It’s time for Tokyo 2020. Actually, Tokyo 2021: the Olympic Games are here, despite we’re still in the midst of a pandemic and Japan is suffering from it, with even many protests over the organization of these games. Despite that, Olympics are still happening, and Japan have now a huge chance of impressing the world in the football tournament, given the strength of their squad.
On top of that, the Samurai Blue must have a better performance than last time. In Rio 2016, the squad wasn’t as good as this one, but they surely had the chance of reaching at least the quarterfinals. Instead, the defeat in the opening game against Nigeria probably jeopardized the whole Group Stage. Japan racked up four points – with a draw against Colombia and a win over Sweden –, but it wasn’t enough to advance.
But what about those players? Where are they now? What have they gone through in the last five years? It’s time to revisit those profiles: in the first part of our walkthrough, we went through goalkeepers and defenders, while in Part 2 midfielders and forwards are taking the stage.
Then: Kawasaki Frontale ➜ Now: Cerezo Osaka
For a long time, he’s been an unsung hero of J1 League. But in 2016, Harakawa was going through the worst season of his career – even until now – with Kawasaki Frontale. He saw the pitch very few times and he wasn’t involved. Five years later, he has become a true J. League, gained the respect of any neutral fan throughout four seasons at Sagan Tosu and he’s now playing for Cerezo Osaka.
Then: Kawasaki Frontale ➜ Now: Kawasaki Frontale
That’s one of the few sad stories from the roster of Rio Olympics. Yet, back then, Oshima’s future looked super-bright and virtually limitless. He was one of the young stars at Kawasaki Frontale, even obscuring sometimes a still functional Kengo Nakamura. After those Olympic Games, he was involved with the senior team and went to the 2018 World Cup (although he never played).
What happened next? Injuries. Just imagine the meme from Toy Story with Buzz Lightyear scouring the horizon with Woody and saying “Injuries, injuries everywhere”. He never got the continuity in performances and he was basically overshadowed by both Tanaka and Wakizaka. 2018 and his golden rise seems so far away: can he come back at certain levels?
Back: Gamba Osaka ➜ Now: Gamba Osaka
Another strange trajectory, really. Ideguchi was one of the proudest sons from Gamba Osaka’s young sector. There were a lot of expectations, including the ones within the JFA. Ideguchi scored one of the most iconic goals from the last decade in a 2-o home win against Australia, which granted Japan a ticket to the 2018 World Cup. Unfortunately, Ideugchi will never play that World Cup.
In January 2018, he signed for Leeds United, but he never played for them. He went on loan to Cultural Leonesa, a Spanish side in second division. Once he returned to England, the “Bielsa revolution” didn’t include him. So he opted for another loan – this time at Greuther Fürth, in Germany – before an ACL injury forced him on the sidelines. He then joined back Gamba Osaka in the Summer of 2019 and that’s where he has been playing.
Back: Fagiano Okayama ➜ Now: Gamba Osaka
We can’t hide the fact he’s one of our favorite players. And his call-up for the Rio Olympics was actually a surprise, because Yajima was back then featuring in J2. And with a historical side in Japanese football, but with Fagiano Okayama. Nevertheless, his performances were so good he just couldn’t be overlooked. He even scored the winning-goal against Sweden, although it wasn’t enough to progress through the Group Stage.
After his golden days in Okayama, he never found the right stability. He didn’t find any space back at Urawa Red Diamonds (the club where he grew up), he moved to Gamba Osaka (where he played for the U-23 team his first year) and went on loan at Vegalta Sendai (where he got seriously injured after a few good games). He’s now still at Gamba Osaka, but he’s a different player – he’s more of a mezzala – and that’s a bummer.
Back: FC Tokyo ➜ Now: FC Porto (POR)
We’ve carefully read out loud the names from that list and Nakajima has surely the most regrettable trajectory among these careers. Flourished at the AFC U-23 Championship from the same year, Nakajima made a good impression, but he wasn’t able to leave the same mark with FC Tokyo. Fun fact: his departure in 2018 probably opened the door to Takefusa Kubo and all that happened after.
Nakajima signed for Portimonense, where he was a force of nature. He was left out from the 2018 World Cup squad and his exclusion remembered the ones of Shunsuke Nakamura in ’02 and Shinji Kagawa in 2010: controversial. Despite that, he had the chance of landing a nice move to to… Qatar, making a first mistake in costly career choices. He signed for Al-Duhail, but had a second chance when he moved to Porto in the Summer of 2019.
