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Rising Nations: Japanese football set for a golden era

Japanese football could be set for a golden era at the next World Cup.

On the 24th October 1968, one hundred thousand people crammed themselves inside the Azteca stadium. It was cauldron. Fans adorned with green, white and red were everywhere. With sweat drooping from their foreheads they waited anxiously to watch their beloved Mexico play Japan for a bronze medal in the Olympics. As the game began, the crowd roared and echoed into the humid Mexico City night.

Japan’s Kunishige Kamamoto would have heard the cacophony of drums booming in his ears as he chested down a looping the ball inside the Mexican penalty area. It was twenty minutes into kick-off. He showed no nerves striking the ball into the back of the net with a delicate volley to open the scoring. Another twenty minutes later Kamamoto doubled the score from outside the box with a deft finish sliding across the turf past the helpless Mexican goalkeeper.

Mexico failed to reply to Kamamoto’s brace as the Japanese secured their first ever medal in an international football competition.

The nation’s success, having stormed past the likes of Brazil and France to get to the semi-finals, was meant to herald a new dawn in Japanese football.

But despite Kamamoto’s seven goals at the tournament, and having brought back a bronze medal, baseball continued to dominate in the ensuing decades. Football meanwhile failed to inspire the Japanese people.

A manga series

Instead, it would only surge in popularity in the 1980s. It wasn’t on the pitch where the sport piqued the peoples’ interest however. Football captivated Japan in the form of fiction. The successful Captain Tsubasa manga series launched in 1981 created a football craze in the nation.

The series, centred on Tsubasa Oozora, a young kid who is obsessed with football, tells the adventures of an aspiring footballer. It captures Tsubasa fulfilling his dreams of competing for Japan at the World Cup. The series became a cult favourite and an instant classic which has now been made into a cartoon and a video game.  

Dan Orlowitz has covered Japanese football for almost 14 years. He currently works for Japan Times.

‘The last few generations of Japanese footballers all grew up on Captain Tsubasa,’ he tells First Time Finish.

The series is entrenched in Japanese culture.

‘We love our comics, it’s a huge part of the culture. Tsubasa was iconic. He’s iconic even today. They’re still putting out new stuff.’

Japanese icon Hidetoshi Nakata credits Captain Tsubasa as the beginning of his football awakening and that was the case for much of Japan at the time. Stars such as Zinedine Zidane, Fernando Torres and Lionel Messi also claim to have been inspired by the series.

Captain Tsubasa created a football revolution. Kids wanted to play football to emulate their hero Tsubasa’s adventures and it would prove to be a catalyst towards challenging the baseball hegemony in the country.

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A modern era

Ultimately the craze led to the inception of the J.League in 1993 and football has continued to grow steadily in popularity ever since.

Undoubtedly, the 2002 World Cup co-hosted with South Korea, where Japan secured their first ever victory at the tournament and reached the round of 16, also proved to be a major inspiration for Japanese children to take up the sport.

Japan’s current star, Takumi Minamino, has claimed his first memories of football were from that fated tournament, and Minamino could be among a number of emerging Japanese players who could lead the nation into a new golden era.

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Since the 2002 World Cup, Japan have qualified for every proceeding tournament since. They have even reached the round of 16 twice more in 2010 and 2018.

But so far, a place in the quarter final has eluded them.

Minamino and co could be the first to take Japan into that unprecedented landmark as early as the 2022 tournament in Qatar.

Japan were admirable at the last World Cup in 2018. They played an innovative  4-2-3-1 possession based system. Often this reverted to a 3-3-1-3 when in possession which enabled a fluid attacking build-up. This pushed the full-backs further forward to support the two wide-men and the solitary striker.

The two linchpins of the side, Shinji Kagawa who played in the number ten role and Makoto Hasebe who played as the holding midfielder and was often the one to push back into defence, have since either retired from international football or regressed in quality due to age.

A new generation

However, Japan has been fortunate that in their place, they have seen the emergence of a plethora of exciting young talents playing in some of Europe’s best leagues and who are still perfectly suited to the innovative 4-2-3-1 system.

Liverpool’s Takumi Minamino has replaced Shinji Kagawa as the number ten and has played a crucial role in the qualification for the World Cup in 2022 scoring in every single qualifier so far. His ability to drift into space as well as to find space for his teammates has been an invaluable asset.

On the wing the likes of Ritsu Doan of PSV and Shoya Nakajima of Porto are two potent bright sparks with promising futures. They are both extremely direct wingers who are blessed with pace and the ability to take their opponents on one on one and have proved to be key assets in Japan’s current system. Ritsu Doan was especially impressive during a recent 4-3 victory over Uruguay in which he found the back of the net and also handed out an assist to help secure a famous result.

