Friday, 08 December 2023



Anyone who hopes to understand the immense social importance of the Samurai Blue’s performance at this World Cup must first understand a few things about Japan. Football is a universal phenomenon – easily the most widely played, watched, loved, discussed, fought-over and dreamed-about sport in the world. But despite the “universal language of football” (to repeat the old cliché), it would be impossible for the reader to understand the Japan National Team, and the important role it plays as an aspirational mirror for Japanese society, without understanding a few things about the character of Japanese people, and the nature of Japan itself. Unless I begin by explaining to the reader some essential facts about Japan, its history, its culture and its essential nature, any attempt to relate the story of Japan’s exploits at the 2022 World Cup would be impossible.

The easiest way to illustrate this point is by identifying the most memorable incidents and images in Japan’s footballing history. In most countries, the iconic memory would probably be some high point – a dramatic late victory against a bitter rival, or some historic achievement such as a World Cup final. English fans will remember the magic of 1966 while in Scotland, some might recall to mind the Lisbon Lions. The Dutch and Spanish no doubt recall some scene from their respective World Cup triumphs, while in Brazil, it will be some moment of magic performed by Pele, Zico, Ronaldinho or Neymar.

For Japan, however, all of the truly memorable moments have been ones of utter, heart-shattering failure. Valiant failure, to be sure, but every one  like the mad counterattacking collapse in their round-of-16 exit against Belgium – involves some heroic effort that ultimately ends in tears. 

Some might suggest that the scene of Masayuki Okano scoring the goal that sent Japan to its first World Cup, in 1997 could qualify as an “iconic moment” The second-string forward (whose nickname Yajin”or Wild Man” accurately epitomized his appearance and style of play) pounced on a deflected shot in Japan’s playoff match against Iran. As the keeper spilled Hidetoshi Nakata's shot off to his left, Yajin flashed in from the right wing and lashed the ball home, then sprinted wildly towards the bench with a scream of pure elation -- arms, legs and unkempt hair flying about like some Rastafarian macaque suffering an epileptic seizure. 

But that memory pales in comparison to the scene of Hide Nakata lying flat on his back at midfield, following Japan’s loss to Brazil in Germany 2006, utterly still and distant from all his teammates, a shirt draped over his face to hide the tears. He would never play another competitive match, having resolved during those long painful minutes to retire from the sport at the tender age of 29. The camera lingered on the scene for what seemed like an hour, allowing everyone in the country to bask in the borrowed tears


Similarly, most fans would agree that the most memorable night in J.League history was that magical twilight season-closer in Saitama, when the Urawa Reds failed to avoid relegation by a single point. Fans responded to the heartbreak of relegation by remaining stubbornly on the terraces in defiant song. Far into the night they continued singing – so passionately that the players felt obliged to return to the pitch for repeated bows of apologetic gratitude, while evening newscasts, alerted to the amazing spectacle, suddenly cut away to broadcast live scenes from Komaba Stadium. The entire country was swept up in the event, as the Saitama Red Army swayed together on the terraces, roaring out their “We Are Reds” chants with unbroken devotion and unconquered spirit long into the night. It was an event that no true fan of Japanese football will ever forget. Those who want a fuller rendition of that amazing match can find the story in our J.League history section.

And of course, no discussion of Japan’s football history would be complete without an account of that evening in Doha, Qatar, when the samurai spirit endured its harshest blow. Members of the national team crumpled to the turf in abject disgrace after a last-second goal denied them World Cup qualification, when it seemed to be fully in their grasp. To this day, aging football fans relive the memory of that night … when the tears flowed like rain on the hills of Nagasaki. It was nicknamed "Doha no higeki" or "Agony in Doha". And it was the starting point for Japan's remarkable run to the World Cup 2022 Round-of-16


While most nations bask in memories of their greatest successes, there is something about the Japanese character that seems to embrace failure – not as a depressing gloom to wallow in, but as a valuable lesson in humility and impermanence; a challenge that the human spirit forever seeks to rise above. This has been true throughout the ages. One of Japan’s most ancient and important legends recounts the story of Prince Takeru Yamato. Literally, Takeru means “brave” and Yamato is the old name for Japan, so Takeru Yamato (“Brave Japan”) is synonymous with the samurai spirit of Japan, also referred to as “Yamatodamashi.” 

Like cultural heroes all over the world, Prince Yamato subdues all the mythical monsters and enemy armies. But his heroic life is plagued with tragedy. When a storm at sea threatens to sink his ship, and end the quest before its completion, his wife placates the angry sea by leaping into its depths. As he returns from the task of subduing all the hostile armies in Japan, his heart breaks as he gazes upon the bay where she died. Limping on, broken in spirit, he meets with a monstrous serpent, which he subdues, but only after horrific injury. He struggles on, to die on the steps of the Great Shrine of Ise – Japan’s most sacred site – his mission, and his tragedy, complete.

Similarly, the most renowned work of Japanese dramatic fiction, the Chushingura, tells the tale of 47 samurai whose master is executed for drawing his sword against an evil counsellor of the Shogun. The 47 spend the next year pretending abject despair, dissolution, illness and madness, only to reunite late one evening on the anniversary of their master’s death, attack the villain in his manor and complete their revenge. The final scene, which is as far removed from “happily ever after” as Tokyo is from New York, sees the 47 proceed to the grave of their master and commit seppuku – ritual suicide – with swords that are still wet with their enemy’s blood. 

