MANAUS, BRAZIL – Yuya Kubo is out and Musashi Suzuki is in and with that, the makeup of Makoto Teguramori’s Japan for the Rio Olympics is finally set.
But is the team ready?
That remains to be seen based on Saturday’s schooling at the hands of Brazil, but Japan, embracing the underdog spirit Teguramori has instilled in the team over the last few years, is out to prove it belongs.
“I have mixed feelings,” Suzuki said Tuesday evening, when the Japan Football Association had to give up on talking Kubo’s club, Young Boys, into releasing Japan’s instrumental striker in time for the first game against Nigeria on Thursday.
“But the opportunity has come around and I want to make the most of it. Even when I was a backup, I was prepared to do anything and everything I can for the team — and hopefully bring us back a medal.
“The first game is important. We have to win this, and get into a nice rhythm.”
Teguramori’s charges looked like boys against men in the Brazil game, with captain Neymar and his troops having their way with the young Blue Samurai, who could have been humiliated if the hosts and gold-medal favorites were up for it.
While Japan’s Group B opponents Nigeria, Colombia and Sweden are not in Brazil’s class, Teguramori’s men still seem to be realistic about the challenges they face.
“The most important thing is, we need to stick together as a team,” said Arsenal forward Takuma Asano. “Because the feeling I got after playing Brazil is that man per man, there is a difference in individual quality.”
Added playmaker Shinya Yajima, “We shouldn’t even be comparing ourselves to Neymar. There was that big of a gap. But we had an opportunity to play them, and whether we use this experience to our advantage is completely up to us.”
Teguramori is no stranger to setbacks. Several of the players he picked for Japan’s sixth successive Olympic campaign — Suzuki, Shoya Nakajima, Sei Muroya and Takuya Iwanami — suffered injuries earlier in the year that could have potentially dashed their Rio dreams.
Teguramori had pinned high hopes on Kubo, whom he had described as “the ace of his generation.” And for Young Boys to do an about-face and refuse to let him play in the Olympics after arriving in Brazil, threw the coach’s plans out the window.
Teguramori may not be exactly made for TV, but the one thing he does have is strength within. This is a man who in the season of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami took Vegalta Sendai to a club record fourth place in the J. League, at a time when his players were emotionally devastated and struggled to find a place to train.
The whipping at the hands of Brazil and Kubo’s last-minute withdrawal are far from ideal developments going into the Olympics, where Japan will try to medal for the first time since Mexico 1968.
So will Japan be ready? Teguramori, unfazed, says that’s the one thing his team will be.
“Whether it’s on the pitch or in life, accidents happen,” the coach said. “The most important thing is to be prepared — and we like to think we have been.”
“This team has had to overcome a lot of adversity, but that will make things all the more dramatic when we get the job done, hopefully.”