Eiji Kawashima is the only successful Japanese goalkeeper in Europe so far. He has experienced ups and downs in the Old Continent, where he’s plied his trade since after the 2010 World Cup. Kawashima especially stood out in Belgium during his peak at Standard Liège in the 2013-14 season, with 22 clean sheets and only 35 goals conceded over the course of 47 matches. But since then his accumulated errors for club and country have caught up with him, as his standing faded at both.
The keeper left Standard in July 2015 and spent six months without a club, eventually joining Dundee United. At 32, the odds of reviving his career were not in his favour. He suffered in his thankless and Sisyphean task of rescuing the Scottish Premier League side from imminent and inevitable relegation. At the same time Kawashima was coping with the end of his time with the Samurai Blue, as several J.League goalkeepers showed signs of being ready to assume his mantle.
Shusaku Nishikawa, who was elected to five straight J.League Best Elevens between 2012 and 2016, emerged as Kawashima’s natural replacement in the National Team. While head coach Vahid Halilhodzic insisted that Japan’s number one spot was still up for grabs, the Urawa Reds shot-stopper was always between the posts in important games. However, Nishikawa never really convinced and has yet to impress wearing the hinomaru.
Halilhodzic surprised everyone when he gave Kawashima one more chance in last March’s decisive FIFA World Cup qualifier against United Arab Emirates. Even if the veteran wasn’t getting playing time at Metz, his club in France, the Bosnian manager valued his experience and trusted him more than Nishikawa.
Kawashima silenced his critics and recovered his place once and for all thanks to good performances against UAE and Thailand. Nishikawa, whose form was also suffering at the club level as his Urawa Reds lurched from one crisis to another, not only fell out of the starting eleven but was dropped from the squad as well. His mistakes playing the ball off his foot – his usual forte – increased dramatically. Capable of unleashing spectacular saves at one moment and allowing soft goals at another, Nishikawa has not demonstrated the reliability one would expect from an international goalkeeper.
With just nine months remaining until the World Cup, is there not a J.League goalkeeper capable of competing with Kawashima?
I would insist that there is: Kosuke Nakamura, who for the last year has arguably been the best goalkeeper in Japan. The revelation from Kashiwa Reysol possesses enough talent to be Japan’s starter in 2022, and perhaps even earlier if Kawashima’s form slips. At 22 years old, there is some concern that it might be too early to put Nakamura under such pressure. He only earned his first call-up in June and has yet to make his national team debut.
More troublingly, the J.League has little to offer the Samurai Blue at this position beyond Nakamura. The J1’s top goalkeepers right now are all foreigners, such as Poland’s Krzysztof Kaminski (Júbilo Iwata) or South Koreans Kim Seung-gyu (Vissel Kobe), Kim Jin-hyeon (Cerezo Osaka) and Jung Sung-ryong (Kawasaki Frontale).
Current national team backup Masaaki Higashiguchi arguably deserved more chances in goal, but his 2017 performances for Gamba Osaka have been nothing more than passable and it’s unlikely he’ll take to the pitch for Japan. Akihiro Hayashi (FC Tokyo) and Shuichi Gonda (Sagan Tosu) have some experience in Europe but have been unable to hold onto national team spots.
It’s clear that the J.League needs to improve its goalkeeper development and catch up to AFC rivals South Korea and Australia, who have made great progress at the position. More importance and emphasis must be given to goalkeeping and its fundamentals. In order to reduce their gap with the rest of the world, Japan needs more talent like Nakamura to emerge and aim for a career in Europe, allowing them to potentially surpass Kawashima as the national team’s standard-bearer between the posts.
Tiago Bontempo is a Brazilian journalist specializing in Japanese football for Globo. He can be found on Twitter at @GunnerTNB