Japan to win, home and away

Japan’s success in qualifying for six World Cups in a row since 1988 World Cup has not convinced us to pay more attention to our neighbour from the Asian Football Confederation, closer to us than faraway Europe.

Seven from Japan's 2018 team are contracted to clubs in Germany, two each in England, Spain, France, one in Mexico, Turkey.   -  AFP

Japanese football stars and performers in the J1 League (national league) do not capture our attention, nor catch our imagination, as yet, in the way we in India track the transfers (inter-club) and tribulations of pros trying to make a name for themselves in the Premier League (England), Bundesliga (Germany), La Liga (Spain) or Serie A (Italy). Japan’s success in qualifying for six World Cups in a row since 1988 World Cup (hosted by France) has not convinced us to pay more attention to our neighbour from the Asian Football Confederation, closer to us than faraway Europe.

The main reason is the exposure for Indian audiences to live match telecast from league action in the four nations named above, besides access to information about newsmakers like Neymar, whose move from Spain (FC Barcelona) to France (Paris St Germain) in 2017 hit world headlines. Indian football may have kept a distance, but Japanese pros performing in J1 League and World Cups have caught the attention of Europe team managements. In a move, certain to set off a wave of Spanish interest in Japanese football, J1 club Vissel Kobe signed ex-Barcelona star and skipper Andres Iniesta for the 2018 season.

Iniesta, a critical part of Spain's offence at the ongoing FIFA World Cup, will play in the J1, under the captaincy of three-time German World Cup striker Lukas Podolski, pairing a creator of goals with an ace finisher in Japan’s national league. Even before this breakthrough involving two European stars happened, European clubs had opened its doors to Japanese internationals and more will follow in the footsteps of Shinji Okazaki (Leicester), Maya Yoshida (Southampton) into the English Premier League and Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund) in the Bundesliga.

FULL COVERAGE: FIFA WORLD CUP

The technique and tenacity of Japanese World Cuppers, seen in full flow during group games at Russia against Latin American powerhouse Colombia and African giant Senegal, may convince clubs competing with Leicester or Borussia to sign more Asians. Player agents will be excited about business in Japan after the thrilling win by the Blue Samurai over Colombia (2-1) and a hard-earned come-from-behind draw against Senegal (2-2). Takashi Inui, an influential playmaker in both games, is a prized catch for Real Betis in La Liga. Kagawa’s value in Germany, Okazaki’s rating in England can only soar.

Captained by midfield general Makoto Hasebe, Japan (FIFA ranked 61) rewrote football history by becoming the first Asian qualifier to beat a Latin American nation in World Cup competition. Courageous performances, laced with finesse and fitness (prime example is 34-year-old Hasebe and contracted to German club Eintracht Frankfurt), against higher-ranked Colombia (16), Senegal (27) places the Asian team in a strong position to stretch Poland (eighth) in the last group tie and qualify by finishing among the first two in the four-team group H.

The Japan Football Association’s 23-member squad, wowing travelling fans in Russia (see box), is drawn from home-grown J1 League talent, some of whom went away from home to develop into playing machines, acquiring qualities and confidence along the way. Seven from Japan's 2018 team are contracted to clubs in Germany (FIFA ranked number one nation), two each in England (ranked 12th), Spain (10), France (seventh), one in Mexico (15), Turkey (38). The remaining eight are registered with J1 clubs, while a big chunk is set to return for a high profile national league, with a former La Liga star under the spotlight.

READ: Strength of Senegal and Japan's determination could trouble England and Belgium

Iniesta’s signing is a masterstroke by Kobe, the club is owned by FC Barcelona shirt sponsor Rakuten (Japanese online company). FCB fans and current pros can be expected to keep track of the player in a new league on a different continent. Emboldened by the European exposure, the 2018 World Cup batch of Blue Samurai is brushing shoulders with sensational Columbian James Rodriguez (Real Madrid player loaned to Bayern Munich) or Senegalese Sadio Mane (Liverpool FC). World Cup veteran Keisuke Honda, 32, is giving young forwards in the squad tough competition with timely goals.

He plays in the Mexican league for Pachuca since 2017 after spells in Russia (CSKA Moscow), Italy (AC Milan) and current World Cup form will extend his pro career in a foreign land. Back home, J1 clubs with ambition like Vissel Kobe have taken steps to make sure that pro football remains in the news long after the Blue Samurai returns from its Russia mission. Either way, home and away, Japan and J1 are on the winning side.

Blue Samurai at Russia 2018

Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima (Metz, Fra), Masaaki Higashiguchi (Gamba Osaka, Jpn), Kosuke Nakamura (Kashiwa Reysol, Jpn). Defenders: Yuto Nagatomo (Galatasaray, Tur), Tomoaki Makino (Urawa Reds, Jpn), Wataru Endo (Urawa Reds, Jpn), Maya Yoshida (Southampton, Eng), Hiroki Sakai (Marseille, Fra), Gotoku Sakai (Hamburg, Ger), Gen Shoji (Kashima Antlers, Jpn), Naomichi Ueda (Kashima Antlers, Jpn). Midfielders: Makoto Hasebe (Eintracht Frankfurt, Ger), Keisuke Honda (Pachuca, Mex), Takashi Inui (Eibar, Spn), Shinji Kagawa (Dortmund, Ger), Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka, Jpn), Genki Haraguchi (Fortuna Dusseldorf, Ger), Takashi Usami (Fortuna Dusseldorf, Ger), Gaku Shibasaki (Getafe, Spn), Ryota Oshima (Kawasaki Frontale, Jpn). Forwards: Shinji Okazaki (Leicester, Eng), Yuya Osako (Werder Bremen, Ger), Yoshinori Muto (Mainz, Ger).