Sports

Ultimate test awaits Samurai Blue after ‘Group of Death’ draw


On the first day of April — the month that marks the beginning of the school year in Japan — the Samurai Blue received notice of the final exam that will await them at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

Spain.

Germany.

And, last but not least, either CONCACAF spoiler Costa Rica or the plucky All Whites of New Zealand.

Pencils up.

Evaluating the Samurai Blue’s chances of making the knockout stage has always relied on a certain amount of optimistic algebra. Even if a win against the team hailing from Pot 1 was a bridge too far, there were always enough hypothetical points to convince fans that a breakthrough to the round of 16 was possible.

Such optimism will be harder to find this time around in a Group E containing two of the last three World Cup champions — but according to veteran soccer critic Sergio Echigo, the algebra remains the same.

“When has Japan ever not been in a ‘Group of Death?’” Echigo wrote in Nikkan on Saturday. “Japan has always competed against two or three higher-ranked teams to get into the knockout stage.

“It’s always been the Group of Death, and the only way to escape that is to raise the team’s FIFA ranking and get into Pot 2.”

The teams in Group E are displayed after the draw in Doha on Friday. | REUTERS
The teams in Group E are displayed after the draw in Doha on Friday. | REUTERS

Spain, the 2010 winner, is ranked seventh in the world by FIFA, with 2014 champion Germany close behind at No. 12. Bookmaker BetMGM has given the two countries 8-to-1 and 10-to-1 odds, respectively, of winning the tournament, while Japan sits at 200-to-1 — the same as Canada, taking part in the competition for the first time since 1986.

Group E is without a doubt the toughest Japan has ever been assigned, and it will be harder to find a pundit sincerely willing to predict a top-two finish for the Samurai Blue than it will be for fans to secure a ticket to the Dec. 18 final at Lusail Iconic Stadium.

Yet in the daunting nature of the group lies several key opportunities, setting the stage for what will possibly be the most important of Japan’s seven World Cup appearances.

The presence of two top European countries in the group offers what recent editions have lacked — marquee opposition capable of feeding the narrative that Japan isn’t simply going up against the world, but going up against the world’s best.

That’s an element that was missing in 2018’s Group H (Poland, Colombia and Senegal) as well as 2014’s Group C (Colombia, Greece and Ivory Coast), bringing with it the potential to elevate these games above the traditional World Cup hype and into “can’t-miss” territory not only for fans, but for casual viewers who have fallen out of touch with the Samurai Blue as most of its starters have drifted away from the domestic J. League.

“Germany and Spain are both going to be championship contenders and to face off with them in a competitive game is something we rarely get to experience as players,” veteran defender Yuto Nagatomo said on Saturday, noting that none of his 134 national team appearances — some of which took place in his three World Cups — had come against the two sides.

“To be able to show our fans games like these will be significant for Japanese soccer.”

Samurai Blue supporters will have a chance to watch Japan take on Germany and Spain in competitive play for the first time. | REUTERS
Samurai Blue supporters will have a chance to watch Japan take on Germany and Spain in competitive play for the first time. | REUTERS

Beyond the players themselves, what could be tested most of all may be the Japan Football Association’s own criteria for success, outlined in its 2005 pledge that Japan would reach the semifinals of the World Cup by 2030 — and win the tournament outright by 2050.

It would be easy for the JFA to lower expectations — as it already has in recent years by establishing what would be a first-ever quarterfinals appearance as the bar to clear — and say that even if Japan loses, at least it will have lost to some of the tournament’s recent champions.

The reality, however, is that this can and should be a referendum on the JFA leadership’s ability to position the national team to meet its own ambitious targets, which were established several years before Japan’s best players began their great migration to Europe. In particular, Qatar could turn out to be a final judgment on the legacy of JFA President Kozo Tashima, whose decision to fire then-head coach Vahid Halilhodzic shortly before the 2018 World Cup remains deeply controversial.

If head coach Hajime Moriyasu — who looked and sounded somewhat shaken in post-draw media interviews — is to find reassurance in anything, it’s that embattled Japan coaches have frequently outperformed expectations on the big stage.

Philippe Troussier faced plenty of doubters ahead of 2002; few had faith in Takeshi Okada before the team’s inspiring run in South Africa; and Akira Nishino — handed the job just weeks before having to announce his squad for Russia — nearly pulled off a miracle against Belgium in their famous round-of-16 clash.

Moriyasu also benefits from what this writer has previously noted is the most talented player pool in Japan’s history, from which a 23-man squad capable of equaling — or even, on a good day, besting — Spain or Germany can surely be assembled.

Japan head coach Hajime Moriyasu attends the final draw for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Doha on Friday. | AFP-JIJI
Japan head coach Hajime Moriyasu attends the final draw for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Doha on Friday. | AFP-JIJI

In order to build that squad, it will be up to Moriyasu to live up to his post-qualifier promise of a fresh start and select players based not only on their potential, but also on their current form. His biggest chance to look at domestic talent, including Kashima Antlers’ bad-boy striker Yuma Suzuki, will come in July when Japan takes part in the sub-regional EAFF E-1 Championship.

“I want to bring strong players who are in good form,” Moriyasu said of the E-1 after Tuesday’s frustrating draw against Vietnam in Saitama. “I don’t want to stir up competition among the players, but of course it will exist. I want the players to show that they can help their clubs win and demonstrate their presence on the pitch.”

The JFA will also have to do its part in arranging suitable opponents for the upcoming two FIFA international windows, including four games in June and two in September. While South American teams such as Brazil, Chile and Paraguay are rumored, the scheduling of the UEFA Nations League will prevent Japan from scheduling fixtures against European opposition — a considerable dilemma when considering how to approach the group.

“Even if Brazil is adapting European-style tactics, they don’t resemble Spain or Germany, and their strength is very different from Costa Rica or New Zealand,” journalist Yoshiyuki Kawaji tweeted on Sunday. “Beyond evaluating the strength of the team or the individual players, (a Brazil friendly) wouldn’t serve much of a purpose.”

Inevitably, what cannot be controlled by anyone is the “X Factor” of the World Cup itself, and everything that happens after the FIFA anthem blares through the loudspeakers and the players march onto the pitch.

Whether it’s the handball that gave Japan a man advantage and an early lead against Colombia in 2018 or Keisuke Honda’s rocket of a free kick against Denmark in 2010, Japan’s best moments on the world stage have spawned from the unexpected chaos that can only come after the game kicks off.

On paper, they are undoubtedly underdogs. But as is said so often, the game’s not played on paper — and if the Samurai Blue can find the answers they need before their Nov. 23 opener against Germany, just about anything could be possible.

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