Former Japan star Uchida sees gap in quality as Moriyasu era begins

by Dan Orlowitz

Staff Writer

Following a four-day delay caused by the recent Hokkaido earthquake, Japan’s men’s soccer team will make their debut under new head coach Hajime Moriyasu on Tuesday against Central American visitors Costa Rica.

The Samurai Blue’s first match after a World Cup is always a prime opportunity to read the tea leaves and attempt to divine what the team might look like over the next four-year cycle.

Tuesday’s encounter at Panasonic Stadium in Suita, Osaka Prefecture will be no different, marking the start of what will potentially be the biggest change since Alberto Zaccheroni took over in the fall of 2010 and established a core that largely remained in place through two World Cups and four head coaches.

One veteran player keeping an eye on national team developments from afar is Atsuto Uchida. The former Schalke right back returned to the J. League in January when he signed with Kashima Antlers, the club where he won three straight league titles beginning in 2007.

“Generational change is important but players can’t just (be chosen) from below,” Uchida told The Japan Times. “They have to be able to rise above the current generation and I don’t see that happening yet with this current group. I don’t think there are that many (young) players delivering results better than the more established players.”

Moriyasu’s first squad, comprised mostly of J. League regulars with a smattering of young Europe-based players, boasts no overseas stars such as Shinji Kagawa, Takashi Inui, or Yuto Nagatomo. The former Sanfrecce Hiroshima manager has stated that he’ll wait until October or possibly even November to summon the veterans, giving them time to recover from the World Cup and establish bona fides at their respective European clubs.

“Right now you’ll get a stronger national team by calling up experienced players from overseas,” Uchida commented. “The difficulty facing Moriyasu and Japanese soccer is whether to throw the young players in and be patient (with their development) or introduce them in more gradually.”

Uchida, who started in the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, is keenly aware of the transition Japan’s national team has experienced over his playing career: only six out of 23 players selected for Germany 2006 were based overseas, but by 2018 those numbers had flipped. Just eight of Akira Nishino’s squad for Russia were based in the J. League. Two, defenders Wataru Endo and Naomichi Ueda, made summer moves to Belgian clubs.

“The level of play is higher overseas, and if players want to take on that challenge they should absolutely do so,” Uchida said. “But if they don’t, it’s okay if they stay in the J. League.”

As the exodus of young Japanese stars overseas continues, the J. League has struggled to grow its audience and maintain relevancy while also developing successive generations of Japanese talent.

A proposal to relax restrictions on foreign player signings, first reported by Sports Hochi over the weekend, is seen by some as a way to give Japanese players a more competitive environment in which to improve their abilities.

“I think (the proposed foreigner quota repeal) is a good idea, but of course the sport revolves around Europe, and that’s where the money is,” Uchida said. “I don’t think the J. League would attract that many European players.

“It would raise the level of competition by forcing Japanese players to beat (Brazilian) players to get playing time. But the good (Japanese) players will still go to Europe.”

Indeed, the players in Tuesday’s squad with the most potential have flown in from the Old Continent. Midfielder Shoya Nakajima was a disappointing omission from Nishino’s World Cup squad after an eye-opening year with Portugal’s Portimonense, while 20-year-old Ritsu Doan is considered perhaps the most exciting attacker of the Tokyo 2020 generation after scoring nine goals in his debut season for Groningen in the Dutch League’s first division.

“I don’t think the players I’ve called up first are the core of the team,” Moriyasu admitted last month in Jakarta when announcing his selections. “I want to see how players with past international experience as well as some potential new talent will perform on this stage, and start to improve the team as we begin to approach the Asian Cup.”

As the first Japan coach to take on both Olympic and senior national team duties since Philippe Troussier, Moriyasu will have first-hand exposure to a wider player pool than any coach before him as he attempts to chart a course for both Tokyo 2020 and Qatar 2022.

But with just five friendlies remaining before the 2019 Asian Cup and a year left before qualifying for Qatar begins in earnest, there should already be a sense of urgency at JFA House.