Australia and Japan's rapidly developing rivalry will play out its latest chapter on Tuesday as Asia's two top-ranked nations meet in a crucial 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifier in Brisbane. It will be the sixth competitive match between the pair since Australia joined the Asian Football Confederation in 2006, and remarkably, comes six years to the day since the first of those meetings at the 2006 FIFA World Cup. Each contest has, to varying degrees, provided gripping theatre with Australia unbeaten in three FIFA World Cup qualifiers and Japan edging two AFC Asian Cup meetings, including last year’s final in Qatar as Samurai Blue were crowned continental kings.
Adding yet another layer of poignancy is the fact that Australia’s two most prolific forwards over the past 12 months – Alex Brosque and Josh Kennedy - both ply their trade in Japan’s J.League. For two decades or so Australia’s best players have trod a well-worn path to clubs in Europe, but Japan’s fast-evolving national competition has suddenly become a popular destination. Five members of the Socceroos’ 25-man squad called up by Holger Osieck are currently based in Japan. Aside from Brosque and Kennedy, defensive trio Matthew Spiranovic (Urawa Red Diamonds), Jade North (Consadole Sapporo) and Mark Milligan (JEF United) all earn their keep in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Big in Japan
For Brosque and Kennedy, the move to Japan has coincided with a prosperous period in their respective careers for both club and country. Kennedy spent the best part of a decade in Germany but a succession of injuries saw the towering forward fail to secure long periods of game time. Yet Kennedy’s career blossomed immediately upon arrival in Japan, winning the J.League with Nagoya Grampus in his first season, and collecting the league’s top goalscorer crown in his second.
So too Brosque has discovered a new lease on life since joining Shimizu S-Pulse the season after Kennedy made his move to east Asia. Brosque has enjoyed a rejuvenated national team career after Osieck last year ended his four-absence from the international arena, with the German coach’s faith repaid with a five-goal return, including three in FIFA World Cup qualifying.
“It’s been a good year (in Japan) and has started off well,” Brosque told FIFA.com."Last year there was a difficult period around August, September, but I am now more used to playing every game and playing midweek.” Brosque, Sydney-born of Uruguayan parentage, has scored four goals this term for the club from the Shizuoka prefecture who are currently well placed in fourth as they hunt a maiden J.League title.
Despite having spent his entire career in the forward line or in a wide role, Brosque has been pushed into central midfield by club coach Afshin Ghotbi. Brosque only has words of praise for the former Iran coach and the influence he has had on his career, saying the move to midfield has broadened his footballing perspective. “He (Ghotbi) has shown a lot of faith and confidence in me and as a player you are lifted by a coach backing you,” said Brosque. “Playing in midfield definitely has helped me with the national team and it has added to my awareness on the field.”
The 28-year-old Brosque says the 18 months he has spent in Japan has helped his career develop significantly. “Japanese style of football is very sharp and very quick,” he said. “In the J.League you don’t have time to dwell on the ball or take too long to think about your options, so it took a bit of time to get used to. Playing in midfield means you have to think a bit quicker, but this season I feel a lot more comfortable.”
The portents are good for Australia’s Japan-based forwards heading into the home encounter against the Samurai Blue, with Brosque and Kennedy scoring the goals in a win over Thailand when the Socceroos last played in Brisbane. Brosque also scored a double in Australia’s most recent home FIFA World Cup qualifier against Saudi Arabia.
“I’m feeling a lot more confident and comfortable within the (Australia) team now,” said Brosque. “When a coach like Holger shows faith in you, it is about repaying that faith and taking your chance when it is there.”
With his combination alongside Kennedy having yielded seven of Australia’s 13 goals to date during Brazil 2014 qualifying, it is little surprise that Brosque enjoys the on-field company of the beanpole striker. “Playing with someone like Josh is great,” he said. “To be honest I have learned so much playing with the likes of Josh, Harry (Kewell) and Tim (Cahill). Josh attracts two defenders every time because of his height and ability in the air, and ability to bring in support players around him. I guess that allows me to find some extra space in the forward line. I enjoy playing with him and he is a nice guy as well.”
It is perhaps little surprise that Kennedy too is not only enjoying life in Japan, but also the partnership with his J.League colleague. “It is good to play alongside Brosquey, he is a smart guy and a smart player,” Kennedy told FIFA.com. “Myself and Brosquey have gone to the next level and Japan has helped our football in terms of playing and technically. I’m enjoying my football and life in Japan."
It remains to be seen who Osieck selects to lead the Socceroo attack, with Tim Cahill having famously scored a double against Japan at the 2006 FIFA World Cup and repeating the dose with a pair of headers during South Africa 2010 qualifying. Regardless though of the outcome in Brisbane, it is a rivalry that is set to develop further with each passing year.
“I enjoy playing against the Japanese national team and apart from the Asian Cup final we have had some good success against them,” said Kennedy. “Over the years it has built up to be a good rivalry and I think they enjoy it as much as we do.”