Japan has the highest proportion of elderly citizens of any country in the world. The irony is when the Samurai Blue takes to the pitch against Australia tonight, it’s the Socceroos who’ll attract all the attention for their age.
The Australian team which drew 0-0 in its opening fourth round World Cup qualifier against Oman had a combined average age of almost 32. Goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer, 39, was arguably the best player on the pitch, while captain Lucas Neill is 34. If fact, there’s barely a key player in the Socceroos squad currently under the age of 30.
Japan, on the other hand, is brimming with youthful exuberance. Their fresh-faced vitality is best personified by attacking talent Shinji Kagawa – the erstwhile Borussia Dortmund star soon to strut his stuff on the hallowed turf of Old Trafford. The soon-to-be Manchester United playmaker is widely considered one of Asia’s most talented players and the fleet-footed 23-year-old is no doubt licking his lips in anticipation at the prospect of taking on Australia’s ageing back four.
Keisuke Honda is another with his best years ahead of him. The CSKA Moscow midfielder announced his arrival on the international scene with a barnstorming campaign at the 2010 World Cup and the 25-year-old has rapidly developed into a talisman for the national team. Together with the likes of teenage Arsenal striker Ryo Miyaichi, defenders Atsuto Uchida and Yuto Nagatomo and front men Shinji Okazaki and Mike Havenaar, there’s plenty of young talent available to keep Japanese stocks ticking over.
The same can’t be said for the Socceroos and it’s surely a concern for Football Federation Australia. Six years ago to the day, Australia recorded its most famous victory – a come-from-behind 3-1 win over Japan at the World Cup in Germany. The hero that day, Tim Cahill, is expected to be recalled to Australia’s starting side for tonight’s blockbuster in Brisbane. Australia’s squad is still heaving with veterans from the 2006 campaign. A highpoint in Australian football it may have been, but the win in Kaiserslautern is increasingly becoming the millstone around Socceroos coach Holger Osieck’s neck.
With few young players putting their hands up for selection, Osieck has been forced to rely on experience in what has been a largely conservative campaign to date. Eighteen months ago the likes of Tommy Oar and Matthew Leckie were expected to push their claims for regular international football but the pair have struggled for first-team football in Europe. Others like Nikita Rukavytsya and Dario Vidosic have seemingly wasted their chances at international level, leaving tried-and-true old stagers like Cahill, Harry Kewell and a recently recalled Mark Bresciano to carry the slack.
And that could be a problem for a Socceroos defence desperate to keep the Japanese strike force at bay. The Samurai Blue haven’t exactly been goal-shy in the fourth round of qualifying to date, hammering Oman 3-0 before thumping Jordan 6-0 in their two games in Saitama. They don’t always play well on the road, but there’s no reason for Alberto Zaccheroni’s side to approach their trip to Brisbane with anything but the utmost confidence.
So it is that Australia experiences the rare occurrence of going into a home game as underdogs. The role may have suited the Socceroos in the past but there’s a growing sense of unease over the lack of progress being made under Osieck’s watch. He’s gambled on an ageing squad to try and beat a rampant Japan in Brisbane, but victory will only mask a far bigger problem. The Socceroos may qualify for the World Cup in Brazil, but unless Osieck uncovers some talented youngsters to take with him, the squad will almost certainly be too old to seriously compete once they get there.
© Mike Tuckerman & Soccerphile
© Mike Tuckerman & Soccerphile
Euro 2012 football