Japan’s recent Asian Cup victory may well be a glimpse of the future success that the country has in football. The Japanese national team and its J-League already hold a firm grip on the state of Asian football with great success. Japan has now three of the last four Asian Cups (with only Iraq’s famous 2007 victory interrupting the run) and a J-League team has won the AFC Champions League in two of the last four finals.
In 2005 the JFA (Japan Football Association) set out their targets for the state of football in Japan for the next ten years. Amongst them as for Japan to get into the top ten of the FIFA World Rankings. As the rankings stand right now, Japan are 29th. This places them behind Denmark, who Japan did beat in the 2010 World Cup to get into the last 16, and Australia (the only other AFC member ahead of them) who were the runners up after losing to Japan this year thanks to Tadanari Lee’s extra time. Tadanari Lee interestingly, is off South Korean descent, Japan’s victims in a dramatic semi final shootout.
There is then, a possibility of Japan succeeding in getting into the top ten before 2015, as the much-criticised FIFA rankings, still need to be updated following their victory which should, push them into at least the top 20. There’s still another World Cup before 2015 for Japan to show themselves once more on a larger scale whether or not they can beat with the best of Europe and South America. For the many who are sceptical of FIFA’s World Rankings (which has England 6th and Norway 12th) then the alternative to that, the frequently updated Elo Ratings currently has Japan ranked as 14th.
Perhaps the only thing holding back the top tier of AFC nations (South Korea and Australia are the only other two who are usually expected to qualify for the World Cup) is their lack of playing against other top quality opposition from Europe or South America on a regular basis. This includes the players as well as the teams themselves. Comparing the squads from the 2004 Asian Cup and the 2011 Asian Cup, South Korea in 2004 had four of their players in Europe, Japan in 2004 had just two. In the 2011 squad South Korea had five playing in Europe, not including players who had played on the main footballing continent to either return home or to other AFC leagues.
Japan meanwhile had a significant increase to nine of their players competing in Europe. More players too are going to bigger clubs, current Premier League leaders Manchester United have Park Ji-Sung and current Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund have Japan’s starman, Shinji Kagawa. Where as in 2004, Reggina had Hidetoshi Nakata and PSV Eindhoven had a 23 year old Park Ji-Sung, a year before his big move to Manchester. It is perhaps telling that South Korea then had been more successful internationally then it’s near neighbours.
The rise of Japan (and too, South Korea) can perhaps be traced back to the World Cup 2002, hosted by both countries which put more spotlight on the countries involvement with football. Both nations then were considered to be over-achieving but have been able to keep up the similar kind of performances since then to start becoming more than the teams that had hometown favour in decisions. This may or may not be true, though South Korea’s shock victory of Italy is perhaps one of the most controversial games in World Cup history.
In the aftermath of the World Cup, the J-League even began to get attention on Sky Sports in the United Kingdom with a weekly round up show called J-League Weekly. Anime style graphics interrupted the match highlights, anime may seem like a stereotypical Japanese style go for but there is a football themed comic book character, Captain Tsubasa who has been a great help to the promotion of football (sakkā as it is known) in Japan. One of Japan’s most famous imports to European football, Hidetoshi Nakata who signed for Perugia in 1998 before retiring at 30 after a season for Bolton Wanderers – cites Captain Tusbasa as a big influence on to why he become a footballer. In fact, the influence even extends further with Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Coco claiming to Nakata that they too were influenced by the manga football star.
Japan did well to even exit their group in the 2010 World Cup finals. Drawn against future finalists the Netherlands, Denmark and Cameroon. It may not have been the “Group of Death” but it was perhaps a group with the most similar matching teams in terms of ability. Keisuke Honda was Japan’s star man (and future MVP of the 2011 Asian Cup), with stories linking him away from his club CSKA Moscow to teams like Liverpool after his performances in the World Cup. Japan too were unlucky to lose their match against Paraguay in the last-16 game. A cruel penalty loss in a game they played well but lacked a certain something in attack. It could be said that certain something was Shinji Kagawa. Kagawa at that stage was playing for his first professional club, Cerezo Osaka. Takeshi Okada was going to call up the 21-year old but felt he was too inexperienced, although Kagawa had played for the national team in friendly games and in the 2008 Olympics in China.
They did though have the gifted playmaker for the Asian Cup in which he played five games, scoring two goals. A broken fifth-metatarsal in the semi-final against rivals South Korea though unfortunately put him out of the final. Leaving Jungo Fujimoto to take his place. Besides the lack of Kagawa’s brilliance, it’s telling that they still won in his absence.
Perhaps new manager Alberto Zaccheroni is the key to their new style of success. Indeed, Japan were being hailed as the “Barcelona of Asia” in their cup winning run – something that was not said of them under Okada (who was under pressure before taking his team to the World Cup finals) or even under Zico. Zaccheroni was absent due to a visa problem in his first two games post-Okada after he took over in August 2010. The first of which, tellingly, was a revenge win over Paraguay, the teams that dumped them out of the World Cup, with Shinji Kagawa scoring the only goal.
The real clear thing here is that Japan are rapidly improving as a team, as well as their individual players rapidly developing too. Perhaps it’s at youth-level with the JFA focusing a lot of energy in the development of youth football, especially at the high school level. To most, Japan was a country with only one national sport, baseball, but football is growing in popularity, and as they become more successful at it, it will only become more popular. The top division has only been professional since 1993, when it become the J-League and since then it has grown and grown. Japanese players used to move to mainland Europe to improve their skills at a higher level, where as now they are moving there because they are good enough to compete. If they continue this sort of improvement it won’t be long before they do break into the Top Ten they aim for and become the first Asian team to really be a force against the best from the rest of the world.