Soccer / J. League

Okubo rips Halilhodzic on selections

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

World Cup striker Yoshito Okubo has branded Japan’s East Asian Cup squad a bunch of nobodies and is not surprised by the team’s dismal showing at the tournament in China.

Japan takes on the host nation in its final game on Sunday with the possibility of retaining the title already gone, having lost its opener 2-1 to North Korea before scraping a 1-1 draw against South Korea three days later.

Manager Vahid Halilhodzic has taken an experimental squad of domestic-based players to the tournament, but could find no place for Okubo despite the Kawasaki Frontale striker topping the J. League scoring charts for the past two seasons and bagging 14 league goals so far this year.

Okubo is well-acquainted with the international wilderness having appeared for Japan only once in four years before being dramatically named in Alberto Zaccheroni’s squad for the World Cup in Brazil last summer.

But the fiery forward has launched a withering assessment of the players who have denied him the chance to add to his 60 caps in China, and insists Halilhodzic must carry the can for the squad he has chosen.

“That’s (the results) about right for Japan, isn’t it?” Okubo told The Japan Times on Friday. “There are people looking at the players in the squad and asking, ‘Who?’ They’re the players that the manager has chosen, and I think it stands to reason that you get those results.

“I think I should (have been called up for the East Asian Cup). But it’s not just me. Definitely there are a lot of other players in the J. League who think they should be there.”

Okubo has not appeared for Japan since last summer’s World Cup, where he came off the bench in the opening 2-1 defeat to Cote d’Ivoire before starting the subsequent 0-0 draw with Greece and 4-1 hammering by Colombia.

The 33-year-old still laments the fact that he did not have time to build an understanding with his new teammates before the tournament began, but places the blame squarely on the Japan Football Association rather than then-manager Zaccheroni.

“I thought, of course I should be in the squad,” said Okubo. “I thought I should have been called up sooner.

“I think it was the decision of people at the JFA, giving the order not to call me up before then. I say what’s on my mind, and the JFA doesn’t like that kind of player.

“I hadn’t been called up in four years and I didn’t know what the team had been doing. I didn’t know how to link up with the other players. I just had to go with my own individual strengths.

“We hadn’t played many strong teams up to that point, but we had been winning so we thought we were strong. We were wrong.”

Okubo still harbors ambitions of pulling on the Samurai Blue shirt again, however, and believes he can fight his way into the squad for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

“I want to play for the national team,” he said. “I want to keep producing results and keep going in the same way I have been going. I’m aiming for (the 2018 World Cup). If everything goes well, then I think I can do it.”

Okubo’s place in the squad for Brazil was won off the back of a string of red-hot performances for Frontale, where he revived his career following a move from Vissel Kobe ahead of the 2013 season.

Okubo had fallen into a rut in Kobe after failed stints in Europe with Real Mallorca and Wolfsburg, and the striker knew he was running out of chances.

“I wasn’t thinking anything,” Okubo said of his move to Frontale, where he has now scored 58 goals in 86 league appearances. “I knew that if I didn’t do well there then I was finished. I just had to go out and do it. It was an attacking team, and I was able to fit in well.”

Okubo’s rebirth at Frontale has not stopped him from considering a move elsewhere, however, and an offer to join FC Tokyo at the end of last season almost proved too tempting to resist.

“I was thinking about going,” said Okubo. “I like to take on challenges, and a good offer came in so I thought I would take a new challenge.

“But staying here and going for it with my teammates was the biggest reason for me staying here. I want to win the title with my teammates. I don’t have any regrets — I’m having fun here.”

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