Japan is a country known for its aesthetic, disciplined, organised and methodical approach towards most things in life. In short, order and beauty are at the core of its culture. To be sure, football in Japan is no different and is symbolic of the Japanese way. Six consecutive FIFA World Cup appearances is a testament to this. Their short passing game has sometimes been dubbed in the media as ‘Oriental Style Tiki-Taka’. Over the years, this style of play within a well-structured team set-up has made them a dominant force in Asia. They have also shown on quite a few occasions that they can go toe to toe with the world’s best.
Yet for all of the technical mastery and organisation, there is still a very strong sense that Japan are a cut below football’s truly elite. The evidence is there for everyone to see with their best World Cup finish being the round of 16, which they achieved on home soil in 2002 and again in South Africa 2010. So what is holding Japan back?
Blast from the Past
Japan’s rise to the top in Asia in the 90s was nothing short of meteoric. Prior to the 90s the national team’s only major achievement in world football was a bronze medal finish in the 1968 Mexico Olympics. A large portion of the credit for this finish must be attributed to the legendary German coach Dettmar Cramer who laid the foundation for a strong national team in the early 60s. Post the 60s, Japanese football once again faded from the world football scene until the formation of the J-League in the 90s.
It didn’t take long for the league’s formation to have a strong effect on the national team. Japan only narrowly missed out on qualification for the World Cup in ’94 due to conceding a last minute equaliser against Iraq. The benefits of the league’s commercialisation, professional approach and grassroots programs would go on to inspire a whole generation of footballers in Japan. The first indication of this came about in the Olympics in 1996.
Clubbed in a strong group with Nigeria, Brazil and Hungary, Japan’s route to the knockout rounds looked near-impossible. However, they would go on to cause quite a stir by defeating Brazil and only narrowly missing out on a knockout berth due to an inferior goal difference. Nigeria would then go on to win the tournament and Brazil would finish with a Bronze Medal. The man responsible for this impressive showing was Akira Nishino, a former national team player himself (more on this man later).
More success would follow for the national team with highly impressive showings in the FIFA World Youth Championship in 1999, where they would only lose out to Spain in the finals. Japan would also make its first World Cup appearance in France ’98 and despite losing all 3 games, they would put up a respectable showing and even score their first goal in the competition. Four years later on home soil, Japan would go one better with a round of 16 finish only losing out to eventual semi-finalists Turkey.
All of Japan’s impressive showings in the late 90s and early 2000s came courtesy their ‘Golden Generation’. The likes of Hidetoshi Nakata, Shinji Ono, Junichi Inamoto and Shunsuke Nakamura among others were all by products of the J-League and in many ways paved the way for Japanese footballers’ success on the world stage.
The Post-Golden Generation Era
Japan’s golden generation would have one final crack at footballing glory at the 2006 World Cup, but would come spectacularly undone at the showpiece tournament. After snatching defeat from the jaws of victory against Australia, largely underwhelming performances against Croatia and Brazil would see them eliminated at the group stage. Interestingly enough, their performances prior to the tournament had people tipping them to do great things at the World Cup.
However, things would turn out differently for the Samurai Blue in South Africa 2010. Despite many being sceptical of their chances in South Africa, Japan would once again go on to make the knockout rounds only losing out to Paraguay on penalties. Following this impressive finish, Japan would then go on to its best era since its golden generation. Several of its national team members would go on to ply their trade in Europe with great success. Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki and Keisuke Honda would become mainstays of the national team (and in many ways, still are). That said, in similar fashion to 2006, the national team would once again implode on the big stage in Brazil 2014. This would come in stark contrast to Keisuke Honda’s belief that Japan could reach the semi-finals.
Despite Japan’s generally strong technical performances, their final results on the world stage tell a different story. Japan’s issues on this front are multi-fold. A criticism that has often been levelled at Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal side over the last decade is their inability to finish off chances in spite of dominating possession. The same can often be said of Japan; well known for its top class midfielders and wingbacks, but at the end of the day, goals win matches and the island nation has still to produce a truly world class striker or centre forward.
Another problem which is often associated with the national team is its inability to break down tight defences (yes, the park-the-bus kind). This is a trend that is often witnessed even when Japan faces technically inferior teams in Asia. The lack of a player who can produce that X-factor in a game by getting past 2 or 3 players has often hurt their chances. To compound this problem, Japan’s players aren’t always the most imposing physically. While this is a problem that can be masked with the presence of some lighting quick, terrific dribblers, this is rarely the case with Japan.
On the world stage especially, Japan has come unstuck against superior opposition when their physicality or the lack of it has been put to the test. A classic example of this came against the Ivory Coast in Brazil 2014. When leading 1-0, Japan’s coach Alberto Zaccheroni brought on the ageing Yasuhito Endo in a bizarre substitution. With Endo being unable to close down the Ivory Coast wingers quick enough, the Japanese defence started getting bombarded with crosses and the pressure eventually told. Japan conceded 2 goals in as many minutes and then went on to lose the game.
