Out of the Blue

Here we are: the Olympics are over. The football tournament has proclaimed its two champions – Canada in the women’s event, Brazil in the men’s competition – and Japan have probably some regrets about how it went. They reached what it was the minimal target (being in the Top 4), but coming fourth and tantalizingly close to a medal, only to lose it again – like in London 2012 – probably hurts a lot. Especially at home.

There are some considerations we can make after what we just watched. The first should be about the manager, Hajime Moriyasu, who spent two years building a certain squad and the results for now are not extraordinary. Sure, Moriyasu has a 71,05% percentage win – better than any head coach who managed the JNT for more than two games –, but the squad’s development looks dire and the brand of football really defensive.

And if the squad needs to be tested on a bigger stage – the Second Round of Asian qualifiers for the next World Cup didn’t offer that much –, we can also say something about some players. Kaoru Mitoma was overshadowed, but he left a mark when he played. Yuta Nakayama raised his stocks for the future (although who’s writing this piece doesn’t see him as a real left-back). But there’s one player who showed himself to the world.

Not everyone was sure that Kosei Tani was going to start in these Olympics. Until May, Keisuke Osako – from Sanfrecce Hiroshima, which retains a special place in the head coach’s heart – looked favorite to start. Then Osako’s form dramatically dropped in 2021, Tani well-impressed in the friendly games and he got the job (his performances with Shonan Bellmare would have already justified this choice).

After these Olympics, in which Tani showed why he’s been watched as a young prodigy in a role where usually Japan suffers, the reputation of the keeper will only rise.

Made in Osaka

Born and raised in Osaka, Tani was already associated to Gamba Osaka since a young age. In fact, this fast-tracked him to their U-23 team, for which Tani debuted in J3 League in 2017. Unfortunately, back then, there two problems:

  • Masaaki Higashiguchi was (and still is) playing the best football of his career between the posts.
  • There were several young keepers trying to find their way in Gamba’s organization, like Mizuki Hayashi, Ryota Suzuki and Ken Tajiri.

In the end, Tani played 33 games over three seasons for the U-23 side, in an environment where it wasn’t simple to understand how things were going. The head coach back then – Tsuneyasu Miyamoto – was then promoted to the head coaching role in the senior team, but Tani didn’t follow the same path, playing mostly for the J3 side. Anyway, he was indeed registered for the first team with Keito Nakamura, another prodigy from his class.

Meanwhile, Tani was able also to add a cap for the senior team, where he featured in goal for a J. League Cup match, in an away comeback win in Hiroshima. To a management who dealt with a lot of youngsters, though, it seemed clear that Tani didn’t have any way to progress within the team.

Therefore, he went on loan to another J1 team, in an operation which went under silence for many months.

The savior

Shonan Bellmare have always been an “elevator-club”: they often won their way back to J1, but they got also often relegated from the top-flight of Japanese football. This changed with Cho Kwi-jea, who won three promotions with Shonan and gave them several seasons in J1. Unfortunately, after winning the J. League Cup in 2018, internal investigations brought out a power harassment scheme imposed by the manager.

Once he left Shonan, Bin Ukishima was hired to succeed him. Shonan almost faced the drop to J2 (they drew in the relegation/promotion playoff against Tokushima Vortis) and they seemed a strong candidate to get relegated in 2020. Then the pandemic intervened and changed the rules, blocking any relegation from J1 for that season. This probably helped the trajectory of Tani’s career.

In fact, when Tani first joined Shonan, he wasn’t meant to start at all. After club-legend Yota Akimoto left for Machida Zelvia, Daiki Tomii booked his spot between the posts. But the forced Spring break and the return of the league in July got Ukishima thinking: “What if I could risk Tani on goal?” In the end, Shonan were not going to get relegated, no matter what. So why not give it a go?

Tani made his first appearance against Antlers at home: Shonan won 1-0 and then Tani never left his spot. Never, not even in the hardest of times (like when Shonan recorded an eight-games winless run). It’s strange: Tani played some memorable games, but he defended Bellmare’s goal for 14 games before experiencing the sweet taste of victory on the pitch (which came at home against Kashiwa Reysol).

From minute 5:00, this video doesn’t make any sense. Noriaki Fujimoto must have had nightmares about Tani after the game.

From there, Bellmare recorded an extraordinary six games-run, winning four and drawing two, including the best performance Tani ever had: in a 2-0 away win in Kobe, not only Mitsuki Saito scored the “2020 Goal of the Year”, but the Gamba-loanee basically became a nightmare for Vissel’s forwards, incapable of beating the young keeper. Furthermore, Tani became also a discrete sweeper-keeper in building up plays for Bellmare.

After Shonan ended 16th on the table in 2020, the aim was to avoid relegation in 2021. This season saw Tani confirming his development (Bellmare have one of the highest “Saves Percentage”, standing at 73,5%: fifth overall in the league). It’s tough to see him staying in Hiratsuka beyond this season, but the club will surely own him a lot if they’re gonna be able to retain their J1 spot for a third season in a row.

A flight to Qatar and… one to Europe?

After these performances and what we saw at the Olympic Games, Japan could probably count on 2-3 decent keepers for the next decade. Kosuke Nakamura for now is one of the greatest “what ifs” in Japanese football history, but if he can start in Portugal, he’s a sure call. Kawashima and Higashiguchi are playing their final days, but they’re reliable. And Tani showed how much consideration he deserves for that no. 1 spot in the senior team.

We called the article “Out of the Blue”, because Tani’s rise has been sudden, but constant. And it happened for the national team, where now Tani might even contend a starting spot, and away from Gamba, who still have in Higashiguchi one of the best keepers of the J. League. In fact, it might happen what’s already happened in the past (with Nakamura, Meshino or Doan): Gamba might not enjoy this talent for themselves.

Nice video made by Shonan there. When they’re next to forward Tarik Elyounossi – a Norwegian forward who travelled a lot throughout Europe and who played alongside several talents like Haaland and Ødegaard –, he doesn’t hold his breath: “He’s the future”.

But is there a way for Europe in Tani’s future? We’d argue someone should something. Olympic Games are an underrated tournament, but they’re a perfect spot to snatch some talents flying under the radar (ask to RB Salzburg and what they did when they saw Mané in London 2012). Indeed, Red Bull Salzburg could be one of those teams trying such a move. Tani would be a nice move for them, and the keeper would have further chances to develop.

This tournament tested Tani on the international stage for the first time, and now he might have his eyes on the biggest prize. Will he be the no. 1 in 2022, if Japan will qualify for the next World Cup? We just have to wait and see if this kid, who conquered the headlines out of the blue, will keep developing.

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