Japan failed to reach the World Cup quarter-finals once again but stunning wins over Germany and Spain and more players moving to Europe suggest the Blue Samurai will return stronger.
Japan were eliminated by Croatia in the last 16 on Monday in Qatar, going out on penalties after a nerve-jangling 1-1 draw with the 2018 finalists.
It was the fourth time Japan had exited at the first knock-out stage and denied them a much-coveted quarter-final debut in their seventh straight World Cup appearance.
But the four-times Asian champions showed that they can compete with the world’s best in Qatar, beating both Germany and Spain — two former champions — to point towards brighter times ahead.
Coach Hajime Moriyasu said it was not possible to “turn into Superman overnight” but he believes Japan are on the right path.
“We weren’t able to overcome this hurdle of losing in the last 16 and you might say that we didn’t achieve anything new,” he said.
“But the players have shown us something that we haven’t seen before by beating former champions like Germany and Spain.”
The number of European-based players in Japan’s World Cup squads has steadily increased since they made their tournament debut in 1998 with an entirely domestic-based selection.
Moriyasu picked 19 European-based players in his 26-man squad for Qatar, including eight who ply their trade in Germany’s Bundesliga.
Japan had six players in the group stages of this season’s Champions League and Daichi Kamada won last season’s Europa League with Eintracht Frankfurt.
Midfielder Wataru Endo, who captains Stuttgart in the Bundesliga, said he wants to see Japan have enough European-based players “to fill two teams”.
“The quality of the Japan players is improving — we have more players at European clubs and that is good experience for us,” he said.
“We need to have more players playing with European clubs — we need 20 or 30.
“We are improving but we weren’t good enough to get to the quarter-finals.”
– Grass-roots support –
Japan’s player exodus to Europe has come at the expense of the domestic J-League.
Only seven home-based players were named in Moriyasu’s squad and fans of local clubs now find opportunities to watch national team stars few and far between.
Japan defender Yuto Nagatomo, who plays for FC Tokyo, urged Japanese fans to support their local J-League club for the benefit of the national team.
“Most of the players in the squad came up through the J-League and now they play overseas,” said Nagatomo, who returned to FC Tokyo last year after an 11-year stint in Europe.
“There will be a J-League team in most people’s local area. We need to support them.
“If we get excited about the J-League it will help the players grow and give them motivation, then they’ll go overseas and help the national team.”
Japan’s next immediate challenge is to win the Asian Cup, which will be held in Qatar, likely in early 2024.
It remains to be seen if Moriyasu will still be in charge, with the Japan Football Association set to decide his fate when the team return home.
Veterans like Nagatomo and captain Maya Yoshida are likely to make way for a younger generation, with emerging stars such as Ritsu Doan and Kaoru Mitoma set to take centre stage.
Goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima, who was named in the squad as a back-up after playing at the previous three World Cups, said Japan’s 2022 team was their “best ever” at the tournament.
He backed the young players to take on a leading role and use their heartbreak to make Japan stronger.
“We have a lot of young players and this experience will be massive for the team,” said the 39-year-old.
“The game is just finished but I want the players, particularly the young players, to lead us forward.”