The Italian job in Tokyo: new captain Ishikawa Yuki ready to lead Japanese men back to Olympic podium

Locked in on first medal since 1972, the Milan-based spiker is ready to lead his country by example and words at Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021.
By Shintaro Kano

For Ishikawa Yuki and the Japanese men's volleyball team, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games begin on Friday (28 May) in his home away from home - Italy.

“We didn’t play overseas last season. We qualified as the host country”, Ishikawa said in an interview ahead of the start of the men’s Volleyball Nations League.

“The others fought through qualifying to get in which is a significant difference.

“It’s important for us to treat the Nations League like an Olympic qualifier.

“Shouldn’t matter how the other teams regard it. To us, it’s an important competition for the Games.

“If we don’t make the most of it, I don’t see us having a chance (at the Olympics). The Nations League will be crucial”.

Ishikawa and Japan take on Asian rivals Iran in their opening match of the month-long tournament in Rimini.

The two teams have also been drawn in the same pool for Tokyo 2020, as have Canada, Poland and Italy who Japan will also face at the Nations League.

For Japan, the Nations League is their first international competition since September 2019, when they placed fourth at the World Cup - their best result in 28 years.

'Capitano' Ishikawa

Ishikawa has been a familiar face on the national side since making his senior debut in 2014 but for the Nations League, even he will be walking into unfamiliar territory - that of team captain.

In a move that raised eyebrows around the Japanese volleyball community, coach Nakagaichi Yuichi in April named the 25-year-old Ishikawa his new skipper in place of Yanagida Masahiro, who had held the captaincy since 2018.

Nakagaichi explained in a press conference that he made the move because he feels Tokyo 2020, with the one-year postponement of the Games, has become a part of the cycle for Paris 2024.

“I know it’s Tokyo Games year but we now only have three years to Paris”, the former Japan standout said.

“Preparations for Paris are already underway and I felt we need to start building the team accordingly, which is why I decided to change captains.

“I had always demanded leadership from Ishikawa on the court the last three years.

“But with his experience in Italy, I am convinced he now has what it takes to be captain”.

Ishikawa said captaining Japan was something he had been targeting all long.

“It’s an honour to be named captain for starters”, he said. “After spending years with the national team, I always wanted to be captain. - Ishikawa Yuki

“This season is very important with the Olympics coming up. As captain I want to make sure we are together as a team.

“We have some extremely talented players. I want to be a captain who can bring out the best in us.

“I want everyone to capitalise on his strength. That is the kind of team I want us to be - a team that can capitalise on the individuals.”

The Serie A has helped take Ishikawa's game to a whole new level.

Ishikawa is coming off a season - his sixth in the Italian Superlega - in which he led Powervolley Milano with 470 points.

He appeared in the post-season for the first time, was instrumental in helping Milano lift the CEV Challenge Cup and has come into his own.

Ishikawa, who recently extended his contract with Powervolley until 2022, said acclimatising to not only the Italian game but also the country’s culture has honed his leadership skills.

The Serie A is where he wants to be and is certain the league will mold him into one of the top players in the world.

Ishikawa hopes to lead in the manner of Bruno Rezende, his former teammate at Modena Volley and captain of reigning Olympic champions Brazil.

The emphasis for Japan will be communication, he said.

“I think the most important thing will be communication”, said Ishikawa, who announced that he signed an extension with Milano two weeks ago.

“I learned to express myself in Italy. The Japanese players get it but it’s an area that still needs work.

“I want us to be a group capable of speaking up”.

Carrying a nation's hopes

As captain of his country, Ishikawa has his work cut out.

The Japanese men will be returning to the Olympic stage for the first time since Beijing 2008, where they finished 11th.

The men’s team have not reached the Games podium since 1972, when Japan won the gold medal.

Yet while there is a lot of history to rewrite, Ishikawa is determined to lead Japan back to prominence during the 24 July-7 August men’s tournament.

“I’m after a medal as long as we’re in this fight.

“Getting there hinges on the pool phase. We not only need to get through but get through playing well.

“Eight teams left after the pool phase. You win one and you’re in the semi-final and then winning a medal starts to become very real.

“There are no unbeatable teams. We have a shot. All it takes is one win”.

Ishikawa Yuki is eyeing Japan's first men's volleyball medal since Munich 1972.
Picture by 2019 Getty Images