Dismissed as mere weeds in the wilderness, Japan hailed its new golden generation on Friday after their patched-up, written-off team clinched a first Asian Games football gold.
A rag-tag collection of 20 J.League reserve and college players, all under 21, the junior Blue Samurai beat the United Arab Emirates 1-0 Thursday to complete their Asiad campaign with seven wins in seven games, boosted by 17 goals and just one against. "First gold won by Japan, the 'weeds'," blared a headline in the Nikkan Sports Daily.
Kochi University defender Yuki Saneto, who slammed in the only goal in the gold medal match, said: "This team had been rated so low that everyone of us encouraged each other to fight with the spirit of weeds."
Kensuke Nagai, who scored five goals, including the winner in the 2-1 semi-final win over Iran, to win the Asiad golden boot, said: "Playing in a team called a second-string, I badly wanted to make people turn their heads."
"It feels kind of strange because we have done what even the 'golden generation' couldn't do," he added, referring to the Japanese side which finished runners-up to Spain at the 1999 FIFA U-20 World Cup. The 21-year-old Fukuoka University striker was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with Chinese characters meaning 'weed'.
Japan's Asiad coach Takashi Sekizuka had to pick whoever could be spared by their clubs in the closing months of the J.League season. His squad started training less than two weeks before the Games but Sekizuka plans to use most of his gold medal winners in qualifiers for the 2012 Olympic Football Tournament.
"UAE proved very strong. We were pressured at times but we counted on Japan's hallmark of toughness to win the match," said 50-year-old Sekizuka, the coach of Kawasaki Frontale.
Alberto Zaccheroni, the Italian coach of the country's senior side, watched the game in Guangzhou and is tipped to call up Nagai for the AFC Asian Cup in January. "Although they were not called pre-tournament favourites, they have proven on the pitch which team is the strongest," said the Italian. "I was impressed by their team power and strategy which worked well and by the moves on the pitch by all the players."
The former AC Milan boss took over from Takeshi Okada after unfancied Japan reached the last 16 of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.