Japan withdraw from Copa America

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TOKYO, Japan, May 18 – Japan has scrapped plans to play in the prestigious Copa America football tournament after initially deciding to compete in the wake of the devastating March 11 quake and tsunami.

"We are sorry to inform you that the Japanese team cannot participate in the Copa America 2011 in Argentina," the Japanese Football Association (JFA) said in a letter to the Argentine Football Federation. "We apologise deeply."

Japan and Mexico were invited as teams from outside South America to play in the regional tournament in July, where the Japanese had been drawn in Group A with the hosts, Bolivia and Colombia.

But their attendance was cast into doubt after the huge earthquake and tsunami laid waste to much of the country’s Pacific coast.

Initially the JFA said it would send the national team in spite of the devastation, but it has struggled to convince European clubs to release their Japanese star players ahead of the start of the new season.

"Under the current circumstance, we cannot form a team competitive for Copa America," JFA President Junji Ogura told reporters in Tokyo.

"Based on the judgement, we have unfortunately decided to decline," Ogura said. "It is extremely regrettable."

The South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) confirmed later Tuesday that Costa Rica have been invited to replace Japan in the tournament and the Costa Ricans accepted their invite later on Tuesday.

"The Confederation have officially sent an invitation to Costa Rica, who from the start have expressed their interest in playing this Copa America," CONMEBOL spokesman Nestor Benitez told AFP.

Costa Rica have played in the tournament three times.

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.

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

Many of Japan’s top 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 is usually spearheaded by CSKA Moscow midfielder Keisuke Honda, Borussia Dortmund goal machine 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.

Meanwhile, Japanese superstar Hidetoshi Nakata is to headline an earthquake charity match in Hong Kong against Spain’s Villareal next week, a report said on Wednesday.

The midfielder, known as Japan’s answer to David Beckham in his playing days, will turn out for Hong Kong league champions Kitchee in the fundraiser at Hong Kong Stadium next Thursday.

"We are happy to have secured Nakata’s services," Kitchee boss Ken Ng Kin told the South China Morning Post. "He has been very busy playing in a number of charity games and has to change his schedule to come to Hong Kong.

"Nakata will wear jersey number 80 as the match is also part of the club’s 80th anniversary celebrations."

Fashion-conscious footballer-turned-businessman Nakata played in Italy’s Serie A before ending his playing career at English Premier League club Bolton Wanderers in 2006.

Villareal, who have secured a fourth-place finish in Spain’s Primera Liga, will feature two members of Spain’s World Cup-winning team — Joan Capdevila and Carlos Marchena, the Post said.

Proceeds from the game will benefit charities dealing with victims of Japan’s March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which left thousands dead or missing and many more homeless.

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