Japan’s under-24 men’s soccer team may be contending for Olympic gold on home soil next month, but their road to victory runs through Europe.
Head coach Hajime Moriyasu’s 18-man squad for the Tokyo Games features a record nine players — including two of three overage selections — belonging to European clubs, representing a dramatic shift from a squad that sent just two overseas-based players to Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
For Moriyasu, who was put in charge of Japan’s men’s Olympic team in the fall of 2017 before also being appointed as the senior Samurai Blue’s head coach a year later, Tuesday’s announcement was the conclusion of a process that has included as many as 90 players.
“There were lots of players who could have been selected, and we had to leave some of them out. It was very difficult to choose this squad,” Moriyasu said. “But we’re aiming for a gold medal and this is the best team we can field right now if we want to achieve that goal.
“The players are always looking to improve, and if I think about how they looked in 2017 (at the U-20 M-150 Cup) as well as at the 2020 AFC U-23 Championships, everyone has developed and polished their talents and they’re able to show off that individual ability on the pitch.”
Moriyasu said he was encouraged by the stability brought to the side by its overage trio of Sampdoria central defender Maya Yoshida, Urawa Reds left back Hiroki Sakai (who recently returned to Japan after nine years in Germany and France) and Stuttgart midfielder Wataru Endo.
But he emphasized that his players would “need to bring out the best in each other” in order to navigate a challenging Olympic group that includes France, Mexico and South Africa — a sentiment echoed by Sakai in a statement issued through his club.
“To appear on this dream stage in my home country is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Sakai said. “I understand the duty that comes with being an overage selection and want to help us win every game.”
Bologna center back Takehiro Tomiyasu — himself a Samurai Blue regular — is considered all but likely to start next to Yoshida next month, while Kawasaki Frontale’s Reo Hatate could bring his talents on both sides of the ball to left back.
Hatate will be joined by two Kawasaki teammates in midfielder Ao Tanaka — who local media has reported is on the verge of a loan to Fortuna Dusseldorf in the German second division — and playmaker Kaoru Mitoma, who arguably benefited from the postponement of the Olympics as he was emerging as one of Japan’s most promising attackers during his 2020 rookie season.
“He’s able to create those breakthrough moments on the pitch and I think he’ll be able to help us win games,” Moriyasu said of Mitoma, who has eight goals and three assists for the defending J. League champion.
“If the Olympics had been held as scheduled in 2020, we’d have chosen different players. This is our strongest squad right now, and if the games were three, six or 12 months after this we might have changed the squad more.”
Technical director Yasuharu Sorimachi said that the Japan Football Association’s efforts to improve communication with European clubs, including the establishment of a branch office in Germany, had allowed the JFA to adapt to an increasing number of Olympic-generation players — including Real Madrid attacker Takefusa Kubo and PSV winger Ritsu Doan — moving west.
“The Olympics are in-between seasons and it’s difficult to work with European clubs during that period,” Sorimachi said. “We established an overseas office to keep in contact with those clubs, and that’s allowed us to continue to build our team even as more players have gone overseas.”
Japan will warm up for the Summer Games with fixtures against Honduras and Spain on July 12 in Osaka and July 17 in Kobe, respectively.
The team will then return to the capital, where it will open its Group A campaign on July 22 against South Africa at Tokyo Stadium before playing Mexico on July 25 at Saitama Stadium and France on July 28 at International Stadium Yokohama.
Japan U-24 men’s squad for the Tokyo Olympics
- Keisuke Osako
- Kosei Tani
- Maya Yoshida
- Hiroki Sakai
- Ko Itakura
- Yuta Nakayama
- Reo Hatate
- Takehiro Tomiyasu
- Daiki Hashioka
- Wataru Endo
- Yuki Soma
- Koji Miyoshi
- Kaoru Mitoma
- Ritsu Doan
- Ao Tanaka
- Takefusa Kubo
- Daizen Maeda
- Ayase Ueda
- GK Zion Suzuki
- DF Koki Machida
- DF Ayumu Seko
- FW Daichi Hayashi
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