Japan’s goal at the World Cup will be to break the round-of-16 hex.
The Japanese will be appearing in their seventh consecutive World Cup, and three times the team has reached the round of 16. But it’s never gone further.
The Japanese lost to Belgium 3-2 four years ago, were eliminated by Paraguay on penalties in 2010, and lost to Turkey 1-0 in 2002 when the country co-hosted the event with South Korea.
Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu said the aim this time, of course, is to reach the quarterfinals. But it won’t be easy. Japan is in Group E with Germany, Spain and Costa Rica — probably the toughest group in Qatar.
The two European teams are always among the favorites to win any World Cup, and Costa Rica made the quarterfinals as recently as 2014 in Brazil. Germany has won it four times, and Spain won in 2010.
“I don’t think we can win by doing the same things we have done in the last six tournaments,” Moriyasu said. “We need to be able to function and compete regardless of who is on the pitch.”
After fielding two entirely different lineups for September friendlies against the United States and Ecuador, it remains to be seen who exactly Moriyasu will pick to face Germany on Nov. 23.
If precedence speaks, Shuichi Gonda will likely start in goal with Arsenal’s Takahiro Tomiyasu and two-time World Cup defender Maya Yoshida in central defense. Stuttgart captain Wataru Endo and Hidemasa Morita will anchor the midfield.
Daichi Kamada, who has had a strong season for Europa League champion Eintracht Frankfurt, is emerging as the playmaker. Junya Ito should flank him on the right, although the Reims speedster could play up front if Moriyasu chooses options other than tried and tested center forward Yuya Osako.
Ito seemed to be the most threatening player on the field in Japan’s 1-0 loss to Brazil at the National Stadium in Tokyo earlier this year.
It’s uncertain if Takefusa Kubo, the face of Japan’s Tokyo Olympic team, and Kaoru Mitoma will find a place in the team or come off the bench as the sparkplugs. Japan lost the Olympic bronze-medal game to Mexico 3-1.
This Japan team could be light on World Cup experience. With 26 spots available, Moriyasu might take veterans like goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima and defender Yuto Nagatomo to settle the bench and calm younger players.
Japan showed in the 2018 World Cup in Russia that it’s capable of beating the best teams in the world. Japan led Belgium 2-0 after 52 minutes, but then fell 3-2 on a winning goal in stoppage time. Belgium made it to the semifinals before losing to eventual World Cup champion France.
For many, the most remarkable thing about the match what that Japan — despite the shattering loss — did a pristine job of cleaning the changing room and left a thank-you message in Russian for their hosts. Japanese fans also picked up trash in the stadium, filling plastic bags after the loss.
He has the most un-Japanese sounding name — goalkeeper Daniel Schmidt. He was born in the United States to a German father and Japanese mother, but was raised in Japan since he was a toddler.
Schmidt came up with several key saves in a tune-up match for the World Cup, a 0-0 draw with Ecuador in September. He is likely to compete with Gonda for starts in goal.
Schmidt joins tennis player Naomi Osaka and the NBA’s Rui Hachimura as Japanese athletes with at least one non-Japanese parent. Osaka lit the cauldron at last year’s Tokyo Olympics, and Hachimura carried the Japanese flag at the opening ceremony.
Athletes like Schmidt, Osaka and Hachimura represent multi-cultural backgrounds in a country known for homogeneity and conformity.
Manager: Hajime Moriyasu
Japan's World Cup record:
(with inputs from AP)