BIG IN JAPAN: PART II
How the J. League changed football in the Land of the Rising Sun
This is Part II of The Terrace's three-part series on Japanese football, casting a nostalgic and admiring eye over how the country has developed the sport, chronicling the nineties, noughties, and whatever godforsaken name they come up with for a decade that gave us Trump and Brexit. In this part, we take a look at the noughties.
Part に: The 2000s
As the new millennium began and we all survived the Y2K bugs and conspiracy theories, Japan's J. League continued to evolve and adapt to remain relevant and attractive in the modern game. It ended the previous decade on an upwards trajectory on the continental scene, with Jubilo Iwata winning the Asian Club Championship in 1999 and finishing runners-up in 2000 and 2001, and started the new decade awash with optimism, thanks to their upcoming role as co-hosts of the 2002 World Cup.
As they were co-hosting the tournament, Japan did not need to go through qualifying, but the 2000 AFC Asian Cup and the 2001 FIFA Confederations Cup indicated that there was every chance they were going to have a strong decade.
Hosted in Lebanon, the 2000 Asian Cup saw Japan advance from Group C unbeaten, with two wins and a draw. Their 13 group stage goals were 7 higher than any other team in the tournament, much aided by the 8-1 demolition job they performed on Uzbekistan, which saw both Akinori Nishizawa and Naohiro Takahara score hat-tricks. In the knockout rounds, the Samurai Blue continued putting teams to the sword, first knocking four past Iraq, conceding once, before coming from 2-1 down to beat China 3-2 in the semi-final. The final was hosted in the Sports City Stadium, Beirut, and an attendance of 47,400 dwarfed the semi-final crowd at the same venue - 5000.
The man in the dugout for Japan was the well-travelled French manager Philippe Troussier. Taking the reins after the 1998 World Cup, the Frenchman brought with him 15 years of managerial experience, amassed from a total of 11 jobs. Most recently, he'd managed Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and South Africa, in the space of just two years. Despite the short nature of the posts, the comparative success they delivered led to him being well-remembered and respected in African football. Going into the Asian Cup, Troussier had approached his role with a thorough and all-encompassing nature. As well as the senior team, he had chosen to involve himself with the youth sides, managing the U20 team at the 1999 FIFA World Youth Championship, finishing runners-up, and then the U23s at the 2000 Summer Olympics, which ended at the quarterfinals. It was this group of players, guided through the youth sides by Troussier, that formed the core of Japan's 2002 World Cup squad. It was a method current Venezuela head coach Rafael Dudamel has adopted since becoming national team manager in 2016, further benefitting from managing the U17s from 2012-13 and the U20s since 2015.
Lining up against fellow 2002 World Cup participants Saudi Arabia, Troussier opted for a 3-5-2 formation with group stage hat-trick heroes Nishizawa and Takahara in attack. It was, however, Dragan Stojkovic's Grampus teammate, midfielder Shigeyoshi Mochizuki, who scored the only goal of the game, thus securing Japan their first Asian Cup title since its professionalization and their second in total. They would successfully defend it four years later in China, beating the hosts 3-1 in the final, and had four of their players earn spots in the All-Star Team of the tournament, with Shunsuke Nakamura being named the Most Valuable Player.
In between their two continental triumphs, though, was the Confederations Cup and the World Cup. In the former, Japan were in a group containing Brazil, Cameroon, and Canada. The expectation was to fight for second place and progress to the semi-finals. After all, Brazil were the current holders, finalists at the 1998 World Cup, and the current Copa America champions. They'd also been FIFA's Team of the Year every year since 1994.
Although they did not send a full-strength side, Brazil still had a strong European based contingent of Dida, Lucio, Edmilson, Vampeta, Sonny Anderson, and Cacapa, as well as a few others. Japan and Brazil met in the final group stage game and by then it was already job done for both sides. Japan had beaten Canada 3-0 and Cameroon 2-0, and Brazil beat Cameroon by the same score and played out a goalless draw with Canada. What was at stake was who would finish top.
In the other group, things were far from certain. France had smashed South Korea 5-0 but then Australia provided a shock, beating the World Cup holders 1-0. They’d also overcome Mexico, giving them 6 points from 6, meaning they topped Group A; France and South Korea had 3 - the co-hosts beat Mexico as well - and Mexico were bottom without a point. France beat them 4-0 and Australia lost 1-0 to South Korea, in the final round of games. It meant Japan would face Australia and France would go up against Brazil in a rematch of the 1998 World Cup final.
Hidetoshi Nakata’s goal just before half-time was enough for Japan to reach the final, while France were made to work for their chance at the trophy, beating Brazil 2-1. Australia continued to provide upsets when Shaun Murphy's 84th minute goal pipped Brazil to 3rd place, but with the final in Japan, all eyes were on the hosts.
A year on from the Asian Cup Final, Troussier had switched from a 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2. Nishizawa remained as one of the two strikers but his partner had changed to Hiroaki Morishima. Also missing was Shunsuke Nakamura who hadn't even been included in the squad for the tournament, despite his key role in the Asian Cup and the Olympics, a year earlier. When he was then left out of the 2002 World Cup on home soil, fans were understandably saddened. The biggest miss, however, was Hidetoshi Nakata, who left the tournament after the semi-final to finish the league campaign with Roma. Without the creativity of either player and up against the World champions, Japan lost - but were not humiliated - in a 1-0 defeat.
