With Japan travelling to Argentina next year as special invitees to the Copa America I decided to focus a little on the competition for my Weekly Soccer Magazine column last week. Many thanks to Sebastian Garcia (www.mundoalbiceleste.com) for his assistance with the article.
The draw for the 2011 Copa America was made on November 11th and Japan’s inclusion has raised some eyebrows – with certain parties suggesting that the Samurai Blue’s presence devalues the competition and turns it into more of an exhibition. The team is sure to benefit greatly from the experience though, and it will be interesting to see what kind of squad Alberto Zaccheroni decides to take with him to Argentina.
Japan will come up against Colombia, Bolivia and, most excitingly, Argentina in Group A and, in order to find out a little more about what the team can expect, I sat down with Sebastian Garcia, an Argentine football journalist and editor of mundoalbiceleste.com, and picked his brains.
Colombia, the 2001 Copa America champions, are Japan’s first opponents and the defence will have to be wary of two players in particular. Striker Radamel Falcao Garcia currently plays for Portuguese side FC Porto and, as a graduate of the River Plate youth team, will be a popular player around the country during the tournament.
Possibly starting alongside him, although probably slightly further back, will be Racing Club’s no. 10 Giovanni Moreno. Moreno is a free-kick specialist who Seba informs me looks slow but is almost impossible to catch once he gets going.
This match will take place in Jujuy, which is nicknamed the ‘little silver cup’. Jujuy is famous for its salt-fields and is the hometown of former Argentina international Ariel Ortega. The venue, Estadio 23 de Agosto, is home to Gimnasia y Esgrima de Jujuy – who wear the same colours as the Argentina national team – and is also where Japan will play their next match against Bolivia.
Bolivia experienced a difficult World Cup qualifying campaign, finishing second to bottom with just Peru below them. Despite this they will have a slight home-field advantage, with Jujuy actually closer to Bolivia (290km) than it is to Buenos Aires (1,525km). The Bolivians will also be more used to the altitude, although, at 1,259 metres it is not quite as severe as La Paz. Their main threat will be Marcelo Moreno Martins, their half-Brazilian striker who plays for Shakhtar Donetsk.
Finally, hopefully with 6 points already in the bag, Japan will head south to Cordoba where they will face Argentina for top spot in the group!
Cordoba is situated exactly in the middle of Argentina and is the hometown of former Shimizu S-Pulse coach Ossie Ardiles and 1978 World Cup top scorer Mario Kempes – after whom the city’s Copa America venue is named.
Argentina are tied with Uruguay for the most Copa America titles (14), although they haven’t triumphed since 1993 – the last major trophy they won.
Sergio Batista – who was caretaker boss for the 1-0 defeat in Saitama in October and is now in permanent charge – played in Japan for Tosu Futures in the 1995/96 season, and, like Zaccheroni, will still be in the relatively early stages of forming his team.
As such, while Argentina is sure to be full of household names, it is likely that there may be one or two new faces in action come July. Seba’s one-to-watch is Palermo’s Javier Pastore, who is from Cordoba and so sure to receive a warm reception from the home fans.
The Copa America falls in the off-season for the European leagues so most of Japan’s big names will probably be able to travel, and the J.League’s finest will also be available with the division taking a break for the tournament.
Having been in Guangzhou for the past month watching Takashi Sekizuka’s U21 team at the Asian Games, I would personally like to see a couple of those players given a chance too though – particularly captain Kazuya Yamamura and, of course, the much-feted Kensuke Nagai.
The on-field antics sure to be taking place in South America will be a million miles away from the University leagues back in Japan, and the opportunity to learn more about the ‘nasty’ side of the game would aid their development greatly.
Such first-hand experience would also be vital for these players when bearing in mind that that many of them will be hoping to be involved in the next World Cup in Brazil just three years later.