Olympic Vindication: The Roundtable

They’re gonna take place. It’s gonna be a great event. No, it’ll be not: COVID is among us. Yes, we’re going to postpone them to 2021. No, maybe. Are you sure you wanna go through? Yes, we’re. The Olympic Games in Tokyo will surely go down in history as one of the most controversial editions in history: one wonders why they couldn’t take place next year – in 2022, we won’t have a Summer World Cup –, but this isn’t the time for regrets.

And if for Japan – as a country – it feels like a wasted chance, since COVID is surging again, they have already cases within the Olympic Village and many tourists are not gonna visit the country… the national football team – precisely the U-24 team – has a massive chance. The dream of clinching a medal after 53 years feels tantalizingly close, given the (possible) route until the semifinal and how the squad looks pretty strong.

Because of this, we’ve “put the band back together” to comment Japan’s chances at one medal and all that’s going to happen throughout the Olympic tournament. The protagonists?

Let’s go!

So… here we are. The Olympics are going through, despite the feelings around them are highly controversial, even for Japanese standards. What are your feelings?

SR: This is a particularly hard question to answer, especially being someone living outside of Japan and not fully understanding the COVID situation in Japan. I am a firm believer that sport can be used to bring people together and to offer much needed distractions from the world, much needed after the last 18 months. Therefore, from a very selfish point of view, I am very happy that the Games will take place.

That being said, with the vaccination process quite slow in Japan, a new wave of infections and the potential risk of allowing athletes from all over the world into the country and potentially spiking those case numbers and impacting the health care service in Japan, I can completely understand why many would like the event to be cancelled.

It is a shame for the country that a proper Olympics cannot take place with all the tourism and whatnot that goes with it, but Japan seems to be backed into a corner by the IOC, so I guess they must make the most of it and keep the games as safe as possible.

CP: It’s like you say: it’s quite a controversial topic, particularly given what is happening in Japan with COVID right now. Nevertheless, it has been given green light so that isn’t going to change this close to the event. Despite the concerns, though, I’m excited for the Olympics. After watching the Euros and Wimbledon, it is so nice to have sporting events back again after such a long hiatus without them, especially with fans.

After how things have been the last 18 or so months, I think we could all feel excited about this and be passionate about supporting our respective nations. I remember when we had the 2012 Olympics in London and there was so much fanfare and pride, so I can only imagine how Japanese people feel right now despite the circumstances. I’m particularly excited to watch football of course!

TB: Well, common-sense would be to not hold the games as we are still in a far from ideal situation. It’s a pity that these Olympics will not be so memorable as the 1964 event and I’m not sure of what kind of legacy it’ll leave (unfortunately, at Rio 2016 there was none), but it also would be very sad for the athletes and their careers if they were not able to compete.

The choices taken from Moriyasu looked solid. Are you satisfied from the squad? Overaged players nailed this time around?

SR: I am very satisfied with the squad chosen, I think it is strong in almost all aspects and very well balanced, with a lot of clever versatile selections in the 18 (Author’s note: Questions were made before the squads were expanded to 22 elements).

It is such a difficult task to pick a squad when limited to such a small number, but I think the job done has been very good. I have slight reservations about Hatate being the first choice left-back: we haven’t seen him be tested defensively at all for Kawasaki and the striker situation is also worrying with just two selected and Ueda now injured.

As for the overage players, I think Wataru Endo is a fine pick: he and Ao Tanaka could form the spine of the Japan national team for many years to come, and Hiroki Sakai will give a great outlet from right-back and plenty of experience. I have no qualms either with Maya Yoshida in there: it gives him and Tomiyasu another tournament alongside each other and the spine of this team looks very solid.

I would have been tempted to pick Yuya Osako, just because I think the pool of strikers at the U-24 level is weaker than the defenders. Machida, Seko and Watanabe all could have slotted in back there, as well as Itakura, but overall, no complaints from me!

CP: I’m really happy with choices! I don’t think it could be any better really. We have a solid combination of experienced veterans who have played in Europe such as Hiroki Sakai, Maya Yoshida and Wataru Endo. Especially with Sakai and Yoshida being defenders.

But there is also some incredible young and attacking talent, whom I can’t wait to see play. Ao Tanaka was brilliant with Kawasaki and he just earned his move to Fortuna Dusseldorf in Germany; then of course Takefuso Kubo, Kaoru Mitoma who has also been incredible with Frontale this year and has been linked with moving to European clubs (Author’s note: the question was asked before Mitoma was clinched by Brighton 10 days ago).

I don’t forget Daiki Hashioka, who is on loan with Sint-Truiden in Belgium. With so many versatile players, it’ll be hard to pick a starting 11 at this rate… but at least you don’t have to worry about depth! I would like to see the likes of 18-year-old Urawa keeper, Zion Suzuki, but I’m not sure whether we will see much of him.