A year later, Japan recorded their best World Cup finish to date, making it to the last 16, a feat they would repeat in 2010 and 2018, failing to get through the group stages in 1998, 2006, and 2014. The fact they have qualified for every World Cup finals since the J. League's inception is testament to it success, however. Having topped Group H, with wins over Russia and Tunisia, and a draw with Belgium, the co-hosts were drawn against eventual third place play-off winners Turkey. A goal after 12 minutes was enough to knock Japan out, but the Asian island had not disappointed its fans.
After the World Cup, Philippe Troussier moved on - replaced by Kashima Antlers legend Zico - and a number of players made the move to Europe. Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi had joined Portsmouth in 2001, and Hidetoshi Nakata and Shinji Ono were already established in Serie A and the Eredivisie, respectively - the former would go on to be made a Knight of the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity - but performances at the tournament resulted in loan moves for Junichi Inamoto (Fulham), Takayuki Suzuki (Genk), and Kazuyuki Toda (Tottenham), and a permanent transfer for Atsushi Yanagisawa (Sampdoria). The most successful transfer came for a player not even at the tournament - Nakamura.
The set-piece specialist went on earn 98 international caps and after three seasons with Reggina, flourished at Celtic. Over the course of four seasons, he won three SPLs, two Scottish League Cups, and one Scottish Cup. His standout season - and perhaps the best single season of any Japanese export to Europe - was in 2006/07. That year, he was the recipient of Celtic's Player of the Year, Fans Player of the Year, SFWA Footballer of the Year, SPFA Players' Player of the Year, SPL Goal of the Season, and a place in the Scottish PFA's Team of the Season.
Domestically, Japan's football was undergoing a transition; one that was a sign its own products were improving in quality, but also that its appeal - or more likely its ability -to attract foreign stars was waning. Contributing to that was the increasing profile of the MLS and money flooding Russia.
Many of the elder statesmen of European football who may have made their way to Japan were seeing out their days in the US, and potential stars and established middling Brazilian internationals were swapping Asia for Russia. There were a few exceptions: the enigma that is Edmundo enjoyed a fruitful season with Tokyo Verdy in 2002, Turkish defender Alpay won the Defender of the Year award in 2004 while with Urawa Red Diamonds, and Paulo Wanchope had a short stint with FC Tokyo. The problem was, the stays were increasingly shorter and the calibre was decreasing.
The Lost Decade stretched into the noughties and became the Lost Twenty Years/the Lost Score. Economic stagnation in the wider Japanese economy was perhaps finally taking its toll on the J. League, and with an increasingly proficient domestic pool of players, the need was lessened. Jubilo Iwata embraced the environment and actively acted upon it, relying on Japanese players instead of imports -who could leave midseason – between 1997 and 2003. In that period, they won the J. League three times, finished second three times, won each of the domestic cups once, won the AFC Champions League in 1999, and finished runners-up in 2000 and 2001.
Ultimately, the Lost Twenty Years did not have a knock-on effect for football as the decade progressed. Urawa Red Diamonds won the Asian Champions League in 2007, and a year later the trophy remained in Japan thanks to Gamba Osaka. It means, at the time of writing, the country is the second most successful in the history of the competition, with 7 titles and 3 runners up places.
Japan was also turning its hand to importing, improving, and then exporting. This was the case with Seydou Doumbia and the Brazilian striker Hulk. Doumbia was picked up by Kashiwa Reysol from the Côte d'ivoire Premier Division, where he'd finished top scorer with 15 goals for AS Denguélé. In his time in Japan, he scored 13 times in 47 games, but his talent was obvious and he went on to score 57 goals in 78 appearances for BSC Young Boys, and then 84 in 129 as a CSKA Moscow player. It was a similar story with Hulk. The strong and powerful striker joined Kawasaki Frontale after just two appearances for Vitoria in Brazil - the club at which he finished his youth development at. In Japan he was ruthless. He scored 74 goals in 102 appearances, finishing as the J2 League top scorer in 2007, before being signed by Portuguese giants Porto. There, he totalled 77 goals in 170 games, which earned him a €60 million move to Zenit St. Petersburg.
When the J. League was founded, its aims were to increase the quality of the domestic game, improve the national team, and raise the profile of the sport. Come 2010, it is hard to argue that they hadn't done that; they'd changed, adapted, proved versatile and resilient, and had a successful national team. Instead of just becoming import reliant and never actually cultivating their own products, Japan were striking the balance. Out of their 20th Anniversary team, not only was there just one foreigner, but 7 of the 11 were from the noughties.
As the decade ended, they began exporting their finest players to-date. Nakamura and Nakata will always be the trailblazers and exceptional players in their own right, but the most recent batch is at least on par and certainly bigger: Yuto Nagatomo, Maya Yoshida, Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, and Shinji Okazaki. Between them, they've won English Premier Leagues, Bundesligas, German cups, the Coppa Italia, Russian Premier Leagues and Russian Cups. Entering the current decade, Japanese football had never been stronger.
by Jordan Florit - @TheFalseLibero