Actual history seems to mirror these same themes. Japan’s most admired heroes are tragic figures who blaze out in glory and either early death or eventual failure. The founders of long, successful dynasties, such as Minamoto no Yoritomo or Tokugawa Ieyasu are remembered largely as footnotes or afterthoughts compared to their more tragic companions and rivals, Yoshitsune and Nobunaga. My own home town in Yamanashi is famed for its medieval warlord Takeda Shingen – a leader who fought dozens of bloody yet largely inconclusive battles, and who was felled by a bout of tuberculosis as he was embarking with his army for a march on Kyoto that might have shattered the forces of Nobunaga, and propelled him to the post of Shogun. The army retreated without meeting the enemy, Shingen dying along the way. Within a few years the Takeda armies had been smashed and decimated, every member of the clan either burned alive or exiled to distant Hokkaido, and the whole prefecture punished for the next two centuries with heavy taxes, administrative punishments and social stigma. Naturally, we hold a magnificent festival and parade every year to celebrate the man who so gloriously ruined himself, destroyed his family and impoverished the entire region where he lived.

Though the above examples may sound morbid, there is a powerful and emotionally compelling message in this feature of the Japanese character. It is not the failure itself that we celebrate, so much as the stoic ability to suffer the worst fate imaginable, yet still endure. Perhaps this is partly a reflection of the country’s disaster-prone geography, where earthquakes, typhoons and volcanic eruptions are constantly disrupting normal life. Faced with such uncertainty, one of the greatest human qualities is the mere ability to survive, to move on, and to rebuild that which has been destroyed. 

Grace under pressure, perseverance, humility, hard work and unflagging determination are the qualities that Japanese people most admire, not only in legendary figures but also in their modern-day sports heroes. And this is an ethic that even “Westerners” can easily appreciate. Highly successful sports teams will always attract fans eager to bask in the glory, but the most devoted and passionate fans are those who support a team that always seems to fall JUST short of true success. Whether it be the Chicago Cubs, in baseball, or Scotland, Wales, indeed any smaller European nation in football, there is something truly endearing about a team that relentlessly breaks the hearts of its fans. 

The “heroic failure” ethic has always been at the core of sports history for both the J.League and the Japan National Team. But one memory outshines all others in the annals of Japanese football. It was more than just the greatest tragedy in the history of the Samurai Blue; it also provided the foundation for all that the sport has achieved in Japan, over the subsequent 25 years. It epitomizes the Samurai Blue, and the central role that this team plays in Japanese football history, and perhaps even the modern social psyche of Japan. I am talking, of course, about the legendary “Agony in Doha” (Doha no Higeki) – the spark that ignited a fire of passion for the Beautiful Game, which still burns so brightly today.

 Agony in Doha

Visitors to the Persian Gulf port city of Doha, today, are greeted by one of the world’s most majestic and modern skylines. As a hub of Middle East transport, commerce, finance and oil wealth, Doha has grown into a shining, bustling, and modern metropolis brimming with an energy and confidence that even the oppressive heat of midday cannot fully dispel. But the waves of investment and economic speculation on these golden shores. Towering monuments of glass and steel have sprouted along the shoreline, growing like bamboo in May, towards a sun-bleached sky. 

One criticism that has been levelled at Qatar by many European football aficionados just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Anyone who casts aspersions on the host country for a lack of “football history” is badly in need of a history lesson. The tiny nations of the Gulf have been crazy about football for decades, and only their tiny populations have prevented them from qualifying in the past. The largest of the Gulf nations, Saudi Arabia, qualified for the seventh time in 2022, and has a solid record compared with other Asian representatives. 

But more importantly, Qatar itself has a rich history of hosting football tournaments. The Asian Cup was held here in 2011, and that was just one of many regional tournaments that have been hosted in Qatar over the years. The one that Japanese fans recall best took place in 1993

In 1993, the final round of Asian qualification for the 1994 World Cup was scheduled to be played entirely at one location, in Qatar, over an impossibly brief two-week period. The scheduling was necessary in part because Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and the subsequent First Gulf War, had made many countries in the region unstable. Indeed, there was honest concern that if Iran, Iraq or North Korea qualified, the United States might deny their players entry visas to take part. In any event, the venue and scheduling of these critical matches would set the stage for the most memorable football match in Japanese history.

If we are going to properly set the stage, it is also important to discuss the “Soccer Boom” that was raging in Japan, in 1993. The previous fall, Japan took part in its first-ever Asian Cup, having won the hosting rights. Some suggest that the founders of Japan’s J.League decided to turn what was then a semi-pro, corporate-dominated league into a fully professional organization, immediately on the heels of winning the rights.

In any event, the players who emerged as members of the 1992 Asian Cup team would go on to be some of the most influential players in the J.League, which kicked off the following spring. At the Hiroshima Universiade Stadium, and Hiroshima “Big Arch” (today home to Sanfrecce Hiroshima), Japan edged out one of Asia’s then powerhouses – Iran – to lift the AFC’s ultimate trophy for the first time.

