Despite a fortuitous defeat of Costa Rica in their second match and a hard-scrabble scoreless draw with Nigeria in their final group contest, Japan emerged at the top of Group F with bags of self belief ahead of their second round encounter with the Czech Republic on Wednesday in Victoria.
In sharp contrast to the senior national team's struggles at the concurrent Asian Cup, the buzz around the U-20s at Canada 2007 has been just short of ecstatic. Some of the media back home have even nicknamed them the "Smile Generation" down to their fizzy and bright brand of attacking football and their jovial mood. The positive atmosphere has been feeding on itself and the team have been playing without any of the weight of expectation that the best Japanese sides seem to be hampered by. And that's considering they are the first Japanese U-20 team to emerge from the group stage without suffering a defeat.
Relaxing amid the buzz
As first-choice goalkeeper Akihiro Hayashi told FIFA.com earlier, "We are very laid back as a team. Match days we are very focused, but one of our strongest qualities is that before the matches we are very relaxed."
Impressive midfielder Tsukasa Umesaki concurred after training on Tuesday: "We feel very good right now," he said. "We have no anxiety, but we're concentrating hard on the match with the Czechs because we know it will be difficult."
Though no true stars have emerged in the team, the combination play and generally high level of technical skill has many comparing them to the 1999 U-20 team of Inamoto and Takahara that reached the final of the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Nigeria before falling to Spain. And with many regarding the Czechs as a challenge much like the Scots, who were thumped soundly in a 3-1 opening victory, the belief that this team can go deep into the tournament is starting to rise.
The arrival of another couple dozen reporters to the team's camp in Victoria and a mob of hangers-on signals this increase in anticipation and gives the side the air of rock stars in this sleepy sea-side town. Autograph requests and applause greet the players as they finish training, but rather than feeling any kind of pressure, the lads seem to be lapping up the attention with smiles. Coach Yasushi Yoshida has repeatedly talked about how his team needs to gain in mental strength to challenge the best teams in the world, and they seem to have found that.
Going into the final group contest against Nigeria, both teams knew they had qualified for the next round, and the Japanese rested eight of their regular players for the match. However, against the 2005 finalists, the Japanese reserve side grew into the match and by the end could have claimed a famous victory. Ironically, that has allowed them to feel better about their scoreless draw than they otherwise might, and it has helped them overcome some of the insecurity they brought with them into the event.
Their run-up to the finals was plagued by inconsistent form, and in particular, a 5-1 thrashing at the hands of France in the prestigious Toulon International tournament had the Japanese wondering if they could compete against the world's best. Many substitutes played in that match, and despite the return of many of the regulars for the next match against Cote d'Ivoire, the confidence was sapped and the impetus was lost (as was that match). In this tournament, the promising performance by many of the non-starters has had the opposite effect: inspiring all of the players to realise that if their second XI can play with the heralded Nigerians, they can probably play with anybody.
"Our players are developing more and more every day," said Yoshida. "The truth is that even some of our secondary players can get used to this high level, and that says a lot for the development of football in Japan." This is reinforced by the fact that all but one of the youngsters play in the J-League, and many of the best - Atsuto Uchida, Michihiro Yasuda, Yohei Fukumoto, Umesaki - are regulars for their clubs and have been called into full national team camps.
Uchida described the feeling after the match with Nigeria this
way: "In a way this result was connected to the defeat against
France and how much we regretted that. But, that feeling gave us a
lot of power and now we have confidence going into the second
Steely-looking captain Yohei Fukumoto, a rock at the heart of the Japanese defence, perfectly sums up the mood in the camp, saying: "Right now, things are on track. We have lots of motivation and no fear."