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FOCUS: Football: Japan mastery of Germany, Spain shows lessons learned

The Samurai Blue’s World Cup journey began with three defeats in 1998 in France when the team featured no overseas-based players. Its star performer Hidetoshi Nakata went on to sign for Perugia in Italy later that summer.

The rising number of Japanese players representing overseas clubs is a promising sign for the country, which had up to six in each of the next three World Cups through 2010. The figure rose to 12 in 2014 and 15 in 2018.

Germany, where Naohiro Takahara was the only Japanese player soon after the turn of the century, played a big part in that jump after 2010. Shinji Kagawa and Atsuto Uchida, neither of whom featured at the South Africa World Cup that year, kicked off an influx when they moved from the J-League that summer.

Stuttgart’s Wataru Endo (L) and Eintracht Frankfurt’s Daichi Kamada vie for the ball during a German Bundesliga match on Sept. 17, 2022, at Mercedes Benz Arena in Stuttgart. (Kyodo)

After the pair joined Makoto Hasebe, who was already a league winner with Wolfsburg, the Japanese contingent in Germany grew further with the likes of Shinji Okazaki, Takashi Inui and Hiroki Sakai making their moves.

Eight of Japan’s 19 overseas-based players at the Qatar World Cup ply their trade in Germany and their clubs remain the most proactive in snatching up Japanese players among the top leagues.

But the link between the two nations had been sewn long before by Dettmar Cramer, commonly known as the father of Japanese football.

File photo taken in March 2012 shows Dettmar Cramer posing for a photo with gifts from Japan at his home in Reit im Winkl in Germany. Cramer, dubbed “the father of Japanese soccer” for helping develop the game as a coach in the country in the 1960s, passed away on Sept. 17, 2015, aged 90. (Kyodo)==Kyodo

Cramer, who won back-to-back European Champions Cups with Franz Beckenbauer’s Bayern Munich in 1975 and 1976, led Japan to the Tokyo Olympic quarterfinals in 1964. His coaching methods and campaigning for a new league laid the sport’s foundations in Japan.

Germany also became the gateway to Europe for Japanese players after Yasuhiko Okudera’s move to Cologne in 1977. Okudera was followed by Kazuo Ozaki, who in 1983 joined Bielefeld during a barren period in Japanese football.

File photo shows Yasuhiko Okudera of Cologne in action during a match against Duisburg at Wedau Stadium in the 1979/80 German Bundesliga season. (Getty/Kyodo)

“Japanese football has received great contributions from the people of Germany. Many coaches, starting with Mr. Cramer, and wonderful players helped us develop,” Japan manager Hajime Moriyasu said after his team’s win over the four-time World Cup champions in Qatar.

“Japanese players are learning and improving by playing in a top, tough German league. I want to respect and thank Germany for developing our players and Japanese football.”

World Cup winners Pierre Littbarski and Guido Buchwald joined the fledgling J-League to elevate its domestic standard and profile before Lukas Podolski arrived in 2017.

Spain’s involvement with Japan is not as deep-rooted as that of Germany, although they also had early J-League arrivals in the shape of Txiki Begiristain and Julio Salinas before World Cup winners Fernando Torres, Andres Iniesta and David Villa joined after 2018.

La Liga has proven to be much more difficult for Japanese players to break into, counting Inui and 21-year-old current star Takefusa Kubo as the only success stories so far.

Japan’s Takefusa Kubo (R) dribbles the ball during the first half of a World Cup Group E football match against Spain at Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar, on Dec. 1, 2022. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

Nevertheless, Spain has had a bigger influence on Japan in the last decade. Japan have been trying, albeit to a differing degree, to emulate La Roja since they won the 2010 World Cup with a technical, possession-based style that offered a pathway for less physically dominant sides.

The Tokyo Olympic semifinal defeat in August 2021 to Spain was also a catalyst for their stunning win in Qatar, sealed by Ao Tanaka’s winner.

Following that 1-0 extra-time defeat 16 months ago, Tanaka said Spain “know how to move as a whole team and win,” while Japan “keep doing one-on-ones” and “don’t know football.”

“We were able to pay them back a bit after the Olympics,” said Tanaka following the latest encounter.

Thanks to decades-long interactions with the two nations’ football cultures, current Japanese players have come to understand that the world’s top nations are not completely untouchable.

But with Japan needing to keep making strides if they are to avoid conceding possession to Germany and Spain for long spells during future meetings, Moriyasu acknowledged Japan “still have lots of things to learn from both nations.”

“Although we won against past World Cup winners Germany and Spain in serious battles, we were able to find out where we stand in the world and what we have to aim for in the future,” he said. “These matches have been really significant.”

Source : KyodoNews