Asian giant’s mediocre run

Though football came to this Asian country in the late 19th century, it was only after the Japanese team won the bronze medal in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico that the game became popular.

Efficient in its approach, Japan, in the last two decades or so, was the team on the rise in world football. It was quite dominant in the Asian championships and other regional tournaments.

But when it came to World Cup the team could not live up to the expectations.

Twice the team made it to the second round. First in 2002 when it co-hosted with South Korea and in 2010, in South Africa, where the team was beaten by Paraguay on penalties in Round 2.

Though football came to this Asian country in the late 19th century, it was only after the Japanese team won the bronze medal in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico that the game became popular. The country did not enter the inaugural edition, in 1930, and in 1934. In 1938, it withdrew after entering the championship. In 1950 — the 1942 and 1946 competitions were not held due to World War II — Japan (occupied) was not allowed to compete for qualification.

Consequently, Japan’s first attempt to qualify came only in 1954 and it was a disaster. But ultimately the team made it to the World Cup finals in 1998.

Notably, in between, Japanese football went through a sea change, for the better. The semi-professional Japan Soccer League gave way to fully professional J-League in 1992. However, its debut in 1998 was a tragedy as Japan lost all its three matches in the group stage, 1-0 to Argentina and Croatia and 2-1 to rank outsider Jamaica. The team placed 31 {+s} {+t} among the 32 nations that took part in the tournament.

Four years later — the championship was held for the first time in Asia — as the co-host with South Korea, Japan had a shaky start to its campaign as it was held to a 1-1 draw by Belgium. But the team under French coach Philippe Troussier regrouped well to qualify for the second stage with a 1-0 win over Russia and a 2-0 victory against Tunisia. However, its finest hour came to an end much to the disappointment of its fans as it lost by a solitary goal to the eventual third-place finisher Turkey in the Round of 16.

Japan hardly made any impact in Germany, in 2006. The team made its exit in the group stage after losing 3-1 to Australia, 4-1 to Brazil and drawing goal-less against Croatia.

But in 2010, the team started with a 1-0 win over Cameroon before losing by the same margin to the Netherlands and then recorded a brilliant 3-1 victory over former European champion Denmark in its last league encounter. However, this fine run ended as the team, despite playing well against Paraguay, lost in the tie-breaker after the match had ended goalless in full-time.

* * * A glittering career

Hidetoshi Nakata, a creative mid-fielder who hardly took time to settle down, was behind every move that his team made, whether at the club or national level. Nakata, in the prime of his career, was considered the best Asian player of his generation.

The good-looking Nakata, who sported a designer haircut for which he was compared with the English legend David Beckham, represented his country in the under-17 and under- 20 World Cups. He was also a key figure for Japan in the three World Cup squads, in 1998, 2002 and 2006.

At the professional level, Nakata, twice Asian Player of the Year (in 1997 and 1998), had played for Bellmare Hiratsuka (now Shonan Bellmare) in the J-League as an 18-yearold in 1995 before making his way to the Italian Serie A, representing AC Perugia. Later, he moved to AS Roma which utilised his potential to the hilt, in its famous Scudetto win in 2001.

Nakata, thereafter, donned the colours for Parma and Fiorentina before being loaned out to Bolton Wanderers in the English Premier League in 2005. Overall, he played for the Japanese national team in 77 internationals, scoring 11 goals. In his club career, he played in 353 matches (53 goals) prior to retiring from the game in 2006.

The crowing moment for Nakata, who is often credited for having opened the floodgates for fellow Japanese into the European leagues, came in March 2004, when Pele named him in his FIFA 100, a list of top footballers of that time.