Tokyo: World Cup co-hosts and Asian champions Japan will send an ‘underage’ football team to the Asian Games with lofty ambitions and an eye on the future.
They are approaching the Asian Games as a chance to blood new talent on their road to the Athens Olympics as well as the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
All aged between 19-21, well below the Asian Games and Olympic age limit of 23, the Japanese players are likely to make up the core of the country’s senior national side in a few years’ time.
“South Korea and other countries, aiming for gold, are sending quite formidable players to form what may all but resemble national a teams,” Japan’s coach Masakuni Yamamoto said. “Our opponents may be ranked higher, but we want to play aggressively, not holding ourselves back but sticking to our style.”
But his youthful squad lacks standouts like Shinji Ono and Junichi Inamoto, who spearheaded Japan’s struggle at the last Asian Games in Bangkok.
Following the steps of Parma supersub Hidetoshi Nakata, the two midfielders have established themselves in European premier football and helped Japan into the last-16 of the World Cup.
Ono is in his second year with Dutch side Feyenoord and Inamoto plays for Fulham after a year on the Arsenal bench.
Instead, Yamamoto’s squad features up-and-coming players from the first and second divisions of the j-league.
The coach stressed that his squad would look for experience rather than glory in Busan, as did their under-21 precedessors who went to Bangkok and bowed out to the United Arab Emirates in the second round.
“It is strictly part of our preparations for the Athens Olympics. Regardless of the result, we want to build up a team on a solid basis,” he said.
Japan’s midfield will be controlled by Yuki Abe, Naohiro Ishikawa and Yoshito Okubo behind a strike force led by Daisuke Matsui and Ryoichi Maeda.
The team, bunched with Jordan, Bahrain and Uzbekistan in the first round, is almost identical to an under-21 side which lost to China 0-1 in a friendly in Shanghai on August 22.
“Our loss to China has made us hungry for victory. We want to prove that we are strong,” said Matsui, 21, who was sidelined due to a left thigh injury.
Yamamoto worked under flamboyant Frenchman Philippe Troussier for four years to save the country’s blushes last June at the World Cup. The 44-year-old also serves as an assistant to Brazilan legend and J-League mentor Zico, who has taken over from Troussier as the national coach.
Japan, the bronze medallists at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, have played no better in Asian games football than their third place at the inaugural 1951 New Delhi games. (AFP)