ASUNCION, April 4, 2011 (AFP) - Asian champions Japan on Monday withdrew from the Copa America after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) spokesman Nestor Benitez said.
Japan Football Association (JFA) president Junji Ogura had earlier travelled to CONMEBOL's Paraguayan headquarters to update the confederation on the situation with the quake and tsunami having halted action in the domestic J-League, creating a fixture backlog now set to be resolved in July.
"Our priority is to save lives and rebuild our nation. We regret we cannot participate at the Copa America," said Ogura, who was due later to convey Japan's decision likewise to the Argentinian Federation, Argentina being the host nation of this year's Copa from July 1 to 24.
Amid unconfirmed media reports that world champions Spain might be invited to step into the breach Ogura told CONMEBOL head Nicolas Leoz that Japanese football was "facing an unprecedented crisis" after a catastophe which has left the country reeling.
He added that the JFA had intended to suspend the J-League during the Copa America, but "now we have to use this period to finish our domestic championship as the Asian qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup and the 2012 London Olympics are approaching."
Twelve teams had been due to take part in the continental showpiece with Mexico joining the Japanese as guests.
The Mexicans have joined the event on a number of occasions while the Japanese guested in 1999, exiting in the group phase.
The United States have also guested in the past.
Some Latin American media speculated following Japan's withdrawal that Argentine Federation president Julio Grondona, who is a FIFA vice-president, had begun negotiations designed to persuade Spain to become the first European side to play the tournament, the world's oldest international football event first staged in 1916.
Costa Rican Federation president Eduardo Li indicated there was "a possibility" his country "might be invited to take part," according to a report in La Nacion newspaper, although they are also playing in the Central American Copa de Oro across most of June.
Li said the issue of what might happen with Japan had been discussed by himself and Grondona on the sidelines of last week's friendly between Costa Rica and Argentina.
The Costa Ricans have played in the Copa America on three previous occasions.
Earlier, Ogura told Japanese media: "We had asked to be invited to the South American championship, first of all. Therefore, it is not for us to make a decision unilaterally."
He therefore travelled to South America to give a first-hand assessment of the situation to CONMEBOL and Copa organisers.
The 9.0-magnitude quake and tsunami devastated Japan's Pacific coast, leaving some 12,000 people dead while crippling a nuclear power plant, causing wide-ranging electricity cuts and heavy disruption to football, baseball and other sporting events.
The J-League has suspended its regular season for five rounds until April 23 to save the electricity used to stage night matches.
Japan had been drawn to play in Group A alongside hosts Argentina, Colombia and Bolivia.
They were to have faced Colombia in their opening match on July 2 at Jujuy, Bolivia five days later at the same venue and then the hosts in Cordoba on July 11.