Japan will be making their fourth appearance at the FIFA U-17 World Cup next month in Korea and their first at the tournament since Trinidad and Tobago 2001. As the Asian champions continue their quest to assemble a side capable of competing with the elite of world football, the big question for the country's fans and media is just who will make up the squad for their Korean adventure.
After seeing his side pitted in Group C alongside Haiti, Nigeria and France at the Final Draw last May, Coach Hiroshi Jofuku was very clear about what Japan needed to do to at the tournament: "I'm aware that this is a really tough group, and I think the key to success will be how well we can play our game - by that I mean the kind of football where we both pass and move quickly, just as we've been doing up until now. We must also try to play as many matches as possible [beforehand]."
Six years ago Japan were bitterly disappointed to crash out of the group stages at Trinidad and Tobago 2001 after heavy defeats to Nigeria (0-4) and France (1-5). However, as fate would have it, the draw for Korea 2007 has grouped the trio together once more, giving the Asian champions an immediate chance to make amends. It is a prospect that has Johuku is determined to take advantage of: "I viewed the draw as the footballing gods asking to know how far we have come since those devastating defeats, and I believe it's a really good opportunity for us to test ourselves."
One of the features of the U-17 squad has been the stream of new players tried out during the various tours and training camps this year, even if the team that won the 2006 Asian U-17 Championship still makes up the bulk of the squad. The steady stream of new faces can be partly explained by the fact that many of the side's leading players have been busy on club duty and not always available for team get-togethers. However, Johuku has used to situation to his advantage, running the rule over a host of contenders with the intention of strengthening weaker positions, finding good all-round players and raising the overall level of the team.
The enhanced momentum generated by the new faces was especially evident at the Niigata International Youth tournament (9-16 July) and at the team's training camp in Saitama (17-20 July). Competition for places was fierce with the inclusion of new defenders like Daisuke Suzuki, Hiroto Hatao, Tsukasa Masuyama, Ryo Okui and Yutaka Yoshida further demonstrated the determination of everyone involved in the U-17 set-up to provide stiff competition to their rivals in world football.
Johuku, who has been at the helm of the country's U-17s for two and a half years, has a great deal of empathy for senior coach Ivica Osim's philosophy of "run while thinking". Johuku argues that it is the most appropriate style for the Japanese game and has made quick movement and passing the cornerstones of his team's play. As the coach himself puts it, "By building from the back, passing well and maintaining a lot of possession, the team can go forward in numbers, thereby unsettling opponents and creating opportunities to score."
However, this brand of offensive football can sometimes leave the defence exposed, as was graphically illustrated during the senior team's 3-2 defeat to Saudi Arabia last week in the semi-final of the AFC Asian Cup. The risks involved with leaving minimum cover at the back make it paramount to have defenders capable of winning one-on-ones against both physically imposing and highly skilled players.
In this respect, commanding recent performance by tall players like Suzuki (1.80m), Hatao (1.80m) and Masuyama (1.78m) will doubtless have pleased Johuku, but also have handed him an even greater selection dilemna. In addition, left-back Yoshida, who provides great penetration down the wing, and the pacy Okui, who can operate at either left- or right-back, are both making a strong case for inclusion in a side that needs pace and versatility if it is to move seamlessly between defence and attack.
Then there are players like Takashi Kanai, Masato Yamazaki and
Kimihiro Kai, who commanded starting berths at the Asian
Championship and have also raised their games. Ultimately, if Japan
wish to engage in attacking football without compromising on the
positioning of the highly talented striking triumvirate of Yoichiro
Kakitani, Kota Mizutani and Hiroki Kawano, then the overall team
formation, and the balance within that, needs to be given careful
Now, two and a half years after this team began to come together, the race to fill the 20 squad berths for Korea 2007 is almost over, with the squad set to be announced on 6 August. And for those fortunate enough to make the list, there will precious little time to celebrate, with the group scheduled to begin pre-finals training in Japan two days later, before embarking for Korea on its conclusion.