Wildcards

Normally, we would be in the heat of the Summer, with a worldwide recession, a war in Europe, and… a World Cup. If “The Athletic” ran a wonderful simulation of what it would have looked like in a utopic piece, Japan would have been there facing already Germany, Costa Rica, and Spain. Unfortunately, that will have to wait until November, when the Qatar-based edition will take place.

Meanwhile, though, a space opened and the EAFF E-1 Championship will happen in Japan. South Korea and China will be there, Hong Kong retained their spot after the forced pause, while Japan has the chance to test new faces and wannabe-call-ups for the World Cup. And most of all, to lift a trophy: the Kirin Cup might be pointless but losing 3-0 at home against Tunisia was a red flag.

Japan were runners-up the last time out, when Moriyasu – back then fresh of an AFC Asian Cup final, lost against Qatar – tested some of the players for the new cycle. Out of those 23, only Ao Tanaka and Ayase Ueda became regular for the national team. Osako, Morishima, Hatanaka, Hashimoto and Sasaki are actually playing their second tournament, being retained from 2019.

Moriyasu has clearly 15-16 elements already picked for Qatar, but he’s looking for a final surprise, given how the roster will include three players more than the usual number of 23. So who should have a chance among them? Well, we picked three that might become a resource in Qatar and even for the new cycle from 2023.

From no pro to the national team

At almost 27 years old, Ryuta Koike is living the time of his life. It’s incredible how his name emerged in the last 12 months, once the Postecoglou days were ending and his European adventure in Belgium – where he played for Lokeren just one season, in the second division – ended after the COVID hit deeply the world. He came back to Japan, to play for Marinos, mostly as a back-up for Ken Matsubara.

Initially, Koike played as a midfielder, but he was converted to a right-back when he was ending his five years-stint at the JFA Academy in Fukushima. His backstory is amazing, because Koike wasn’t supposed to be here. To make a comparison with the NBA, he went “undrafted”, not receiving any offer once he graduated from the JFA Academy. Only one club came forward later: Renofa Yamaguchi.

Renofa were back then in the Japan Football League, just in 2014, when J3 League was just born. Yamaguchi reached immediately J3, making Koike a pro at just 19 years old. Then the club won the J3 title and got promoted to J2. Only one year, and Koike won himself a shot at the top tier, once Kashiwa Reysol opted to sign him.

Koike is an unsung hero, one of the few of having played the different first four tiers of Japanese football (and probably the first JFL-er to ever feature in the national team). Once he came back from Belgium due to Lokeren’s bankruptcy, he’s gradually become a starter and Marinos couldn’t have the same performances without him on the right flank. The man who worked as a part-time coach in 2014 to make the day is now a national team member.

The heir from Kengo

Different case for one who looks to be a “chosen one”. Maybe not “The Chosen One”, but surely Yasuto Wakizaka has improved a lot and lived up to the expectations he generated once he started playing more and more with Kawasaki Frontale. His relationship with Frontale has been pretty long, thinking that he joined the Academy in 2011 and came back after a stint at Hannan University (like Masataka Kani did before him).

Wakizaka joined Frontale back in 2018, when several stars were aligning after Kawasaki snatched two back-to-back titles under Toru Oniki. Mitoma, Morita, Tanaka, Hatate were all coming up from the youth ranks, building the bases for the strongest side J. League has ever seen. Wakizaka had his apprenticeship with one of the best Japanese players ever, that Kengo Nakamura who’s a legend at the club.

2018 for his debut, 2019 to show some interesting signs, then 2020 and the full inclusion in the rotation. Once Nakamura retired and Morita left for Portugal, it became clear Wakizaka would have had more space. 2021 showed more signs of progress, including how Tanaka left for Germany and Hatate then joined Celtic six months after. As today, Wakizaka has become the main offensive demiurge in the Frontale midfield.

A free-kick master and a unique vision on the pitch, Wakizaka represents a player that could be called to be the back-up for Tanaka, being the sixth midfielder in the group – Endo, Tanaka, Morita, Hatate and Haraguchi seem a closed deal. He’s Europe-worth material, but we wouldn’t exclude to see him thriving in Japan and staying there for his whole career. Just like… Kengo, whose no. 14 ended on his shoulders.

The kid from Kumamoto

Being a rookie could be hard, but extremely satisfying in J. League. The leap from high school to the pro world has become more routine, but most of the rookies still come from Japanese universities. Among the ones from this year, Kuryu Matsuki was the one bringing the highest expectations. In the meantime, though, someone else found his space to break through.

We don’t want to hide: with few signings and a disappointing season behind him, we thought Sanfrecce Hiroshima were at risk. Not maybe for a direct drop, but at least for a relegation/promotion playoff. But just like for Kashiwa Reysol – mostly named for the last spot and now fourth! –, Hiroshima proved many observers wrong under German head coach, Michael Skibbe.

And the key to this turnaround lies in the minute figure with the no. 39 on his shoulders. Makoto Mitsuta, class ’99, is simply destroying the league. His breakthrough looks a lot to the one Yoshinori Muto had in Tokyo a few years ago, although we’d add the term “Mitoma-esque” to describe his rookie year. With a difference: Frontale could have won some of the trophies from this year without his rise. Sanfrecce have relied a lot on the young winger.

Born in Kumamoto, Mitsuta had already a relationship with Sanfrecce Hiroshima, but back in 2017 the club didn’t promote him. So Mitsuta joined Ryutsu Keizai University, featuring a couple of times in the Emperor’s Cup. Once he came back to Hiroshima, he scored immediately in the J. League Cup, only to replicate that in the league against Nagoya Grampus. From there, it went better and better.

It’s clear as the sun how Japan is stacked in this role – it seems safe to say that already five offensive players will be involved: Mitoma, Minamino, Ito, Doan and Kubo –, but Mitsuta is younger than them (all but Kubo) and, with a proper sophomore season, he could become a tasty prospect for European clubs and a fixed call-up for most games of the Samurai Blue in the next cycle.

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