The Asian Cup proved to be an ideal “advertisement” for the J.League’s inaugural season, which kicked off just four months later. Certainly, a lot of the people who turned out to watch the J.League in the opening two or three seasons were simply following the latest “fad” (much like the rugby fans who turned out for Top League matches in 2016, following Japan’s strong performance at the Rugby World Cup). But many of these visitors would grow to love the game, and form the solid core of support which has propelled the J.League’s growth over the past 25 years. 

The booming popularity of football throughout the 1993 season seemed to turn everything it touched to gold. Merchandise sales soared out of sight, big-name overseas players like Zico, Ramon Diaz, and that British commentator guy, all signed to play for Japanese clubs, and this euphoria inflated the pride and egos of JFA officials and J.League administrators alike.

Anyone who has seen the majestic skyline of Doha in recent years would be unable to recognise the place from pictures taken in 1993. At the time, the only real high-rise building in the city was the Sheraton Grand Doha Resort & Convention Hotel – a pyramid-shaped monstrosity that had been completed just a few years earlier, and would serve as the headquarters for all six teams. The bizarre decision to put all six rivals at the same hotel was just the first of many oddities that raised tension at the tournament. 

As already noted, many officials in both the AFC and FIFA were terrified at the prospect of Iraq qualifying for the US-based event, just a year after the two countries had fought a war in Kuwait. There were all sorts of wild rumours floating through the dusty streets of Doha – hints of spies, CIA operatives and big-time match fixers sneaking about the city, of near-bust-ups between groups of fans and even between players. With large delegations from such historical rivals as Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, South Korea and Japan, not even the wildest rumour could be dismissed completely.

Even if the organisers had anticipated every issue and conducted a flawless tournament, this would have been a tense event. As it was, the conditions were so hostile that Coach Ooft locked his players in one wing of the Sheraton along with the team’s cooks and security detail, leaving their rooms only to train in hastily-arranged facilities and to play their matches. The six teams would play a single round-robin with the top two teams qualifying for the 1994 World Cup. 

With only 14 days set aside for the entire affair, this meant playing matches every 2 or 3 days. The compressed schedule was probably beneficial, in reducing the amount of “free time” that players might have to get into mischief, but by the end of the campaign, everyone was physically and emotionally on the point of collapse.

Japan got off to a rocky start, registering a scoreless draw against the Saudis and a loss to Iran. But the team had a great deal of internal unity, built over the course of the Asian Cup campaign. With their backs to the wall, the team started to produce results. First came a confidence-boosting 3-0 victory over North Korea. Since the matches were being played in the evenings, to take advantage of cooler temperatures, the kick-off times back in Japan were well after midnight. Nevertheless, the clash with historical rivals South Korea drew a substantial TV audience, and when Kazuyoshi “Kazu” Miura scored the deciding goal in the 61st minute, the roars of celebration set off seismometers across Japan. The team held on against a ferocious late surge by the Koreans, and secured what was then a very rare victory over their closest neighbours. 

The victory over South Korea put Japan in an enviable position with one game to play. This was during the era when wins counted for only two points, and draws one point, so the rankings remained tight at the final hurdle. Nevertheless, the Samurai Blue were atop the table, level with Saudi Arabia on points, and had an edge in goal difference. Both were a point ahead of Iran, Iraq and South Korea, with Iraq all but eliminated due to poor goal difference. Japan still had to defeat the Iraqis to be certain of qualifying, but the momentum seemed to be entirely on the side of Coach Ooft’s men.

2 - 2 

Japan started the contest with a vibrant energy. A mere five minutes after kick-off, Miura put Japan in front and dreams of World Cup participation began to soar, both in Doha and back in the TV-lit living rooms of Japan. But shortly after intermission, Iraqi footballing legend Radhi Shenaishil – who would go on to manage Iraq on several occasions between 2009 and 2017 – knocked the Japanese back on their heels with an equaliser, and the second half proceeded in a nervous, stamina-sapping exchange of thrusts by both teams.

With ten minutes to play, the talismanic Gon Nakayama scored the go-ahead goal, which seemed to decide the contest. At this point, the Japanese seemed to be at the limit of their physical endurance, and though time was ticking away towards the final whistle, the stress was getting to everyone. On the Japan bench, coach Ooft, a lifetime smoker, could not restrain his nerves any longer, and he pulled out a cigarette to settle himself for the final countdown.

As the clock moved into the final minute, Rui Ramos fed a long ball into the corner for Nobuhiro Takeda, who had just come on for Nakayama. As one of the freshest players on the pitch, Takeda’s teammates expected him to take the ball to the corner flag and try to dribble out the final seconds. But instead he tried to cross for Kazu in front of goal, and the Iraqis regained possession. Carrying the ball down the right touchline, Ahmad Rahdi charged past the exhausted defenders, rounding the flank and firing off a shot that Shigetatsu Matsunami had to palm over the crossbar. 

The 90 minutes were up, and as striker Laith Hussein rushed for the corner flag to put the ball back in play, it was clear to players and onlookers alike that this would be Iraq’s final chance. While the Japanese defenders were still milling around and trying to get organized, Hussein played the ball short, to Rahdi on the right touchline. Unchallenged, Rahdi charged the box and then chipped a ball towards the near post. Jaffar Omran Salman, a second-half substitute, rose over the flat-footed Japanese defenders and headed the ball on. It looped softly … gently… almost casually… over the head of Matsunaga, and dropped into the netting on the far side of goal. 

