DOHA -- The Japan under-23 national soccer team head coach and his team were elated after defeating Iraq on Jan. 26 in the AFC U-23 Championship here to clinch a spot at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Japan beat Iraq 2 to 1 in a semifinal to qualify for the Olympics for the sixth time in a row and the 10th time in total.
The first goal came from forward Yuya Kubo in the 26th minute. Iraq evened up the score in the 43rd minute off a corner kick, but midfielder Riki Harakawa won the match for Japan during stoppage time at the end of the second half.
When the dramatic, final goal in the match was scored moments before the end, head coach Makoto Teguramori, 48, yelled out and hugged his coaching staff.
"It moved me. The players are from an unassuming generation, but their determination to someday show everyone what they can do led to this success. It's a present from God," he said excitedly.
That same generation of players missed a chance to participate in the U-20 World Cup, and even after Teguramori became head coach in 2014, the players only got as far as the top eight in the AFC U-22 Championship and the AFC Asian Cup. The Japanese team had a poor reputation heading into the U-23 Championship, and Teguramori was aware of the concern and criticism directed at the team. However, he remained steadfast. The head coach had intentionally used players under the maximum age limit in international competitions until now in preparation for the Rio de Janeiro qualifiers. Everything until now had been not for immediate gain, but in preparation for Rio.
Born in Gonohe, Aomori Prefecture, Teguramori's life changed on March 11, 2011, the day of the Great East Japan Earthquake, when he was manager for the J-League team Vegalta Sendai.
"I realized how important it was that the things we take for granted are actually not there for granted. This realization lets you consider winning as a gift. It gets rid of all your human arrogance," he says.
He chose Bangladesh, a place where many people are suffering from poverty, as a destination for the team to travel in December 2014. Teguramori also had the team practice in Saga Prefecture in October last year and meet with children battling with difficult diseases at a hospital there because he believed that "when people come across something that speaks to the heart, they always grow as a person."
Teguramori is a man with a bright, pun-loving personality, but the pressure to not allow a break in the series of Japanese qualifications for soccer at the Olympics was more than he had expected.
"In front of everyone, I acted positive and gave the impression that I was doing this job because I knew we could go to the Olympics," says Teguramori. However, he says, "When I was alone I also thought about the scariness of losing."
What carried him through was his inborn trait of positive thinking. "This generation (of players) is in the middle of their improvement. I want to improve every one of them even during this championship," he thought, and so he used a variety of members on the team roster without fixing the starting lineup, strengthening the team and improving its sense of unity in the process.
"If you believe, it will come true," says Teguramori, and by trusting in himself and his team, he succeeded.
After winning the semifinal, and after he finished thanking fans who cheered on the team, Teguramori had bottles of water poured over him by the players.
"I'm happy. This is the best-tasting water," he said. He looked fondly at his players, celebrated with them and was in the very front for the team's celebratory photographs.
Meanwhile, in the other semifinal at the AFC U-23 Championship, South Korea defeated host country Qatar 3 to 1, securing its 10th Olympic qualification, and also its eighth in a row. Japan and South Korea will meet in the final on the night of Jan. 30. On Jan. 29, Iraq and Qatar will compete for third place and their last chance for a spot at the Olympics.