Back in the summer of 2012, Japan’s mens Olympic team headed into the competition with high hopes. On paper at least, Japan had the look of a decent squad with quite a few potential full national team starters in it.
But what happened to those players? Quite a lot, as it happens. Who made the grade? Who faded away? @nellosplendor (NS)& @sushi_football (SF) look back and find out what happened to the class of 2012.
In this first part, we look back at the goalkeepers and defenders. The midfielders & forwards will come at a later date. Let’s get to it…..
Shuichi Gonda (NS)
Then: FC Tokyo
Now: SV Horn (Austria)
If you remember that summer, Shuichi Gonda was probably the future of Japan’s goalkeeper role. With Nishikawa underrated and still at Sanfrecce and Kawashima slowly aging, he was supposed to be the heir of that number one shirt. Instead, many things have changed since then. An over-training syndrome cut him out from Japan National Team after Zaccheroni left. Both Aguirre and Halilhodzic didn’t consider him for a call-up and so Gonda decided to start over with other Japanese players and the help of a friend. Keisuke Honda’s Austrian team, 3rd tier-SV Horn, took him on loan from FC Tokyo. Will it work?
Shunsuke Ando (SF)
Then: Kawasaki Frontale
Now: Kawasaki Frontale
Has he progressed? I guess not, but it is hard to tell because I genuinely haven’t seen him play that much, if it all. He’s been the back up goalkeeper for Kawasaki going on for six years, with only a loan spell at Shonan Bellmare where he played under 20 games, to show for his efforts. And let’s not forget, Frontale are hardly the team you associate most with great goalkeeping so it isn’t as if he’s been stuck behind a legend. That is about all I can tell you about Ando.
Gotoku Sakai (SF)
Then: Stuttgart (Germany)
Now: Hamburg (Germany)
Has he progressed? Yes. The fresh faced full back that left Albirex Niigata to pursue his football dream in Germany has developed into an important piece of the Japanese national team. His recent performances have negated the prolonged absence of regular/presumed starter Atsuto Uchida. He held his own at Stuttgart without setting the world alight, and his time there coincided with a gradual decline by the Mercedes Benz sponsored club. Last summer, he moved to another “sleeping giant” in Hamburg. His playing style is “dynamic” – which is a polite way of saying good going forward, needs work on the defensive side but he has worked hard to become a modern full back, and that – I think – shows he has progressed from four years ago.
Kazuya Yamamura (SF)
Then: Kashima Antlers
Now: Cerezo Osaka
Has he progressed? Not really. There were high hopes for Yamamura after Kashima signed the highly rated player from Ryutsu Keizai University, and the versatile player made an impression in his first couple of years in Ibaraki prefecture. But as Kashima’s next generation of defenders came through in Naomichi Ueda & Shoji Gen, Yamamura was pushed to the edges and made less than 10 starts between 2014-2015. A move to Cerezo Osaka materialized last summer and has so far nailed down a regular place as a holding midfielder. There is still time for him to improve his standing, but right now it looks like he will max out as an ok player, nothing more.
Daisuke Suzuki (SF)
Then: Albirex Niigata
Now: Gimnastica (Spain)
Has he progressed? Yes, I think so, although probably hasn’t made it in to the big player some people though he would become. He moved from Albirex Niigata to Kashiwa Reysol where he established himself as a highly capable defender. Not the tallest one you’ll ever see, but pretty commanding for his size and good against “twitchy” forwards. It had been known for six months or so before he actually announced he was leaving that he wanted to try his luck abroad, but the choice of Gimnastic raised a few eyebrows. Rather like fellow Japanese player Takashi Inui at Eibar, Suzuki thought that trying to progress in Spain from a small was the best way forward.
Yuhei Tokunaga (NS)
Then: FC Tokyo
Now: FC Tokyo
We’re talking about a legend for this club. Yuhei Tokunaga has played only for FC Tokyo since the start of his pro career. He never left the club, not even for the J2 League. After coming back to the first tier, he was selected as one of the two over-aged players for London 2012. The choice was right, since Japan didn’t have a versatile defender like Tokunaga on the roster. By the way, Tokunaga was already chosen to be in a Olympic squad, in Athens 2004. Despite being a right-back, Sekizuka used him on the other flank during the London days. His performances gave him a chance also in Zaccheroni’s side, where he played nine times and won the EAFF Asian Cup. Now, Tokunaga is still a regular for FC Tokyo, where he’s one of the most experienced players in the squad.
Hiroki Sakai (NS)
Then: Kashiwa Reysol
Now: Olympique Marseille (France)
It’s been a long way for Hiroki Sakai since those Summer Olympics. In 2012, Sakai was part of a wonderful team – Nelsinho’s Kashiwa Reysol – which suddenly amazed all Japanese football and won the title as a newly-promoted team (first, but not last time that happened). At that time, he had just signed for Hannover 96, but he had still to make his debut in Bundesliga. The London Olympics confirmed the good quality of this signing for Mirko Slomka’s side.
His first season in Germany was a little uncertain, but during these years Sakai proved to be a fine right-back. He played more than 100 games for Hannover in all competitions, but in the end he couldn’t help the team avoid relegation last season, so Hannover let him go and Sakai just signed for Olympique Marseille. Who knows? It’s maybe a new pattern to follow for Japanese players. Since Daisuke Matsui’s days in Le Mans, I always thought Ligue 1 was a good test for our players. Let’s see if Hiroki will accomplish a great feat in the Velodrome.
Maya Yoshida (NS)
Then: VVV Venlo (Netherlands)
Now: Southampton (England)
We’re talking (probably) of one of the greatest defenders in Japanese football history. Despite being 27 and having a lot of days ahead in his career, we can already say that about Maya Yoshida. On one side, this shows how much Japanese players must improve on defense; on the other one, Yoshida has achieved so much despite his young age. In the summer of 2012, Yoshida was still playing for VVV-Venlo, the club that first hosted the born and rise of Keisuke Honda in European football. After two convincing seasons, the Summer Olympics in London were a great test for Yoshida.
He wasn’t only one of the two over-aged players, because Sekizuka appointed him as captain of that selection. He formed a wonderful partnership with Daisuke Suzuki: sadly, it wasn’t re-proposed by Zaccheroni, who never had faith in Suzuki. Yet, Yoshida proved his point: he displayed very well during the Olympics, even scoring the 2-0 against Egypt in quarter-finals. After that Olympic tournament, Southampton called him to play in Premier League.
Despite the history of Japanese players in Premier League being not so great, Yoshida accepted the call from Nigel Adkins. The Japanese center-back has been coached by three different managers (Pochettino and Koeman to add to the list), but overall he made the right choice. He was tested also as right-back; he had a difficult 2013-14 under Pochettino (only 13 games played); only the first season at St. Mary’s saw him as a starter. But he achieved much more success than his Japanese predecessors in England (e.g. Inamoto, Yamaguchi, Lee). Now he’ll have to decide whether to stay or not in Premier League.