It is not every day that a fully fit goalkeeper looks up and sees his number being brandished on the substitutes' board – and practically unheard of when he has not put a foot wrong all match. Such is the importance of a solid No1 to any team, but that did not stop Japan coach Hirofumi Yoshitake sending on his third-choice keeper during his side’s last-16 meeting with New Zealand at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011.
The introduction of Shunta Awaka for Kosuke Nakamura with 85 minutes gone was in no way a strategic decision, however. Yoshitake’s Samurai Blue squad is akin to a large family, and the fair-minded tactician balked at the idea that one of his 21 players might miss out on the action.
“We all get on very well,” defender Daisuke Tagaki explained to FIFA.com, keen to underline the spirit of unity within the camp. “Of course, that helps communication on the pitch too. The players work well together and so far the results have reflected that.” They certainly have, and after deservedly finishing top of Group B, Japan swept New Zealand aside 6-0 to charge into the quarter-finals.
The Asian side were particularly emphatic in that round-of-16 win, but not everyone felt the result told the whole story. "Even if we scored a lot of goals, I don’t necessarily think we played that well,” said Tagaki. “There are still lots of details we need to sort out.“ Yoshitake was similarly cautious after the final whistle. “We had a lot of luck, even if the scoreline doesn’t suggest that,” he said. “We were already acclimatised to conditions in Monterrey and that helped us a lot.”
The coach could just as easily have pointed to the strength and depth of talent at his disposal, with Japan the only team in Mexico to have fielded every one of their players. While other sides talk about “starters” and “key players”, Yoshitake changes around half his line-up each game. In fact, he has yet to make fewer than five switches from one contest to the next.
“To be honest, it was a bit confusing at the start to always be changing tactics and team-mates,” said Takagi. “We took some time to find our feet, but now we know each other well and we know everyone’s roles. It doesn’t matter if they change from game to game.”
A goalscorer and one of Japan’s most impressive performers in the 3-1 defeat of Argentina, the 15-year-old was therefore far from surprised to find himself on the bench for the meeting with New Zealand. He understands perfectly Yoshitake’s desire to get everyone involved, possibly drawing on his own family background to make better sense of the coach’s intentions.
Born in Yokohama on 14 October 1995, the defender is the son of legendary Japanese baseball player Yutaka Takagi. Today a television commentator, Yutaka has three sons in total and each of them have benefited from his spirit of fairness, even at a basic genetic level. Inheriting their father’s sporting gifts, all three have become footballers, with the eldest, 20-year-old Toshiyuki, a forward for J-League side Shimizu S-Pulse, and 18-year-old midfielder Yoshiaki having just joined Utrecht in the Netherlands. Daisuke is a budding prospect at Tokyo Verdi.
"My family means a lot to me,” said the youngest son. “They never stop supporting me. I get messages of encouragement the day before every match and we call each other regularly. Naturally, that helps you to feel good.” Despite having three sportsmen to admire in his own household, the U-17 international finds most inspiration elsewhere. “I really like the Brazilian, Hulk, who used to play for my club and is now at Porto,” he said. “He impresses me a lot.”
Brazil, with four-goal Ademilson in their ranks, are next up for Japan in Sunday’s quarter-final. “Everyone knows that Brazil are a great team,” said Takagi. “We want to show them what we’re capable of. They beat us at the last edition of this tournament, so we’ve got the chance to get our own back."
Indeed, with Daisuke's brother Yoshiaki having featured in that defeat at Nigeria 2009, the youngster will be more motivated than most to prevail in Queretaro. Beyond the immediate reward of a semi-final berth, Takagi family pride will be at stake.