The Mental Block
In a team sport like football, the emphasis on the collective takes precedence over the individual. Yet, perhaps in Japan, this mindset has been taken a bit more seriously than in other places. Strong team ethics and discipline are a part of most things in the Japanese way of life and they have transferred many of these characteristics to football.
Early accounts from the initial days of the J-League tell stories of how superstar foreign players and coaches had more than one role. While adding a sprinkling of star dust to the league, they also had to often get the Japanese players to come out of their shell and express themselves more openly. Brazilian legend Zico played a huge role in this regard during his first stint as a player in Kashima Antlers and later on as the coach of national team. Dunga also became notorious for teaching his colleagues at Jubilo Iwata how to dive and con referees.
Also, Japan’s French coach during the 2002 World Cup, Philippe Troussier once remarked that Japanese people follow rules so strictly that they wouldn’t even jump a traffic light in the wee hours of the morning when there was no traffic. Troussier, aka The White Witch Doctor, also became well known for instilling an aggressive approach into the Japanese national team and infamously left Shunsuke Nakamura out of the World Cup squad in 2002 citing his slight build and lack of aggression.
The general lack of powerful personalities within the squad has time and again resulted in Japan falling short at important moments. Whenever the team has needed that something extra special, the lack of players with the ability to drive through the defence or come with up a moment of magic or show that extra fire has really hurt Japan’s chances.
This was also highlighted by the recently sacked Vahid Halilhodzic, their coach throughout the 2018 World Cup Qualification Campaign. Halilu as he is known in the Japanese press constantly reiterated the need for Japanese players to be very strong in one on one duels. Halilhodzic’s tenure in the Japan hot seat was generally controversial throughout. His decision to drop established stars such as Kagawa, Honda and Okazaki often didn’t sit well with the footballing hierarchy in Japan. While his ruffle-the-feathers direct approach may have been a step in the right direction for Japan, he may have possibly been too extreme in his methods. Hence, the decision to sack him at the eleventh hour may have come as a relief to many players and fans alike; especially with the mixed results and the constantly changing first eleven.
So who do Japan turn to in their hour of need ?
Enter Akira Nishino
At 63 years old, Nishino is no spring chicken in the world of coaching. If anything, the JFA (Japanese Football Federation) couldn’t have gone with a better choice. Nishino started his coaching career in fine fashion when he led the Japanese Olympic Team to a victory over a much fancied Brazil side in the 96’ Olympics. He then went on to further cement his reputation as a rising star by coaching Kashiwa Reysol to its first piece of silverware in Japan. In fact, his tenure at the club, is considered to be one of the club’s finest in its history.
Following his stint at Kashiwa, Nishino became the manager of Gamba Osaka and this is where his name will forever be etched in Japanese domestic football history. He led Gamba to several domestic titles over the course of 9 years. During this time, Gamba Osaka developed a reputation for being one of the J-League’s most lethal attacking sides. While they did have some great defenders in the side as well, Gamba Osaka had one of the leakiest defences for a top team in the league. They would often win by outscoring the opposition. Also, a trait that became synonymous with Nishino during his Gamba years was his all or nothing approach, when the team was trailing the opponent in crunch games. Hence, he would often make bold attacking substitutions when needed. To top it all, his crowning moment as a Gamba manager arrived when he led them to a maiden AFC Champions League title in 2008 in emphatic fashion.
An interesting caveat to his management career at Gamba Osaka is the fact that he led them to just one J-League title in a decade long stint. His high octane attacking style often couldn’t be sustained through a gruelling league season and was far more suited to shorter cup competitions. In many ways his approach and stint at the club is reminiscent of Carlo Ancelotti’s time at AC Milan which was around the same time. Interestingly enough, for all of Carlo Ancelotti’s success in the UEFA Champions League, he too has had limited success with league titles.
The pertinent question, however is, can Nishino lead Japan to their footballing El Dorado or at the very least avoid a footballing disaster at the World Cup? For starters, time certainly isn’t on Nishino’s side with roughly a month to go before the footballing extravaganza kicks off in Russia. Also, has such an assignment come a little too late in his career? His recent domestic spells at Vissel Kobe and Nagoya Grampus have been very underwhelming to say the least. There is a sense that his enthusiasm, drive and passion as a coach have diminished over the years.
Nishino though, sounds very optimistic and is completely up for the challenge. He has publicly stated his desire to take Japan to the knockout rounds and beyond. In addition, he has also acknowledged the importance of Halilhodzic’s emphasis on strong individual play while also stressing the need for Japan to stick close to its roots and play good collective attacking football.
Japan have been placed in a tough group with Senegal, Colombia and Poland and many see Japan as rank outsiders to even make it out of this group. That said, this is a cup competition which has often been Nishino’s greatest strength. If his track record is anything to go by, then Japan is going to need every bit of that high octane, all or nothing approach.