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Japanese Team Sparkles in World Youth Championship

June 1, 1999

For some three decades, Japan's performance on the world football (soccer) stage has been disappointing to its fans. But in April 1999 Japanese football seemed to turn the corner when the young members of the under-20 national team, who are expected to form the core of Japan's program leading up to and during the 2002 World Cup, finished a strong second in the World Youth Championship held in Nigeria.

Young Squad Brings Home the Silver
After advancing from the initial group stage in the 24-nation tournament, Japan's youngsters battled their way through the 16-nation playoff stage to reach the final for the first time. In the semifinals Japan defeated perennial powerhouse Uruguay, which had come second in the last tournament. In the final match, however, the U-20 squad found the powerful Spanish just too much, losing the game 4-0. Nevertheless, the performance of the Japanese team proved that at least at this level, Japan can play strong football against some tough competitors.

In the World Cup tournament held in France in 1998 Japan tasted bitter defeat, losing all three of its preliminary group games. Those matches seemed to show that the Japanese football program still had a long way to go to close the gap with the rest of the world. But now the youth team has demonstrated that the gap might not be so wide after all. Previously Japan's most outstanding performance in an international tournament had been back in 1968, when it won the bronze medal at the Mexico City Olympics. Differences in age and other factors aside, this year's youth team's achievement in finishing second in the World Youth Championship is the best so far for Japanese football.

Ready to Lead the Way
The football pyramid in Japan is topped by the national team, which competes in the sport's pinnacle event, the quadrennial World Cup. The nationals are followed by the under-23 Olympic team, the under-20 youth team, and teams for even younger age groups. The Japanese players who sparkled and honed their skills at the tournament in Nigeria, therefore, will be strong candidates to play in the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and in the next World Cup in 2002, which will be hosted jointly by Japan and South Korea.

Japan's professional football league, the J. League, is marking its sixth season this year, having kicked off on May 15, 1993. After an initial boom, the J. League's popularity seems to have dropped off a little in recent years; but the national youth team's victories have brought back some much-needed pride and hope for the future. Frenchman Philippe Troussier, the team's coach, echoed these expectations when he commented: "We have opened a road toward the 2002 World Cup." If Japanese football can build on the achievements of its youth team and continue to grow, then it might well give its fans plenty to cheer about when the first World Cup of the twenty-first century rolls around.

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.