Southasia.de takes a look at the Asian teams. Japanese football has made steady progress over the last few decades. First they made it to the top of Asia, now they are becoming a power in world football. How did it all happen? Our columnist Arunava Chaudhuri writes about Japan and their chances at the 2006 World Cup.
Japan's Naohiro Takahara tackles Germany's Michael Ballack during a friendly in Yokohama
This summer at the World Cup Japan are in a difficult and somewhat tricky group with defending champions Brazil, Croatia and Australia. Brazil surely are favourites to win the group, but the three other sides are somewhat on the same level. And Japan last summer showed at the Confederation Cup that they can challenge the Brazilians. So it might not be that easy for Brazil.
Japan’s biggest star is actually on the bench and also happens to be a Brazilian – Zico. Known as the “white Pelé”, Zico has been coach of the Nippon Blue since July 2002. Initially people were not very impressed by Zico’s work and he was often criticised that he did not understand the Japanese though he had lived a lot of years in Japan. Slowly things started to change with Zico tasting success and his team playing better and better football. In August 2004 Japan won the 2004 Asian Cup in China against the Chinese in the final. Thereafter the team walked through the World Cup qualifiers and played an impressive Confederations Cup. Now expectations are getting bigger back home in Japan. The Japanese public hopes that the team can again make it to the pre-quarterfinals as in the 2002 World Cup at home. But staying at the top is often more difficult than reaching it.
Over the last 18 months I have had the chance to watch Japan twice live plus lately live on TV. And I have to say it was impressive what I saw. The first time was against India on September 8, 2004 at the Saltlake Stadium, Calcutta in a 2006 World Cup qualifier and then against the mighty Brazil on June 22, 2005 at the Cologne World Cup stadium in Germany at the Confederations Cup. Plus I have had the chance to watch Japan a few times more on TV and I have to say that the Japanese seem to be always improving.
Against India Japan won 4-0, playing a controlled and cool game in front of 90,000 spectators. They played like a top team with only one aim: to take the three points home. Japan took the lead just before the breather, psychologically the best possible time, and pumped in three more goals in the second half. Japan won all their six matches in the Asian Group 3 qualifiers against Oman, Singapore and India to reach the final round qualifiers where they made it past Iran, Bahrain and North Korea.
… and successful underdogs
Against Brazil in Cologne Japan were the clear underdogs. Japan held Brazil to a two-all draw and had the Brazilians close to a defeat, which would have meant Brazil’s elimination from the Confederations Cup. Brazil only moved into the semifinals on a better goal difference than the Japanese. Japan played their hearts out against stars like Ronaldinho, Kaka and Adriano. Japan was ably led by their captain Hidetoshi Nataka and skilful midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura, who scored a beautiful goal through a perfect freekick. Actually it was interesting to watch that evening in Cologne that most neutral fans, who had originally come to watch and support Brazil, where shouting and cheering for Japan at the end of the match.
Just last month on February 22, 2006 I saw Japan take once more on India in Yokohama in a 2007 Asian Cup qualifier live on TV. Japan easily won 6-0 against India and that without any of their Europe-based players. This proved that Japan not only has a couple of top class players but have built a solid foundation for the national team, which can also do without their top stars like Nataka, Nakamura and Takahara if necessary.
Lessons for other Asian teams
But what has been behind the rise of Japan’s football?
The two main things are financial strength plus professional planning and implementation. This combination resulted in quality coaches coming to Japan and world class infrastructure being built. Japan’s progress in football was systematic with the results over the years showing the progress. As such Japan should be a role model for developing football nations.
In the late 1970s and the early 1980s Japan started to think about football in a professional way. Large corporations were pulled in to support and promote football. In the early 1990s the first professional Japanese league was created – the J-League, which has been the most successful league in Asia since.
Thereafter Japan earned the right to co-host the 2002 World Cup and in 1998 Japan finally took part for the first time in a football World Cup. This all led to a more professional infrastructure in place for the 2002 World Cup, where Japan under the guidance of French coach Philippe Troussier reached the pre-quarterfinals. In 2004 Japan for the third time won the Asian Cup title and now in 2006 one will see if the steady progress continues. One expects Japan to reach the top of World Cup in the coming years, but 2006 seems too early yet.