"It was an uphill battle competing with our national team in international matches,
but I'm trying to make the best of my experience," says Inamoto Jun-ichi.(Photo credit: Gamba Osaka)
Photo by Takahashi Noboru
The year 2002 will long be remembered as the time that Japan co-hosted the World Cup. Japan's national team has been tested in a number of international competitions and has rapidly gained strength and skill, and one of the most admired and vital members on the team is 21-year old Inamoto Jun-ichi. When he joined Gamba Osaka in 1997, he was the youngest ever to have been chosen to play professional soccer under the J. League banner--he was only seventeen and a half. It didn't take long for his talents to be recognized. Playing midfielder, an important position requiring defensive and offensive expertise, he has made a big difference to Gamba Osaka and the national team.
"A midfielder moves after assessing the overall situation on the field. That's something that comes naturally to me. If I get to play in the World Cup, I hope I can play both defense and offense, as a midfielder.
"Japan is gaining strength in world soccer. But we're still not close to being among the top. We're not as fast--we're slower in passing, running, making split-second decisions. We lag behind in every way. That's because the history and environment of soccer in Japan are different than those of the top countries. It won't be easy to pull ourselves up to the top."
Inamoto began playing soccer when he was four, with his parents' encouragement. When he was in junior high school, he joined the 15-and-under junior youth team run by the local pro soccer club, Gamba Osaka. His rise to the international soccer stage was amazingly fast, and he attracted plenty of attention, first as a member of Japan's youth team, and then when he played with the national team at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, and at the Asia Cup.
In July 2001, he joined the virtuoso Arsenal Football Club, a team in the British Premier League. Like another Japanese player, Nakata Hidetoshi--who joined the Italian Serie A pro soccer league--Inamoto has many fans who are convinced that he will make his mark on the world stage.
"In early 2001, we competed against some of the world's best teams, like Spain and France. That gave me a lot of insight into the game. Each player, each team, has a strong sense of purpose. To get to their level, all we can do is train really hard every day. All I can do is push myself as hard as I can.
"The World Cup will come to Japan probably only once in my lifetime, and I want to be right there on the field. I'm going to give it my best, and I hope our fans will cheer us on when it counts."