Wednesday, 24 July 2024

Japan's National Team

The Japanese national team played its first international football match on May 9, 1917, losing 5-0 to China. At that time, the only other teams in East Asia were China and the Philippines (though they would be joined later by some "colonial" squads, such as a team from the Dutch East Indies and one from India) and they played less frequently than once a year. By the mid 1930s, Japan was acquitting itself well on the football field, but by the late 1930s war intervened, and Japan would not take part in another international match until 1951.

Following the war, the Japanese national team was relatively insignificant, even in Asia, prior to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. However, the strong popularity of football matches at the Olympics prompted greater interest in the sport, and more concerted efforts to develop the level of competition in Japan, including the creation of a domestic, semi-professional league. In 1968, against even the wildest expectations of promoters, Japan won the bronze medal at the Mexico Olympics. 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 waned from the 1970s, and were remained concentrated at the high school and university level. Thus, while the Olympic team had respectable performances several times following its 1968 feat, it would be another thirty years before the country would qualify for the World Cup.

Japan's achievements on the world stage, therefore, can only be taken seriously from about 1981, when Keiji Mori (the former General Secretary of the JFA) took over as coach. Mori would remain at the helm for five years, and under his guidance, Japan became one of the top teams in Asia, led by players such as Hiromi Hara, Koji Kimura and the Hashiratani brothers. After Mori stepped down in 1986, and following two brief periods under coaches Ishii and Yokoyama, Hans Ooft was appointed as the first foreign coach of the national team. Ooft had a great deal of success building a solid foundation for the national team, and enjoyed one of the most successful stretches of any coach of the National Team. However, tragedy would cut short his reign, when the team missed out on qualifying for the 1994 World Cup only due to an injury-time goal by Iraq in the final qualifying match. Having carried the hopes of the nation to the highest level ever, Ooft coud not survive the tremendous disappointment of this heartbreaking loss, and he was fired just 12 days later.

Fortunately, the "Agony at Doha", as it came to be known, helped spur the country to greater efforts to develop its national team. In 1980, coach Emerson Falcao replaced Ooft for a brief, though reasonably successful stint in 1994. However, Falcao found it difficult to adapt to the political games played behind the scenes at the JFA. Since Ooft had been in charge for such a long time, he had become accustomed to these backroom games, while Falcao, with no knowledge of Japan or Japanese, was out of his depth despite reasonable success on the field. In 1994, the league decided to appoint a Japanese coach, and Shu Kamo took the reins.

Kamo's career lasted three years, and was fairly successful, but in the qualifying matches for the 1998 World Cup, a few weak performances left Japan in danger of missing qualification once again. Kamo took the fall for what was probably more a question of poor chemistry among some of the players, and was replaced by his assistant, Takeshi Okada. Okada sorted out the personnel problems, benching two players that he (and many others) recognised as troublemakers -- Kazu Miura and Tsuyoshi Kitazawa. While this move succeeded in carrying Japan through to the World Cup, the two players had very strong fan support and political pull with many top members of the JFA. Okada succeeded in keeping Kazu and Kitazawa on the bench because the team was winning, but once Japan was bounced from the WC1998 without a single win, the vendettas accumulated during his brief reign were carried out, and Okada faced the axe.

Phillippe Troussier took the reins in late 1998, and spend much of his time negotiating the difficult politics of the JFA. After some initial difficulties and rumours of his imminent replacement, which stemmed as much from his ham-handed relations with the JFA as his results on the field, he managed to prove his value with a victory in the Asia Cup 2000. Troussier was fortunate in having a far better pool of talent than any of his predecessors, but was always criticised for "curious" player selections, as well as his arrogant treatment of players, the media, and fans alike. Nevertheless, his approach to "total football" and his insistence on having all players be capable of filling more than one position on the field seemed to be a good match with the Japanese temperament and playing style.

The team matured well under Troussier's tutelage, but despite a positive performance that saw them get through the first round of the 2002 World Cup with an undefeated record, the team collapsed in the round of 16, thanks in part to some typically "Troussier-esque" player selections and game strategy, which caused the team to perform well below their collective abilities in their eventual defeat to Turkey..