Unfortunately, the relationship with head coach Sérgio Conceição never took off and, in the end, Nakajima joined Al-Ain on loan for six months. Now the loan is over and it’s hard to tell what will happen (there are talks of a possible return to Portimonense in a swap deal).
Back: Red Bull Salzburg (AUT) ➜ Now: Liverpool (ENG)
Cerezo Osaka always had a special place for whoever wore the no. 8 or the no. 13. After Hiroshi Kiyotake, Takumi Minamino became the next big thing under the cherry blossoms. Back then, he had joined Red Bull Salzburg and he was rapidly developing into an offensive and ductile player. Time has told us he’s become even more.
After some great seasons in Austria under the Red Bull guidance, Minamino signed for Liverpool in January 2020, de facto winning the Premier League, even if mostly as a bench warmer. Once Klopp realized there was no place for him, Minamino went on loan to Southampton. His rise in the national team has been evident (16 goals in 31 games, including one in the AFC Asian Cup final), but he waits 2022 to leave a decisive mark.
Back: Albirex Niigata ➜ Now: Beerschot (BEL)
How the tides can change, uh? In 2016, Musashi Suzuki seemed one of the most overrated players in Japanese football. Product of the youth sector of Albirex Niigata and half-Jamaican, Suzuki scored just 12 goals in six seasons and 125 matches in all competitions. Not so good, until… he moved to V-Varen Nagasaki, where he found a good run of performances and bagged 11 goals only in 2018.
He then signed for Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo, where he played as a second striker and then no. 9, scoring 20 goals in all competitions. After 5 goals in just four games of 2020, he then joined Beerschot in Belgium. His rookie European season was decent, let’s see if something will change.
Back: Sanfrecce Hiroshima ➜ Now: VfL Bochum (GER)
He’s only 26 years old and his career probably could already tell the stories of four. Back then, Asano was the undisputed young star of Sanfrecce Hiroshima, where he blossomed and even reach the senior team. Just after Rio, Asano signed for Arsenal, making us all think something was set to be magical. Wenger defined him as “a talented young striker and very much one for the future”. It wasn’t meant to be.
Immediately sent on loan to Germany, he stayed two years in Stuttgart and one in Hannover, where unfortunately coaches kept him far away from goal, almost playing like a midfielder. This impoverished his reputation and his form. Asano was on the pipeline for the 2018 World Cup, but his lack of minutes forced him out of the final 23.
In Summer 2019, Asano had to start fresh from Belgrade, signing for Partizan. He retained his no. 11 shirt for two seasons, scoring 18 goals in 2020-21. The relationship ended abruptly and he found a new home again in Bundesliga, this time in Bochum. Could it be that this time will work?
Back: Urawa Red Diamonds ➜ Now: Urawa Red Diamonds
We’re talking about a legend, honestly. It won’t be a bleak feature in an Olympic tournament to ruin his legacy, but he probably wanted something different from those days in Brazil. It was an award to his renowned goalscoring skills: in 2016, he was living his fourth consecutive season with 10+ goals in J1. He scored one goal and featured in all three matches, but it wasn’t enough to push Japan through the Group Stage.
Now those seasons have become eight (!) and Koroki is third among the all-time scorers of J1, a few goals from Hisato Sato. He might switch to Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo to find more pitch time, but his national team story hasn’t been the best and probably it wasn’t meant to be as well for the Olympic squad.
Back: Japan U-23 head coach ➜ Now: Vegalta Sendai
A famous Italian song said: “Some romances go round the world and then come back“. We could say that about Makoto Teguramori, who won the 2016 AFC U-23 Championship with this team and led many J. League fans to believe that yes, Rio 2016 was going to be our time to shine. It didn’t happen though and many questionable choices relied on this coach, who needed time to start fresh.
Prophet of the great Sendai run in the early 2010s, Teguramori left his post within the national team shortly after Rio and joined V-Varen Nagasaki only in 2019, where he built back part of his reputation. Nagasaki came third in 2020 and now Teguramori is back to Sendai, where he’s trying his luck by coming to rescue of his old club, struggling to avoid the drop to J2.