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Samurai Blue head coach Hajime Moriyasu announced his call-ups for Japan’s upcoming international fixtures on Thursday, marking the return of J. League players to the national team picture for the first time since the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Japan will host archrival South Korea in a March 25 friendly at Yokohama’s Nissan Stadium before facing Mongolia in a World Cup qualifier on March 30. The latter game, set to take place at Fukuda Denshi Arena in Chiba, will be held behind closed doors as it was relocated from Mongolia due to pandemic-related travel restrictions.

“I’m very happy to be able to play these games and want to thank everyone for making this possible,” Moriyasu said. “We understand that there is debate over whether we should be playing during the pandemic. But we hope people will understand the significance of the national team representing Japan in these times.”

Moriyasu’s squad features eight Europe-based players, including veteran Sampdoria center back Maya Yoshida, Southampton midfielder Takumi Minamino and Partizan striker Takuma Asano.

Although clubs are traditionally compelled to release players for FIFA’s designated international match periods, the sport’s global governing body has allowed clubs to refuse in cases where the player would be forced to sit out domestic fixtures due to local quarantine rules.

“Even within the same country there are clubs with different policies, so it was difficult to arrange things until the very end,” JFA technical director Yasuharu Sorimachi said. “But under those circumstances we’ve called up the best possible squad for these two games.”

All players entering the country for international fixtures will undergo daily tests for COVID-19 following their arrival, with three days of negative tests required before they can participate in a match.

Japan’s overseas and domestic players will be segregated outside of training, with different hotel floors, massage rooms and interview rooms reserved for each and separated seating arranged for team meetings.

Those are among the litany of regulations approved by Japan’s sports ministry and other government agencies in order to facilitate foreign national teams and overseas-based Japanese players entering the country over the coming month.

Argentina’s under-24 men’s team will face Japan’s Olympic men’s squad on March 26 in Tokyo and March 29 in Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture, while Nadeshiko Japan will host the women’s teams of Paraguay on April 8 in Sendai and Panama on April 11 in Tokyo.

JFA officials expressed hope that the successful implementation of a protective “bubble” — with players and team officials limited to travel between their hotel, training ground and match venue — would boost efforts to host the troubled Summer Games, which are taking place a year later than initially scheduled.

The bubble will eclipse the size of the one created for the Friendship and Solidarity Competition, a four-nation gymnastic meet in November that featured 30 gymnasts, 22 of whom came from Russia, China and the United States.

Last week the Asian Football Confederation announced that Japan will host the remaining six unplayed games of its World Cup qualifying group, which also features Myanmar, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, in a centralized format in June.

“We understand that if people are coming in from overseas we have to take stringent measures in terms of safety, but if we can accomplish that it will help us move forward and show that we can hold more international games and safely hold the Olympics,” JFA general secretary Kiyotaka Suhara said.

“We’re going to learn a lot from doing this, and based on those lessons we might change how we carry things out in the future.”

Among the 15 players chosen from the J. League are eight first-time selections, including FC Tokyo left back Ryoya Ogawa, Kashiwa Reysol midfielder Ataru Esaka and Cerezo Osaka midfielder Tatsuhiro Sakamoto.

“They’re inexperienced, but I hope getting called up will contribute to their growth so that when they return to their clubs they’ll be able to level up based on their experience with the national team,” said Moriyasu.

Only one player listed in Thursday’s announcement, Bologna center back Takehiro Tomiyasu, is eligible to represent Japan as an under-24 player at Tokyo 2020. Moriyasu, who will also oversee Japan’s men’s team at the Summer Games, said he preferred to have his younger charges gain more experience in their own friendlies.

“Tomiyasu has been a core part of the national team and his club,” Moriyasu said. “There are other (under-24) players who can be a part of the Samurai Blue squad, but if they aren’t key players for the Samurai Blue I thought it would help them grow more to play more minutes against a strong Argentina team.”

Moriyasu will announce his under-24 squad for the Argentina friendlies on Friday.

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