A consistent core of players have been vital to Japan’s steady development under Alberto Zaccheroni, and the Italian has stuck with several key men throughout his almost-four years at the helm.
Zaccheroni has also been quite careful to blend fresh faces into his squad, with last summer’s East Asian Cup proving useful. The tournament came hot on the heels of the Samurai Blue’s involvement at the Confederations Cup so the former AC Milan boss was required to rest his usual big names and took a squad of solely domestic players to South Korea.
That J-League selection ultimately went on to win the tournament and after sealing the title – the team’s first – Zaccheroni was delighted with the way the new additions settled in.
|Japan’s World Cup group fixtures|
Jun 14 v Ivory Coast
Jun 24 v Colombia
“I’m very happy for the national team and for Japan because some players in this group will come in handy very soon and others in the future,” he said. “I hope that those I’ve seen here in Korea will keep doing well in the J-League and will make my choices in the future very difficult.”
That they did. And when he announced his World Cup squad last month, no less than six of the debutants from the East Asian Cup had secured themselves seats on the plane to Brazil. Those included centre-back Masato Morishige, defensive midfielder Toshihiro Aoyama, and forwards Manabu Saito and Yuya Osako. The final two players to make the cut were striker Yoichiro Kakitani – who was top-scorer in Seoul – and Cerezo Osaka teammate Hotaru Yamaguchi – voted as player of the tournament.
“Of course the experience is vital but I’m not satisfied with this,” Yamaguchi said after the 2-1 win over South Korea which sealed the championship. “I’m thinking lots of things about wanting to play more typically Japanese football, more true to my style of football. I’m half happy but also half disappointed.”
Such maturity gives an insight into why the 23-year-old has earned Zaccheroni’s trust, and his steady development – which also saw him impress as part of the under-23 side at the London Olympics, playing every minute as the team finished fourth – has continued over the past 12 months.
‘Hotaru’ means firefly in Japanese, and Yamaguchi often sports a bold peroxide-blonde hairstyle which, along with his all-action style of play, ensures he more than lives up to his name.
“It’s been my dream [to play in a World Cup] since I was a child so I’m really happy,” Yamaguchi told Al Jazeera after Cerezo’s final J-League game ahead of the World Cup break. “Personally it doesn’t mean anything if I cannot play in any games, so I’ll do my best to achieve that. As a team we have to concentrate on winning one game at a time and make sure we get through the group. Then it will be good if we can progress one more step.”
Yamaguchi’s chances of getting the appearances he craves and helping Japan match or better their achievement of South Africa 2010 (round-of-16) look promising. He has started each of his side’s last six games, including Friday’s dramatic 4-3 win over Zambia in Florida.
I think everybody is fully aware that it’s a difficult mission but we always want to challenge ourselves and do our best
It now looks increasingly as if it will be Yamaguchi plus one of Makoto Hasebe or Yasuhito Endo at the base of Japan’s midfield in their 4-2-3-1 formation. Hasebe, as team captain, would be favourite if fully fit, although he has been rested for Japan’s last two warm-up games. Even if he doesn’t make the playing-XI, the 30-year-old is sure he can contribute in Brazil though.
“The players appearing for the first time may be a little nervous – the World Cup is a dream stage to be on and a feeling of nervousness will be there,” Hasebe said during Japan’s pre-tournament training camp ahead of their fifth consecutive finals appearance. “For that kind of thing, gauging the atmosphere in the dressing room, asking them how they are and so on is my responsibility and I hope I can provide support in that way.”
Yamaguchi is sure that working every day with two such seasoned professionals will benefit him in more ways than that, and is characteristically keen to soak up as much as possible.
“They have things that I don’t so in training I think there are many things for me to learn in terms of taking up positions and when to play passes and so on,” Yamaguchi added.
Endo, meanwhile, is demanding success whoever plays.
”There are expectations of us and I personally have expectations of this team,” he said before joining up with the squad. “I think everybody is fully aware that it’s a difficult mission but we always want to challenge ourselves and do our best,” he added of the team’s quest to progress from Group C, which also contains Ivory Coast, Greece and Colombia.
Which of the veterans gets the nod remains to be seen but Yamaguchi’s light certainly looks set to shine on the global stage.