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The Most DOMINANT National Team in the World?

4 minute read Published January 18, 2024

Many of us remember players like Keisuke Honda and Hidetoshi Nakata. For a brief spell, the Japanese players were huge stars in the then dominant Serie A, Honda at Milan and Nakata at Roma. And the Japanese national team at that time was unstoppable in Asia.

When Nakata came to Italy in 1998, Japan had just played their very first World Cup. Having narrowly missed out on the 1994 WC, they managed to clinch the qualification for the 1998. In that tournament, the Samurai Blues only managed to score a single goal. But they had made it. 

Since then they’ve qualified to every single world championship but have only made it out of the group on three occasions, the last time being in 2022 when they lost to Croatia in extra time in the round of 16. Despite the lack of progress in the knockouts, Japan has come a very long way and are closing the gap to European and South American national teams. 

For example, in the 1998 WC, they had one player in Europe, in 2010 they had four and in 2022 19 of the players in the Japanese squad played for a European team.

And it’s not just the national team that has gotten stronger. The J-League has improved massively in the past decade, both in terms of football quality but also in popularity. This is because of a combination of the effort that has been put into improving football domestically by building out infrastructure and promoting youth, and the arrival of international superstars to the league, such as Andres Iniesta, Lukas Podolski and Fernando Torres.

Maybe Japan’s time has come. The Japanese haven’t lost a single game since they went out of the 2022 World Cup against Croatia. A 13 game streak where they have scored 53 goals, an average of over four goals scored per game. That run includes a 4-1 win against Germany and one against Spain where the Spaniards had 77% possession but Japan still won 4-0.  

Fair to say that this team has some insane quality. They’re now the clear favourites to win the Asian Cup, with Opta’s simulations of the tournament giving them a ¼ chance of winning.

Throughout the 2000s, Japan dominated the Asian cup, winning it three times in a row until a young and (at the time) rather unknown coach named Ange Postecoglu put an end to that streak by winning with his Socceroos.

Current squad

Between the sticks has been an issue for Japan and the three keepers in the squad only have a combined caps of six and Zion Suzuki has five of those. The Sint-Truiden (Belgian Pro League) player started the game against Vietnam and is expected to be the #1 for Japan.

For those who follow the Premier League, Endo (Liverpool), Mitoma (Brighton) and Tomiyasu (Arsenal) are probably familiar. 

The most recognisable players in the Japanese team, Endo (Liverpool), Mitoma (Brighton), Tomiyasu (Arsenal), Kubo (Real Sociedad), Minamino (AS Monaco) and Itakura (Borussia Mönchengladbach) and they are well spread out over defence, midfield and attack, providing strength in all parts of the pitch.

Some notable omissions from this squad are Lazio’s Kamada, who’s been huge for Japan in the past and a very important player for Frankfurt last season but has had a tough time adjusting to the Serie A this season, and Celtic’s Fukuhashi who’s the Glasgow teams top scorer but has repeatedly failed to have an impact with the national team.

Injury woes

Japan has a great record going into the competition but have unfortunately been struck with injuries just as it’s about to begin. Most notably, the Brighton attacking mid Kaorou Mitoma is out with an ankle injury, although he was deemed important enough to get a spot anyway, in case he recovers. At least seven players that were expected to be called up to join the Samurai Blue have been force to withdraw from the squad.

South Korea have the bigger stars, Japan the depth

The main competition in the Asian Cup is South Korea, coached by Jurgen Klinsmann. With a team that includes Heung-min Son and Kim Min-jae, they for sure have the biggest stars in the competition. But what they make up for in stars they lack in depth. Other than the two mega stars, only four players are in any of the top five leagues.

This is where Japan shines. Yes, there are quite renowned players like Mitoma and Endo but practically the entire team, including substitutes, plays in a European top league. While the Japanese and South Korean leagues are very competitive in Asia, they’re not at all as competitive with the top European counterparts.

It’s this consistent quality on the bench or even outside the team sheet that makes Japan a great team at the moment, and the favourites to lift the Asian Cup.

What happens next

Tomorrow, Japan will face their biggest challenge in the Asian Cup group stage, Iraq, who won their first game against Indonesia on Sunday. Still, Japan are very much expected not only to win this game but the group they’re in to make it through to the knock-out stages.

It’s after the knockout stage that the fun begins and the competition starts, for real, for Japan. 

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