The Plan | Four years ago, Hajime Moriyasu’s first mission upon being appointed as coach of Japan was to build his team around a new generation. Of the regulars who played at the last World Cup in Russia, not one was younger than 25. The manager then, Akira Nishino, had decided to focus mainly on experienced players and succeeded in reaching the last 16, but this meant that regeneration would be required before 2022. Moriyasu quickly promoted Takehiro Tomiyasu, then just 20, to a regular starting position and has gradually reformed the rest of the team since. Only two starting players from four years ago – Maya Yoshida and Hiroki Sakai – have retained their places. The changes have been so gradual and smooth, most Japanese fans mistakenly complain that Moriyasu has always just picked the same team.
A partial reason for this false impression is the respect with which the manager has always treated the veteran players who have lost their starting places. Moriyasu is careful with his words and always prefers to talk of “generational fusion” rather than transition. Four remaining players from 2018 – Eiji Kawashima, Yuto Nagatomo, Genki Haraguchi, and Gaku Shibasaki – have played vital supporting roles without a word of complaint despite being dropped to the bench. The overall framework of the team is in place, but the one major uncertainty is the centre-forward position. September’s two friendlies saw Celtic’s Daizen Maeda and Kyogo Furuhashi each given a chance but neither have proved sufficiently clinical. This has led to rumours of a recall to the starting eleven for Yuya Osako, the first choice striker from four years ago who has shown good form in the J.League since returning from injury.
The Coach | Hajime Moriyasu. A defensive midfielder who represented Japan during his playing days, Moriyasu took over as manager at his old club, Sanfrecce Hiroshima, eight years after retiring. His first ever management job proved massively successful, with the team winning the J.League title in his first season and three times in total during his reign. He also led the side to third place at the 2015 FIFA Club World Cup. He is known for his careful, cautious style of management. Moriyasu was heavily criticised after his selection lost to Spain and ultimately finished fourth at last year’s Tokyo Olympics, where Japan had hoped to win the gold medal. But the chairman of the Japan Football Association, Kozo Tashima, has repeatedly underlined his faith in the manager.
Star Player | Junya Ito is perhaps not well known internationally, but then again, he wasn’t even well known in Japan until quite recently. Today, however, there is not a football fan in the land unfamiliar with Ito’s explosive speed. A winger offering real individual quality, Moriyasu selected the former Kashiwa Reysol man for his first game in charge and has continued to deploy him ever since. Some critics sneer that Ito is Moriyasu’s tactic, but this too is evidence of the standout presence the 29-year-old has become for the national team.
Unsung Hero | The 27-year-old midfielder Hidemasa Morita is not the type to offer much flamboyance. He is rather a genuinely hard-working player with perfect positional sense in both defence and attack. Many players so categorised are not always the greatest passers but Morita excels in both passing accuracy and technical quality. His importance was underlined by his absence for the friendlies back in June, where Japan’s miserable team performance fell well short of their usual standards.
Probable Line-up | 4-2-3-1 – Schmidt – Sakai, Yoshida, Tomiyasu, Nakayama – Endo, Morita – J. Ito, Kamada, Kubo – Maeda
Qatar Stance | There has been no public position or movement as far as this writer is aware. Japanese sport’s historical experience of getting caught up in politics has since meant most players and athletes are reluctant to use their platform for any political message or action. No players or representatives appeared to speak out regarding Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime or human rights issues surrounding Russia four years ago either.
National Anthem | Kimigayo – literally “His Imperial Majesty’s Reign” – has one of the most unusual background stories of any national anthem worldwide and it is difficult to summarise briefly. The lyrics first appeared as a poem published in the Kokin Wakashū (“Collection of Japanese Poems of Ancient and Modern Times”) way back in the early 10th century. The original poem never actually had the nuance of glorifying the emperor but a double meaning to the word kimi – which could mean either “my lord” or simply “you” for any social stature – led to the words later being interpreted in celebration of an imperial reign. It was John William Fenton of Ireland, then part of the United Kingdom, who composed the original music to turn Kimigayo into a national anthem in 1870. Of all the anthems set to be played at this World Cup, Kimigayo is almost certainly the shortest.
Cult Hero | It can only be Yuto Nagatomo. An unrelenting full-back who publicly declares that “the more you all criticise me, the stronger I get”, Nagatomo turned 36 this year but is still the most energetic player around. True to his word, he has been slated for poor form in the past yet always bounces back with outstanding performances again, and this has remained the case ever since he first represented his country 15 years ago.