One by one, Japanese players began to collapse to the pitch in limp bundles of quivering flesh, as if they were being picked off by some hidden sniper in the stands. Hans Ooft crushed his cigarette out on the cold concrete of the benches, and dropped his head in dejection.

The Japanese players managed to drag themselves back to the centre circle to kick off, but the final whistle sounded almost immediately, and as the cameras panned across the expanse of Al-Ahly Stadium, they captured a scene of utter devastation. Defenders Ihara and Hashiratani sat in identical poses, about three feet apart, knees up and hands draped onto their ankles, staring down with eyes focused on an unfathomable distance. They seemed to be peering into some deep black chasm beneath their feet. Fukuda was on his knees at midfield, head pressed to the turf as if performing Salaat. He rocked back and forth slowly, sobbing into the turf. Hajime Moriyasu was far from the others, sitting with knees tucked up, head down and eyes closed. Others lay strewn about the ground in crumpled heaps, hands over their faces as the tears of shame poured out. The TV cameras lingered long over the tragic scene, which was already on its way to becoming a Japanese football legend 

These video images are still deeply ingrained in the memories of Samurai Blue fans, young and old, for even to this day, documentaries about the Samurai Blue invariably include memories of 1993, lingering over the broken bodies of those victims of valiant failure, in Doha. In that poignant moment of emotional trauma, a generation of football fans learned to love the Beautiful Game, in all its unpredictability. The roller-coaster ride of emotional thrill, the long, languid foreplay and tortured anticipation before the opening goal. The moments of orgasmic celebration, when the ball ripples through an embrace of nylon netting. And of course, the masochistic, yet intense feeling of pride that one feels as they pick themselves up from the most painful of losses, resolved to fight again tomorrow. 

The tears shed in Doha mingled with the concrete of Japan’s natural creativity and group effort, to create the foundation on which Japanese football would rise over the next quarter of a century. It is upon these foundations that the J.League was built, and the memories of Doha no Higeki are treasured today as fondly as any of Japan’s victories or successes. 

Redemption in Doha

The “back story” to Japan’s most recent World Cup success does not end there. In fact, the next chapter may deserve to be discussed in as much detail as the “Agony in Doha”, even though the average Japanese sports fan probably does not recall it clearly. Qatar’s history of hosting big tournaments continued in 2011, when they played host to the Asian Cup. 

Like the current tournament, this one was plagued by organizational errors. Most matches – at least in the pool round – were played to crowds of less than 10,000. Then FIFA somehow managed to lock out thousands of actual ticketholders from the final, between Japan and Australia. Nevertheless, the 2011 tournament came at a critical stage for the national team. Though they were knocked out on penalties in the round of 16, at the previous summer’s World Cup, Japan was developing a generation of players who promised to take the Samurai Blue to the next level.

Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and a young Yuto Nagatomo were all names that had been embossed in Samurai Blue tradition during the 2010 World Cup. It looked like the National Team was finally ready to compete on the Global stage. Yet in Asia, despite having three prior Asian Cup titles enshrined in glass cabinets at JFA House (the Federation headquarters in Tokyo), Japan still had an “inferiority complex”. The Samurai Blue often had meltdowns in concentration when facing teams with a longer football history. This persistent inability to beat key rivals was most pronounced against South Korea.

For the sake of keeping politics at arm’s length, I wont go into extensive detail about Japan’s relationship with South Korea in general. However, history and politics do have an influence on individuals. And this could be seen whenever Japan faced the Hanguk Warriors in football (or for that matter, their neighbours North Korea), there was always an element of competitive fire that the Koreans could count on to turn the tide in crucial matches. Japanese players, by contrast, always seemed to be unwilling or unable to throw themselves in on 50:50 balls with the needed reckless intensity. 

South Korea established itself as a footballing nation at least three decades before Japan. While some point to Japan’s bronze medal at the 68 Olympics and call it a “history”, the truth is that South Korea had a seat at the FIFA table – as East Asia’s representative – at a time when the Japan NT struggled to beat Malaysia or Hong Kong. When Japan put in the most compelling bid for the 2002 World Cup (Ive heard that characterization even from Korean journalists), FIFA still balked, and insisted on having Korea co-host. 

In the end, the 2002 co-hosting probably went a good way towards pacifying the football rivalry between the two countries [the political rivalry is another issue]. Though there is still a lot of nationalist intensity in Japan-Korea contests, on the football pitch, the players respect and often like each other, and the two Federations have grown into the best of frenemies. A large percentage of the Korean national team has played at least one season in Japan’s J.League, and Korean coaches are often highly sought-after by J.League teams. Cross-pollination between Korean and Japanese football has been a benefit to both.

Given the history of the two countries, however, up until 2011 Japan still seemed to have a sort of inferiority complex when facing Korea. In truth, all three of Japan’s previous Asian Cup triumphs were tarnished, in some eyes, by the fact that the Samurai Blue avoided their Korean nemesis. There were signs that the new generation of players – many of whom plied their trade in the politically charged leagues of Europe – were beginning to overcome the “lack of confidence” that Samurai Blue teams had displayed in the past. 

