Football’s popularity exploded in Japan in the 1990s. The country hosted and won the AFC Asian Cup – both for the first time – in 1992. They staged the FIFA U-16 World Championship the following year, when they beat Mexico and an Italy squad including Gianluigi Buffon and Francesco Totti to a quarter-final place, before losing 2-1 to eventual champions Nigeria. That same year, Kazu Miura was named the maiden AFC Footballer of the Year, while the J.League was launched to overwhelming success and began luring superstars such as Careca, Dunga, Michael Laudrup, Gary Lineker, Pierre Littbarski, Toto Schillaci and Zico.

Yet these successes served to fuel Japanese supporters’ thirst for an even greater climax: a maiden qualification for the FIFA World Cup™. Fifteen years ago to this Friday, they had the chance to finally achieve that feat. After finishing second in Group B in the final round of Asian Zone qualifying, Japan faced Iran – the runners-up in the other pool – with the winners progressing directly to France 1998 and the losers entering an intercontinental play-off for a place at the showpiece event.

The Samurai Blue were, however, up against it on neutral turf in Malaysia. Team Melli were the record three-time AFC Asian Cup winners; they had already qualified for the FIFA World Cup in 1978; and they had won six and drawn three of their 12 previous meetings with Japan. Moreover, their spearhead comprised reigning Asian Footballer of the Year Khodadad Azizi and Ali Daei, who was on his way to outranking Ferenc Puskas as international football’s all-time leading marksman.

Nakata bound for stardom
Japan nevertheless had their own reason for optimism. Hidetoshi Nakata had dazzled at the FIFA U-16 World Championship in 1993 and the FIFA U-20 World Cup two years later. The playmaker’s performances in those tournaments prompted Italian colossuses Juventus to hand him a trial – something unknown for an 18-year-old Asian – and at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Atlanta 1996, Nakata inspired Japan to a heroic victory over a Brazil team including Roberto Carlos, Juninho Paulista, Rivaldo and Ronaldo.

Earlier in 1997, Namie Amuro’s mega-hit, ‘Can You Celebrate?’, became the biggest-selling single by a female in Japanese music history. The press predicted that if Nakata could spark Japanese celebrations on 16 November of that same year, he would even outrank the ‘Queen of Japanese Pop Music’ in the popularity stakes.

He rapidly began living up to his hype, nutmegging a marker and playing a handsome pass to Hiroshi Nanami, whose touch let him down. Six minutes before half-time, however, Nakata’s invention did pay dividends. He burst through the midfield and somehow managed to poke the ball through to Masashi Nakayama, who fired the ball past Reza Abedzadeh to break the deadlock.

Within 15 minutes of the restart, however, the Iranians had transformed a deficit into a lead. First, Azizi tapped the ball home at the back post after Kawaguchi had parried a shot, and then Daei produced a patented high jumper’s leap between two defenders and powered a header into the bottom corner.

Japan’s aged dream was on the verge of being shattered, but youth combined to restore it on 75 minutes. Nakata collected the ball on the left flank, cut inside, and delivered a pinpoint, inswinging cross on to the head of 22-year-old Shoji Jo, who neatly guided it into the bottom corner to level the scores.

The last quarter-hour went goalless, meaning that either a ‘golden goal’ or a penalty shoot-out would decide which team banked themselves a ticket to France and which would have to do battle with Australia for the honour.

Viera Badu’s mandate during the break was obvious upon play’s resumption: double up on Nakata. It starved the Japan No8 of possession, but when his outstretched leg got to the ball just before an opponent 90 seconds before the referee whistled for the final time, he had the opportunity he required to make something happen. Nakata swiftly side-stepped two Iranians, carried the ball to the edge of the box and unleashed a low, left-foot strike that was heading for the bottom corner. Abedzadeh instinctively flung his body south-west and managed to get his fingertips to it, but it presented Masayuki Okano with the simplest of tap-ins.

Okano, arms outstretched and mouth agape, sprinted off in delirium as all his team-mates and the entire Japan bench scampered over to swarm the scorer of the most important goal in Japanese football history. There was, however, zero doubt as to who was the biggest hero on that unforgettable day in Johor Bahru. World football would soon hear a lot more from Hidetoshi Nakata.