Following Troussier's departure in 2002, the JFA appointed the legendary Brazil midfielder Zico to take the reins of the national team. A well-known and well-liked figure in Japan, Zico came into the job with a good understanding of the pool of talent available, and a fair amount of goodwill, but his detractors increased in number and vociferousness as the years passed. Like Troussier, he achieved his greatest results in the first two years, but thereafter seemed unable to change with the times. Many of the players who had formed the core of his team for four years began to lose their sharpness, yet Zico was unable to change with the times and this resulted in an underwhelming performance at the 2006 World Cup. At the end of the day, Zico contributed a number of positives to Japanese football, particularly the emphasis on having players think for themselves and respond to match conditions as they arose, rather than simply performing fixed roles. While this did help Japanese players become a bit more "mature", in the end Zico's lack of vision and flexibility prevented his team from achieving the sort of success that fans have come to expect.

Following the national team's failure to advance from the group stage at World Cup 2006, fans were understandably eager for a changing of the guard. That began in July 2006, with the appointment of Ivica Osim as head coach. The veteran Bosnian coach had years of experience coaching in some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable, and his success in taking Yugoslavia to the quarterfinals in 1990 was just the start of his many successes both at the international level and as a club coach. Following the rigid disciplinarian regime of Troussier and the artistic but technically lax style of Zico, Osim brought a much more "intellectual" style which tried to find the middle ground between the styles used by his two predecessors -- flexible enough to encourage individual artistry, but structured and regimented enough to prevent the sort of malaise that developed at the tail end of the Zico era.

Unfortunately, despite some early hints of progress, Osim was felled by a stroke in November 2007, and was unable to remain at the helm of the national team. His place was taken by Takeshi Okada, the man who seems to make a habit of stepping in when other, older coaches fall short. This time, Okada had a much longer period to build a team in his own image, and he also benefited from the rise of a new generation of talent -- dubbed the "Platinum Generation" to contrast with the "Golden Generation" that preceded them. With "Oka-chan" at the helm, Japan recorded its strongest performance yet in the World Cup, finishing narrowly behind Holland in their pool and then losing a heartbreaker to Paraguay on penalty kicks in the round of 16.

Okada was succeeded by the Italian strategic maestro Alberto Zaccheroni, who entered the picture with high hopes and a lot of talent at his disposal. Unfortunately, while he achieved some degree of success with a stirring victory in his first tournament (the 2011 Asian Cup), he made almost exactly the same mistakes as Zico, in developing emotional ties to a group of players who were already veterans in 2011. After three years of relatively solid results, the team was clearly feeling its age by 2013, yet despite utter defeat in the 2013 Confederations Cup, Zaccheroni ("Zac") refused to consider new blood and stuck with the players he had cultivated over his entire term. The result was a winless disappointment in Brazil, as Japan lost to Ivory Coast and Columbia, and could only draw against Greece despite dominating play for the full 90 minutes.

The disappointment of Zaccheroni's reign prompted an organizational shakeup in the JFA, and this contributed to the short career of his replacement, Javier Aguirre. The Mexican coach clashed with some leading JFA officials who were skeptical of his plan to clear the playing field entirely and build on a younger base. Overruled on some personnel selections, Aguirre might have emerged with relatively little blame from a feeble outing at the 2015 Asian Cup, in Australia, but he was also dogged by accusations that his team fixed a match in Spain when he was coach of Zaragoza. As a management battle raged around him in the JFA front office, this hint of scandal made him too big a target, and in early 2015 he was sacked, and replaced by Bosnia-born Frenchman Vahid Halilhodzic. 

Halilhodzic would turn out to be another disappointment for Japanese football fans. Though the Samurai Blue qualified for Russia 2018 before anyone except the hosts, the insipid way that they progressed would cost the coach his job. As in the case of 2010, a Japanese manager was selected to take Jaapan to the 2018 World Cup. Akira Nishino surprised almost everyone by whipping the team into shape and getting them through the pool round. But despite taking a 2-0 lead over Belgium in the round of 16, the Samurai Blue conceded a last-minute goal to miss out on the quarterfinals.

As an entirely new generation began to move into the picture, the JFA selected a Japanese gaffer, Hajime Moriyasu, to take over the reins in 2019. Moriyasu not only led Japan to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, but was successful enough to earn an extension on his contract. For reports on recent Samurai Blue matches, follow the links above to the National Team News page. For further details and analysis on each era of the Japan National Team's history, click one of the "Coaching Era" icons in the left column.