Japan launched their Asian Cup 2011 campaign with a 5-0 victory over an over-hyped and aging Saudi Arabia. If my match report from a decade ago can be believed, it was a VERY flattering result. But the boost to Japan’s confidence was critical. In the quarterfinals, the Samurai Blue would face one of those well known “AFC stumbling blocks” that so often knocked Japan (and many other AFC victims) out of a key tournament.  

Japan’s opponent in the quarterfinal round was Qatar – the host country. Readers probably know a lot about the country and the National Team already, so I have little to add. Suffice it to say that after an early strike by the very Qatari-sounding Andres Sebastian Quintana, Japan quickly equalised (through Shinji Kagawa) and seemed to be in full control. 

But in the 63rd minute, referee Subkhiddin Mohammed Saleh (the man infamously “red-carded” by Portugal’s Zequinha, during a 2007 international) awarded a free kick on the edge of the Japan box for what looked like minor contact … and then went to his pocket to show Maya Yoshida a second yellow card. With Japan reduced to ten men, keeper Eiji Kawashima compounded the conundrum by allowing the subsequent free kick by Fabio Cesar Montesin to sneak past him at the near post.

Despite being shorthanded and a goal down, the Samurai Blue showed what, at the time, was a surprising poise. They quickly restored their control of possession and resumed the attack. Kagawa scored the equaliser in the 73rd minute, and by the time Masahiko Inoha’s counterattacking strike in the 90th minute made things official, Qatar was clinging for dear life. 

2 - 2 aet.  

The semifinal clash against South Korea was one of the best in the two rivals’ histories. A slugfest that pushed both teams to the limits of physical endurance and emotional stability. After a high-paced and physical opening 20 minutes, Korea opened the scoring thanks to a very soft penalty kick. Park Ji-Sung raced into the box shoulder-to-shoulder with Yasuyuki Konno, and suddenly threw himself headlong to the turf. The obliging referee pointed to the spot, and Ki-Seung-yeng drilled the spot kick.

But Japan responded almost immediately. In the 36th minute, Keisuke Honda played a perfectly-timed pass down the left sideline, behind the Korean defence, for wingback Yuto Nagatomo. The speedy Nagatomo turned the corner, charged the left post, and at the last second dropped the ball back to Ryoichi Maeda to slot home.

For the next hour the two teams traded blows, creating a lot of energetic activity but never really threatening either goal. The 90 minutes of regulation ended in a 1-1 stalemate, and the two teams prepared for additional time.

Seven minutes into the overtime period, Japan finally got a fortunate break. Shinji Okazaki was played through the middle by Honda, and just as he reached the box he collided with a flat-footed Korean defender and was knocked to the ground. Replays showed that the foul came just outside the box, but having awarded a soft penalty to Korea in the first half, the ref apparently decided that only by awarding a PK for Japan could he avoid scrutiny for the earlier call. He duly pointed to the spot.

Samurai Blue fans nearly had a heart attack when Honda sent his PK straight at the keeper, but the rebound fell right at the feet of Hajime Hosogai, who poked home the rebound and put Japan in the lead for the first time. For once, Japan was going to see out the result, and claim a huge win over their long-time nemesis.

But in the final minute of the overtime period, disaster struck. The Samurai Blue defense failed to clear a desperate lob into the Japan zone by the Korean team. The ball ping-ponged about the six-yard box for what seemed an eternity, before Hwang Jae-Wong managed to swat it through the crowd and into the back of the Japan net.

The hearts of Samurai Blue fans plummeted. Everyone had seen the scenario play out enough times to know what would come next. Korea would win the game on penalties and once again, the valiant heroes would have to limp home and accept their longtime status as second-best in Asia.

But this time the script changed. Eiji Kawashima immediately made two spectacular saves, and the third Korean PK-taker sliced his shot wide of the right post. Yasuyuki Konno slotted home Japan’s third, and the shootout ended with an early and emphatic triumph for the Samurai Blue.

1 - 0 

The final against Australia started out with a sense of anticlimax. Though the Socceroos have been a thorn in the side of Japan ever since they joined the AFC, in this particular contest they were outclassed. Japan dominated the ball, and seemed on the verge of scoring for most of the first half. The only thing Japan could not do was finish off their scoring chances and put the contest to bed. Australia stubbornly clung to the 0-0 score line, and after 90 minutes of frustrating stalemate, it looked like the contest might go to penalties yet again.

But in extra time, coach Alberto Zaccheroni brought on a substitute who would go down in Japan NT history despite playing only a handful of matches. Tadanari Lee was born in Japan, but for his entire childhood and early adulthood he retained Korean citizenship. There is a large population of ethnic Korean and ethnic Chinese living in Japan who were born in the country, speak fluent Japanese, and may not even be entirely fluent in their own “native language”, yet who retain Korean or Chinese citizenship for reasons that have more to do with history and cultural identity than common sense.

Lee Chun-soo was born in Tokyo. Both of his parents were also born in Japan. Yet when his football prowess began to attract attention from youth international scouts, it was from the Korean national team. Lee had a South Korean passport, like many other Zainichi in Japan, though his birthplace and status gave him he right to apply for Japanese citizenship after 20th birthday (in practice, very few Zainichi Koreans do so). 

