It’s an Olympic year and several J.League players are aiming to balance their domestic commitments with ambition to succeed at the Games…
Japan secured qualification for the Rio Olympics at the Asian Under 23 Championship at the end of January, and in the build-up to the Games in August there is sure to be plenty of attention on the J.League’s young hopefuls challenging for a seat on the plane to Brazil.
While the glare of the media spotlight will be trained on the battle to make the final squad, two of the players involved in the qualification process are trying to remain focused on their day jobs.
“It’s a big challenge for me to even get playing time at Kashima [Antlers] and there is a lot of competition for places here,” defender Naomichi Ueda said.
“I’ve been here since high school and chose this difficult environment myself. I know I have to fight to appear regularly and move up a level.”
Ueda played 12 times in the league for Antlers last season, and feels that the appointment of former player Masatada Ishii as coach midway through the season marked the start of a new era of success for the J.League’s most decorated club.
“We rallied after he took over and won the Nabisco Cup. I think that game has become the base for what this Kashima team is about and if we can continue playing in that way then I’m convinced results will follow this year.
“In this business results are everything. We’re a tenacious team and aim to tie that in with victories, and this year the league title is the one we all want – perhaps even more so than usual.
“I think it’s good to have attention on me. I’m aiming to not be affected by the pressure and to achieve results at Kashima. It doesn’t really bother me, if anything I want to play in a way to attract more attention.
“It was good that I was able to leave an impression in the qualifiers for Rio, but that has no meaning back at Antlers. I have to forget about winning [the Under 23 Championship] and just concentrate on achieving results back at Kashima.”
Musashi Suzuki of Albirex Niigata is similarly keen to leave the Olympics on the back-burner, and feels he is capable of ignoring the hype as it builds.
“I’ve come this far as a player, and within the focus of that process have been able to control my mentality well,” the 22-year-old forward said.
“The final round of qualifiers was a huge experience. There was a lot of pressure from the people back home, the kind I’d never felt before, so I feel I’m adapted to it now – I’ve had to adapt to it.
“Maybe I wasn’t able to perform especially well, but because of that experience it means that now I am able to relax a little when it comes to playing games in the J.League.”
While there were 23 players in the squad at the Under 23 Championship, only 18 are permitted at the Games themselves, within which up to three overage players can also be included.
That adds to the tension for the players tussling for their once in a lifetime appearance at the Olympics, but Suzuki is keen to face the challenge head on.
“There’s a chance a really top player may be called in, but I don’t want to give up before I’ve even begun,” he said. “We’re all in the same boat and know that if we are able to score lots of goals then we have a chance of being selected.
“With that in mind I know that it’s vital for me to produce results [at Albirex]. If I work hard in training that will give me chances to play in games, and if I can perform well in the games and score more goals for the team then hopefully that will lead to me being included in the final 18 members.”