Mascot JapanAs UFWC Champions Japan prepare for the next defence of their title against Peru there are some questions surrounding which players will be involved.

Given Japan’s participation in the Copa America in July will require a largely European based squad supplemented by some of the younger home based players, the possibility is that coach Alberto Zaccheroni will use the upcoming Peru and Czech Republic matches to look at possible players for that squad.

As a consequence of the earthquake earlier this year, and the suspension of the J-League, domestic football in Japan will continue through its usual mid-season break in July, meaning that the home based star players may not be available to go to the Copa America. Certainly there will be a limit as to how many can be taken from each club.

This could open the door to a few new names joining the European based players (of which there are a growing number). Ideally some of the younger stars may get their chance, the likes of Kensuke Nagai (star of the 2010 Asian Games winning U-21 squad) or even teenager Takashi Usami of Gamba Osaka may get a look in.

From the European based contingent, all eyes are on Feyenoord’s highly impressive (and on loan from Arsenal) midfielder Ryo Miyaichi who is yet to play for the national team, but that will surely change sooner rather than later, with the Peru match the first such opportunity.

Those new to the national team could take great inspiration from the most unlikely hero of Japan’s UFWC run – the match winner from the last title match, the Asian Cup Final against Australia. The extra-time winner that day was a fabulous volley from Tadanari Lee, a player who had never played for Japan prior to the Asian Cup.

Indeed his appearance late in the Final was only his second international cap, but what a way to make his mark. Lee is a Japanese of Korean descent, and indeed represented South Korea at U-19 and U-20 level.

Due to his Korean descent, he was not automatically a Japanese citizen (despite being third generation Japanese) and only received his citizenship in 2007. He first represented Japan at U-23 level, going on to play in the 2008 Olympics.

Japan’s run as UFWC Champions has seen a few other unlikely names grabbing a little bit of the limelight too from their better known colleagues (by which I mean Keisuke Honda of CSKA Moscow, Shinji Kagawa of Borussia Dortmund, Yuto Nagatomo of Inter, Atsuto Uchida of Schalke, Yasuhito Endo of Gamba) along the way.

The title was claimed with a 1-0 win over Argentina thanks to a goal from Shinji Okazaki, a player who while nominally a striker doesn’t usually strike too much fear into the hearts of opposing defences, although at times he is deployed as a wide man rather than an out and out striker.

His goal that day owed a lot to a fine thunderbolt of a shot from midfielder Makoto Hasebe which the Argentine keeper failed to hold and the rebound was duly despatched by Okazaki.

Since playing at the World Cup last summer Okazaki has made the big move to Europe with VfB Stuttgart, which is an undoubted step up from the J-League, but he still needs to add more goals to his game.

That match against Argentina was the debut for the new coach Alberto Zaccheroni, a man who finds himself still unbeaten as Japan manager in a reign that lasts an identical period to Japan’s UFWC crown.

Another who played well that day and went on to star for Japan in the Asian Cup success, helping to make Japan both Asian Cup and UFWC holders, was goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima. Established as Japan’s clear number 1 following the retirement of Seigo Narazaki, Kawashima also headed to Europe after the World Cup, in his case to the lower reaches of the Belgian League, to Lierse.

The best thing to say about him playing for Lierse is that he certainly gets plenty of goalkeeping practice! For Japan he is an impressive last line of defence and his Asian Cup performances progressed from shaky and catastrophic in the early stages to heroic and match winning by the end.

In the semi-final and final he was in terrific form and his experience was a vital ingredient too, given the relative lack of experience in central defence ahead of him during that tournament.

Throughout that tournament Japan’s key moments fell to some of the less likely players rather than the established names, and in the upcoming fixtures more such players may get their opportunity to shine.

Aidan Williams writes about Japanese football at the popular Japan World Cup Team Blog.