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Japan Heads for the Football World Cup

May 18, 1998

Hidetoshi Nakata (left) in action in the December 1997 Europe vs. the Rest of the World match. (Europe lost, 5-2). (Photo: Kyodo)

At last, after many years of frustration, Japanese football (soccer) is going to make its debut on the World Cup finals stage. Japan has joined the fray every four years since the qualifying round for the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, and has finally made it--on its tenth attempt--to qualify as a representative of Asia. As a cohost of the 2002 World Cup, together with South Korea, its first appearance in football's pinnacle tournament has great significance. And as this year's tournament draws near, football fever in Japan is approaching boiling point.

Learning from the World's Best
The professional J. League, formed in 1993 and playing its sixth season this year, has contributed immensely to strengthening the talents of players on the national team. With the participation of many top-class players from Europe and Latin America, the level of games has moved up several notches over the years. The J. League has also brought many top-class managers and coaches to Japan in an attempt to bring international-level tactics to its games. Although football had already established foundations in Japan before their arrival, the opportunity to learn from the best in the world has been the key factor in bolstering football in Japan in such a short time.

As soon as the J. League kicked off, a stream of foreign stars signed up to add to the excitement. The list is growing longer every season and includes players that would make a great "dream team": Zico, Leonardo, Jorginho, and Dunga from Brazil; Gary Lineker from England; Pierre Littbarski and Guido Buchwald from Germany; Salvatore Schillaci from Italy; and Ramon Diaz and Medina Bello from Argentina.

Foreigners were also invited to coach the Japanese national team, which of course consists only of Japanese and naturalized Japanese players. Hans Ooft, who had had experience managing in Japan in the pre-J. League days, was appointed as manager of the national team in 1992; in the same year he steered Japan to victory in both the four-team Dynasty Cup and the Asian Cup. Ooft was also at the helm at the time of the qualifying round for the 1994 World Cup. Japan came close to winning a decisive game in Doha, Qatar, that would have sent the team to the final round, held in the United States that year. The game ended in a dramatic tie, keeping Japan from qualifying and saddening fans, who called it the "tragedy of Doha."

After Ooft, Japan appointed Roberto Falcao, a former coach of the Brazilian national team, as national team manager, but then switched back to a Japanese coach, appointing Shu Kamo as the helmsman to guide Japan toward France. During the final qualifying round, however, Kamo was sacked after a series of dismal performances and replaced by his assistant, Takeshi Okada. Despite taking over at a time when Japan really had its back to the wall, Okada successfully turned the situation around and got the team into a qualifying playoff match against Iran. Japan won this game, thereby booking its ticket to France and opening a new chapter in the history of Japanese football.

Bringing Up the Young Generation
Having qualified for the 1998 World Cup finals in France, the Japanese national team under Okada is making steady preparations for the event. In February, while Japan's attention was turned enthusiastically to the Nagano Winter Olympics, the national squad went to Australia for a training camp in Adelaide. In addition to the usual members, Okada brought a couple of young faces into the squad: Atsushi Yanagisawa (Kashima Antlers) and Shunsuke Nakamura (Yokohama Marinos).

In March, in a further step toward selecting a squad for France, Japan hosted the four-team Dynasty Cup in Yokohama, which it won for the third consecutive time by beating South Korea and Hong Kong, although it did lose to China. Then in an April 1998 exhibition match against South Korea in Seoul, Okada tested 18-year-old Shinji Ono (Urawa Red Diamonds) and 17-year-old Daisuke Ichikawa (Shimizu S-Pulse), who had looked impressive in the J. League season beginning in March. Several regulars on the national team, including midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata (Bellmare Hiratsuka) and goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi (Yokohama Marinos), are also in their early twenties, so the team in France could have a youthful look to it. The generational change that has been taking place since the last qualifying tournament has been remarkable. One of the keys to Japan's performance in France will be how Okada goes about combining the young faces with the veterans.

Japan's target in France is to get through the first round with one win, one draw, and one loss. Okada said both before and after the lottery to decide the first-round match-ups that, in order to consolidate his team, he did not intend to change this target "for anyone or anything." Given the strength of Japan's first-round opponents--Argentina, Croatia, and Jamaica--the target is certainly a stiff one. Regarding the opening game against Argentina, however, Okada is realistic but optimistic. "If we played ten times," he admitted, "we would lose nine. That's the difference in our strengths. But that one win might well be in the World Cup." Whatever happens, attention first of all will focus on the Japanese squad, which is due to be named on May 7.

After a training camp in Japan, the national team will play exhibition games against Paraguay on May 17 and the Czech Republic on May 24. They will then leave for Switzerland on May 27 and enter their base in France, Aix-les-Bains, on June 5. The first game against Argentina will be held in Toulouse on June 14, the fifth day of the final round of the 1998 World Cup.

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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.

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