Mascot JapanJapan WILL participate in the Copa America, the Japan Football Association (JFA) announced yesterday. The JFA informed South American football confederation Conmebol by letter that it will send a team to Argentina in July. This means that Japan’s UFWC title match against Colombia is back on.

‘The JFA decided to participate in the Copa America today,’ general secretary Kozo Tashima said. ‘We are in the process of notifying Conmebol as we speak.’

The JFA had declared its intention to withdraw from the tournament following the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on 11 March. In addition to the burden of dealing with the after-effects of the disaster, there was a conflict with re-arranged J-League fixtures, suspended at the time, and now to be played in July.

Although JFA President Junji Ogura had agreed with Conmebol that his country should not participate, and Spain was invited to take its place, the Copa America organising committee subsequently asked Japan to reconsider. The feeling seems to be that the JFA believe participation can boost morale at home, and show the rest of the world that Japan is recovering. The JFA has clearly been moved by messages of support. Julio Grondona, the president of the Argentinean FA, has said, ‘I want to hold the Copa America for the people of Japan.’

However, doubts remains over which Japanese players will take part in the tournament. The JFA has confirmed that J-League 1 clubs will not have to release their players. Therefore Alberto Zaccheroni will be without the likes of Gamba Osaka midfielder Yasuhito Endo. However, J-League 2 clubs will have to release their players, so it’s likely defender Yasuyuki Konno will travel to Argentina, to the consternation of his club FC Tokyo.

A potentially bigger problem involves Japan’s many overseas-based players, 28 of whom play for European clubs. These clubs will expect their players to be in pre-season training in July, and would not normally be obliged to release them for the Copa America. However, FIFA has stated that it will consider changing its rules to force the clubs to release Japanese players for the tournament.

In the event that Japan is not able to secure the release of its best players and cannot field its strongest team, there has to be a question mark over whether its Copa America fixtures can be classed as FIFA ‘A’ matches. Only FIFA ‘A’ matches, in which ‘both Associations field their first national representative team’, count as UFWC title matches. So there could well be more twists and turns yet to come in this saga.

However, as it stands, we’re looking forward to the UFWC recommencing with Japan vs Colombia at Estadio 23 de Agosto, San Salvador de Jujuy, Argentina, on 2 July.

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