Tuesday, 21 May 2024

The Early Years


Japan's National Team: ~1980

Japan's national team played its first football match on May 9, 1917, as part of a three-way tournament between Japan, China and the Philippines. Japan lost to China 0-5, on May 9, and followed that up with a 2-15 drubbing on May 10 at the hands of the Philippines. A similar tournament four years later showed some improvement, with Japan losing to China 0-3 and to the Philippines 1-3. Japan eventually did manage a couple victories in the pre-war era, but clearly football was not one of the country's most prominent sports.

Following World War II, Japan's national football team only began taking part in international events from 1951, when the US occupation ended. The team was relatively insignificant, since Asia in general was viewed as a football backwater, and the few teams that could put on a competent performance at a world level were all in West Asia (Iran and the Middle East).

However, Japan began working to develop its domestic team prior to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, inviting German coach Dettmar Cramer to serve as technical coach (and de facto head coach, by most accounts) to help develop the club. Under Cramer's guidance, the team made it to the quarterfinals in the Tokyo Olympics, and achieved a feat that still ranks high in the memories of Japanese football fans in 1968, winning the bronze medal at the Mexico Olympic Games.

Japan Nat'l Team 1980-81

Date Score Opponent Goals by . . .
80.3.22 (1-3) S. Korea  
80.3.24 (10-0) Philippines  
80.3.28 (2-0) Indonesia  
80.3.30 (1-1) Malaysia  
80.4. 2 (2-1) Brunei  
80.5.9 (Shimomura resigns)
80.5.15 (Watanabe appointed)
80.5.25 (3-1) Argentinos Juniors (Hasegawa2, Maeda)
80.5.27 (1-2) Middlesbrough (Kaneda)
80.6.1 (0-0) Espanyol  
80.10.10 (Kawabuchi appointed)
80.11.9 (0-1) Washington Diplomats  
80.11.24 (1-1) Washington Diplomats (Kato)
80.12.22 (1-0) Singapore (Kimura)
80.12.26 (0-1) China  
80.12.28 (3-0) Macao (Kimura, Maeda, Hasegawa)
80.12.30 (0-1) N. Korea  
81.1.25 (0-2) Poland  
81.1.27 (2-4) Poland (Hasegawa, Hashiratani)
81.1.30 (1-4) Poland (Maeda)
81.2.1 (0-3) Poland  
81.3.8 (0-1) S. Korea  
Apr1981   (Kawabuchi resigns)


For a nation whose achievements were still very modest in nearly all sports, this performance elevated the status of the national team. Unfortunately, interest and financial support was limited, and most efforts to develop the sport concentrated on the high school and university level.

It wasnt until the late 1970s that players began to appear who could compete with the other top teams in Asia. Most of these youngsters, such as Hiromi Hara, Takeshi Okada and the Hashiratani brothers Tetsuji and Koji, had been attracted to the sport by watching the 1968 Olympic team's bronze medal performance as children. As this generation came of age, the level of play began to improve, but the national team continued to lack cohesion. In the late 1970s and early 80s, several weak national team coaches failed to get the team to gel.

Incidentally, it is hard to avoid noting that one of the worst performances ever by a Japanese national team coach was turned in by the current head of the JFA, Saburo Kawabuchi -- a fine player in his day but a lousy coach. His only two victories in 12 international matches were against lowly Singapore and Macao. Japan badly needed a strong leader to build the National Team