This obsession with Japan’s cleanliness in both domestic and foreign media comes around every World Cup. It’s undoubtedly well-meaning — but also seems condescending, contrasting as it does with the lack of attention paid to the team’s football performance. The latter will be harder to ignore now. Captain Maya Yoshida, who made a crucial clearance in the dying minutes of the shocking 2-1 victory over 2010 champions Spain that secured passage to the knockout stages, summed up his attitude in a recent interview.
“I’m sick of hearing about being a ‘good loser,’” Yoshida, a former Premier League player with Southampton, told public broadcaster NHK. “I am honestly tired of hearing about Japan being a wonderful country for cleaning the locker room and being recognized for that. I’d rather be a winner than a good loser.”
After defeating two of the sport’s great powerhouses to secure a most unlikely top place in the “group of death,” it’s time to start talking a little more about what Japan does on the pitch during the game, rather than what its fans do afterward.
To be fair, even back home many doubted the team could progress from the first round. Since first qualifying for the World Cup in 1998, Japan has repeated a pattern of dropping out in the group stages in one tournament, and qualifying for the last 16 in the next. Coach Hajime Moriyasu is not the most inspiring figure — one fan described him to me as “the (Gareth) Southgate of Japan” after England’s manager, and it was not meant as a compliment. Having shocked the world to beat Germany, the Japanese seemed to throw it all away after a limp and lifeless 0-1 defeat to Costa Rica.
But two goals within three minutes shortly after the second-half restart against Spain, it was Japan topping the group and 2014 champions Germany headed home. We shouldn’t be that surprised: This team is hardly a novice in its first tournament. Japan is also Asia’s strongest footballing nation, having qualified for every World Cup since 1998. That’s more than can be said for Italy, a four-time winner that has now missed two in a row.
It’s also a triumph for a country that lost out on the rights to host this World Cup due to the controversial decision in 2010 awarding it to tiny Qatar, only the second time the tournament has been held in Asia. That was a move all the more baffling for Japan, browbeaten by organizers FIFA into co-hosting the 2002 event with neighboring rival South Korea rather than holding it outright. With emerging soccer nations such as Saudi Arabia and China potential contenders for the next Asian edition, Japan might be waiting for some time for its turn.
Yoshida’s words offer a lesson for the country at large, too. Japan often attaches too much value to merely participating, instead of playing for keeps — whether in the corporate world or the international political sphere. Gone are the days when companies such as Fujifilm Holdings Corp. dominated the World Cup advertising hoardings, which now seem to overwhelmingly feature Chinese brands. There were joking calls to copy Saudi Arabia’s declaration of a national holiday to celebrate its upset over Argentina when Japan toppled Germany. With its once-mighty economy slumping and global relevance declining, international media coverage of Japan often defaults to stereotypes, from the mostly appreciative focus on cleaning up to unhelpful tropes about sex life, or lack thereof.
But the country can look proudly to its sporting achievements in the past two decades and hope for more from the team nicknamed Samurai Blue.(1) In the Olympic Games, Japan has gone from being second-rate in the 1990s to one of the top-ranking nations, punching well above its weight in per-capita terms and taking a record haul of medals last year, when the country defied lingering fears of Covid-19 to fulfill its duties as host. An increasing number of athletes are becoming genuine world stars, whether it’s baseball sensation Shohei Ohtani, tennis star Naomi Osaka or last year’s winner of the Masters Tournament, Hideki Matsuyama. The country has yet to birth a truly world-class star in soccer — Asia’s best player is surely South Korea’s Son Heung-min — but the majority of the squad plays in Europe, including the likes of Arsenal’s Takehiro Tomiyasu. All this reflects a commitment and investment in sporting excellence over decades.
Japan will have to continue to do things the hard way. Croatia, which lost to France in the final four years ago, awaits in the round of 16. But having beaten Spain and Germany, the Samurai Blue shouldn’t fear an aging team whose best days seem behind it, and can target a first-ever quarterfinal berth. Should that transpire, the most likely opponent seems to be Brazil, favorites to capture a sixth title. Bookmaker Paddy Power gives Japan lengthy 80/1 odds of winning the competition outright. But after this week’s heroics, the country can dream of being known for something more than just tidying up.
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(1) Curiously, no one really seems to know why the team plays in blue, rather than in sunrise red.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Gearoid Reidy is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Japan and the Koreas. He previously led the breaking news team in North Asia, and was the Tokyo deputy bureau chief.
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