Nippon olé! Japan and the beautiful game

The “Samurai Blue” is not a mopey warrior-poet, but rather the nickname of Japan’s national men’s soccer team.

P36_sport02Over the last two decades, Japan has become a powerhouse in Asia. As of April 15, FIFA ranks Japan as the fourth-best soccer team in the region. This is in part due to Japan’s resounding success in Asian competitions such as winning four of the last seven Asian Cups (in 1992, 2000, 2004 and 2011). The trend has continued this year as Japan made it to the third round of the Asian Football Confederation qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup in March with dominant wins over Afghanistan and Syria. Japan is expected to continue their winning ways in the third round and finish in one of the top two spots in their group, thus securing a spot in the next World Cup.

However, Japan’s men’s soccer team was not always so successful. While the World Cup was first played in 1930, Japan did not manage to qualify for it until 1998. Unfortunately, qualifying for the 1998 tournament proved bittersweet as Japan scored only a single goal and went home having lost all three games played. Four years later, though, Japan would do much better.

In 2002, Japan and South Korea co-hosted the World Cup and, in front of its adoring fans,

Japan not only won its first ever World Cup match but also made it to the final 16 teams of the tournament. Japan repeated this feat in 2010 and, to date, falling in the round of 16 has been their best finish.

However, having qualified for the World Cup tournament every year since 1998 has put Japan in some fairly elite company: only 11 teams have qualified for every World Cup since 1998. Currently, FIFA ranks Japan as the 57th-best team in the world.

Summarizing Japan’s achievements in soccer wouldn’t be complete if we merely looked at the men’s team, though. Women also have feet, have also been known to kick around a ball and, in Japan, have had much more success doing so. While Japan’s men’s team is a powerhouse in Asia, the country’s women’s team, Nadeshiko Japan, is feared worldwide.

Over the last 30 years Japan’s women’s team has been a dominant force in Asia. Since 1986 they have finished in the top four of the Asian Cup every single time, 13 in total, while finishing in the top two positions five times. Only China has had a better record at the Asian Cup.

Outside of Asia, Nadeshiko Japan have also flexed their muscles. While they qualified for their first World Cup in 1991, it is over the last five years that they have become one of the top teams in women’s soccer. In that time period they won the 2011 Women’s World Cup, silver at the 2012 Olympics, won the 2014 Asian Cup and finished second at the 2015 Women’s World Cup. Although they failed to qualify for the 2016 Olympics they are still considered one of the favourites for their next major tournament, the 2018 Asian Cup.

This run of success over the last five years has led to Nadeshiko Japan being rated by FIFA as the seventh-best team in the world, a feat which the Japanese men’s team has yet to match. Nadeshiko means “ideal woman” and, judging by their play, it is an accurate nickname for this fearsome football force.

Regardless of the gender of those on the pitch, Japanese fans flock to see their footie stars represent their country. Whether it be the Samurai Blue or Nadeshiko Japan, the fans fill the stadiums and rally their teams with rousing cheers of “Nippon olé!”

Sayonara, soccer stars

Last year, in an interesting bout of synchronicity, both the Japanese men’s and women’s teams saw their all-time leaders in games played, or caps, retire from international play.

Yasuhito Endo played a record 152 times for the Japanese men’s team between 2002 and 2015, mostly as a central midfielder. He scored 15 goals for his country and retired from international play at the age of 35.

On the women’s side, Homare Sawa, an attacking midfielder, retired from international play after spending 22 years with the Japanese women’s team. She played her first professional soccer game at the age of 12 and played her first international game in 1993 at the age of 15 (both Japanese records). She also earned the most caps in Japanese soccer history with 204 and tops the goals-scored list for the Japanese women’s team with 83. In 2011, she also became the only Japanese player to be named the FIFA Player of the Year.

D’arcy Mulligan has written about video games for gaming websites, sports for his blog, and cats anywhere and everywhere he can. He once spent his entire life’s savings on beer at the ball game. It was a very good pint.