National team manager Akira Nishino named his 23-man squad for next month’s World Cup in Russia on Thursday and targeted at least a draw from each of Japan’s first-round games against Colombia, Senegal and Poland.
“My biggest goal is for us to play in a way that befits the Japan national team,” said Nishino, whose first game in charge after replacing fired predecessor Vahid Halilhodzic in April ended in a 2-0 defeat to Ghana in Yokohama on Wednesday night.
“If you want to put a figure on it, I want to pick up points in each game and make it past the first round. If we can do that, I think we can show to some extent what Japanese football is all about.”
Nishino dropped three players from the 26-man squad that faced Ghana — Kashima Antlers midfielder Kento Misao, Stuttgart striker Takuma Asano and Cultural Leonesa midfielder Yosuke Ideguchi.
Asano and Ideguchi scored the goals that clinched Japan’s place at the June 14-July 15 World Cup in a 2-0 win over Australia last August, but both paid the price for failing to pick up game time with their club teams this year.
“The three players who I have left out are players of great promise,” said Nishino. “They played a big part in getting us to this stage. They have played very well for the national team but I didn’t think that they were going to be in their best condition in Russia. They will carry Japanese football forward in the future.”
Nishino’s squad includes star names Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki — all of whom were in danger of missing out under Halilhodzic.
Seven of the 23 players have made over 80 international appearances, and 11 were in the squad for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, where Japan exited in the first round.
“I haven’t only chosen players with experience who have achieved things in their careers,” said Nishino. “I have picked young players as well. The veteran players will be a good influence on the young players and that will benefit the team.
“The players who have experience have to stand up and be counted. It will be difficult for the players who are appearing at the World Cup for the first time and we have to show them what to expect and help them through the tough moments.”
Japan begins its World Cup campaign against Colombia in Saransk on June 19 before facing Senegal in Yekaterinburg on June 24 and Poland in Volgograd on June 28. The team will also play friendly matches against Switzerland and Paraguay in Europe before the World Cup begins.
Nishino will be hoping for a better performance than Wednesday’s uninspiring defeat to Ghana, however, which saw Japan concede a goal from a free kick after nine minutes and a penalty in the 51st minute.
“The players were determined to win,” said Nishino. “They have a new manager and a new playing system, and they put in a lot of effort to make it work even though we didn’t have a great deal of time. The most frustrating thing is that we didn’t score any goals.
“Japanese football has grown since the last World Cup in Brazil. The players have been working hard, competing to play at this tournament. I had to pick 23 players, and for all managers it’s difficult to make that choice. There are possibilities with every player. A lot of players got us here, and I’d like the players who I picked to raise their game even more.”
Nishino made his name as manager of Japan’s team for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, where he oversaw a famous 1-0 win over Brazil that became known as the “Miracle of Miami.” The 63-year-old was called in to replace Halilhodzic in early April when the Japan Football Association fired the Bosnian, citing a “breakdown in trust and communication” with the players.
“I want to make new miracles but I only chose my 23 players this morning and I’m looking forward to seeing how they perform,” said Nishino. “I’m not a miracle-worker but I’d like to beat Colombia in the first game. That’s maybe only a small miracle, but that’s what we’re aiming for.”
Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima (Metz), Masaaki Higashiguchi (Gamba Osaka), Kosuke Nakamura (Kashiwa Reysol)
Defenders: Yuto Nagatomo (Galatasaray), Tomoaki Makino (Urawa Reds), Maya Yoshida (Southampton), Hiroki Sakai (Marseille), Gotoku Sakai (Hamburg), Gen Shoji (Kashima Antlers), Naomichi Ueda (Kashima Antlers), Wataru Endo (Urawa Reds)
Midfielders: Makoto Hasebe (Eintracht Frankfurt), Keisuke Honda (Pachuca), Takashi Inui (Eibar), Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund), Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka), Genki Haraguchi (Fortuna Dusseldorf), Takashi Usami (Fortuna Dusseldorf), Gaku Shibasaki (Getafe), Ryota Oshima (Kawasaki Frontale)
Forwards: Shinji Okazaki (Leicester City), Yuya Osako (Werder Bremen), Yoshinori Muto (Mainz)