TB: I think that for the first time ever I can say I am satisfied with the selection of a JNT in a world tournament. I would not change anyone in the list and finally the best available overage players were called. JFA definitely used the ‘home’ factor in their favor this time when negotiating with the clubs to release the players.

Name one player that you expect to step up in these Olympic Games and one that’s missing who could have been useful.

SR: I’ve spoken enough about Ao Tanaka and though I’m sure he will be great, I’ll go with Daizen Maeda here. He is likely to be the main striker with Ueda’s injury and this is a real chance for him to translate his club form onto the international stage. He has already had one experience in Europe with Maritimo and this is a great platform for him to show the world what he can do and prove that his game has expanded from just being a pace merchant. His energy and pressing from the front will be vital, and I hope he can maintain his composure in front of goal and turn a few European scouts’ heads.

It is tough to pick out a player who should be in the squad who isn’t because as I said earlier, I cannot see too much wrong with the 18 selected. One player who I’m sure if given the chance, would have been able to make a difference is Kashima’s Ryotaro Araki. He is a very versatile attacking midfielder, who has been the stand-out player for a quality-filled Antlers side this season and already has six goals and five assists in the J. League this year. He is just in the unfortunate position of being behind some top-quality players like Kubo, Doan, Mitoma, etc.

CP: One is hard to give. So please allow me to give you two! I feel like Daizen Maeda given his form with Yokohama F. Marinos will have a good tournament and really stand out. Sometimes with the way he plays, I forget he’s only 23 years old.

As for my second player, I feel like Koji Miyoshi may step up in the Olympics. I was quite impressed with the way he played and his output at Royal Antwerp last season despite only making nine starts. He scored two goals and assisted one, but he was played more of right midfielder as opposed to a winger or as number 10. Perhaps if Moriyasu can play him on the wings, we may see more of the attacking threat that he possesses.

As for a player who is missing and could be useful. I would have to say Kyogo Furuhashi. One criticism of the squad is that maybe Japan don’t have many out-and-out strikers. I know Furuhashi was played predominantly as a left winger during his time with Vissel Kobe, but for the start of the 2021 season, he has been deployed as a striker and that change has brought rewards for the club. He is J. League’s vice-top scorer with 17 goals, but he also creates a lot of attacking opportunities.

TB: Kaoru Mitoma is a player that should already be in the main national team, especially now that Shoya Nakajima has been away for a while. These Olympics are the chance for him to show his talent to the world. I’m also expecting a lot from Ao Tanaka as well.

I’m most worried about Ayase Ueda, who looks certain to miss at least the first matches. Moriyasu didn’t call an overage striker because of his surprising development and I’m not sure there is anyone who could do his role in the current squad.

Rio 2016 was a huge disappointment. It felt like Japan could have gone through the Group Stage. What do you expect from this time around?

SR: I spent most of that tournament frustrated with many aspects of that Japan team, often the team selection with Kushibiki starting over Kosuke Nakamura a particular gripe of mine and it felt like a missed opportunity not to get through that group, as all the teams seemed fairly evenly matched.

I think this time Japan are in a very tough group, though perhaps not as tough as Nadeshiko Japan’s group on the Women’s side of the tournament, but France are one of the strongest sides in the tournament, Mexico are unbeaten in all of their games through qualifying and in friendlies leading up to the tournament. South Africa will also be very tough to beat after they kept six clean sheets in nine games in the qualifying route.

However, with home advantage, despite the limited attendance and with the quality in the squad, I am cautiously optimistic that Japan will get through the group stage after that point I think the draw opens up and a bit and then… who knows?

CP: I think at minimum Japan need to reach the quarterfinals. This squad to me has enough about them to make it that far. Hopefully with combination of experienced veterans, players who are in good form and talented energetic youngsters, Japan will excel. I would also like to think that having the home advantage and physical backing of the country will spur the players to perform better. Especially given these last 18 months.

Either way, it will certainly be an exciting tournament and I hope some of the Japanese youngsters can showcase their abilities well to the world stage.

TB: The Group Stage should not be easy this time around as well, since Japan will have to beat (or not lose to) at least one of either Mexico or France, which are more traditional teams. There is also the possibility of facing South Korea in the first knockout stage, but there is definitely enough talent in the roster for Japan to aim for a medal.

Japan have never before competed in a Olympics with such a strong squad, so there is reason for optimism and improving the record of fourth place in London 2012 and bronze in Mexico City 1968 do not seem impossible.

Our coverage of the Olympic Games misses one final step. Meanwhile, if you want to recover what you have missed, take care of our two-parts piece “Saudade”, which helps you understand where the protagonists of Rio 2016 have gone (Part 1 and Part 2).

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