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Whatever Happened to Japan’s 2002 FIFA World Cup Stars Who Formed the First Wave to Europe?

2002 will always be a monumental year for Asian football.

It was the first time the FIFA World Cup took place on the continent — co-hosted by Japan and South Korea — and subsequently led to both advancing out of the group stage for the maiden achievement of two Asian teams reaching the knockout round.

On Sunday, the end of an era officially drew closer with Samurai Blue legend Shinji Ono playing his final match at the age of 44.

While Japan internationals are now commonplace in Europe, and featuring in starring roles no less, it was that pioneering group from both the 1998 and 2002 World Cups that first led to a wave of players earning big moves to the continent.

With Ono’s retirement, only one player remains active from the Japan team that became the first to reach the knockout round of the World Cup.

But who is it? And whatever happened to the rest of those Samurai Blue heroes that captured the imagination in the summer of 2002?


It would be remiss not to begin with the man who just called time on his career — poetically at the age of 44, which is also the number he has been wearing for Consadole Sapporo.

While his career has gradually come to a close back in Japan over the past decade, Ono — at his peak — was a mercurial playmaker whose undeniable talent earned him a move to Eredivisie giants Feyenoord at the age of 21.

Injuries ultimately were not kind to Ono but he did lift the now-defunct UEFA Cup with Feyenoord in 2002, while also having a brilliant stint in Australia’s A-League with Western Sydney Wanderers even when he was in the twilight of his career.


Widely regarded as Japan’s greatest player ever, Hidetoshi Nakata‘s move to Europe actually arrived right after the 1998 World Cup when he signed for Perugia in Serie A.

Nakata took Italian football by storm with ten league goals from midfield in his debut season but the biggest moment of his career would come after he joined Roma.

Nakata had to play second fiddle behind club icon Francesco Totti but it did not stop him from having a major impact off the bench – with a stunning cameo, which included a glorious 30-yard effort that kickstarted a fightback with just 11 minutes remaining, salvaging a 2-2 draw against title rivals Juventus with just five games remaining in a campaign that ultimately saw Roma win the Scudetto for the first time in 18 years.

The then-poster boy of Japanese football even briefly played in the Premier League with Bolton Wanderers before he would stun his legions of fans by abruptly announcing his retirement at only 29.


Although he was once, rather unfairly, labelled a marketing ploy when Arsenal signed him on loan in 2001, Junichi Inamoto actually went on to carve a respectable career for himself — even if he never made a league appearance for the Gunners.

The dynamic midfielder would go on to prove he could indeed cut it in the Premier League with both Fulham and West Brom, and also enjoyed spells in Turkey, Germany and France while racking up 82 caps for Japan.

A veteran of three World Cups, Inamoto reunited with Ono at Consadole between 2015 to 2018 and is still officially playing in the fifth tier of Japanese football, meaning he is the last man standing from Japan team of 2002 following the latter’s retirement.


Like Nakata and Ono, goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi also made his World Cup debut in 1998 and was already playing in Europe by the time the 2002 edition came around.

Interestingly enough, he was actually not Japan’s first-choice in goal at the tournament as his long-term rival Seigo Narazaki was preferred by Troussier during that period.

Kawaguchi made 11 appearances in his first year with Portsmouth but was then relegated to permanent back-up upon the arrival of Shaka Hislop in a season where the club earned promotion to the Premier League.

Upon returning to Japan, Kawaguchi would spend nine seasons in the J1 League with Jubilo Iwata and finished with a staggering 421 top-flight appearances in Japanese football from both that spell and his stint with his first club Yokohama F. Marinos.


Given the adulation afforded to his namesake, Koji Nakata had to deal with being labelled “the other Nakata” but he has every right to be satisfied with his own achievements.

Eventually making the move to Europe in 2005, when Philippe Troussier — Japan’s 2002 World Cup coach — brought him to Marseille, the move soon turned sour when the French tactician was dismissed months later.

An ever-reliable defender, Koji Nakata then joined Basel and enjoyed a productive two years with the Swiss giants — even regularly featuring in European continental football — before returning to original club Kashima Antlers.


A prolific scorer with Kashima, Atsushi Yanagisawa started all three of Japan’s group-stage games at the 2002 World Cup and offered plenty of energy even if he failed to get on the scoresheet.

He would eventually be lured to Italy a year later when he signed for Sampdoria and then moved on to fellow top-flight outfit Messina but ultimately failed to score once in Serie A.

Still, Yanagisawa can lay claim to being one of the players from that Japan team to have plied their trade in Europe, and retired in 2014 as a five-time J1 League and three-time Emperor’s Cup champion, as well as an AFC Asian Cup winner with Japan in 2000.


A tough-tackling defensive midfielder who stood out with his shocking head of red hair at the 2002 World Cup, Kazuyuki Toda is best known for his loan spell at Tottenham — where he made four Premier League appearances.

Toda also spent time in Netherlands with ADO Den Haag before embarking on a journeyman career in his later years, eventually finishing up in Singapore with the now-defunct Warriors FC.

For someone with his credentials, Toda curiously only won 20 caps for Japan but is now looking to cut it as a manager after beginning the next stage of his involvement with football by taking charge of Japanese third-tier outfit SC Sagamihara at the start of this year.

Source : ESPN