In 2002, in a twist of fate that would have a major impact on both his life and Japanese football history, he was called up to a youth training camp in South Korea. Based on his own memories of the experience, it sounds like the other players wanted to eliminate the competition for spots, by driving him out with racial abuse and taunting. His accent was mocked and he was repeatedly called a derogatory Korean term meaning “Half-Jap”. 

While racial prejudice certainly exists in Japan, Lee had never experienced anything this cruel and unfiltered. He returned to Japan with a radically different view of his “place in society”. Within a few years of his 20th birthday he had taken Japanese citizenship and “Japanised” the pronunciation of his name (The characters 忠成 are pronounced “Chun-Soo” in Korean, but can be read as “Tadanari” in Japanese).

Perhaps it is historical irony that a naturalised Korean played such a central role in the victory that vaulted Japan to the top spot in Asia, and once-and-for-all shattered Japan’s inferiority complex when facing South Korea. In the 109th minute – just ten minutes after Lee came on – Japan broke out on a counterattack and Yuto Nagatomo dashed free down the left sideline. As he drew level with the box, Nagatomo lofted a high, floating cross towards the penalty spot. Lee was racing forward to meet the pass, but the Australian defenders were also scrambling into position. There would be no time to pull the ball down. So Lee twisted his body in midair as he leapt to meet the ball ... and sent a perfect volley straight into the Australian net.

Of all Japan’s Asian titles, the 2011 crown is generally viewed as the most significant. In 1992, 2000 and 2004, Japan had to deal with the usual vagaries of AFC officiating and opposition perfidy that affect such competitions. But the luck of the draw and tournament results allowed them to avoid their most persistently daunting opponents. In 2009 they defeated challenges from both South Korea and Australia fielding teams that many in those coutries look back upon as "Golden generations." Japan was finally able to lay the memories of "Doha no Higeki" to rest, and simultaneously establish themselves as the “team to beat” in East Asia. It was an essential step in the growth process, instilling a sense of confident optimism that prevails in the Samurai Blue team and its general outlook, to this day.

Destiny in Doha

And so, at long last, we reach the present day. Japan returns to the scene of its greatest heartache, with a chance to truly set the footballing world on its ear. Throughout the qualifying process, the team has been gradually gelling from a group of hard-working individuals into a genuine “team,” while never really drawing the sort of attention that might prompt top opponents to study their success and try to develop counterstrategies. Most of the team’s top players are relatively unknown outside Japan, and nobody has much regard for their soft-spoken, widely misunderstood head coach. 

Yet in just three matches they have knocked off two of the tournament’s top prospects, and it is apparent that they still have not reached their full potential. So let’s begin by looking at coach Hajime Moriyasu’s poorly-understood but visibly successful footballing philosophy, and why it is so well-suited to Japan's national team.

In the wake of Japan’s upset wins over Germany and Spain, there have been a few efforts by YouTube-based “tactics nerds” to discuss the reasons for Japan’s success and analyse the things that coach Moriyasu did to accomplish these results. While the points they emphasize are usually valid, none has given a real insight into the mind of the manager. 

Indeed, even in the Japanese football press, the discussion tends to focus on specific changes in formation and style of play, rather than the overarching strategy that coach Moriyasu has adopted. There is a very good reason for that: the coach is notoriously quiet about his football philosophy, and usually responds to press questions with vague, clearly pre-planned stock answers that do not offer much solid ground on which to base an analysis. Therefore, the reader should understand that everything below is simply my own best analysis of the “Samurai Blue Game Plan”, based on the actual results of their WC2022 qualification and pre-tournament friendly matches.

Before we delve into the Moriyasu-based details, it is necessary to discuss a coach whose tactical inventions will be largely unknown to European fans, but who has left an indelible imprint on J.League football: Mihailo Petrovic. The Serbian/German gaffer served as Moriyasu’s first coaching mentor, at Sanfrecce Hiroshima. While Moriyasu watched and assisted, Petrovic invented something that is known today in J.League circles as “The Petrovic 3-6-1”. 

In terms of classical football tactics, the Petrovic 3-6-1 is set out pretty much the same as the 3-4-3 formations that are ubiquitous in European football. The main difference that Petrovic introduced – and the reason for the name – lies in the responsibilities of the individual midfield players. On defense, the formation resolves into a very tight, two-line block of 5-4, with a lone striker whose extremely important role is to press constantly and never let the opposing defenders have “time on the ball”.

But the objective is NOT to simply park the bus, as has become the case for so many 3-4-3 tactical plans, nowadays. The difference lies in what the midfield does whenever a strong opponent runs out of space and tries to recycle the ball through their back line. When this happens, one of the “top three” (usually the lone striker) tries to chase down the ball and obstruct forward passes. If this initial charge is successful, the six midfield players immediately charge out and join in the ferocious press. 

While I lack the graphics skills (or, for that matter, the tactical knowledge) to demonstrate how the press operates, a few old videos of Sanfrecce or Urawa Reds matches coached by Mihailo Petrovic can quickly give readers a picture of how the trap operates. Five of the seven players involved attack the ball in the sort of “pentagon press” that is familiar to football tacticians. The key difference is that the other two of the seven constantly “rotate in” so that there are constantly fresh legs running at the ball. It requires a lot of running, as well as practiced team coordination. But when used effectively, it can completely disrupt a superior opponent’s attempts to create chances.

