Striker Yoshito Okubo claimed a place in Japan’s World Cup squad after more than two years in the international wilderness as manager Alberto Zaccheroni named his 23-man selection on Monday.
Kawasaki Frontale forward Okubo started all four of Japan’s games at the 2010 World Cup but has appeared only once in the past four years under Zaccheroni, playing in a friendly against Iceland in February 2012.
But Zaccheroni rewarded the 31-year-old for his prolific goal-scoring form since his 2013 move to Frontale, where he won the J. League Golden Boot with 26 goals last year and has scored eight so far this season.
“With Okubo it’s maybe quicker to explain why I hadn’t chosen him until now,” said Zaccheroni. “He’s a player with experience and a nose for goal, and someone who is capable of creating chances at any time.
“Until now I chose other players ahead of him so that they would have a chance to grow. Even though it went right up to the last moment, he was able to show me what I was looking for.”
Okubo’s inclusion was the biggest surprise in a widely anticipated squad, although Zaccheroni also raised eyebrows by selecting Sanfrecce Hiroshima midfielder Toshihiro Aoyama ahead of regular Hajime Hosogai.
Captain Makoto Hasebe and defenders Maya Yoshida and Atsuto Uchida made the cut despite suffering injuries in recent months, but Zaccheroni preferred to concentrate on the positives ahead of Japan’s opening game against Cote d’Ivoire on June 14.
“We still have one month until our opening game,” said Zaccheroni. “I have spoken to the medical team about these players, and they said that they will return to 100 percent fitness. We still have three friendly games to play before our first game at the World Cup.
“In Italy we say a glass is either half full or half empty, but in this case you could say it’s more than half full because they have had time to rest.”
Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Yuto Nagatomo were all included in a squad that contains 12 overseas-based players and 11 from the J. League, with an average age of 27.
Zaccheroni urged his team to play with confidence when it takes on Cote d’Ivoire, Greece and Colombia in its first-round group in Brazil, but warned that Japan’s high-tempo game will take a physical toll on his players.
“I want my players to perform as I know they can on the world stage,” said Zaccheroni, who will be leading a team at the World Cup for the first time. “I want them not to think about the other team so much as to concentrate on their own game.
“The players know the team concept and tactics. The thing to be careful of is our physical fitness. When we haven’t played well it has generally been down to our lack of fitness. The type of game we play demands that the players are up to it physically.”
Zaccheroni refused to name a specific target as he seeks to lead Japan past the second round for the first time in its history, but the Italian is convinced he has chosen the right blend of players for the task.
“The basic thing I looked for was quality, and we have a lot of players with that,” said Zaccheroni. “The next thing was the harmony of the team, because that will be important.
“I went for players with a high level of tactical intelligence and versatility. As much as possible, I wanted players who could play in two or more positions.”
Japan plays a friendly against Cyprus in Saitama on May 27 before heading to the United States for a training camp. Zaccheroni’s side will play Costa Rica and Zambia in Florida before heading to Brazil.