Two decades after Franz Beckenbauer personified the role of libero in the 1970s, Masami Ihara exacted his own influence from the position. Japan's most capped player will forever be associated with two dramatic matches; FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers in which he experienced wildly contrasting emotions.
A last-gasp equaliser denied his side a place at USA 1994, but they responded with a golden-goal victory that took them to France 1998. FIFA.com caught up with Ihara to discuss the highs and lows of his playing career, and his first steps in coaching.
Ihara was a striker in his high school days, but was converted into a defender at Tsukuba University. The 'Wall of Asia', as he was known, was first called into the Japan squad in 1988, when still a second-year university student, and went on to win an unparalleled 122 caps for his country.
He started his professional life at Nissan in 1990, before going on to play for three prominent Japanese sides; namely Yokohama F. Marinos, Jubilo Iwata and Urawa Red Diamonds. He was on the books of Marinos when the J.League was founded in 1993, and witnessed the intense rivalry they shared with Verdy Kawasaki. The fixture decided the inaugural championship, but it belonged to Verdy and their celebrated playmaker Kazu Miura.
Back then, Ihara was a promising youngster in an experienced, talented side that included former Argentinian international Ramon Diaz, but by 1995 he was a pivotal member of the squad that claimed the club's first J.League crown. Such was the defender's consistency that he was named in the competition's team of the year five seasons running.
Though the Shiga native left a strong legacy at club level, he is renowned throughout Asia for the unwavering displays that almost sealed Japan's place at the FIFA World Cups of 1990 and 1994. In the latter of these qualification campaigns, he suffered his most painful footballing memory.
Japan needed to beat Iraq in their last preliminary to reach the world finals for the first time, and it looked good when they led in stoppage time on neutral ground in Qatar. However, the nation's dreams were cruelly extinguished in the 'Agony of Doha', when Jaffar Omran Salman snatched an equaliser for their opponents in the closing seconds; one which sent arch-rivals Korea Republic to USA 1994 at the Blue Samurai's expense.
"It was the biggest turning point in my career. I don't think I'd have carried on playing until I was 35 if it hadn't been for Doha. I don't think I could have continued to give as much as I did in the J.League," Ihara said. "This painful memory became a massive motivation for me. It gave me a hunger to achieve new goals and was something I could never forget."
Agony turned to ecstasy four years later, though, when Ihara, Miura, goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi and talismanic midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata inspired Japan to the FIFA World Cup for a first time, courtesy of a golden-goal victory over Iran in a thrilling play-off. The match became known as the 'Joy of Johor Bahru'. The 41-year-old believes the heartbreak suffered in Doha helped them make it to France 1998.
"I always say you never know what will happen in football," Ihara said. "Korea Republic booked their ticket to the United States by beating Korea DPR 3-0. Had Japan beat Iraq, South Korea wouldn't have got this opportunity but they gave themselves a lifeline by battling to the end. It was the same for us during the France 98 qualifiers - we couldn't know what would happen yet showed our true strength and willingness to battle."
When Japan failed to pick up a single point in France, Ihara vowed to keep going until the next edition, but a series of injuries forced him to retire from international football the following year and hang up his boots for good in 2002. Nevertheless, he remembers his career fondly. "I'm so proud to have played for Yokohama F. Marinos, Jubilo Iwata and Urawa Reds, and was blessed to be able to work with great coaches," he said.
After guiding the Japan U-23s at the Men's Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008, Ihara began his current role as assistant-coach at Kashiwa Reysol earlier this year. He remains modest about his abilities as a tactician, claiming to be unsure about his suitability for the role despite his obvious leadership qualities.
"It's different to being in charge of the Olympic team; a club coach is with his players on a daily basis," he said. "I have to always think carefully about what I should do for the team and the players. That's the job."