Japan’s New Golden Generation
Japan’s football prowess has never been renowned, but that may be about to change.
Giants at Home, Minnows on the World Stage
Japan is a behemoth of Asian football, but they have never challenged for a World Cup.
Their first World Cup appearance came in 1998, where they failed to get out of the group stage. Since then, the Samurai Blue have qualified for every tournament, flip-flopping between crashing out in the group stages or failing to advance past the second round.
Legends of years past have long since fallen from grace. Keisuke Honda, 33, is the coach of Cambodia and is also awaiting clearance on a work permit to join Eredivisie side Vitesse as a player. Shunsuke Nakamura, 41, is playing in Japan’s second division with Yokohama.
Hidetoshi Nakata famously retired in 2006 at just 29 years of age. Shinji Okazaki and Shinji Kagawa, both in their thirties now, can be found toiling away in Spain’s second division. And Yuto Nagatomo, 33, is part of a struggling Galatasaray side.
The Kids are Alright
A new generation is ready to take Asia, and maybe even the world, by storm. The next batch of Samurai Blue talent—spearheaded by Takefusa Kubo, Hiroki Abe, and Ritsu Doan aged 18, 20 and 21 respectively—is excelling in Europe.
Doan has established himself as one of the best wingers in the Eredivisie, and Abe’s unpredictability is putting Spanish defenders on skates with Barcelona B as he likely progresses towards getting game time with the first team.
The crown jewel, however, is Kubo. Released by Barcelona after signing him illegally, he established himself as an important member of Tokyo FC before making the switch to Real Madrid. Already impressing on loan at newly-promoted Mallorca, he could be one of the best players Asia has ever produced. Sky is the limit for the 18-year-old.
Asian World Cup qualifying is well underway and Japan has already defeated Myanmar, Mongolia, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, scoring 13 and conceding none in the process.
Given Japan’s strong core, plus the added magic of these three youngsters, the Samurai Blue could go deep at the next tournament. The future is bright for Japanese football.
Illustration by @jamieorrell
This story was featured in one of our newsletters. You can see the full email here.