The Japanese missed out on their first AFC Youth Championship after losing on penalties to Korea DPR in the final of the 2006 tournament in Kolkata, the sixth time they have failed to clear the final hurdle.
After topping what many regarded as the toughest qualifying group, which included Korea DPR, Iran and Tajikistan, they beat Saudi Arabia 2-1 in the quarter-finals to book a ticket to the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007, before going on to beat Korea Republic on penalties in the semis. Now their hopes will be high as they head into the global party in the Great White North.
Many in the U-20 side, including Yohei Fukumoto (Oita Trinita), Yosuke Kashiwagi (Sanfrecce Hiroshima), Tsukasa Umesaki (Oita Trinita), Atsuto Uchida (Kashima Antlers) and Atomu Tanaka (Albirex Niigata), are regulars for their J.League clubs and brimming with top-class experience.
Despite being unable to call on senior international Umesaki for their first game against Korea DPR, Japan managed to prevail against the odds. They then went on to comfortably beat Tajikistan 4-0 in their next match, before losing 2-1 to Iran, when they rested a number of key players. Despite this loss, they still finished top of the group on goal difference.
Japan clinched their place in Canada with a tough 2-1 quarter-final victory over Saudi Arabia. After seeing their 1-0 lead slip away to 1-1, Yoshida's young charges survived a late onslaught before super-sub Kota Aoki fired in a last-gasp winner.
Their semi-final against Korea Republic, played out in torrential rain, was tighter still. The game finished at 1-1 after 90 minutes with Tomoaki Makino being given his marching orders in the 83rd minute. Despite the numerical disadvantage in extra time, Japan kept on taking the game to their neighbours and, after finishing 2-2 at the end of extra time, went through to the finals on penalties (3-2).
Japan faced the North Koreans again in the final but this time lost out in the shoot-out after the teams played out a 1-1 draw. Despite missing out on the chance to claim their country's first AFC Youth Championship, the team played some marvellous attacking football and can be confident of their chances at next year's FIFA U-20 World Cup.
Yasushi Yoshida was known as a fleet-footed winger in his playing days for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, who then became Urawa Reds. He later joined the coaching staff of the Urawa outfit, who only last week won the J.League title for the first time in the club's history. Yoshida has also been a member of the # national team's technical staff at all age levels, bringing in the likes of Shunsuke Nakamura and Shinji Ono, and was appointed coach of the U-19 and U-20 side in 2005.
At the heart of Japan's best moves in the championship was Yosuke Kashiwagi, who, as well as scoring three goals, had a hand in most of the team's goals. The manner in which he shook off two markers to smash in a left-footed equaliser in the 34th minute of the final is something that will live long in the memory of those present. Full international Tsukasa Umesaki, though not at his very best during the tournament, showed glimpses of precision passing and shooting as well as high-speed dribbling, and looks a great prospect for the future. Also impressive was captain and centre-half Yohei Fukumoto, who brought cohesiveness and leadership to the team.