Japan (Samurai Blue)
Round of 16: 3 (2002, 2010, 2018)
Group Stage: 3 (1998, 2006, 2014)
Current FIFA Ranking: 24
Group E Schedule
Game 1 – Wednesday 23rd November 2022
16:00 Qatar Time/13:00 GMT
Khalifa International Stadium, Al Rayyan
Game 2 – Sunday 27th November 2022
13:00 Qatar Time/10:00 GMT
Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, Al Rayyan
Game 3 – Thursday 1st December 2022
22:00 Qatar Time/19:00 GMT
Khalifa International Stadium, Al Rayyan
Japan’s success on the international football scene is relatively recent, but they have quickly won a record four Asian Cups (1992, 2000, 2004, 2011). In the World Cup, they have reached the round of 16 three times in the past 20 years. Other notable achievements include being runners-up at the Confederations Cup in 2001, attaining the Bronze Medal at the 1968 Olympics, and twice finishing third at the Asian Games (1951, 1966).
Japan’s history as a football nation goes back to 1917. A university team was chosen to represent Japan in the 1917 Far Eastern Championship Games on home soil in Tokyo, where they lost heavily to China and the Philippines. However, Japan would not be deterred, and the Japan Football Association (JFA) was created in 1921. Then the country became a member of FIFA in May 1929. They played again at the Far Eastern Championship Games in 1930, this time represented by a proper national team. They tied with China for the trophy, so progress had been made in the intervening thirteen years. Following this, Japan entered their first World Cup qualifiers in 1938 but quickly withdrew. Then came the onset of war, and as an Axis power, they did not play many international matches in the 1940s.
Japan returned in the post-war era, finishing as semi-finalists in the 1951 Asian Games. Having been suspended by FIFA for the 1950 tournament, Japan played their first-ever World Cup qualifiers for the 1954 edition. However, they lost the spot in the finals to South Korea. They then joined the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in 1954. The next three World Cups were also complex for the Japanese, not entering 1958 and 1966 and failing to qualify in 1962. However, German Dettmar Cramer began coaching the national team in 1960. Cramer has become known as the father of modern Japanese football and got Japan to the quarter-finals of the 1964 Summer Olympics at home in Tokyo. Japan went one better in 1968, winning the Bronze Medal in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Part of both squads was legendary forward Kunishige Kamamoto, who was the tournament’s top scorer in Mexico with seven goals. Kamamoto also played in three editions of the Asian Games. He retired from the national team in 1977, having scored an impressive 75 goals in 76 matches (though this is disputed to be 80 goals in 84 games by the JFA). This is a ratio of almost a goal a game.
The Advent of Professionalism and the First Asian Cup Triumph
Despite the success at the Mexico Olympics, the Japanese were still struggling at regional and global levels. It was clear that the reason for this was the amateur status of most Japanese players and the lack of a professional domestic league. For the next twenty-two years, Japan resultantly made little impact on the world of football, failing to qualify for the World Cup six consecutive times between 1970 and 1990 (though they came close in 1986, falling at the last qualifying hurdle to South Korea). They did make their debut in the Asian Cup in 1988 but were eliminated at the group stage. However, things were changing in Japanese football. In 1991, the semi-professional Japan Soccer League disbanded and officially became the professional J League in 1993. Indeed, a sign of Japanese football’s statement for the future was that esteemed England striker Gary Lineker joined Nagoya Grampus in 1992.
The shift to professionalism had an incredible effect on Japanese football, and in 1992 they hosted and won the Asian Cup in only their second time competing in the tournament. That team is now legendary. Indeed, it consisted of such players as centre-back Masami Ihara, current coach Hajime Moriyasu (who was suspended for the final), and centre-forward Kazuyoshi Miura, who won the Most Valuable Player Award. Interestingly, Miura is still playing today at the age of 55, making him the world’s oldest professional footballer. In 1993, all three players were on the pitch for what has become known in Japan as the ‘Agony of Doha’. Essentially needing to beat Iraq in Qatar to qualify for their first World Cup, Japan were leading 2-1 going into the last minute. However, an equaliser by Iraqi substitute Jaffar Omran eliminated Japan and allowed South Korea to qualify (in contrast, the South Koreans know the event as the ‘Miracle of Doha’).
