The Goalie-mma

Probably we all got lost in the moment. It was a wonderful one, no one denies it: Japan snatched a late 2-0 away win in Australia to seal their place in the 2022 FIFA World Cup. It’s the seventh ticket in a row: not many national teams can brag about a streak like this. But once the enthusiasm cooled down, it’s time to think about the future (in the short-term, the last game against Vietnam and the draw for the groups).

In the long run, though, it’s time to face some problems: what’s this team lacking? For the first time in history, we’d say not strikers (Ueda, Suzuki, and Furuhashi, plus Maeda and even Osako). Midfielders are always stacked, even the holding ones (W. Endo, Morita, and Tanaka, plus Hatate). Center backs have been better, and, for the first time, Japan might have three potential starters at disposal (captain Yoshida, Tomiyasu, and Itakura).

There are two main concerns. One is about full-backs, where Japan left 2014 with a battery of four potential starters – Nagatomo, Uchida, and both Sakai – and now must face a shortage like never before. The thought of Nagatomo starting at 36, after two forgettable seasons, is not good. Yamane is a locked choice, but maybe not as a starter. Hiroki Sakai isn’t getting younger and imaging Yuta Nakayama being the no. 1 pick as left back is a bet.

But the worst situation is for goalkeepers. Four years ago, after the Russia campaign, we were sure we were not going to feature Eiji Kawashima again. We had Kosuke Nakamura, we had the hope of a young prospect coming through. In Australia, Shuichi Gonda played again as a starter and there’s no short-term solution to this problem. How can we improve this?

Those Good Old Days

Like Portugal or Brazil, Japan took the strange habit of not producing a decent level of goalkeepers. Like strikers, goalies tended to be mostly foreigners (compared to South Korea, where instead there’s a solid tradition of keepers). But if Japanese strikers came through along the way – even in this generation – you could not say the same for keepers. And that explains why we had just three no. 1s in six World Cups.

In the beginning, we had Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi: a true legend. He played the game until he was 43, featuring for SC Sagamihara in the last years of his career. He was one of the few to immediately going abroad, even though the stints at Portsmouth and Nordsjælland were not exactly remarkable. Nevertheless, he was the starter both in 1998 and 2006, featuring in four World Cups (and, mostly forgotten, the real captain in 2010, although he didn’t play).

His true rival in those J. League years was Seigo Narazaki, who never left Japan. Mostly like Yasuhito Endo, Narazaki built his legend by staying in his home country, featuring for Yokohama Flügels and most of all Nagoya Grampus. He was their no. 1 for 20 years, and he also featured in those four World Cups from 1998 to 2010, although he started just in 2002. In 2010, he would have been a solid choice – he won the MVP Award that year –, but the growth of a younger keeper was more important.

In fact, Eiji Kawashima will be probably going down in history as the most representative keeper of Japan. He’s still playing in Europe after 10 years, despite being 39 (and he’s got a contract until June 2023 with RSC Strasbourg). He’s still on the national team, despite starting just five times since Moriyasu was hired. He speaks six languages and, mostly like Makoto Hasebe, Kawashima appears to be an absolute example for Japanese football and whichever player would like to thrive outside of the country.

The alternatives

What about the other picks Japan made in the previous six World Cups?

  • 1998 – Makoto Kojima
  • 2002 – Hitoshi Sogahata
  • 2006 – Yoichi Doi
  • 2014 – Shusaku Nishikawa and Shuichi Gonda
  • 2018 – Masaaki Higashiguchi and Kosuke Nakamura

Only one of them – Nakamura, whose unfulfilled premises left a void so deep that it almost hurts – moved to Europe. Minus Gonda (who’s the starter right now, the combined caps amount of these six keepers is 59.

Nobuyuki Kojima went to the World Cup already being 32 years old, clearly behind in the hierarchies compared to Kawaguchi and Narazaki. Same for Yoichi Doi, true legend in Tokyo on both sides and recipient of a J. League Cup title. The best of these series of keepers, Hitoshi Sogahata, was an Antlers legend, but barely saw the pitch in those years, despite retiring just in 2020.

Both Shusaku Nishikawa and Masaaki Higashiguchi are J. League legends, keepers who left a mark on the league, but they were never really considered for a starting spot. You could make the case that, sometimes, maybe Nishikawa lost his train to overcome Kawashima, but it never happened. Higashiguchi has improved while aging, but he was never considered.

Daniel Schmidt looked promising and moved to Belgium, but the Japanese American goalie featured just seven times and got called up for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, where he didn’t start anyway. Shūichi Gonda, the undisputed starter in the Moriyasu’s reign, tallied up to 31 caps, but his career looked strange, rallying between a long stint with FC Tokyo, two European stints (to Portimonense and a loan to SV Horn in Austria), and two returns (to Sagan Tosu and currently to Shimizu S-Pulse).

But is he really going to be the starter in Qatar? No one seems particularly inspired by this choice.

The future

Do we have alternatives, though? It doesn’t seem so. Not at least six months from now. Japan is producing some new names in that sense:

  • Daiya Maekawa, class ’94, got called up, but he’s still fighting for the no. 1 spot at Vissel Kobe against expert J. League Hiroki Iikura.
  • Keisuke Osako, class ’99, had a massive drop in performances after a promising start at Sanfrecce and he’s now benched in favor of Takuto Hayashi.
  • Yuya Oki, class ‘99, got inexplicably surpassed in the hierarchies at Antlers by three times-ACL winner and 37 years-old Kwoun Sun-tae.
  • Zion Suzuki, class 2002, is super promising, but it’s early to tell if they’ll be national team material.
  • Kosei Tani, class 2000, is surely the most promising name, but he still couldn’t find his way back to Gamba Osaka after masterful performances in the Olympic Games and lies for the third year in a row on loan to Shonan Bellmare.

Kosuke Nakamura is still alive, but at 27 years old he isn’t playing in Portugal: it seems the two injuries he suffered in 2018 have botched his career forever. Park Iru-gyu could be an interesting option, having grown into a solid J. League goalie and a sweeper-keeper worth of a shot. Despite being 32, his journey from Korea University to the top of J1 – winning the title in 2019 with Marinos as the starting no. 1 – teaches us something about the power of learning.

It’s time to look forward anyway. The 2022 FIFA World Cup will be crucial, but the future will hold out even more for Japan. And the keepers’ movement is just one of the binding dilemmas to solve.

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