Takefusa Kubo left out for AFC U-23 Championship

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Japan Olympic men’s soccer team manager Hajime Moriyasu on Tuesday left former Barcelona youth team starlet Takefusa Kubo out of his squad for next month’s AFC U-23 Championship in a bid to keep him fresh for next season.

Moriyasu, who was hired in October to lead Japan’s quest for a medal on home soil at the 2020 Tokyo Games, chose a fully under-21 squad for the Jan. 9-27 Asian tournament in China, where Japan has been drawn in a first-round group with North Korea, Thailand and Palestine.

But there was no place for 16-year-old prodigy Kubo in Moriyasu’s 23-man squad, with the manager deciding that he needs a rest after making his J. League first-division debut with FC Tokyo and also appearing at the Under-17 and Under-20 World Cups with Japan this year.

“(JFA technical director Akira) Nishino-san and I spoke to every club, and our intention is to put the players first,” said Moriyasu, who won three J. League titles in four years with Sanfrecce Hiroshima before leaving the club midway through last season.

“Every player works hard but some players have been involved in various age-level teams and they must be tired in both mind and body. We talked about it and decided that it was better for them to have a break and come back another time. That doesn’t just go for Kubo. There are other players who are in the same situation and they haven’t been called up either.”

Japan will be looking to defend its title in China, after beating South Korea in the final two years ago in Qatar in a tournament that doubled as a qualifier for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Moriyasu will be leading the team for the second time, having made his debut at the M-150 Cup earlier this month in Thailand. Moriyasu’s side beat Thailand and North Korea before losing to Uzbekistan on penalties in the final.

“No matter what tournament we are playing in, we want to win every game we play,” said Moriyasu. “We are hoping to gain a lot from this competition and we are aiming for the top.

“This will be my second tournament in charge of the team after the M-150 Cup earlier this month, and it will be the team’s first official competition so we are hoping to use it to improve. I have called up some different players from last time because I want to have a look at a wide range of players from this age group.”

The men’s Olympic soccer tournament is restricted to players under 23 years old, with three overage players allowed. But Moriyasu does not intend to use next month’s Asian tournament as a mere staging post on the road to 2020, and is keen to stress to his players the need to deliver results.

“The fact that this is an official tournament doesn’t mean I’m going to change my approach,” he said. “Of course there are different ways to try things out, but whether it’s an official tournament or a friendly match, I always want my team to win. I want the players and the staff always to bear in mind that we need to deliver results.

“I want players who can play in a variety of positions. For this tournament we have 20 outfield players and three goalkeepers, and we will play a maximum of six games. At the Olympics we will have an 18-man squad and a maximum of six games, so we can’t have players who can only play in one position.”

Moriyasu has selected 11 players from the squad that competed at last summer’s Under-20 World Cup in South Korea, where Japan reached the second round before losing to Venezuela.

Other teams in China are expected to make full use of the under-23 age ceiling, but Moriyasu believes his players can match them despite Japan’s self-imposed under-21 limit.

“I have chosen an Under-21 squad, but I think these players are capable of holding their own,” he said. “I’m not worried about their age. The teams we faced earlier this month were Under-22 teams and the players did very well against them. If you think about the players’ development, at this age they have to be able to match up against players two years older than them.”