The 2009 J. League season has so far been notable for the emergence of several excellent young players, but that in turn has raised questions over the way the Japanese press handles its teenage talent.
Kashima Antlers striker Yuya Osako, Urawa Reds pair Genki Haraguchi and Naoki Yamada, and Yokohama F. Marinos forward Kazuma Watanabe have all quickly become regular starters at their clubs after making their debuts this year, sending the media hype machine into overdrive with the World Cup just over a year away.
Antlers manager Oswaldo Oliveira stirred the pot with his recent prediction that 18-year-old Osako will make the cut for Takeshi Okada’s squad for South Africa, but his counterpart at Urawa, Volker Finke, has been far less enthusiastic.
The German made a plea to reporters after his side’s 3-2 win over Kashiwa Reysol last week to tone down the rhetoric surrounding 18-year-old attacker Haraguchi, who Finke says is feeling the burden of expectation after only a handful of outings as a professional.
“When he made his first appearances he was everywhere in the media,” Finke said. “I have to take care of the player. He has to come back now because he is going crazy at the moment. Now he has to fulfill expectations. I said to him: ‘They are killing you.’ “
Finke believes that media hyperbole in Japan is greater than in his native Germany, but he would do well to recall the career of former Bayern Munich midfielder Sebastian Deisler as a reminder that hype exists everywhere.
Deisler — dubbed “Basti Fantasti” when he broke through as a precocious teenager — ended up quitting the game at 27, dogged by injuries and depression and crushed by pressure and expectation.
Finke certainly does have a point, though. The focus on Haraguchi has indeed been sharp, and not a little unreasonable considering he is just starting out in a profession where examples of unfulfilled potential are legion.
But if Japan is quick to get worked up over new talent, it is not without at least some explanation — unlike Germany, Japan has never produced a player of genuine elite stature. With every new prospect that emerges, hopes rise that this could finally be the one to take the world by storm.
The important distinction to make, however, is between potential and current ability.
Okada has a track record of giving young players their chance, but he will have to beware of falling into the same trap as former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson, who took a green Theo Walcott to the 2006 World Cup in place of tried and trusted alternatives. Youth for youth’s sake is not the answer.
But if it is wrong to expect too much from young players, that is not to say that expectations cannot be surpassed.
Before the season began, Oliveira was imploring the press to go easy on Osako. That he is now tipping him to appear in South Africa speaks volumes of the impression the striker has made on a very experienced manager in less than half a year as a professional.
Whisper it, but we may be hearing a lot more about Osako before next summer comes round.
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