Their First World Cup
After a quarter-final defeat as defending champions in the 1996 Asian Cup, Japan finally qualified for their first World Cup in France ’98. They had to do it the hard way, coming second in their group and then beating Iran in the Asian play-off, but they made it. Veteran defender Ihara was the captain. Also present were youngsters such as talented goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi and the maverick Hidetoshi Nakata, who is now widely considered one of the greatest Asian players of all time. However, Japan lost all three games in a group also comprising Argentina, Croatia, and Jamaica. It had been close, though, with the Japanese giving an excellent account of themselves and only losing each game by a single goal. Masashi Nakayama scored their first World Cup goal and only goal of the tournament in the final match versus Jamaica.
Further Asian Cup Successes and World Cup Co-Hosts
Japan went on to win two Asian Cups back to back in 2000 and 2004, highlighting their increasing strength as a power in Asia. They had also developed political and sporting rivalries with fellow Asian powerhouses South Korea and Iran. Indeed, a moment of great pride was bestowed upon the nation when in 1996 FIFA selected they and South Korea to co-host the 2002 World Cup. The two countries had wanted to host by themselves but reluctantly agreed when it became clear that they had to co-host or neither would host. As automatic qualifiers alongside the South Koreans and holders France, Japan were drawn into Group H alongside Belgium, Russia, and Tunisia.
Nakata was now in the prime of his career and was joined in midfield by talented youngster Junichi Inamoto. Japan performed heroically, winning two games and drawing one in the group, starting with a 2-2 versus Belgium and then defeating Russia and Tunisia 1-0 and 2-0 respectively, with Inamoto scoring the winner against the Russians. Playing at home was clearly advantageous for Japan, and they were thriving under the pressure of being hosts. In the second round, however, Japan lost to an early goal in a defeat to Turkey in Rifu. It had been a fantastic tournament for the Japanese, and they had made their people proud and submitted a performance they were to repeat in the future.
More World Cup Exploits and the Asian Cup Record
That repetition was not to occur in 2006, as Japan finished bottom of a group comprising Brazil, Australia and Croatia, gaining only a solitary point. Comfortable defeats to Australia and Brazil had especially strung. After attaining a fourth-place finish in the 2007 Asian Cup, the national team returned for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Featuring now legendary players such as record cap holder Yasuhito Endo, fullback Yuto Nagatomo, maverick playmaker Keisuke Honda, forward Shinji Okazaki, playmaker Shunsuke Nakamura and captain Makoto Hasebe, Japan managed to defeat Denmark and Cameroon but also lost to the Netherlands, finishing the group in second place to the Dutch. Japan had progressed to the round of 16 for the first time on foreign soil. In the round of 16 match, they lost on penalties to Paraguay after a drab goalless draw, with Yuichi Komano missing the decisive kick. Still, it had been another successful tournament for the Japanese.
The following year, Japan won their fourth and most recent Asian Cup, a record for the competition. They could not make an impression in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, where they first lost to Ivory Coast and then drew with Greece. Then they were destroyed 4-1 by high-flying Colombia and their star man James Rodriguez and went home with one point from nine.
The 2018 World Cup
Japan returned in 2018, featuring players such as Maya Yoshida, Genki Haraguchi, Yuya Osako and Shinji Kagawa. This energetic and technically gifted team first took revenge on Colombia, beating them 2-1. They then drew with Senegal, with Honda becoming the first Japanese player to score at three World Cups and the highest Asian scorer in the history of the competition, with four goals. A loss in the final game to Poland saw Japan finish with an identical record to Senegal, but the Japanese took second place thanks to their fair play record – the first time the fair play rules had ever been necessary in the World Cup.
In the round of 16, they faced Belgium, where they were the better team for the first hour, swarming the Belgians at every opportunity. Haraguchi and Takashi Inui scored early in the second half to give Japan a 2-0 lead. However, Belgium managed to tie the game in the 74th minute, and, in the last minute, a Japanese team which was exhausted won a corner. Knowing they did not possess the energy for extra time, they threw everyone forward. However, it was to no avail as Belgium countered to win the game with a Nacer Chadli finish. It was yet another good showing at the World Cup for the Japanese.
