A bawling Takefusa Kubo was all you had to see to understand the impact of Japan’s 3-1 loss to Mexico on Friday.
The 20-year-old midfielder’s tears represented the disappointment of a host nation that had hoped to achieve so much at these Olympic Games but instead bowed out just short of the podium.
Japan’s fourth-place finish — its second failure to win the bronze final in the last three tournaments — deprived the country of its first men’s soccer medal since the 1968 Mexico City Games.
It was also a lost opportunity for Kubo — who since his days in Barcelona’s youth system had been touted as the face of this Olympic generation — to write a new chapter of the country’s soccer history.
“I never cry that much,” Kubo told local soccer portal Gekisaka after the match. “Maybe because it’s over, maybe because I said we’d end with a win and the bronze medal and we weren’t able to do that.
“If I’d scored a goal, if I’d made an assist, if I’d drawn a penalty kick, that’s what was running through my head.”
With three goals in the group stage and an assist to Kaoru Mitoma on Friday, Kubo cannot be accused of failing to contribute to Japan’s campaign. The same cannot be said, however, of the team’s three forwards — Daichi Hayashi, Ayase Ueda, and Daizen Maeda — who combined for just one goal across the team’s six games.
Head coach Hajime Moriyasu’s preference for Sagan Tosu’s Hayashi as the team’s lone striker was especially puzzling, given Maeda’s strong form in the J. League (10 goals for Yokohama F. Marinos). But the 23-year-old Maeda, despite earning just 65 minutes of playing time at the Games, insisted that a higher target lies ahead.
“It’s disappointing but the Olympics aren’t the goal. Next is the Samurai Blue,” he told the Kanagawa Shimbun.
“It’s our last time playing together as an under-24 team, but now what’s most important is that everyone goes back to their clubs and gets results that show they want to get into the senior team.”
Some members of this generation have already made that leap. Center back Takehiro Tomiyasu, who played in just three games at these Olympics due to a combination of injury and a mid-tournament suspension, leads the under-24 players with 23 senior appearances.
The Fukuoka native — who is reportedly bound for the Premier League’s Tottenham after he returns to Europe — sees in this squad components capable of strengthening the Samurai Blue and perhaps helping the side reach a first-ever World Cup quarterfinal.
“All I felt was potential in this team,” Tomiyasu said. “I couldn’t play in the semifinal, but I believed so strongly in everyone that I could see myself playing in the final — and that belief hasn’t changed.
“It’s going to be up to us to create the next national team, and this team, these players, absolutely have to make that team stronger.”
The man in charge of making sure that team becomes stronger will be Moriyasu, who for the last three years has overseen both the Olympic team and the Samurai Blue. Despite failing to deliver a podium finish, the 52-year-old’s performance has been rated highly by the Japan Football Association, all but guaranteeing that he will remain in charge of the senior team through the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Sports Hochi reported Saturday that the three-time J. League-winning coach could be handed the keys to Japan’s team for the 2024 Paris Olympics in order to continue his “one team, two categories” approach.
”The players have been preparing for the Olympics since they were young and working to improve for this tournament,” Moriyasu said. “Since the start of camp, they’ve been giving their best in every game.
“We didn’t win a medal, but I’m grateful to the players for putting us in a position to contend for it.”
Beyond qualifying for that tournament, Moriyasu will now be tasked with integrating his young charges into the full national team as well as finding a way to overcome the clear gaps in skill, composure and finishing that were exposed this week against Spain and Mexico.
“Because the players gave it their all, we are able to understand the difference between our team and the likes of Spain and Mexico,” JFA President Kozo Tashima said in a statement.
“The JFA needs to be resolute in taking a number of actions to reduce that gap, including looking at how we raise our players and develop our coaches.”
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