Japan will play in Copa America 2011

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Japan said on Thursday they would take part in the Copa America, reversing an earlier decision to withdraw from the event in the aftermath of a massive earthquake and tsunami.

“By going out there, we want to show the international community, not simply international football circles, that Japan is hanging on,” Japan Football Association vice president Kozo Tashima said.

“If we withdraw, I believe it may have a negative impact,” he told a news conference after the JFA executive committee approved the trip by the Blue Samurai, who won a record fourth Asian Cup title in January.

The South American championship in July may help show Japan what they need to do to compete at the highest level, just weeks before they kick off their campaign to qualify for a fifth straight World Cup since their debut in 1998.

Japan and Mexico are the only two non-South American sides invited to take part in the July 1-24 Copa America in Argentina.

The twin disasters of March 11 severely damaged a nuclear power plant in Japan’s northeast, causing widespread electricity cuts that forced the temporary suspension of the J-League.

The league has rescheduled its backlogged fixtures to be played during a break in July.

J-League clubs have agreed to cooperate with Japan’s participation in the Copa America on condition that Europe-based players make up the bulk of the national squad coached by former AC Milan boss Alberto Zaccheroni.

Argentina Football Association president Julio Grondona reportedly urged JFA president Junji Ogura last week to rethink their withdrawal.

Ogura said he had been given assurances that world football’s governing body FIFA was considering an exceptional measure to require European clubs to free up Japanese players for the Copa, despite their guest status.

Senior JFA figures want “a half or more” of the Copa squad to be players based in Europe, Tashima said. “It is up to manager Zaccheroni to decide how many.”

Zaccheroni, presently visiting his home country of Italy, is due to return to Japan before the J-League restarts on April 23.

He told Japanese media on Wednesday that the Copa America would be an “important step to help Japan grow before the World Cup.”

But German Bundesliga side Schalke, who reached the Champions League semi-finals on Wednesday, are reluctant to release Japanese defender Atsuto Uchida in July.

“We have a professional obligation to get the team in shape for an important and long season at that time of the year,” Schalke sporting director Horst Heldt told Kyodo news agency. “It will be difficult for us to let him go.”

JFA technical director Hiromi Hara told reporters he might ask the South American Football Confederation to join him in seeking approval from European clubs about the release of Japanese players.

Many Japanese players moved to Europe after the Blue Samurai reached the last 16 in South Africa last June in their best ever World Cup finish on foreign soil.

Japan’s squad are usually spearheaded by CSKA Moscow midfielder Keisuke Honda, Borussian Dortmund goalmachine Shinji Kagawa and Stuttgart striker Shinji Okazaki.

Left back Yuto Nagatomo, now on loan to Inter Milan from Cesena, is a key defender for Japan, along with Uchida.

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