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Japan's Soccer Stars Qualify for the Olympics

January 4, 2000

Members of Japan's Olympic squad in training. (Jiji Press)

Japan has qualified for the men's soccer tournament at the Sydney Olympic Games, which will open on September 15, 2000. Having qualified for the Atlanta Games in 1996, this will be the second successive Olympic appearance for Japan's youngsters (Only players 23 years old or under can compete in Olympic soccer.) Hopes are rising in Japan that the team may be able to bring home a coveted Olympic medal, especially since the Olympic squad includes star midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata, who plays for Perugia in Italy's Serie A--one of the world's top professional leagues.

12 Games, 12 Wins
In the Asian zone Olympic qualifying tournament the young Japanese team, coached by Frenchman Philippe Troussier, swept away every team in their path. Drawn with the Philippines, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Nepal in the first qualifying stage, Japan dominated the group with a record of played eight, won eight, scoring a total of 53 goals while conceding just 1.

In the final qualifying group Japan faced Kazakhstan and Thailand for just one ticket to Sydney. The injury sustained in the first qualifying round by playmaker Shinji Ono (of the J-League Urawa Red Diamonds) made him unavailable. However, the domineering Nakata was called up from Italy to partner left-footed Shunsuke Nakamura in a formidable attacking midfield combination. The team won their first game away from home, defeating Kazakhstan 2-0 in Almaty on October 9; that was followed on October 17 by a 3-1 victory over Thailand. Roared on by a crowd of 55,000 in the return match against Kazakhstan, held at the National Stadium in Tokyo on November 6, Japan came from 1-0 down midway through the second half to score three goals in the final 20 minutes and win 3-1, largely thanks to the efforts of Tomoyuki Hirase (of the Kashima Antlers). In their final match the young Japanese team overwhelmed Thailand 6-0 in Bangkok on November 13. Having won all four games in the final qualifying group, Japan had booked its place in Sydney.

Rising Stars
Japan used to be a developing nation in soccer terms, but thanks to the creation of the professional J-League in 1993 young Japanese players are rapidly approaching world class. The Olympic squad has a reputation as the best in Asia and contains a number of players from the under-19 team that was runner-up at the FIFA World Youth Championship in April 1999. At the last Olympics in Atlanta in 1996 Japan caused the upset of the century by defeating Brazil, although in the end it failed to reach the final stage.

The aim in Sydney will be to win the country's first Olympic soccer medal since the Mexico City Games in 1968, when the Japanese team took home the bronze medal. Troussier, who also coaches the full national team, rates his Olympic squad highly, and there is little doubt that these same players will form the backbone of the full national team when Japan cohosts the World Cup with South Korea in 2002.

The Sydney Olympics, unlike the Mexico City Olympics are not limited to amateur competitors. As in Mexico, however, the Japanese soccer team could well cause a few surprises in Sydney.

Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.