In the number nine role, Daichi Kamada, who has been impressive for Frankfurt this season has also been a key option. The forward who has been linked with a move to Arsenal, has a great technical ability and a lethal eye for goal. Supplemented by rapid pace and versatility, Kamada can fulfil a number of roles but he has mainly been used at the sole forward due to his goalscoring prowess for Japan.  

The quartet with the exception of Nakajima are all under 25 which means they can be key servants for Japan well beyond the 2022 World Cup.  

Japan are further aided in midfield by the astute Gaku Shibasaki of Deportivo and Wataru Endo of Stuttgart who play in the holding midfield roles and interchange between dropping off into defence.

At the heart of the defence, Maya Yoshida is a stalwart figure and at 31 years of age he could be the leader at the Qatar World Cup. Alongside him, 21 year old Takehiro Tomiyasu of Bologna is one for the future after an impeccable debut season in Serie A which has already piqued the interest of Roma. The tall centre-back is composed on the ball and possess an abundance of pace which could be the perfect antidote to Yoshida’s more direct approach.

With the right-back position taken by the accomplished Hiroki Sakai, currently employed by Marseille, and his deputy 19 year old Yukinari Sugawara of AZ Alkmaar, Japan are spoilt for choice. The left-back position could be an area of weakness however, Yuto Nagatomo formerly of Inter Milan will be almost 36 years old at the 2022 tournament and his pace has already started to dwindle.

Though perhaps Ryo Miyaichi formerly of Arsenal has made his resurgence at the perfect time. Miyaichi began his career as a winger. At Arsenal he was once dubbed as ‘Ryodinho’ due to his flair but his career never fulfilled the early hype. However he has now transitioned into a full-back for Bundesliga 2 side St Pauli and has managed to chip in with an impressive seven assists in the role this season.

Though Miyaichi is yet to receive a re-call from Japan if he continues in the same form, one could beckon for him on the horizon.

Bright future

In addition to an impressive core, Japan also have a few hugely exciting wonderkids who could play a role in Qatar and in the future to help the nation secure that long coveted quarter final place.

Takefusa Kubo is already knocking on the door after having signed for Real Madrid and having made a mark on loan at La Liga outfit RCD Mallorca this season. Diminutive but extremely agile and possessing a low centre of gravity, Kubo has mesmerised La Liga defences this season and looks like a real talent.

Hiroki Abe of Barcelona B is another one to watch out for. At 21 perhaps a place in Barcelona’s first team has eluded him but he could have a successful career in one of the top five divisions in Europe and is lightning quick.

Jun Nishikawa was thoroughly impressive at the U17 World Cup. He is already linked with a move to Barcelona and has been compared to Andres Iniesta. At just 18 years of age Nishikawa has already netted his first J.League goal.

Meanwhile, Benfica’s young goalkeeper Leo Kokubo is another one to watch.

Area of weakness

Since the early 2000s Japan have always had solid teams. But the current crop are already starting to stand out from the rest. They are currently ranked 28th in the world which is one of the best rankings in the nation’s history since the 2002 World Cup only surpassed in 2011, 2005 and 2004.

They are stacked in the midfield department. It’s something Dan Orlowitz refers to as the ‘Tsubasa syndrome.’ Neither Kamada or Minamino are what you describe as out and out forwards.

Goalkeeper could be an area of weakness. Dan explains why;

‘The fact that a 37 year old Eiji Kawashima is still in the picture sort of tells you where we’re at. We were supposed to get Kosuke Nakamura but after his concussions he hasn’t been the same.’

Even so Japan look poised for success in the long term. The added star power of players like Minamino will only help their fluid system blossom. Whether this generation will finally be able to reach the long sought after quarter final finish and become only the second Asian nation to do it after South Korea, only time will tell.

Growing football culture

Japanese football has made the right steps. Dan Orlowitz tells me the football culture is growing in Japan. The main high-school tournament gets around fifteen to twenty thousands spectators on average and the final hosts around fifty thousand each year. As Dan puts it:

‘There is no U18 tournament in the world that can boast figures like that.’

The J.League has become a respected competition since its inception and the Japanese players playing abroad continues to grow year after year. They have started to move to European clubs at a younger age too.

‘It used to be that the J.League was sending out players to Europe at 23/24 years of age, when they had really established themselves in the J.League. But now 18 and 19 year olds are going over.’

And that’s reflected in the Japanese national team too.

‘One of the best way to measure how much Japan’s national team has grown over the years is to count the number of J.League players. You start off in the 1998 World Cup and it’s everyone, then slowly it went down and down. It was only six in 2018 in Russia.’

With the J.League having built a strong foundation for Japanese players to flourish and the football culture continuing to grow in the nation, Japan are definitely a rising force in the world.

It’s only a matter of time until they see that growth reflected on their performances at the World Cup.

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