Japan 'looking forward' despite Copa miss

Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni has told the Blue Samurai to keep "looking forward" on the road to the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ after the team lost out on a chance to compete in the glittering Copa America.

The Japan Football Association (JFA) said on Tuesday it had decided not to take part in the South American championship in July as forming a competitive team had proved too difficult in the wake of the 11 March earthquake and tsunami.

Zaccheroni had wanted to use the Copa America in Argentina as a key test before Japan, who won a record fourth AFC Asian Cup title in January, launch their regional FIFA World Cup qualifiers in September. Japan were invited to take up outside guest spots in the four-yearly tournament alongside Mexico. The Blue Samurai would have played Bolivia, Colombia and hosts Argentina in Group A but will now be replaced by Costa Rica.

"I feel that the earthquake has turned the year into an exceptional one and forced us to make such a heart-rending decision," the 58-year-old Italian said in a statement. The former AC Milan boss added: "As a matter of course, we must keep looking forward. We need to focus on the World Cup qualifiers that are important to us and prepare for them with all we have."

Japan's withdrawal has left them with home friendlies against Peru, Czech Republic and Korea Republic before their opening FIFA World Cup qualifier on 2 September. The decision came after much soul-searching by the JFA, which had said in April it would send a team mostly made up of Europe-based players.

But JFA president Junji Ogura admitted it could not convince European clubs to free up their Japanese stars ahead of the start of the new season. The daily Sports Hochi reported on Wednesday that the JFA had been able to secure just five out of the 15 Europe-based players it had wanted to call up for the three-week Copa America.

JFA technical director Hiromi Hara told Japanese media all European clubs said they wanted to help Japan "in any way they could". "But with the European championship next summer, the season will start two weeks earlier than usual," he said, according to Kyodo news agency.

Hara said many of the Japanese are key players now. "And the clubs just cannot afford to let them go for such a long period of time."