Riding the shinkansen from Kobe to Tokyo with Philippe Troussier on May 3, Japan’s soccer coach said there would be no surprises when he announced his World Cup squad on May 17.
“I know my list (of players) on May 17 will be logical choices,” he said. “There will be no surprises. I think we don’t need a press conference for that. I think I’ll just release the list because it will not be news for Japan.
“If it is news, then I’ve made a mistake. If it’s a surprise, it’s a panic situation.”
Troussier’s squad, which he faxed to the Japan Football Association from France, contained at least three bombshells, at least one of which was a very big surprise.
The bombshells were: Shunsuke Nakamura of the Yokohama F. Marinos — out; Masashi “Gon” Nakayama of Jubilo Iwata — in; Yutaka Akita of Kashima Antlers and a veteran of the 1998 World Cup — in.
The other hopefuls who didn’t make the squad were Yasuhiro Hato, Yuji Nakazawa and Daisuke Oku of the Yokohama F. Marinos, Hiroshi Nanami and Naohiro Takahara of Jubilo Iwata, Tatsuhiko Kubo of Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Yoshiteru Yamashita of Vegalta Sendai.
Before deciding on his squad, Troussier said making the cut would not be easy.
“We have rules and we have to make a decision — I know it will be very painful for me,” he noted.
“I will have to cut players and on the list of players that I cut, I’m sure you will see players who deserve to play in the World Cup. But I think this shows what great potential we have.”
The exclusion of Nakamura will come as a big shock to Japan’s soccer fans. After impressive performances against Slovakia and Honduras recently, it seemed as if the mercurial midfielder had won his place back in the squad. He couldn’t, however, win his place back on the left flank.
“After (the Honduras) game, it was clear that Nakamura cannot play on the left,” Troussier commented. “In this case, now Nakamura will only challenge Nakata.”
After Tuesday’s devastating 3-0 loss to Norway, Troussier was forced into reconsidering taking lightweight players. Nakamura, despite enormous skill on the ball, has shown too often in the past — particularly at the Sydney Olympics — that he wilts when faced with strong physical challenges.
Nakazawa, on the other hand, was expected to make the cut, but his chances were damaged by a poor performance against Norway. Hato and Oku, his teammates at Yokohama, were considered outsiders in the squad and had had limited or no playing time in the leadup to the World Cup.
The same could be said of Yamashita, but the decision to cut Kubo seems a little harsh, even more so considering that Akinori Nishizawa is recovering from appendicitis and has performed poorly this year.
The firm favorite to lead Japan’s stuttering strike force at the World Cup was Takahara, but the Jubilo striker has been suffering from a blood clot on his lung and has not been able to recover in time.
The loss of Nanami, who led Japan to victory at the Asian Cup with an MVP performance, was also a big blow to Troussier. The veteran Jubilo midfielder has been out most of the year after tearing his knee ligaments and only recently made his comeback.
On the plus side, Shimizu S-Pulse defender Ryuzo Morioka did recover in time and will return to secure the back line. Morioka returned to action in the Nabisco Cup earlier this month after twice damaging a hamstring.
With Japan giving up seven goals in its last three games, Morioka’s return is a big boost for Troussier. Japan’s defensive weakness also prompted the French coach into making his biggest surprise of all: the recall of Kashima hard man Akita, who Troussier has dismissed in the past as being just a “one-on-one player.” His strength and marking skills could prove a boost for the team, although he hasn’t appeared for Japan since September 1999.
Apart from Akita, other players from the 1998 World Cup squad include Nakayama, who scored Japan’s only goal, Feyenoord midfielder Shinji Ono, who played 11 minutes against Jamaica, Parma midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata, Cerezo Osaka midfielder Hiroaki Morishima, Jubilo Iwata defender Toshihiro Hattori, Nagoya Grampus Eight keeper Seigo Narazaki and Portsmouth goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi.
Daisuke Ichikawa, who failed to make the squad in France but was taken along to gain experience, made the cut this time.
The World Cup experience of veterans Nakayama, 34, and Akita, 31, should be invaluable to the young Japan squad. Troussier likes the fact that Nakayama’s presence, especially off the bench, also generates enthusiasm in the crowd, which, in turn, gives the team a lift.
The picks of Parma’s Nakata, Ono, Kawaguchi and Arsenal midfielder Junichi Inamoto were not surprising, but Shimizu S-Pulse midfielder Alessandro “Alex” Santos will be thanking the government for granting him Japanese citizenship late last year. He becomes the second naturalized Japanese to make Japan’s World Cup squad after Wagner Lopes — another Brazilian-born player — in 1998.
“I made this list after considering the composure of the team physically, technically, tactically and mentally,” Troussier said in a statement from France, where he will watch Japan’s first opponent, Belgium, play France on Saturday.
“The selected players have to face the mission and responsibility of representing the country. I totally trust the players I have selected.”
The Japanese squad will start its training camp on Tuesday in Iwata, Shizuoka Prefecture, and will play Sweden on May 25 at Tokyo’s National Stadium in its final tuneup game ahead of the World Cup. Japan faces Belgium, Russia and Tunisia in Group H.
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