- New-look Japan up to 27th in the world
- Highest FIFA Ranking spot since 2014
- We look at three potential faces to guide them forward
Japan’s squad at the AFC Asian Cup 2019 certainly had a feeling of revolution about it. Despite having reached the last 16 of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ six months earlier, new coach Hajime Moriyasu made a statement with his squad.
Just eleven of his side had made the trip to the global finals, while a host of the missing names read as a who’s who in Japanese football during the past decade, namely: Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki, Eiji Kawashima, Makoto Hasebe and Keisuke Honda.
Retirements excluded the final duo and while elder statesmen Yuto Nagatomo and captain Maya Yoshida remained from the last time they won an Asian Cup final in 2011, those departing envisaged a new dawn for the land of the rising sun.
“I might have finished my career for the national team,” Honda reflected after the defeat to Belgium, “but I’m happy because we have many young players following us and I think that they will make new history for Japanese football.”
And while their 3-1 defeat in the Asian Cup final to Qatar was an upset for many, having risen to 27th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, they now occupy their highest spot since 2014. “I think this tournament will form the base from which we can build a team for the future,” Moriyasu said after the defeat. “I now want the youngsters to retain their hunger to improve.”
Here we look at three names who look set to be the backbone of this new era.
Attacking midfielder, 20, Groningen (Netherlands)
Doan is one that fans have been waiting to get his chance for some time. Despite being named Most Valuable Player as Japan won the AFC U-19 Championship in 2016 – and then Asian Young Footballer of the Year, he was far from satisfied with his own showing, reflecting some high standards.
He duly upped his game once he reached the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017, scoring three times as they reached the round of 16, with his tight dribbling and exceptional left foot making him a constant menace.
That promise is now coming to pass, having made a permanent switch to Groningen in the Netherlands after a successful loan spell, he struck twice in the Asian Cup, including the crucial winning penalty against Vietnam in the quarter-final. With invention, poise and stacks of talent, he’s looking sure to be a central figure in this emerging line-up.
Defender, 20, Sint-Truiden (Belgium)
While a somewhat less explosive element in Moryasu’s Samurai Blue, he had arguably an even bigger impact on Japan’s run to the final in the United Arab Emirates.
Forming a superb partnership at the base of their defence alongside Yoshida, after the whole side stuttered in their opening 3-2 win over Turkmenistan, they conceded just one more prior to the final.
The towering centre-back’s most noteworthy headline contribution at Korea Republic 2017 was deflecting into his own net during their opener against South Africa, but he became a headline-grabber for the right reasons in January. His soaring header against Saudi Arabia put them into the quarters and his presence was felt consistently at either end of the pitch.
Forward, 24, Red Bull Salzburg (Austria)
It has been a steadier start to Minamino’s international career than he might have liked. Seven minutes back in 2015 – following his move to central Europe – proved a false dawn, but he looks to have found his place in the side after superb return last year. Four in five to wrap up 2018 made him a shoo-in for the Asian Cup squad.
Once there, in what is arguably a more functional iteration of Japan’s now traditional quick passing and movement style, Minamino provided a tireless outlet up top. Consistently harassing defenders and a hive activity – in many ways similar to Okazki – he proved an effective foil for Yuya Osako and Yoshinori Muto.
Never was this clearer in the semi-final against Iran, when his quick thinking when all failed to play to the whistle set up the former’s first, before winning the penalty to double their lead. His neat finish in the final gave Japan hope on the night, and now fans will be out to see even more from him in the future.