Domestic leagues a good feeder for Japan senior team

Japanese players, such as Keisuke Honda (right) who featured in a recent World Cup qualifier against Singapore that ended 0-0, have proven themselves to be good enough to ply their trade in Europe.
Japanese players, such as Keisuke Honda (right) who featured in a recent World Cup qualifier against Singapore that ended 0-0, have proven themselves to be good enough to ply their trade in Europe.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

MATSUMOTO (Nagano) - The Japan national team, who are record four-time Asian Cup winners, endured a disappointing campaign in January in Australia when they were knocked out in the quarter-finals by unfancied United Arab Emirates.

Last week, they were booed by their supporters following a lacklustre 0-0 draw with Singapore in a World Cup qualifier.

Off the pitch, former manager Javier Aguirre was sacked after the Asian Cup because of an ongoing match-fixing probe.

It seems nothing is going right for the Samurai Blue. But tell that to Matsumoto Yamaga coach Yasuharu Sorimachi and you will earn a firm rebuke.

In fact, the former Japan international believes it will not take long for the senior team, ranked 52nd in the world, to catch up with European and South American powerhouses.

Speaking after a training session at the J-League club's training ground, the tactician said: "We have many players in the European leagues and we will definitely catch up with the strong football countries."

What gives Sorimachi optimism is the well-structured league model in Japan, which ensures a steady stream of top players for the national team.

There are three divisions, comprising a total of 62 teams, in the J-League.

Beyond that, there is the amateur Japan Football League, nine regional leagues and a prefectural league in 46 of the country's 47 prefectures.

In all, there are over one million footballers in Japan league football, according to world football body Fifa.

The sound and competitive domestic model has helped many Japanese players make the grade in Europe's top leagues.

In fact, Japan have one of the largest representation of players in Europe's top-tier leagues, with stars like Keisuke Honda (Milan), Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund) and Yuto Nagatomo (Inter) blazing a trail for their countrymen.

Such is the depth of talent that even Spanish giants Barcelona keep tabs on youth in Japan.

In 2011, the Catalan club signed 13-year-old Takefusa Kubo but the move was recently overruled by Fifa for a breach of transfer rules. The teenager joined FC Tokyo last month.

Sorimachi, who coached the Japan Under-23 team at the 2008 Olympics, said the fierce competition extends to the U-23s as well.

He said: "It was a difficult process to select the final Olympic team because it was so competitive.

"There were many changes along the way, and in the end, it was a very different team to the one we started with."

It is a scenario Yamaga defender Hayuma Tanaka would be familiar with.

He received his solitary cap in 2006 but has since failed to earn a recall.

He said: "It is very difficult to get into the national team because so many players are fighting for a place in the national team.

"Once you get selected, there is also a lot of pressure to perform because the whole country is watching you. You need to have a strong mentality."

At 32, Tanaka's second cap may never come.

But, given its vibrant domestic leagues, Japan football's second wind is probably just around the corner.

siangyee@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2015, with the headline 'Domestic leagues a good feeder for Japan senior team'. Print Edition | Subscribe