On their recent tour of England, Japan Under 18 called up two London-born, half-Japanese players.
Injury meant Tottenham Hotspur’s Cy Goddard stayed with his club but Dan Matsuzaka of Southend United spent an educational week with the Japan squad.“It was a great experience. It was a different style of football to what I am used to. But I really enjoyed it,” he said at the end of the tour.
“It was a great experience. It was a different style of football to what I am used to. But I really enjoyed it,” he said at the end of the tour.
Matsuzaka, 17, was born to an English mother and a Japanese father in London. He was with Premier League side Crystal Palace until 16 but in 2014 joined Southend United who play in League One, England’s third professional division.
A Japanese football consultant based in the UK alerted the Japan Football Association to his eligibility and the England tour provided the perfect opportunity for them to take a closer look.
Matsuzaka describes himself as a “physical center back” and watching him in training at Liverpool’s academy it was clear that he brought something different to the Japan squad.
“I am a physically big and strong player. In an English training session you go close to 100% but here when we were defending crosses we were told to go 50%,” he said.
For a player schooled in England, the Japanese style of play required some adjustment. “At Southend, we are a bit more direct compared to Japan. With Japan, you play out from the back and try to keep the ball for longer periods of time to break down teams. Sometimes I wasn’t sure whether I should kick it long but I just tried to play the simple pass,” he said.
“At Southend, we are a bit more direct compared to Japan. With Japan, you play out from the back and try to keep the ball for longer periods of time to break down teams. Sometimes I wasn’t sure whether I should kick it long but I just tried to play the simple pass,” he said.
Taller than most, but not all, of his new colleagues Matsuzaka didn’t look out of place and performed solidly. One particular moment when he took down a high ball on his chest, turned and held off an attacker, and played a simple forward pass drew strong shouts of encouragement from coach Atsushi Uchiyama.
Matsuzaka is a fluent Japanese speaker but his on-pitch communication still needed a little refinement.
“My Japanese is quite good but the football language is slightly different,” he said.
“They are a lot quieter on the pitch compared to English football. I didn’t know exactly what words I needed to say but every day I thought I could communicate more with the players and it got easier as it went on.”
Matsuzaka in action with Southend United
He appeared in practice matches against Premier League side Liverpool, a 2-3 loss, and Championship side Birmingham City, a 1-1 draw. And was an unused substitute as Japan went down 5-1 to a strong England side.
This Japan squad has some highly rated players but the size, speed and strength of the England team proved too much for them to handle. In the face of some relentless pressing the Japan defence wilted. The attitude and resolve of his new teammates impressed Matsuzaka however.
“The team were quite disappointed afterwards. I spoke to one of the players after the game and he said they would come back and hopefully one day they will beat England. They have a good mentality.”
Matsuzaka and Goddard are not the only foreign-born players in the Japan youth ranks. Rui Yamaguchi, a goalkeeper from French Ligue 1 side Lorient, has played for Japan at Under 17 level and the Japanese system contains many other players with foreign experience.
Vahid Halilhodzic, the current coach of the senior Japan team, recently bemoaned a lack of creativity and individual thinking among Japanese players. Could individuals raised outside the Japanese system help remedy this situation?
Japan have become very good at producing technically sufficient players in specific positions but lack quality in other areas most notably center back and center forward. A willingness to diversify its talent pool is surely a positive move by the JFA.
Taking the chance to look at players like Matsuzaka on European visits makes sense. If there are players ready and willing to play, then, of course, Japan should see what they have to offer.
Matsuzaka enjoyed his first taste of international football and is hungry for more but also realistic about what this entails.
“Now I have seen the level I know how hard I need to work with my club. I need to improve little aspects of my game such as my build up play and my footwork,” he said.
Matsuzaka spent preseason with the Southend first team and was an unused substitute in the league last season. He currently plays for their Under 21 team and is progressing well.
Whether he will add to his international experience remains to be seen but Matsuzaka, who grew up playing for a Japanese youth team in London, is positive about the future of Japanese football.
“Other teams used to think that Japanese players weren’t very good so I have always wanted to show that was not true. Japan has some good players and can be one of the best teams in the world one day.”
Widening the search for football talent will surely enhance Japan’s future.
Interview by Simon Campbell