France and Japan clash in Saint Etienne on Friday for a place in the last four. After victories in their opening encounters against Colombia and New Zealand respectively, both sides will be well aware this game is a Group A decider, but for the Japanese at least this game is about much much more. Here at last, is the opportunity for the Nippon side to gain revenge for two painful defeats at the hands of their European rivals back in 2001. A 5-0 thrashing at the Stade de France in the spring of that year was followed by a more honourable 1-0 defeat on home soil to Patrick Vieira’s side in the Final of the last FIFA Confederations Cup. Japan are determined to show their hosts that times have changed since then; the 2002 FIFA World Cup™ has ushered in a new world order and they intend to prove they are worthy of a place among the footballing elite.
On 10 June 2001, France picked up their third major trophy in four years, overcoming a courageous Japanese side in Yokohama. Vieira’s looping header from a Frank Leboeuf long ball (1-0, 28’) was enough to give the Bleus the win that installed them as the bookies’ firm favourites for the FIFA World Cup. Cautiously optimistic, Robert Pires spoke of French hopes that day: "We’re well aware the 2002 World Cup is being held here, and this win is a good sign, but we still have work to do.” Pires was unable to complete that work of course; a knee injury spared him a part in France’s Asian debacle twelve months later.
Turning defeat into victory
Japan must take great credit for the way they responded to those defeats two years ago. The first, on 24 March 2001, saw Philippe Troussier’s boys helpless in the face of wave after wave of French attacks. “We failed this test because we lost all the fifty-fifty balls. We have to be humble and accept defeat”, explained Troussier. France coach Roger Lemerre was ebullient: “we were close to excellence on occasion”, he commented.
Japan returned home to a hostile press: "The French toyed with the Japanese as though they were children", blasted Sports Nippon. “This defeat means we have to go back to the drawing board and start all over again”, argued Nikkan Sports – which is exactly what the Nippons did. Humble pie and hard graft would eventually earn the Japanese a run to the Final of the 2001 FIFA Confederations Cup and a place in the last sixteen of the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™. The French, meanwhile, could be accused of sitting back on their laurels subsequent to their 2001 triumph. Christophe Dugarry showed remarkable foresight when he described the French mood at the time: “When France play like that, you just feel no-one can beat us – except ourselves.”
Despite an impressive record of eight wins, one draw and only one defeat since their Asian humiliation, overconfidence is unlikely to be a problem for this new French side. Jacques Santini has taken over the reins of a side that contains a plethora of talented young hopefuls; Ousmane Dabo, Philippe Méxès, Jérôme Rothen, Sydney Govou and Benoît Pedretti are all unfamiliar names outside the “Hexagon”. Pedretti played against Colombia, and spoke of his relief at the result: “we are feeling more confident with that win under our belts.”
Japan have a new coach too; Brazilian legend Zico has taken charge and vowed to “let the players express themselves”. The playmaker is intent on making playmakers of his men then, not that Hidetoshi Nakata needs any second invitation, as was evident in the first game against New Zealand. The only “foreigner” in that side of March 2001, he is now joined by a host of country men who also ply their trade in Europe: Junichi Inamoto (Fulham), Shinji Ono (Feyenoord), Shunsuke Nakamura (Reggina) and Naohiro Takahara (Hamburg SV) are all excellent foils to the man from Parma
For both sides then, this game will be about putting bad memories behind them and facing the future with renewed confidence. Unfortunately, there can only be one winner – so will it be a case of the blues for the “Blues” or the “Bleus” in Saint Etienne on Friday night?