The underlying goal of this tactic is to deny clear shooting opportunities, compress the pitch, and get the opponent onto the back foot, then press suddenly, and win the ball in midfield before the opponent can rebalance their formation. This produces a run-of-play marked by tense phases of long-distance passing and build-up, punctuated by sudden counterattacks and … quite often … goals that literally come out of nowhere.

The Petrovic 3-6-1 was an obvious game-changer for small teams, because it is a very aggressive philosophy grafted onto a very defensive formation. Indeed, many of the J.League clubs that adopted it, in imitation of Sanfrecce’s success, referred to it as a “5-4-1”. The innovation forced the bigger clubs to work a lot harder (physically, especially in terms of distance covered) to get results against the minnows. 

However, as Petrovic himself discovered, when adopted by a “big club”, it was just a bit TOO high-risk to justify the high rewards. He never managed to win a league title either at Sanfrecce or at Urawa Reds, who bankrolled Petrovic and purchased all of his Sanfrecce favourites in an effort to create a Real Madrid-style “superclub”. 

It ended in failure because, when top-quality players adopted the Petrovic 3-6-1, they could always be stymied by an opponent playing the Petrovic 3-6-1. Its very structure makes it “top-heavy” when on the attack, so there is too much space in the defensive corners. The “clever” teams dealt with the problem by simply fouling any counterattacker at midfield. Thus, J.League contests often were filled with exciting runs from one team and then the other, but they usually resolved into 1-0 results, often for the “weaker” team.

The man who successfully refined the Petrovic 3-6-1 to suit a championship team was Hajime Moriyasu himself. After taking over Sanfrecce, Moriyasu set out to tweak the tactical details of the 3-6-1 in ways that reduced risk and limited the need for constant “professional fouls” whenever the counterattack got hit by a counter-counterattack. The main drawback was that it required tremendous physical endurance especially on the part of the midfield wings and the lone striker. 

After taking over at Sanfrecce, Moriyasu scouted and signed several players with a reputation for hard running and stamina, introduced his adjustments to the Petrovic 3-6-1 (including an option to shift formation to four backs in the middle of a contest) and immediately led the team to their first J.League title. The Purple Archers would win three league crowns in five years under Moriyasu before he moved on into the National Team coaching ranks. 

But there was one more critical element to the Moriyasu philosophy that had yet to appear – a rule change whose impact is already apparent on the World Game, but which few coaches have really sat down and analysed in detail. I am referring, of course, to the five-substitute rule, which has only recently been adopted in FIFA international play. 

Japan has always focused on the use of flexible, adaptable players rather than “specialists”, so the domestic game has always employed a lot of mid-match formational and tactical shifts as a way to achieve a particular aim – whether it be to intensify the attack, or to park the bus. However, the introduction of the five-sub rule in 2020 was seized upon by many J.League coaches as a way to stir the pot in a unique way. Rather than monitoring player condition and using subs to plug gaps, more and more coaches began experimenting with pre-planned “line shifts”, which would dramatically change the shape and style of play at a pre-planned point in the contest

Moriyasu began experimenting with similar ideas as early as 2021, when the final round of Asian qualification began. It seems to have baffled a lot of the domestic sports press, who have accused the coach of lacking a consistent plan and not even knowing which players were his best eleven. Following a loss to Canada in the week prior to the start of Qatar 2022 (in which he used an all-sub starting lineup), some even said that he was grasping at straws and didn’t know what he was doing. 

In actual fact, he may be the most perceptive Samurai Blue coach ever. But much of the confusion stems from the fact that Moriyasu has been carefully plotting a 16-man strategy. He does not have a “best eleven”. He has a “best 16”, and all 16 are essential to the game plan. To make matters even more confusing, the identity of the "best 16" can differ depending on the opponent, or the current score of a match. Failure to understand this fact has led many to discuss the Germany and Spain matches as “adjustments” to the dominance that the European teams showed in the first half. In reality, the mid-match changes are all part of Plan A (though there was a bit of Plan B at the end of Japan-Spain).

Essentially, Moriyasu has prepared for every single contest with the assumption that there will be a mid-contest change, including three or four early substitutes. This makes sense, given how deep the Japan NT is these days. Moriyasu can trust that no matter who he brings off the bench, the level of technical skill and competitiveness will remain the same. His plans (at least for the group stage) entail the use of all five subs, with the last coming as early as the 75th minute.

Japan's overall approach to the World Cup was based on getting a draw against Germany, then beating Costa Rica, and hoping that Spain would either have already qualified, or need just a draw to advance. In this scenario Spain would be happy to rest players and settle for a scoreless draw, allowing Japan to advance. As it turned out, the details did not go as planned but the overall result was the same.

Therefore Japan opened against Germany with a standard 4-2-3-1. By using pressing players up front like Maeda and Ito in the starting lineup, and running at the ball, they try to wear out the defenders and midfielders, then look for an opportunity to change the dynamics and snatch victory in the second half. 

Before proceeding with the analysis, I have to say a few words about Daizen Maeda – a player who I have been watching with delight since he was a largely unknown student at Yamanashi Gakuin University (a school just down the road from where I live). For reasons that I cannot comprehend, Maeda has copped some criticism in Scotland due to thew fact that he is not what one could consider a “traditional striker”. He rarely scores, and when he does it is usually some scrappy goalmouth tap-in. And yet, he has clearly endeared himself to both Ange Postecoglou and Hajime Moriyasu.

