While I don’t want it to sound like I don’t think the result matters against Paraguay, this match is something of a bonus.
Yes, Japan have a talented squad, are full of confidence at the moment and, as I outlined here (http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/blog/2010/jun/27/world-cup-2010-japan-paraguay-asia), have every chance of progressing even further at this year’s World Cup. What should be remembered is where the team have come from and where they are aiming for though.
Japan only qualified for their first World Cup finals 12 years ago, since when (save for a more-than-respectable showing when co-hosting in 2002) they have not fared too well at FIFA’s showpiece event. A trio of defeats on their debut in France and just a point from their three games in Germany meant that very little was expected of the team heading to South Africa this year.
Despite coach Takeshi Okada targeting (amid much derision from the Japanese press) a semi-final finish (my defence of which can be found here (http://www.fccj.or.jp/node/5753)), progression from the group stages was always going to be a huge success. The team not only managed to make it out of Group E, but they achieved it in some style – winning many fans in the process with their committed, skilful and assertive play.
In spite of an abysmal build-up to the tournament (three wins – against Yemen, Hong Kong and Bahrain’s reserves – in ten matches) the team has clicked at just the right time, and they are now just 90 (120?) minutes away from the quarter-finals. This would be a phenomenal achievement and would provide Japanese football with just the boost it needs.
The J.League was launched in 1993 and one of its key objectives was to improve the level of the national team. As such, its popularity is heavily linked to the success of the Samurai Blue and, consequently, it currently sits in something of a plateau. The money and excitement that were in abundance in the early years can no longer be called upon, and as the big names of world football head to the oil-rich countries for their last big pay-day, the Japanese game has to largely depend upon mediocre Brazilians and local talent.
As the major European leagues have tightened their grip on the Asian market, these home-grown players have struggled to match the appeal of their Premier League or La Liga contemporaries This successful campaign – which could become even better come 1am local time on Wednesday – will hopefully go some way to addressing that.
I was in Graz for the friendly with England in May and managed to get a couple of opinions on the Japan team from Frank Lampard after the match. While most of the platitudes he served up are probably recycled regardless of the opposition (‘good side’ / ‘passed the ball well through midfield’ / ’caused us a few problems up-front’), something he said did stick in my head and is becoming increasingly pertinent now.
“There’s normally a surprise team so hopefully they can do well.”
While Japan’s run so far has been fantastic, a team cannot really be considered as the surprise of the tournament for making it to the second round. One more win tonight, however, could make the title theirs for sure.