They were up 2:0 with less than half an hour to go against mighty Belgium, surely time to sit back and defend for your lives? No, never for Japan. And of course, it then ended in a colossal heartbreak, with the Belgians winning 3:2 by a late goal, on their way to World Cup bronze in 2018.
It is still a learning curve for the ever-polite Japanese, as their World Cup debut did not arrive until 1998, and they’ve never gone further than the Round of 16. For 2022, they qualified behind Saudi Arabia and ahead of Australia, maybe not dominating games against lesser opposition as one might expect. Then again, it’s also 11 years since their last Asian Cup victory.
How do they play?
They did score quite a bit more than their Asian counterparts in the whole qualifying campaign, but of the 58 goals, 46 came in the second round where Japan faced off against Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, and Myanmar. In the third round, where competition is fiercer, they scored just 12 times in ten games.
Japan has always favored dynamic attacking play, with plenty of one-two passing and movement. They like to press high and have the individual quality to hurt anyone. But are they ready to get in a dogfight with the gritty Costa Ricans and shut up shop when necessary against previous champions Germany and Spain?
Why they can win?
This might be the most talented Samurai Blue of all time. There is a tall goalkeeper available by the name of Daniel Schmidt, plenty of veteran presence, and players in their early prime shining for famous European clubs. If they can start with a good result against Germany, overpower Costa Rica, or shock Spain, it actually won’t get much tougher later on.
Why they can lose?
They probably have the must-watch group of the tournament, with Germany and Spain needing no introduction, and both just coming out of a temporary slump. As for Costa Rica, they are the anti-venom, the one type of team Japan hates playing against. The challenge is far too great to have any confidence in Japan.
The leading stars
34-year-old team captain Maya Yoshida will need to be at his best, leading from the back together with Arsenal defender Takehiro Tomiyasu, who is ten years younger. Much will rest on the shoulders of Daichi Kamada who has been on fire for Eintracht Frankfurt, helping his club qualify for the Champions League Round of 16.
The fresh faces
He might not be the next Lionel Messi that Real Madrid had hoped they signed back in 2019, but Takefusa Kubo might still come good. At just 21 years of age, he’s already into his fourth La Liga season, making strides with Mallorca, Villarreal, Getafe, and now Real Sociedad. If he can shake off a niggling shoulder injury, Kubo can be Japan’s difference-maker.