The truth is, Maeda never scored many goals. He scored just three goals for Postecoglou during his stint with Yokohama Marinos, yet he was the first name that Ange provided to Celtic management when drawing up a list of players he wanted to sign. The reason why both coaches value Maeda so highly is that his instinct for pressuring the ball is worth more to them than the goal-scoring prowess of a Messi or Ronaldo. 

Every time that Maeda charges a defender, and then continues to press the ball when it is dropped to the keeper, five or more opposing players all have to make a 30-meter sprint to get back into their proper alignment. Even if they break the press immediately, they then have to run 30 meters in the opposite direction to get back to square one.

While it may not be immediately perceptible, the impact of these 30-meter wind sprints will invariably affect the way that the opposing team plays. Particularly if they feel that they are “in control”, the players will not adjust, and not consider how much they have left in the tank before making an attacking run. Junya Ito is not quite as good at forechecking, but his speed is comparable, and between them, Maeda and Ito are very adept at wearing opponents down.

After 45 minutes of responding to the Maeda/Ito threat, over and over with an almost repetitive rhythm, the five or six players manning the opposition defense will rack up a running distance that matches what they usually do in a full 90. At this critical juncture, Moriyasu brings on the likes of Mitoma, Doan, Minamino and Asano, who are all adept at collecting the ball and running at the defenders.

The sudden shift to a new formation and style of play, coupled with the accumulated impact of tired legs, is like a sudden punch in the face. Even if it doesnt produce an immediate payoff, it forces the opponent to make changes that they probably do not want to make, and have not planned for. The success of this "16-player philosophy" is visible in the results. Moriyasu's halftime shift has successfully demolished the poise, focus and defensive structure of two of the world’s elite football powers.

Of course, Japan also failed to get the job done against Costa Rica. Part of this can be simply put down to complacency. Moriyasu's original plan was for four points in the first two matches. Even a draw with Costa Rica would achieve this goal. It is plain to see that he tried to rest key personnel and lived to regret the lineup changes. But the Costa Rica match (which the Samurai Blue did dominate for long stretches) is misleading if we are trying to analyze how Japan can do over the course of this tournament. If all of Japan's players had arrived in top condition, I doubt that Moriyasu would have tried to juggle the lineup against the Ticos. But Tomiyasu and Endo are both still on the mend, and only played marginal roles against Spain. Resting them for the knockout round may have been worth the risk.

The one serious problem Japan had in the first half of its two wins was that the Samurai Blue could not hold the ball up in midfield when they had possession. For the entire first half, Germany and Spain had almost constant control of the ball, while Japan's possession was (apart from one or two quick counters) all deep in their own end. On this point I think Take Kubo has been a liability. Despite his dribbling finesse he just cant hold the ball up, under pressure. Personally I would give Yuki Soma another chance (he looked pretty good against Costa Rica, though the team as a whole lacked the cutting edge). You need to have wide midfielders who can carry the ball in midfield and not just get shoved off it

Japan’s objective is to make it to half time with the score still level. As it was, they failed in both the Spain and Germany matches, but they did succeed in keeping the contest close and forcing the opponent to run a lot. This allowed them to use the second-half changes to turn the contest on its head

No doubt, Moriyasu has considered how to respond to any first-half outcome. If Japan had scored on a counter and had been up 1-0 at half time, you probably would have seen Kubo and Maeda (perhaps even Ito) off for the likes of Minamino, Shibasaki and Morita. Japan would have gone to a three-DMF 4-5-1 and focused on preserving the lead and lofting long balls to Ito or Asano to chase. 

As it was, Japan had to make the shift to a more attacking formation in both contests earlier than they expected. But these changes should be seen for what they are: a part of Japan's basic strategy, which uses second-half subs to alter the contest. The point is that Moriyasu's philosophy is to let the opponent develop a certain style and mindset, as well as (hopefully) use up a lot of energy, in the first half. Then he makes his five changes, and tries to win the game in the second half. You can expect to see substitutes continue to play an important role in matches going forward.

It is far to early for Japan to start the congratulations. While the group stage performance alone has surely won the Samurai Blue a place in the history of this World Cup, true success will only come if Japan can battle through to meet Brazil in the quarterfinals. This would be the culmination of a dream that was born on the pitch at Sheikh Khalifa Stadium almost exactly thirty years ago.

One can only gaze back fondly on the picture of Hajime Moriyasu sitting there - in inconsolable solitude - and contemplating what might have been possible if he had only forced his legs to run one last cross-denying sprint. What sort of fire was kindled in his heart that day? What sort of redemption has it been for the same man to stand there, on the same pitch, and be able to lift his fist in victory? I can only surmise that it was the same fire . . . the same dream . . . that was born in the hearts of all Samurai Blue fans that November day in Doha.

 And now . . . if the team plays true to form, and true to the spirit of "Yamato-damashii" (Japanese heroism) . . . Japan will defeat Croatia, score twice in the first half against Brazil, then concede three PKs, get a late equaliser and lose in additional time to a stirring Neymar strike.