albirex Niigata striker Musashi Suzuki is determined not to waste it.
“Any forward wants to win their place in the team, and in order to do that it’s important to make my mark at my club,” said the 185-cm Suzuki, who made three appearances and scored one goal in Doha despite struggling with injury.
“I have to work hard in training, play in games and help the team win. If I can do that and score more goals, then I can be one of the 18 players selected for the Olympics. But first the most important thing is training every day with my club. This is a very important year for this generation of players.”
Japan rode its luck at times at the Asian Under-23 Championship, coming through a tense quarterfinal against Iran after extra time, beating Iraq with a 93rd-minute winner and coming from two goals down to sink the Koreans in the final.
Kashima Antlers defender Naomichi Ueda, who played in all but one game in Doha, knows he and his teammates must improve if they are to make an impression in Brazil but believes time is on their side.
“It looks very difficult, but the J. League is about to start and there will be a lot of Olympic players involved who will be looking to raise their level,” said the 21-year-old Ueda, who was also a member of Japan’s senior squad at the Asian Cup last year. “I want to get games under my belt with Kashima and grow as a player.
“There are a lot of J. League games to go before the Olympics, and there are a lot of good foreign players in the J. League. It’s good experience to play against them so I want to make use of that.”
But if playing in the J. League is one thing, the pressure of representing one’s country on the Olympic stage is quite another. Suzuki could have played for Jamaica having been born there to a Jamaican father and a Japanese mother, but the 22-year-old’s allegiances lie firmly with the country where he was raised.
“I felt pressure like I had never felt before,” Suzuki said of the Olympic qualifiers. “I felt the expectations of the nation. I think I’ve got used to the mental side of it now, or at least I will have to get used to it.
“We will have to face teams in Rio who will be far stronger than anyone we’ve played so far, but if you can’t beat them you can’t win a medal. We can’t be afraid of that. We just have to play our own football and try to win a medal.”
Japan will be appearing at its sixth straight Olympic men’s soccer tournament this summer, and is aiming to win a first medal since claiming bronze at the 1968 Mexico City Games.
Japan lost out to South Korea for the bronze medal in London four years ago, but Ueda, whose Olympic experience could have been radically different had he continued his career as a former national junior taekwondo champion, believes the Doha experience has forged a battle-hardened team.
“Right from the first game against North Korea, each game we played threw up lots of things to think about and work on,” he said. “We worked to overcome the things we needed to, and that’s how we managed to grow as a team.
“I felt relieved more than anything when we qualified. But we went to that tournament to win it, so although I was happy that we had qualified for the Rio Olympics, I wanted to keep it going and win the final.”