Stars Are Born
Many talents began to emerge and a Japanese conveyor belt of talented footballers was soon in full flow. One of Asia’s finest ever footballers, Hidetoshi Nakata made his move from Shonan Bellmare to Italian outfit Perugia in 1998, where he went on to dazzle and rise to stardom, playing for Roma, Parma & Fiorentina along the way. Another Japanese star who broke boundaries was Shunsuke Nakamura who made his move from Yokohama Marinos to Reggina in the Serie A, but his best club days came at Scottish side Celtic, where he was to become a fan favourite and score some memorable goals for the side which have turned him into a club legend in Glasgow. The early days set the trend, which has now turned into an unstoppable deluge of talent from Japan into Europe’s top leagues. In recent years players like Shinji Kagawa, who has moved to Manchester United after a magnificent period at Borussia Dortmund, and Keisuke Honda, of CSKA Moscow, lead a strong cast which includes Nagatomo at Internazionale, Uchida of Schalke, Miyaichi at Arsenal to name but a few. Japanese football is in good health and continues to bring out players with real quality, and the trend of moves to Europe can only continue.
The National Side
Japan reached its first ever Asian Cup Finals tournament in Qatar in 1988, but this first outing was to prove a disaster as Japan crashed out of the group stage having played four games and managing a solitary draw while scoring no goals and shipping six in the process. This was no deterrent however and after successfully applying to host the Asian Cup in 1992 the national side went on to win that very tournament on home soil, beating reigning Champions Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the final played in Hiroshima. A year later the J league kicked off and since the inception of this league Japan have gone on to win Asia’s most coveted prize 3 more times; in 2000, 2004 and in the last edition of the cup once more in Qatar last year. This makes them the most successful side in the history of the Asian Cup; no other side has won the tournament four times. More tellingly, Japan have now won three of the last four Asian Cups, the National side is well and truly on the march.
The World Cup
Mention Japan to a global football fan and the first images that will come to mind will be those of the 2002 World Cup co-hosted by Japan & Korea. It was the first time the World Cup was to be held in Asia, and people were unsure of how well the co-hosting would work; the time difference would deter people they said. All of the pre tournament negativity was soon turned into elation as a generally successful tournament took place. The fans inside the stadiums in Japan (and Korea) wowed the world with their fervour and devotion. The stadiums were impressively built and attendances were impressive. Japan topped their group which included Russia, Belgium and Tunisia. However they were to be knocked out by a strong Turkey side which included Hakan Şükür – Turkey would go on to finish in an impressive 3rd place at the tournament. However this World Cup was more than just about the result of the Japanese National Team, it was about the legacy. Tournament organisers love to talk about legacy, but in this case the impact was clear. Football fever gripped the nation, stadiums were full of screaming passionate fans and since then Japanese football has gone from strength to strength. A generation of footballers will grow up having watched that World Cup as children and been inspired by what they saw at that tournament.
With the Olympic Football tournament in London 2012 just over, Japan managed a respectable 4th place after losing out on a bronze medal to neighbours South Korea. However proof enough that the future is bright for The Samurai Blue, Nagai, Ōtsu & Yoshida will testify to that, but so will many more coming through the ranks. Japan’s next target is qualification for Brazil 2014, and they are well on their way to that. Asia is making huge strides on a global scale, and Japan are at the very forefront of it all.