New national team manager Vahid Halilhodzic called up Kensuke Nagai and Takashi Usami, but appeared to bring the curtain down on record cap-holder Yasuhito Endo’s Japan career as he named his first squad on Thursday.
Bosnian Halilhodzic, who arrived in Japan last Friday to take over from fired predecessor Javier Aguirre, named a 31-man squad with a further 12 backup players for friendly matches against Tunisia on March 27 and Uzbekistan four days later.
Halilhodzic has had time to attend two live games since starting work, including a 3-1 win for Nagoya Grampus over Kawasaki Frontale in the Nabisco Cup on Wednesday night in which striker Nagai scored for Grampus.
The 26-year-old Nagai has only one senior cap to his name despite playing a major role in Japan’s run to the semifinals at the 2012 London Olympics, but Halilhodzic is hoping the striker can inject some pace into a team that will be playing its first game since crashing out at the Asian Cup quarterfinals in January.
“I watched Nagai play live last night and he has exceptional speed,” Halilhodzic said of a player whose only cap came against Yemen in January 2010. “He also has other qualities that are very important in modern football. The Samurai Blue team is lacking a little pace at the moment and I hope he can add that to the team.
“He still has things he has to work on but he is an interesting player. I’d like to talk to him and work with him in training.”
Halilhodzic also called up Usami, who was ignored by Aguirre despite his outstanding form for treble-winner Gamba Osaka last season, but there was no place for club mate Endo, Japan’s most-capped player with 152 appearances.
Halilhodzic insists that the door remains open for Endo, last season’s J. League player of the year, but also hinted that the 35-year-old’s chances will be limited with World Cup qualification beginning in June.
“Endo has played for the national team for a long time and has helped to raise the level of Japanese football,” said Halilhodzic. “I am working toward the 2018 World Cup in Russia. I’m building a team for the future.
“There are lots of young players in this squad, but if I need Endo for an important match then he will be called up. He has a lot of experience and is a trusted member of the group, but this time I want to look at some of the younger players.”
Endo and Kashima Antlers defender Naomichi Ueda, who is currently involved with Japan’s Olympic team, were the only members of the squad that lost on penalties to the United Arab Emirates at the Asian Cup to be left off Halilhodzic’s list.
The Bosnian handed a first call-up to Gamba Osaka defender Hiroki Fujiharu, while there were recalls after long spells in the international wilderness for Urawa Reds pair Tomoaki Makino and Shinzo Koroki.
Halilhodzic also included the injured trio of Atsuto Uchida, Yuto Nagatomo and Yasuyuki Konno, explaining that he is keen to introduce himself and his philosophy to as many players as possible.
“I want to see competition in every position,” said the former Cote d’Ivoire and Algeria manager. “I don’t have any fixed notion of what my best team is. Players go in and out of form, and I will pick the players who are doing well. I want to watch lots of matches, and from now on I will be taking a look at a lot of players.
“Why have I called up so many backup members? I want to convey the message that the group is big. Players from the J. League and overseas can be called up. There are players who are not on this list, but that is a message for them to work hard.
“I want to give them motivation and for them to know that the competition for places has started.”
Halilhodzic says he intends to observe his players before choosing a captain, and stressed that he regards behavior off the field to be just as important as on it.
“To be a player for the national team you have to excel both as a player and a person,” said Halilhodzic. “To represent the national team is a responsibility.
“The captain is a very important role, especially at this early stage. The captain has to set an example. He has to train well, behave well and bring the players together. He must be able to help out players on the pitch and off it as well. We need more than one leader in the team.
“Japan doesn’t have one player with huge talent like (Lionel) Messi, (Cristiano) Ronaldo or (Zlatan) Ibrahimovic. The thing that Japan is best known for is its collective unity. The team, the group. That is something I want to stress in training. From now on I want to take the Samurai Blue to a higher level.”