The heirs of Nakata, Nakamura and Ono had an uneven FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005, which was ultimately redeemed, strange as it may sound, in a losing effort that saw them drop out of the competition.
Japan opened their campaign on a high, although one with a slightly bitter aftertaste. Overwhelmed in the first half of their opener by the Clockwork Oranje, they went into the dressing room with their ears ringing and two goals down.
But they found redress in the second half, in which they cut the score in half and largely silenced the Dutch attack, as well as the crowd. Such was their momentum, that their opponents greeted the final whistle with visible relief and spoke of the Japanese team with a mixture of surprise and admiration afterwards. Despite coming up short, it was a promising start.
In the following two games, they could not fulfil that promise: against Benin and Australia the Japanese eleven played careful and controlled but not very dynamic football. What did shine through though was a stubborn refusal to lose - in both games Japan fell behind, and equalised in the final stretch.
Surprise in the last sixteen
As it turned out, that was enough to earn Japan a second-place finish in the group, and therefore access to the Round of sixteen. But as their coach Kiyoshi Ohkuma readily admitted, it was an unexpected bonus. In fact, Japan became the first team in the history of the FIFA World Youth Championship to qualify for the knockout stage without winning a single game.
At this point many of Japan's faithful Ultras, the national team fans who were in Europe cup-hopping between the FIFA Confederations Cup in Germany and the FIFA World Youth Championship, were getting worried that the U-20s would be led like lambs to the slaughter by the skilled and aggressive Moroccans. Within seconds of the opening whistle, their fears were laid to rest.
The Japanese came out swinging, and matched Morocco's positive aggression step-for-step throughout the match. Enough has been said about Mouhssine Iajour's injury-time winner, but even with less than a minute of injury time on the clock Japan were not ready to give up. Ohkuma brought on 17-year-old forward Takayuki Morimoto for a defender and the team threw themselves into attack, earned a corner kick, and almost pushed the ball in from the resulting scrum.
All to no avail, and the Japanese players were left to rue the irony that their best efforts were rewarded with agonising losses, while their lesser games earned them points that put them through to the next stage.
Ohkuma often referred to the players' lack of experience at the highest domestic club level, and this points to the uncomfortable situation that Japanese football is facing now. Its well-organised and competitive youth system has produced a golden generation of gifted players who participated in the FIFA World Youth Championships of 1995, 1997 and 1999 (when, led by Shinji Ono of Feyenoord, they took the silver medal).
From the three championship squads since, however, not a single player has managed to break into the senior team. From the current U-20 squad, only a few play regularly in the J League. This stands in sharp contrast to for example the Netherlands, who have four capped players in their current U-20 squad alone.
This cycle of Japanese youth is not yet finished as a team: they will go on to prepare for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the experience gained in this tournament will stand them in good stead. But as Ohkuma indicated in his final press conference, a team's strength is ultimately limited by the strength of the individuals that make up the team. For the development of Japanese football, the current crop of youth internationals need to start displacing the golden generation at both club and international level, sooner rather than later.