The Improvement of the Last Thirty Years and Hopes for Qatar
2018 was bittersweet for Japan, losing to Belgium as they did, but they have made the round of 16 three times in their six World Cup appearances, which represents an excellent performance from a nation which was amateur for most of its history. The aforementioned ‘Agony of Doha’ was catastrophic at the time for Japan, but in retrospect, it has become a source of inspiration for future tournaments as Japan have qualified for seven successive World Cups beginning in 1998. There can be no doubt that hosting the tournament aided the country’s football development, too. They have generally played a high-energy, technical and fluid style of football due to the Japanese believing they cannot physically dominate the opposition. They enter the 2022 tournament feeling confident but knowing that Spain and Germany lie in wait and it will take a monumental effort merely to progress from the group. However, Japan have defied the odds before.
Road to Qualification
AFC Second Round Group F: 1st
AFC Third Round Group B: 2nd
Second Round: Played:8 W:8 D:0 L:0 F:46 A:2 GD:+44 Points:24
Third Round: Played:10 W:7 D:1 L:2 F:12 A:4 GD:+8 Points:22
Date of Qualification: 24th March 2022
Japan made simple work of the initial qualifying group, attaining a 100 per cent record and goal difference of plus 44 in a group also consisting of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Myanmar. The merits of such a regional powerhouse facing off against minnows will continue to be debated.
In the third-round group, needing to finish in the top two to seal automatic qualification, Japan managed to get the second spot in a group also comprising Saudi Arabia, Australia, Oman, China and Vietnam. Shockingly losing their first game versus Oman in Suita, the only further blemish in the following eight games was a loss in Saudi Arabia. They won the other seven, including victories at home to Australia and in the return fixture against the Saudis. Indeed, they had entered the penultimate game needing to avoid defeat against Australia to secure automatic qualification. They won 2-0 in Sydney courtesy of two second-half Kaoru Mitoma goals. With qualification assured, they drew their last game at home to Vietnam. Their top scorer in this round was Junya Ito, with four goals. Japan did not score many in this final round, averaging 1.2 goals per game. However, six clean sheets and four away wins were crucial in qualifying for the tournament. The Japanese will look to remain defensively resolute in Qatar, their solid foundation being critical against Spain and Germany.
Meet the Coach: Hajime Moriyasu (age 54)
As a player, Moriyasu was a talented midfielder who made almost 300 appearances in a decade and a half between 1987 and 2001 for Sanfreece Hiroshima, scoring 35 goals. He was in the successful Japanese squad of the 1992 AFC Asian Cup, playing all games apart from the final, where he was suspended. The Asian Cup was his most notable honour as a player. He retired from playing in 2003 and, as coach of his old club, Sanfreece, won the J1 League (Japanese title) in 2012, 2013 and 2015. He was appointed Japan coach after the 2018 edition, coming in second place in the following year’s Asian Cup by losing the final 3-1 to Qatar in Abu Dhabi. He then qualified Japan for this year’s World Cup.
Moriyasu wants his team to play in with much speed and athleticism but also being defensive-minded. Indeed, the qualification campaign was characterised by the sort of defensive rigidity he will need at the tournament. However, he has been criticised for playing somewhat negative football. Having been on the pitch during the ‘Agony of Doha’, Moriyasu will know precisely how painful World Cups and their qualification can be. Therefore, he will hope that Japan can beat Costa Rica in the middle game and remain competitive with Germany and Spain in the other two to give themselves any chance of progression. It is a tough assignment, but he will be ready for the challenge.
Possible Starting XI and Style of Play
As stated, Japan have many quick, nimble, technically gifted players. Moriyasu will look to play in a cohesive, defensively strong style, utilising the counter-attack as Germany and Spain dominate the ball. In goal, American-born Daniel Schmidt has possession of the jersey, though he has been struggling with injury recently. The vastly experienced Eiji Kawashima is in reserve in case. In central defence, veteran captain Maya Yoshida will get the nod, with competition between Hiroki Ito, Shogo Taniguchi and Ko Itakura to join him. At right back, Arsenal fullback Takehiro Tomiyasu has impressed in his spell at the Gunners, and he will fight it out with Hiroki Sakai and Miki Yamane for the place. Tomiyasu’s injury woes are well-documented and might give Yamane an advantage. Veteran Yugo Nagatomo will play at left-back, offering the width on that side.
