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When Japan first qualified for the World Cup, back in 1998, they were big fish in a small pond. The Asian Football Federation has increased dramatically since then however, and despite still being the continent’s flagship nation, the Blue Samurai now have a much greater challenge on their own doorstep.
The presence of nations that can genuinely challenge Japan’s dominance has surely sharpened the performance of the Asian giants. The increased level of competition encourages and perhaps even forces improved levels of application and paves the way for innovation and adaptation.
The increased pool of talent in the Asian arena will surely help the Japanese to make more headway in the global context.
South Korea developed greatly as a threat over the last decade, and beat Japan in the third place play-off at the 2007 Asian Cup.
So too the Gulf States, who have benefited from the increased financial focus on the sport. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have prospered through the naturalisation of foreign stars and have invested heavily in their domestic leagues.
North Korea and Iraq have benefited from recent outings in FIFA tournaments, while Uzbekistan managed to beat Japan in a recent World Cup qualifying match.
Since 2006, when Australia turned to the Asian Confederation, another giant has entered the continental pool and, in principle, provide a stern test for Japan.