The Olympic footballing history of Japan

Japanese players stand on the pitch before second half of Men's Group B match against USA at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games (Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Images)
Japanese players stand on the pitch before second half of Men's Group B match against USA at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games (Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Images)

The Japan Professional Football League (J-League first-division) will restart on Saturday, 4 July, after a nearly four-month interruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But which players will you be watching?

At last, top-flight football in Japan has returned!

With places in the national Olympic team up for grabs, Tokyo 2020 look back at the many battles and achievements made by Japan's Olympic men’s team as the J-League returns to action.

The two miracles

Men's football made its Olympic debut in Paris 1900, 30 years before the inaugural FIFA World Cup in Uruguay. Although the Japan national team have participated in ten Olympic Games to date, there are two in particular that stand out among the rest.

The first, dubbed ‘the miracle in Berlin’, took place at the Berlin 1936 Games where Japan made their first Olympic appearance.

Japan’s first opponent was Sweden, and from the onset they were overwhelmed both physically and technically. They conceded twice in the first half and trailed 2-0 as the second half began.

Remarkably, Japan gradually regained their composure and came from behind to level the scores 2-2. And with the clock ticking down, Japan scored the winning goal to defeat one of the pre-tournament favourites 3-2.

Fielding mostly university students, Japan grabbed the world’s attention for their bold performance and were widely-praised for their unexpected result.

Sixty years later, the Olympic Games Atlanta 1996 bore witness to the second - and arguably even greater - miracle.

Japan had failed to qualify for an Olympic Games for the previous 28 years, and during this time the rules of Olympic football had changed. Professional players were now allowed to participate as long as they were 23 or under (U-23), while FIFA, the world governing body of football, adopted a new rule for Atlanta that permitted three over-age players (24 and above) on the team.

Japanese football also went through a major transition during this period with the launch of a professional competition - the J-League - in 1993.

The U-23 national team that participated in the Atlanta 1996 Games was led by head coach NISHINO Akira, and all the players, including MAEZONO Masakiyo and KAWAGUCHI Yoshikatsu, played in the J-League.

Japan’s first opponent in the group stage of the 1996 Games were none other than Brazil.

Brazil's over-age players included José Roberto Gama de Oliveira (Bebeto) and Aldair Nascimiento dos Santos (Aldair) - who were among the star players that lifted the 1994 FIFA World Cup - and Rivaldo Vitor Barbosa Ferreira (Rivaldo), who would later receive the Ballon d’Or. Among the crop of under 23 players were Ronaldo Guiaro, Roberto Carlos and Juninho Paulista.

With such world-class talent, Brazil were undoubtedly the favourites to win gold.

Unsurprisingly, Brazil took control of the game from the onset. Japan endured Brazil’s relentless attacks and tried to fight back on the counter. Brazil had several very close chances, but Japan’s goalkeeper Kawaguchi made several outstanding saves and the game was scoreless going into the second half.

Twenty-seven minutes into the second half, midfielder ITO Teruyoshi took advantage of a careless mistake from Brazil and scored the first goal. With a one-goal lead, Japan continued to tolerate Brazil’s ferocious attacks and ended up winning against all the odds.

The upset is remembered fondly in Japan as ‘the miracle in Miami’.

Yuki Otsu of Japan holds off Javier Martinez of Spain during the Men's Football first round Group D Match of the London 2012 Olympic Games (Photo by Stanley Chou/Getty Images)
Yuki Otsu of Japan holds off Javier Martinez of Spain during the Men's Football first round Group D Match of the London 2012 Olympic Games (Photo by Stanley Chou/Getty Images)
2012 Getty Images

Sole Olympic medal

Japan won their only Olympic men's football medal at the Mexico City 1968 Games.

Four years earlier, they had reached the quarter-finals on home soil (Tokyo 1964) and going into the 1968 tournament were determined to go even further.

Their team revolved around striker KAMAMOTO Kunishige and assist king SUGIYAMA Ryuichi.

Kamamoto scored a hat-trick in Japan’s first group stage match against Nigeria. He then scored two goals in the quarter-final against France to help Japan advance to the semi-final. Sugiyama also contributed to Japan’s success with his fiercely accurate left-foot skills and his quick dribbling technique that caused alarm among opposition defences.