In midfield, Wataru Endo and Gaku Shibasaki look likely to form a partnership which can press and work hard. At the same time, gifted attacking midfielders Takumi Minanimo and Daichi Kamada are seemingly fighting for the number 10 position, although there may be room for both against Costa Rica. Other options in midfield areas include Hidemasa Morita and Ao Tanaka. In attack, Kaoru Mitoma is likely to line up on the left. Takefusa Kubo, Ritsu Doan and Junya Ito are also wide options. Kyogo Furuhashi has been left out of the squad. Takuma Asano is expected to play up front, deputised by Ayase Ueda and Daizen Maeda. Asano’s link-up play and work ethic alongside the rest of the front six will be integral to potential Japanese success. Overall, as a squad comprising many players playing in strong European leagues, Japan could be good value for money in Qatar.
Goalkeepers: Shuichi Gonda, Daniel Schmidt, Eiji Kawashima.
Defenders: Miki Yamane, Hiroki Sakai, Maya Yoshida, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Shogo Taniguchi, Ko Itakura, Hiroki Ito, Yuto Nagatomo.
Midfielders: Wataru Endo, Hidemasa Morita, Ao Tanaka, Gaku Shibasaki, Kaoru Mitoma, Daichi Kamada, Ritsu Doan, Junya Ito, Takumi Minamino, Takefusa Kubo, Yuki Soma.
Forwards: Daizen Maeda, Takuma Asano, Shuto Machino, Ayase Ueda.
Date and Place of Birth: (16.01.1995, Izumisano)
Current Club: Monaco
Starting his career in his homeland at Cerezo Osaka, Minamino made his name at Red Bull Salzburg in Austria, where he scored 64 goals in 199 appearances and won the title six consecutive times. One of his most notable performances came in a UEFA Champions League match at Anfield in 2019, where he scored a goal as Salzburg lost in a 4-3 thriller to Liverpool. This event and his overall form impressed Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp enough to buy him. His time at Liverpool was spent mainly as a rotation player and included a loan spell at Southampton, but he did win the Premier League in 2020. His dream transfer did not work out as well as he had hoped, and as a result, he was signed by Monaco this summer. A very creative and technically gifted attacking midfielder, Minamino’s diminutive stature gives him a low centre of gravity and remarkable agility, allowing him to glide past players. He can also pick a pass or through ball due to his excellent vision. Japan will need him on top form to tie the team together and provide for the likes of Doan, Mitoma and Furuhashi.
Date and Place of Birth: (12.09.1986, Saijo, Ehime)
Current Club: FC Tokyo
Now at the veteran stage of his career, the flying Nagatomo is best known to European audiences for his time with Inter Milan and Galatasaray. He made his name in Italy as an attacking fullback or wingback. He then won the Turkish Super Lig with Galatasaray in 2018 and 2019. He has been included in three World Cup squads, 2010, 2014, and 2018, and played in every match of each. He also won the 2011 Asian Cup, again playing every game. He is slower than he once was but is still technically gifted with good link-up play and a quality cross. Now back home with FC Tokyo, Japan’s second-most capped player of all time will be eager to impress in his World Cup swansong.
Date and Place of Birth: (24.08.1988, Nagasaki)
Current Club: Schalke 04
An elegant, tall and physically strong centre-back, Yoshida is known best for his time with Southampton in the English Premier League, where he played for eight years between 2012 and 2020, making 164 appearances. He had some injury issues, but when he was fit to play, he provided much steel and solidity at the heart of the Saints’ defence. In 2020 he moved to Serie A club Sampdoria, where he made 58 league appearances for them in two seasons. Now in Germany with Schalke, he is Moriyasu’s captain and one of the team’s primary leaders as the country’s fourth most-capped ever player. His calmness and technical ability on the ball will be vital if Japan are to do well.