Like the Radiohead song, there were “no alarms and no surprises” when Philippe Troussier named his 25-man Japan squad for this week’s friendly matches against Senegal and Nigeria, two teams the cohosts could meet at next year’s World Cup.
The Frenchman included European-based stars Hidetoshi Nakata, Shinji Ono and Junichi Inamoto, as well as Boca Juniors striker Naohiro Takahara, in arguably his strongest squad since taking over as Japan manager in October 1998.
Jubilo Iwata midfielder Hiroshi Nanami, back to full fitness after a serious knee injury, was also recalled for the first time in six months, which could — and should — spell the end of Shunsuke Nakamura’s World Cup hopes.
Bolton’s Akinori Nishizawa also merited inclusion for his bench-warming exploits in the north of England, while Nozomi Hiroyama will no doubt be chuffed to be dragged all the way over from Paraguay just to play “keepy-uppy” with Kota Yoshihara at halftime.
(Almost as chuffed as Nishizawa would have been if he had heard an English commentator mistake him for Inamoto in the recent Premier League clash between Arsenal and Bolton at Highbury.)
“There’s Arsenal’s Japanese midfielder Jooniishi Inamoto taking his usual seat in the stands,” he said.
On reflection, it was a bad slip from the commentator, who should have been alerted to the fact it was Nishizawa by way the Japanese chap on his monitor kept losing control of his thermos flask.
Troussier said last week that he will “learn a lot” about his players in the games against Senegal in Lens, France, on Thursday and against Nigeria in Southampton, England, on Sunday.
One issue Troussier will want to clear up sooner rather than later is Nakata’s commitment to the national team.
Nakata’s decision to return to Italy for Roma’s championship decider rather than play for Japan in the Confederations Cup final against France on June 10 has already cost him a Christmas card from Troussier this year.
More importantly, Nakata’s alarming drop in form since his $26 million move to Parma over the summer will have given Troussier food for thought.
Clearly, the burden of such a ludicrously inflated transfer fee is proving too much for his Highness, who would do well to heed the thinly veiled warning Troussier directed at his foreign-based players when he named his squad last Thursday:
“Nobody is indispensable. The Japan team is built on the concept of team play, solid organization and discipline, not individual talent.”
Which is why Nakamura has fallen by the wayside, despite frenzied efforts by Japanese tabloids to get the Yokohama midfielder back into the national team. Unruffled, Troussier has stuck by his guns, correctly in my opinion.
Of course, Japan’s recent success has given Troussier plenty of leeway.
A line from Radiohead’s “No Surprises” refers to “a job that slowly kills you, bruises that won’t heal” — an allusion that Kevin Keegan, Graham Taylor and various England managers who have received the “turnip treatment” down the years will understand all too well.
Troussier would no doubt respond with a Gallic shrug. After masterminding Japan’s Asian Cup triumph in Lebanon last October and guiding his young side to victory in the Kirin Cup and the Asia-Oceania Challenge Cup this summer, he can do no wrong.
Apart from shoving the odd photographer and a couple of bust-ups with the Japan Football Association, Troussier has coped admirably with the pressure of coaching the 2002 joint hosts since taking over from Takeshi Okada.
But that pressure is likely to become suffocating over the coming months and the “bruises” will take longer to heal.
Troussier’s decision to select such a strong squad for this week’s friendly internationals is an indication of how high the stakes have become. A cliche perhaps, but there is no such thing as a “friendly” anymore — especially in the runup to the World Cup and especially when your opponents will also be among the 32 teams in Japan and South Korea.
An immediate problem for the Japanese is that some of the players travel about as well as a Skoda in a snowdrift. Paris in March (a 5-0 hammering by France) and Cordoba in April (a 1-0 defeat and embarrassingly crap performance against Spain) spring to mind.
Defeat against Senegal and Nigeria is not an option after beating African champion Cameroon 2-0 in the Confederations Cup and with a match against Italy in Saitama on Nov. 7 next on the fixtures list.
This week’s pop teaser: Which J. League team profits most from the senseless decision not to move next week’s Nabisco Cup semifinal second-leg matches back at least 24 hours?
No less than 11 of the Japanese squad — from Kashima, Iwata and Yokohama — will have to take an early flight home after the Nigeria game, in preparation for next Wednesday’s second-leg ties, which is good news for Nagoya, 1-0 down after the first leg and not represented on the European trip.
(A Japan Times T-shirt is on its way to Nigel Bushwhacker of Oita for guessing correctly. Please allow 18 months for delivery while the postal services attempt to locate you down there.)
So, after playing two matches in four days, then tolerating a long-haul flight where the only entertainment is “The Flintstones 2” and watching Atsushi Yanagisawa pluck his eyebrows, these 11 players will have scant time to overcome jet lag or prepare for the cup ties.
Still, as long as the J. League’s sponsors are happy, we’re all happy.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5