Soccer | SOCCER SCENE

Many pitfalls ahead for Japan's medal bid at Rio Olympics

by Andrew McKirdy

Japan Olympic team manager Makoto Teguramori believes his side is capable of winning gold at this summer’s Rio Games, but there are too many factors clouding the water to predict anything for certain.

Teguramori named his 18-man squad for the Aug. 3-20 Olympic soccer tournament last Friday, largely keeping faith with the players who booked Japan’s place by winning the Asian Under-23 Championship in Qatar in January. Japan has been drawn with Sweden, Nigeria and Colombia in an extremely competitive Group B, but Teguramori believes in his players’ abilities.

“Against South Africa, at first we had to be patient, deal with the strength of our opponent and probe for weaknesses and gaps in their defense,” the manager said of his team’s 4-1 friendly win in Nagano last Wednesday. “Our reading of the game was what got us the win. I think that is Japan’s style, to control the game, read what the opponent is thinking and turn small gaps into big ones.”

That style has certainly brought Teguramori’s side success so far, with a perfect record of nine wins in qualifying and some encouraging results in friendlies this year. Although a trip to the Toulon Tournament in May saw Japan lose to Paraguay, Portugal and England, Teguramori’s team beat London Games gold medalist Mexico in March and hit four goals past fellow Rio qualifier South Africa last week.

The addition of three overage players to each team will change the face of the opposition at the Olympics, however, and already managers have begun beefing up their squads with world-class talent. Barcelona superstar Neymar and Bayern Munich’s Douglas Costa will play for Brazil, Nigeria has called up John Obi Mikel and Odion Ighalo from Premier League clubs, and South Korea will feature the full national team’s best player, Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur.

In contrast, Japan has chosen a trio of sometime internationals with no experience outside the J. League. Shinzo Koroki, Tsukasa Shiotani and Hiroki Fujiharu are all fine players, but their inclusion in the squad has left some commentators underwhelmed.

“I’d like to ask Teguramori which players he would really like to have taken,” commentator Sergio Echigo wrote on his Livedoor blog. “Fujiharu and Shiotani are national team fringe players. Why couldn’t the top players come? What were the negotiations with the Europe-based players like?

“If we had taken some of the players who were at the World Cup in Brazil two years ago, it would have gotten people’s attention. It would have given the young players more motivation and had a positive impact on team morale.”

Further complicating matters is a draw that sees Japan play its first two games in the heat and humidity of Manaus. Of the eight teams that played in the Amazon city at the 2014 World Cup, one did not play again and six went on to lose their next match.

“At times I felt like I was having hallucinations due to the heat,” said Italy midfielder Claudio Marchisio after his team’s 2-1 win over England at the Arena de Amazonia.

But it is not all bad news for Japan. A strong central spine of Kashima Antlers defender Naomichi Ueda, Urawa Reds midfielder Wataru Endo and new Arsenal forward Takuma Asano gives Japan every chance of getting through the group stage, and from there anything can happen.

Having come so close to claiming a medal only to finish fourth four years ago in London, the team will be determined to take the final step this summer.

Teguramori may not achieve his golden ambition, but a first bronze medal since 1968 does not look out of the question.