Japan Under-20, the chance to get back up in South Korea

South Korea will host U-20 FIFA World Cup. A tournament which has always been a perfect showcase for the best youngsters in the world: it can’t be a coincidence that the Golden Ball – the award reserved to the best player in the competition – was assigned to Prosinečki, Saviola, Pogba, Agüero. A list also featuring the two most known Diez of Argentina’s football: Leo Messi and Diego Armando Maradona.

It’ll be a surprising edition for many aspects: the return to Asia 14 years on from the edition held in the United Arab Emirates, the 5th absence in a row by the defending champions (Serbia didn’t qualify), but also debuts (Vanautu and Vietnam) and excellent returns.
The latter category includes 13 teams, from hosting country South Korea to the prestigious duo composed by France and Italy.

But Japan’s history deserves a mention for different reasons: the young Nippon Daihyo doesn’t take part in a U-20 FIFA World Cup since 2007.

In that tournament, Japan brought home the FIFA Fair Play Award, but were eventually knocked out in the Round of 16 (losing on PKs by Czech Republic): the group managed by Yasushi Yoshida could count on future NT-members and J. League’s important players, like Atsuto Uchida, Tomoaki Makino, Masato Morishige, Yosuke Kashiwagi and mostly Shinji Kagawa. Those kids were part of a generation – born in 1986 and 1987 – from which Japan was expecting much. Some of them today, with Honda, Okazaki and Nagamoto, are the back bone of Japan’s national team. But none of them will match the Golden Generation that almost triumphed in the 1999 U-20 FIFA World Cup, played in Nigeria.

At that time, Japan manager Philippe Troussier opted to take the lead of the U-20 team, only few months before the senior side’s disappointing campaign in 1999 Copa América. The choice of working with the youth side proved wise and satisfactory, because the French manager could work with a group of brilliant players: of those 18 footballers, 11 have at least one cap with Japan National Team and some made history. Among those players, you could find Koji Nakata, Inamoto, Ogasawara, Takahara, alongside leaders like Yasuhito Endo and Shinji Ono.

That squad managed to beat England in the group stage, before overcoming Portugal, Mexico and Uruguay on their way to the final, where Japan met Spain – not an average opponent, since they could line up the likes of Xavi and Marchena, with a young Iker Casillas on the bench. The Red Fury dominated the match, thrashing Japan 4-0, a defeat that doesn’t take anything away from that impressive campaign.

From 2007, Japan missed out on four consecutive U-20 World Cups and they never repeated a similar feat. But while the ‘92 generation – the one which features Takashi Usami, Manabu Saito, Yoichiro Kakitani and Ryo Miyaichi – was disappointing, the current generation met the expectations.

Japan dominated the AFC U-19 Championship: no goals conceded, four wins (all of them with at least 3+ goal scored) and two draws; Ritsu Doan chosen as MVP of the tournament. They only defeated Saudi Arabia on penalties, but the group appeared well-talented. And manager Atsushi Uchiyama didn’t want to change too much for the upcoming World Cup.

The squad for the U-20 FIFA World Cup included a couple of surprising exclusions, as Kishimoto and Nakamura were ruled out. The rest of the group was confirmed, with Ritsu Doan as main star (and PSV target on football market in the last months). But all the eyes are on one name: Takefusa Kubo.

You may have seen some years ago a video with a little kid of Barcelona’s youth ranks dribbling his opponents without mercy. It might have been just a web-phenomenon, but instead he was a 10-year-old Kubo.

Born in Kawasaki (in Kanagawa prefecture), Kubo stayed for four years at La Masia (Barcelona youth centre) after being noticed in a youth tournament.
He started from Alevín C to reach Infantil A, but Barcelona broke some FIFA rules about the transfer of under-age players and so the club couldn’t field him anymore: so Kubo opted to come back to Japan to play for FC Tokyo. In the capital, the board immediately figured the great potential of this move and they promoted Kubo to first squad at 15 years-old.

On November 5th, 2016 Kubo debuted in pro-world with FC Tokyo U-23 in J3 League (3rd division of Japanese football).

But his rise has become unstoppable in 2017: the former prodigy of Barcelona scored his first pro-goal (always in third tier) and he even debuted with first squad, even if it’s happened in a J. League Cup game. To these record, you can add his call-up – even if he’s four years under-age for the competition – for U-20 FIFA World Cup, where he’ll be the youngest player. All of this after debuting also with U-20 Japan, scoring twice in friendly games.

At the end of his debut with FC Tokyo, photographers surrounded him.

The fans got angry because media’s pressure didn’t let the kid enjoy fans’ cheering at him. But Japan’s future will pass through this heap of expectations, all stored in this young and precocious talent; in Japan you can already hear some Messi-comparisons because they’re both left-footed and have a past in Catalonia. Italy, Uruguay and South Africa – the opponents in Japan’s group – are all warned.

Cover photo ©jfa.jp
Photo of Messi ©FIFA.com
Photo of Takefusa Kubo ©espn.com