Japan Olympic men’s soccer team manager Makoto Teguramori set his sights on the gold medal as he announced his 18-man squad for the Rio Games on Friday.
A bronze at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic remains the only podium finish by the Japanese men at the Summer Games, with the team missing out on third place four years ago in London after losing to South Korea in the bronze-medal match.
But Teguramori was in a bullish mood as he named his squad for Rio at the Japan Football Association’s headquarters, pointing to his team’s unbeaten record in qualifying as evidence that it is capable of challenging for the ultimate prize.
“Before the qualifiers began, I said that if we could win 15 games then we could win the gold medal,” said Teguramori, whose team qualified as winner of the Under-23 Asian Championship in Qatar in January.
“We won three straight games in the preliminaries and then six straight games at the Asian Under-23 Championship. If we win six more in Rio then we’ll win the gold medal. I’m looking for a medal at least, but I want to aim as high as possible.”
Japan has been drawn in a first-round group with Nigeria, Sweden and Colombia, and begins its campaign against Nigeria in the Amazon city of Manaus on Aug. 4.
Teguramori included three overage players in the squad — defenders Hiroki Fujiharu and Tsukasa Shiotani and striker Shinzo Koroki — but largely kept faith with the team that won the Asian Under-23 title in Doha.
Sanfrecce Hiroshima striker Takuma Asano — reportedly a target for Premier League side Arsenal — will be expected to score the goals, while Kashima Antlers’ Naomichi Ueda marshals the defense and Urawa Reds’ Wataru Endo captains the team from midfield.
“I think this is a very balanced group of players who can show what they can do,” said Teguramori, who watched his team beat South Africa 4-1 in a friendly on Wednesday night. “We have included three overage players but this is largely a group of players that can be expected to fight for a place at the World Cup in Russia.
“I think we are going to spend long periods defending in this tournament, so I have chosen a lot of defenders and defensive midfielders. I wanted to have players who are capable of playing across a number of positions at the back.”
Defenders Sei Muroya and Takuya Iwanami and midfielder Shoya Nakajima were selected despite recent struggles with injury, while four players — goalkeeper Daichi Sugimoto, defender Shinnosuke Nakatani, midfielder Gakuto Notsuda and striker Musashi Suzuki — were named as backups and will travel with the squad to Brazil.
“The mentality of the four backup players should be the same as those who are in the squad,” said Teguramori. “We may need to call on them, and they should be aware that they have an important role to play.”
Only two players in Teguramori’s squad — Takumi Minamino of Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg and Yuya Kubo of Swiss side Young Boys — currently ply their trade in Europe, while overage players Fujiharu, Shiotani and Koroki have spent their entire careers in the J. League.
“It’s a big honor to be chosen for the Olympic team to go to Rio,” said 29-year-old Urawa striker Koroki, who has 15 caps for the full national team.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how I can perform on the world stage, and I want to show my qualities of leading from the front and getting in behind defenses as much as possible. I feel a responsibility as an overage player and the pride of representing Japan, and we’re looking to win a medal.”
Goalkeepers: Masatoshi Kushibiki (Kashima Antlers), Kosuke Nakamura (Kashiwa Reysol)
Defenders: Hiroki Fujiharu (Gamba Osaka), Tsukasa Shiotani (Sanfrecce Hiroshima), Masashi Kamekawa (Avispa Fukuoka), Sei Muroya (FC Tokyo), Takuya Iwanami (Vissel Kobe), Naomichi Ueda (Kashima Antlers)
Midfielders: Ryota Oshima (Kawasaki Frontale), Wataru Endo (Urawa Reds), Riki Harakawa (Kawasaki Frontale), Shinya Yajima (Fagiano Okayama), Shoya Nakajima (FC Tokyo), Takumi Minamino (Red Bull Salzburg), Yosuke Ideguchi (Gamba Osaka)
Forwards: Shinzo Koroki (Urawa Reds), Yuya Kubo (Young Boys), Takuma Asano (Sanfrecce Hiroshima)
Backup players: Daichi Sugimoto (Tokushima Vortis), Shinnosuke Nakatani (Kashiwa Reysol), Gakuto Notsuda (Albirex Niigata), Musashi Suzuki (Albirex Niigata)