Korea Republic may be Asia's most successful team at the FIFA World Cup™ stage, but it is Japan who hold the continent's record at the Men's Olympic Football Tournament. The Japanese finished third at Mexico 1968, with striking legend Kunishige Kamamoto topping the tournament with seven goals.
This bronze medal performance has since remained an elusive feat for all Asian teams, with only Australia and Iraq coming close to equaling the effort after storming into the semi-finals at Barcelona 1992 and Athens 2004 respectively. Japan, meanwhile, have only progressed beyond the group stage once during the past four-and-a-half decades, with an Hidetoshi Nakata-inspired squad reaching the last eight at Sydney 2000 only to lose out to USA on penalties.
With the recent development, however, many Japanese faithful believe it is time to revive their Olympic fortunes. Sharing this view in particular is coach Takashi Sekizuka, who has set his sights on reliving their past glory heading into their fifth consecutive appearance at the global showpiece.
"Our aim is simple: to battle for an Olympic medal," the 51-year-old former Kawasaki Frontale manager recently told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. "It is a global meeting of 16 representatives of the different continents so there are no easy opponents. We will try to qualify from our group and then we will continue to do our best to prove the potential on behalf of not only us, but also Asian football."
European road block
In their last two appearances at the Olympics, teams from Europe have proved out to be Japan's biggest obstacle. The Japanese were defeated 3-2 by Italy at Athens 2004 before losing 2-1 to Netherlands at Beijing 2008 as they took the wooden spoon on both occasions. And as if to test their progress, the Olympic Draw for London 2012 pitted them against European champions Spain in Group D's opener on 26 July in Glasgow, with African giants Morocco and a fast-progressing Honduras awaiting them in the following fixtures.
Ambitious as he is, Sekizuka is all too aware that his young team must have as much exposure as possible to strong European opposition if they are to spring a surprise at this summer's Olympic games. Their preparation began from this May's Toulon Tournament, where Sekizuka's outfits put in some excellent performances despite suffering an early exit after the group stage.
The Japanese dominated the first half in the opener against Turkey, only to concede two second-half goals, including an own goal by Oiwa Kazuki as they began the campaign in disappointing fashion with a 2-1 defeat. However, they bounced back in style to edge the Netherlands 3-2, before narrowly losing out to Egypt by the identical scoreline.
"The competition provided us with a good chance to take stock of the team ahead of London 2012," Sekizuka said. "Although our players performed positively, there is still much room for improvement and we must focus on how to solve the problems and how to play well as a team."
Catching the most attention are the team's European-based contingent, all of whom featured significantly at the Toulon tournament with Sevilla B forward Hiroshi Ibusuki on target against the Netherlands, while TSG Hoffenheim midfielder Takashi Usami scored a brace against Egypt. While this is a positive sign in terms of development, it has certainly given Sekizuka plenty of food for thought ahead of their opener against Spain.
“Our European-based players can provide the team with good experiences,” he said. “We don’t have many chances to play against European teams so with our overseas-based players shoring up the team, I am confident we are capable of competing against any rivals.”
Japan will wrap up their preparations with two warm-ups against fellow Olympic participants New Zealand and Mexico, and Sekizuka is aiming to get his side in their finest shape ahead of the contest. “We hope each player can reach his best form by then and more importantly, the team are strong as a group. These are key factors for Japan’s success.”