Japan’s soccer players opened door to new era for national team

Although Japan failed to achieve its long-cherished dream of advancing to the World Cup quarterfinals, a solid mark has been left on Japanese soccer history through the efforts of the Hajime Moriyasu-coached national team, which vanquished major powers of the soccer world.

Japan lost to Croatia in a penalty shootout in the round of 16 of the World Cup in Qatar.

The Samurai Blue scored the first goal in the first half, with Daizen Maeda tapping a loose ball into the net from the edge of the goal area. However, Japan was caught out in the second half, and the game remained tied at 1-1 even after extra time.

Croatia, an Eastern European nation that traditionally has a strong team, finished runner-up at the previous World Cup in Russia. The Samurai Blue repeatedly threatened Croatia’s goal with bold attacks and Japanese defenders such as Maya Yoshida vied for the ball with the opponent’s physically bigger players.

It was the fourth time Japan has earned a shot at advancing to the World Cup quarterfinals. It must be said that the wall of global powers proved too difficult to climb over, once again. However, after more than 120 minutes of game time, including extra time, the closely fought battle was lost in a penalty shootout. Hopefully, Japan’s players will return home with their heads held high.

This time, Japan advanced to the knockout stage with 2-1 come-from-behind victories over past World Cup champions Germany and Spain. Many people enjoyed cheering for the team while watching the game, such as on TV, in spite of the sweaty-palm moments.

In the two games that resulted in huge upsets, Japan changed its starting lineups, withstanding the opponents’ fierce attacks in the first half, before pushing offensive players up the pitch in the second half, and taking advantage of limited chances to nab a goal.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the size of World Cup squads was increased from 23 players to 26 in Qatar, and more substitutions than normal are allowed during matches. It can be said that Japan found success in a strategy that involved utilizing a large pool of capable players to make effective substitutions at crucial points in the game.

An increasing number of Japanese players compete in overseas leagues. At the 1998 World Cup in France, the first time Japan participated in the tournament, none of the Japanese squad members had played in foreign leagues. This time, most of them belong to clubs in Germany, Spain and other European countries.

After losing to Croatia, Moriyasu praised his players for representing a “new era” in which Japan can overcome major soccer nations. Japan’s outstanding performance this time has proved that by honing technical skills and mental strength overseas, Japanese players have reached the level where they can compete with the world’s best teams.

In Qatar, three countries in Asian spots — Japan, South Korea and Australia — advanced to the round of 16. The gap in abilities appears to be narrowing between Japan and major teams in Europe and South America, which have traditionally dominated world soccer.

Qatar was the setting of the so-called “Agony of Doha,” a final qualifying match for the 1994 World Cup that Japan lost, which prevented the team from securing a berth at the tournament in the United States and brought the nation tears. Japanese soccer has evolved dramatically since then. Japan’s performance must have given big dreams to children who want to become soccer players.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Dec. 7, 2022)