Although they lost in the semi-final to eventual winners Hungary, Japan went up against host country Mexico in the match for third-place.

The Kamamoto-Sugiyama combination sparkled again, and Kamamoto scored two goals with Sugiyama assisting both. Japan won 2-0 to clinch the bronze medal - the first football medal won by an Asian country.

With seven goals in six matches, Kamamoto received the top scorer award. Sugiyama assisted five, including four that led directly to Kamamoto’s goals.

In the four years since the Tokyo 1964 Games, the Japan national team played 82 international fixtures to gain the necessary top-flight experience. Their efforts certainly paid off.

However, Japan had to wait a long time to come close to an Olympic medal again.

In the London 2012 Games, Japan’s first match faced Spain, whose national team had just won the European Championships.

Japan scored first through OTSU Yuki and held out to defeat Spain 1-0.

Riding on the momentum, Japan’s offensive line, including Otsu as well as KIYOTAKE Hiroshi and NAGAI Kensuke, and solid defence of over-age players YOSHIDA Maya and TOKUNAGA Yuhei, all clicked, and the team steadily progressed through the tournament.

Knocking out Egypt 3-0 in the quarter-final, Japan reached the semi-final for the first time since the Mexico City 1968 Games.

Japan succumbed to Mexico in the semi-final and a second Olympic medal slipped out of their hands with a 2-0 defeat to Republic of Korea in the bronze medal match, but their unexpected achievement surprised supporters in Japan as well as football fans across the world.

Takumi Minamino of Japan and Robin Quaison of Sweden compete for the ball during the Men's Football Group B match (Photo by Felipe Oliveira/Getty Images)
Takumi Minamino of Japan and Robin Quaison of Sweden compete for the ball during the Men's Football Group B match (Photo by Felipe Oliveira/Getty Images)
2016 Getty Images

The big leap

Japan's Olympic team for Tokyo 2020 will play a crucial role as they will represent the future of Japanese football.

Many well-known Japanese footballers have shot to stardom during the Olympic Games including NAKATA Hidetoshi (Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000), NAKAMURA Shunsuke (Sydney 2000), HONDA Keisuke (Beijing 2008), NAGATOMO Yuto (Beijing 2008) and KAGAWA Shinji (Beijing 2008).

However, their Olympic experiences didn't necessarily end well: At the Olympic Games Sydney 2000, Nakata missed a penalty in the quarter-final shootout. Eight years later in Beijing and Japan failed to win a single match and didn't advance through to the knockout stage.

Nevertheless, playing at the Olympic Games gives players invaluable experience on the international stage.

The core members of the national team that advanced to the knockout stage at the FIFA World Cup 2002 Korea/Japan included Nakata as well as INAMOTO Junichi and MIYAMOTO Tsuneyasu, all played for the national team at the Sydney 2000 Games.

Japan also advanced to the knockout stage at the FIFA World Cup 2010 with key squad members including MATSUI Daisuke and OKUBO Yoshito making their name at Athens 2004, as well as Honda and Nagatomo who played at Beijing 2008.

Today’s Japan national team includes MINAMINO Takumi and NAKAJIMA Shoya, who competed at the Rio 2016 Games.

OSAKO Yuya and HARAGUCHI Genki who competed at London 2012 and played in the Asian preliminary competition - but failed to make the team for the final competition - were the driving force for the Japan national team that advanced to the last 16 at the FIFA World Cup 2018, marking only the third time Japan have qualified for the knockout stage.

In Japanese football, the phrase, 'Destined for South Africa via Beijing' is common. It refers to the team playing at the Olympic Games (Beijing) before going on to make great strides in the FIFA World Cup (South Africa).

Of course, not all players take the same course, but Olympic football is an important milestone.

The Tokyo 2020 Games will be the 11th Olympic Football tournament for Japan and the country is looking forward to seeing what the national team can achieve at a home Olympics.

In response to the postponement of the Games due to the COVID-19 outbreak, FIFA raised the age limit of players to 24. Those who are eligible for the Olympic national team will be working hard over the following months ahead to make the final cut.

Is there a new star on the horizon? With the J-League resuming, it's time to keep an eye on all the promising young Japanese players who are hoping to make a name for themselves at the Olympic Games on home turf.