The Samurai Blue are coming from increasingly far away.
Head coach Hajime Moriyasu’s squad for Japan’s Thursday friendly against Paraguay and next Tuesday’s Asian joint qualifier at Myanmar in Yangon features 19 Europe-based players — the largest overseas contingent ever summoned for the side.
The number of J. League players in Japan’s squad has steadily declined from 1998’s all-domestic lineup in France to just eight in Russia last year. While some have pushed back on Moriyasu’s decision to include so many players from overseas, the former Sanfrecce Hiroshima boss is confident in the path he’s laid out to Qatar 2022.
“There be arguments for and against my decisions no matter what I do, so I hope (the media) will write after they see (the result),” Moriyasu said on Monday.
“I’m in charge of both the national team and the Olympic team and thinking about how to use both teams to make our program stronger as a whole, so all I can do is be confident (in my decisions).”
Among the call-ups were three of the 13 players who moved from J. League to European clubs this summer, representing the largest crop yet of young Japanese talent taking their chances overseas.
Two more — Barcelona B signing Hiroki Abe and Maritomo loanee Daizen Maeda — were selected for the Japan U-22 squad’s training camp in North America.
Likely to receive the lion’s share of attention during this international break will be 18-year-old playmaker Takefusa Kubo, who made his debut for Mallorca on Sunday, Werder Bremen striker Yuya Osako, who is on a hot streak with three goals in his last two starts, and Takehiro Tomiyasu, who made the leap from Belgium’s Sint-Truiden to Italy’s Bologna.
Kubo, who joined his teammates on Tuesday, rejected the idea that overseas residence gives him an advantage over J. League players when it comes to Moriyasu’s selections.
“Getting called up because you play overseas, not getting called up because you play in Japan, I don’t think any of that is true,” said the former FC Tokyo midfielder.
“It’s an incredible honor to have been selected. But I think I was chosen because of my ability, so now I have to prove it. I was chosen and now I have to show why.”
While there are now more Japanese players than ever in Europe, most have joined clubs in Belgium or Portugal, and fewer than ever are playing for marquee sides in top-tier leagues.
“We have more players going overseas and playing in harder environments, and I think that’s a good thing,” Galatasaray defender Yuto Nagatomo told reporters on Monday. “But you have to consider whether or not anyone is playing at a big club.
“Without players who can succeed at bigger (European) clubs, Japanese soccer won’t grow stronger.”
Nagatomo, who with three World Cup appearances to his name has become an elder statesman among the Samurai Blue along with fellow defender Maya Yoshida and evergreen goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima, did praise Kubo’s move to Mallorca after the young phenom impressed in the summer preseason with Real Madrid’s first team.
“The most ideal situation would have been for him to win a starting role at Madrid, but Kubo’s not far from the elite level, and for him to move to Mallorca gives him more opportunity,” said the 32-year-old. “He can absolutely succeed there and I have high expectations of him.”
While Japan will be the clear favorite to progress out of a Group F featuring Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Myanmar and Mongolia, Moriyasu intends to take nothing for granted.
“We’ll be expected to win and our opponents are going to defend hard and try to win on the counter,” Moriyasu said. “A lot of teams are going to be playing for a draw. However they play, we have to be flexible and adaptive, and we need to be ready to play with more patience.
“There’s a lot of pressure on players in World Cup qualifying, but we have a lot of strong players, and I want to create an environment where the players will remember to challenge themselves and show off all of their potential.”