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June 1999

Japan Takes Second Place in Under-20 Soccer

Japan's national team of soccer players under 20 years old turned in a surprisingly strong performance in April by capturing the silver medal in the World Youth Championship soccer tournament held in Lagos, Nigeria. This was the highest finish ever for Japan in any international-level soccer tournament.

Japan failed to be the first Asian team to win the 24-nation tournament when it lost to Spain 4-0 in the final. But the achievement still created a sensation, since this was even better than Japan's previous highest-ever finish in an international soccer tournament--the bronze-medal performance at the MexicoCity Olympics in 1968.

Japan reached the FIFA under-20 final for the first time after defeating Portugal, Mexico, and Uruguay. It had reached the quarterfinals in two earlier World Youth Championships.

The final game was played before 20,000 people at the National Stadium, including about 90 Japanese living in Nigeria. The Japanese team was without suspended captain and World Cup midfielder Shinji Ono and allowed Spain to score 5 minutes into the match. Pablo Gonzalez scored Spain's second goal just 9 minutes later, and he knocked in the third goal, too, 33 minutes into the match. Spain scored its final goal in the second half.

Japan's national team coach Philippe Troussier said, "I am very proud of the team's achievement. Spain is an excellent team and thoroughly deserved to win. We made many small mistakes. The absence of Ono through suspension was a loss. It is important to recognize how we were different from the Spanish team."

Shun'ichiro Okano, president of the Football Association of Japan, hailed the young team's accomplishment, saying, "Even though we lost the final game, the fact that we made it that far represents one of the most brilliant achievements in the history of Japanese soccer. The players proved that their skills are competitive internationally, and I hope we can ride this momentum all the way to the 2002 World Cup!"

Japan will cohost the 2002 World Cup with South Korea. Ono, who watched the game from the stands said, "I think it's good for Japanese soccer that we found a lot of areas where we need to improve."

Photo: The young players celebrate their second-place finish. (Kyodo)