On the face of it, Catania striker Takayuki Morimoto’s recent comments that he has no interest in playing for Japan should give national team supporters cause for concern.
Taken with a pinch of salt, however, it could be just the kind of independent attitude Takeshi Okada’s side has been in need of for a very long time.
Morimoto, who has yet to appear for the national team, was reported as saying on local Sicilian TV station REI: “I don’t want to play (for Japan). My style of play doesn’t fit. I want to concentrate on playing for Catania.”
Morimoto went on to explain — in Italian — that at his club he is encouraged first and foremost to score goals, whereas with his country he would be expected to track back and help out the defense.
For a team with an almost pathological inability to finish off chances, Japan can scarcely afford to lose a potential goalscoring solution.
Morimoto first made headlines as the youngest-ever player to appear in the J. League in his debut for Tokyo Verdy as a 15-year-old in 2004, when his size marked him out from the nimble, tricky strikers more common in Japan.
After suffering a serious injury following his 2006 move to Catania, Morimoto has bounced back to make something of a name for himself in Serie A this season. Goals against Roma and Juventus have made the rest of the league take notice, and talk of a move to a bigger club has grown louder with every promising performance.
But Morimoto’s progress has not yet been enough to persuade Okada to call him up to the national team. The manager has placed his trust in smaller, more mobile forwards like Keiji Tamada, Tatsuya Tanaka and Yoshito Okubo, with the emphasis on hard work and perpetual motion in attack.
That would suggest Morimoto is right to assume his direct style is not required, but with still over a year to go until the World Cup, Okada surely has plans to explore alternative options.
Crucially, for all his bluster, it also seems unthinkable that Morimoto would carry out his threat and refuse to play.
A more significant message to be read from the episode is that Morimoto is developing into a free thinker for whom scoring goals is everything.
Former Germany forward Oliver Bierhoff once said that a striker should share the same mind-set as a goalkeeper — to know that one’s place on the team is assured and to think only in terms of goals. Many would argue that being a team player is more important, but the number of chances that have gone to waste in Japan’s qualifying campaign suggests a touch of selfishness would not go amiss.
The fact that Morimoto gave his interview in Italian also suggests he has the character to step outside his comfort zone in order to make it in Serie A. It is no coincidence that the only Japanese player to have previously made the grade — Hidetoshi Nakata — had the same attitude.
Whether or not Morimoto is the answer to Japan’s problems is still too early to judge. The striker disappointed at the Beijing Olympics, and at the age of 20 he is still learning the game.
But if Okada asks him to take a break from his Sicilian club to play in the World Cup, it will be an offer he can’t refuse.
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