KAZAN, Russia -- Just two months before the start of the 2018 soccer World Cup in Russia, the Japanese national team found itself under new management. Gone, abruptly, was head coach Vahid Halilhodzic, and Akira Nishino was appointed in his place. Samurai Blue player Takashi Inui recently described the situation as being "like the side was on stage performing without any rehearsals for about two months."
And yet the team came together, bound by this sense of crisis and Nishino's coaching style of granting each player their independence.
Some of the most important figures in turning Japan's soccer stars into a coherent team for Russia were Keisuke Honda and the squad's other veterans. Japan had disappointing World Cup first-round exits in Germany in 2006 and again in Brazil in 2014 -- Samurai Blue sides riven by differences over approach and how players should be used.
One source close to the Japan Football Association (JFA) who went with the team to past tournaments told the Mainichi Shimbun just before the 2018 World Cup, "Veterans who can pull the team together and dependable reserve players are very important. In 2010 in South Africa (when Japan advanced to the round of 16), Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi filled that role. We shall see what role Keisuke (Honda) takes this time."
Russia was Honda's third World Cup, though his first as a bench player. Despite not starting, Honda commented that he had "never before been so happy to see other people score goals." He became the oil in the Samurai Blue machine, talking with and giving advice to other Japanese players both on and off the pitch. Meanwhile, Yuto Nagatomo became the team's "mood maker" with his antics and gold-dyed hairdo, allowing the side to blow off steam.
Nishino always said that "all 23 (team) members are important," and despite the scant preparation time after Halilhodzic's exit, the side was energized by their new head coach's plans. Just 40 days after the team assembled, the players were all moving in the same direction, making the most of the team's strengths.
However, the sudden leadership change and subsequent lack of time to choose the national side resulted in a roster heavy on trusted veterans, and delayed a generational shift within Samurai Blue. The average age of the side at the start of Russia 2018 was 28.3 years -- the oldest of any of Japan's six World Cup squads. The starters for Japan's four games had an average age of 29.2 years.
While the team's respectable showing certainly owed something to veteran experience, 25-year-old Wataru Endo and three other Rio 2016 Olympic side members on the Russia World Cup squad never got on the pitch. It was the first time in Japan's six tournaments that players from the most recent Olympics did not play in the subsequent World Cup.
Gaku Shibasaki, Genki Haraguchi, Yuya Osako, and other younger Japanese players who appeared at the 2012 London Olympics showed outstanding performances at Russia. Meanwhile, Samurai Blue 30-somethings Nagatomo, Honda, Shinji Okazaki and other veterans of three straight World Cup tourneys are likely to hang up their Japan jerseys in the not too distant future. And so we hope that Japanese soccer culture continues to mature, and that an even brighter future is on the horizon.
(Japanese original by Shohei Oshima, Sports News Department)