As I write this piece, I assure you that this is not a quick reactionary article to Japan’s 1-0 upset over a Spain Olympic team that included Jordi Alba, David De Gea, Juan Mata, Adrian and Javi Martinez. Rather, their performance just confirmed what I have been thinking for a while (due to the success of the Japanese national team at the 2010 world cup, as well as the female team at the 2011 world cup where they defeated the United States to win the trophy), that Japan is making great strides to become a force to be reckoned with in football.
Japan has been relevant in the football world ever since making the world cup in 1998; they have appeared in all world cups since then, reaching the knock out stage twice. In addition Japan has produced great players like Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura, but in my opinion it is now that Japan football as a whole is approaching its golden age, and this started during the 2010 world cup.
In the 2010 world cup, Japan navigated their way past Cameroon and Denmark and played well in a 1-0 loss to world cup runners Netherland, before falling on penalties to Paraguay in the second round. Their performance at the world cup gave them 9th place finish (according to FIFA)at the tourney. This was widely seen as a success for a team that did not have any household names. Although you could make a case for players such as Keisuke Honda (CSKA Moscow), Makoto Hasebe (VFL Wolfsburg) and former Glasgow Celtic star Shunsuke Nakamura Yokohama F. Marinos) being household names the fact remains that the team had only four players in the 23 man squad that played in Europe at that point in time.
The impressive feat about the squad was the way they played. They played a possession driven game; showcasing great technical and passing ability, composure and first touch. These are the key attributes required to play that style of soccer.
This style of football was also evident with the female team at the 2011 world cup. Japan knocked out some of the tournament favorites in succession; the likes Germany, Sweden and then U.S.A in the final. Japan came with an attack minded approach, passing the ball from defence to attack, showing patience, composure and of course technical ability. One could argue that Japan may not have been the strongest or physical team, but they were technically superior all the other teams in the tournament. Japan’s success at the world cup led to star midfielder Homare Sawa being named player of the tournament and subsequently 2011 FIFA Women player of the year. This made her the first Japanese player to hold that honor.
During the past two years we have seen the rise of Japanese players in Europe. Kagawa leads the group, after two impressive seasons at Dortmund, where he helped the team win back to back Bundesliga titles and in the process, earning a big money move to Manchester United. Kagawa was 21 years of age at the 2010 world cup but was not even able to get into the Japanese team.
In addition to Kagawa, several Japanese players are making waves Europe, including talented midfielder Takashi Usami now on loan Hoffenheim, also in Germany. Then there is Arsenal’s very own Ryo Miyaichi who showed some flashes of brilliance in his loan spells at Feyenoord and Bolton. Another Bundesliga based player is 22 year old American born and half German fullback Gotoku Sakai; he went on loan to Vfb Stuttgart in 2012 and has so far been impressive, racking up 5 assists in only 14 games. Also in Germany is 22 year old attacking midfielder Hiroshi Kiyotake, who earned himself a summer move to Bundesliga outfit FC Nuremberg.
In addition to these youngsters, other established players making waves in Europe include 26 year old attacking midfielder Shiniji Okazaki who joined Stuttgart in 2011 and has already clocked 48 appearances for the German outfit. Another is 24 year old right back Astuto Uchida has already has 50 caps to his name. In 2010, he joined Schalke 04, where he has played 69 games in two seasons at the club. The most famous aside Kagawa might be Inter Milan left back Yuto Nagatomo. After his move from Cesena in Italy, he has been one of the most consistent players for the club as it goes through its rebuilding phase. Keisuke Honda is one who needs no introduction, after his stellar performance at the 2010 world cup; he has maintained that high level of performance as the playmaker for CSKA Moscow in the Russian Football Championships. A host of others play all over Europe, such as Maya Yoshida, who is the starting centre back for Dutch side VVV-Venlo (he was awarded goal of the season in Holland), Bayer Leverkusen’s Hajime Hosogai and Eintracht Frankfurt’s Takashi Inui and many more.
The rise in the amount of Japanese players in Europe (especially in Germany) can be attributed to the success of players like Kagawa, Hasebe, Honda and Nagatomo. They adapted quickly and became integral players for the respective teams. This highlighted the quality of J-League, the quality of Japanese players and highlighted the work that has been invested in developing football in Japan. In the most recent Japan squad that participated in the 2014 world cup qualifying round, 6 of the 14 foreign based players ply their trade in Germany.
What does it all mean? Japanese football is on the upward swing, the investment in Japanese soccer is reaping dividends and the training regime youth players in Japan undergo which focuses on technical attributes has helped produced some of the brightest young footballers at the moment. The combination of speed, and individual brilliance would make Japan a force to be record with, because as it stands, they are becoming a football factory. As an African, I hope we can learn from this.