Japan: Why Asian Giants Will Be the Continent's First World Cup Winners
Japan’s Confederations Cup campaign may have struggled to get off the ground, but there are some positive signs to be taken from the Blue Samurai’s outing. Japan are already Asian Champions and it may not be too long before the side begin to express their dominance on the global stage.
This article presents five reasons why Japan will be the first Asian side to triumph at the World Cup.
An Improving Continental Basin
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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.
Genuine Individual Stars
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While Japan have long produced individual stars who have been a cut above the average, only now are they creating multiple top talents who are influencing the upper echelons of the world game.
Hidetoshi Nakata burst onto the scene in the late 90s, winning the Asian Player of the Year in 1997 and 1998. He blossomed, briefly, at Roma, before traipsing around Serie A and then drifting into sporting obscurity. In 2002 Junichi Inamoto was the star in his homeland as Japan escaped the group stage for the first time.
There was also Shinji Ono, who became one of the continent’s major stars in the early part of the last decade before returning to Asia once injuries took their toll. He now plays in Australia with Western Sydney Wanderers.
Now, however, the squad have two bona fide European stars in Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda.
The former enjoyed an encouraging maiden season in the Premier League with Manchester United after having won the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund, while Honda has progressed well with VVV-Venlo and CSKA Moscow and has recently been linked with a move to AC Milan.
The two creative talents dovetail well with the national side and have given the team a fluidity and cohesion that is often lacking in the international arena.
A Squad Littered with Diversity
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While Kagawa and Honda may be the stars of the show, they would be nothing without the support of their teammates. In this sense, Japan can demonstrate a strength in depth that is unparalleled at anytime in their history.
Michael Cox argued before the Confederations Cup that Japan have the “organisation and the technical qualities” to challenge the best in the competition. While results didn’t go their way, Cox is right to be so impressed by the talent present in the squad.
Yuto Nagatomo and Astuto Uchida are stylish and menacing attacking full-backs, capable of giving Japan a width and troubling even the finest opposition. In the heart of the pitch, Wolfsburg midfielder Makoto Hasebe is a brilliant all-rounder, capable of working for the team and hassling the opposition, but also primed to contribute to the side’s offense with some excellent ball work.
The aforementioned players are just a glimpse at the Japanese diaspora across Europe’s finest leagues. This diversity has given the side a cosmopolitan feel and a competitive edge, both of which will surely serve them well in the upcoming World Cups.
On Bleacher Report, check out Stefan Bienkowski’s recent work on the German Bundesliga’s importance to Japanese football for a fine insight into the relationship between the Blue Samurai and Europe’s leagues.
The J League
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Japan have long been the figurehead of the region and one of the reasons for this is its pioneering domestic league.
Debuting in 1993 and recently celebrating its 20th anniversary, the competition continues to be a trailblazer for the development of nations not traditionally considered among football’s heartlands.
Clubs quickly moved away from a reliance on overpaid, over-the-hill foreign stars and following the nation’s economic decline of the early 90s, clubs focused on developing their own stars.
The approach has paid dividends for the national side, who now have a vast base of local talent from which to recruit.
Japanese development is worlds ahead from that of their near-neighbours China, whose domestic league still relies on glossy imports.
Unlikely Shores, the Chance of an Upset
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Writing about the likelihood of an African side triumphing in the global arena, I wrote the following:
The World Cup is often perceived to be a bit of a closed shop. It is usually the same suspects who end up troubling the latter stages, competing for the ultimate prize. The only ‘first timers’ in the final since 1974 have been Spain and France, both of whom had previously won the European Championship.
While the usual pre-tournament favourites emerge from a small cabal of previous winners plus Holland and Portugal, I believe that the days of traditional heavyweights dominating the competition are coming to an end.
Recent failings of Italy, France and Argentina have given confidence and belief to the second tier of nations, and the margins between the traditional powers and ‘all of the rest’ are becoming smaller.
I would also suggest that the ‘Big Boys’ are not so proud beyond their traditional heartlands; the next three World Cups, those between now and 2023, will see FIFA’s centrepiece move away from some of the key axes of the game.
When the World Cup went to East Asia in 2002, the tournament was memorable for its giant killings; France, Portugal and Argentina all fell at the first hurdle, while Turkey and South Korea were unlikely semifinalists.
Could a move to other unreached territories—Russia and Qatar—produce similar scenes and give rise to an unlikely victor? Perhaps Japan could capitalise from disorientation among the big boys, and maybe a move to alternate venues could lead to victory for an outsider.
Perhaps 2022, with the European teams floundering in the heat, a pathway will be opened for the Blue Samurai to capitalise and claim an inaugural win for the continent.