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Olympic achievements cement Japan’s place in world game

by Andrew Mckirdy

Japan’s men may not have been able to emulate their female counterparts in winning a medal at the London Games, but the performance of both teams has taken the nation’s soccer to a new global standing.

Nadeshiko Japan returned from the Olympics with a silver medal to add to the title it captured at the Women’s World Cup in Germany last year, while the men missed out after losing to Mexico in the semifinals and South Korea in the bronze-medal match. Going home empty-handed was always going to be painful after making it as far as the final four, but Takashi Sekizuka’s side can nevertheless be proud of what it achieved over a thoroughly impressive two weeks.

A disappointing 1-1 draw with New Zealand in the team’s farewell friendly suggested another frustrating campaign might be in the cards, but a shock opening win over Spain soon set the tone for the rest of the tournament. Sekizuka’s men drew confidence from the way they troubled their hotly fancied opponents, and the final scoreline could easily have been more comprehensive than the 1-0 that now stands forever in the record books.

Crucially, the win also opened up a passage to the semifinals that did not include a quarterfinal meeting with pre-tournament favorite Brazil. That still required Japan to top its first-round group and dispatch Egypt in the last eight, and it is to the team’s immense credit that it did so while conceding no goals and bristling with attacking menace along the way.

Striker Kensuke Nagai seized his chance to showcase his lightning pace in doing so, while Yuki Otsu and Hiroshi Kiyotake also shone as Japan took its vibrant passing game to a worldwide audience. But it was captain and defender Maya Yoshida who was the rock on which Sekizuka’s side was founded, and the manager can look back on a decision well made after choosing the VVV Venlo man as one of his three permitted overage players.

That left-back Yuhei Tokunaga was the only other over-23 in the squad, however, may ultimately have been the difference between a medal and glorious failure. Japan’s inability to keep the ball in central midfield proved costly when the tempo rose against Mexico and Korea, and it is tempting to wonder whether that would have been the case had an experienced head such as Yasuhito Endo or Makoto Hasebe been around to take control.

The same can be said of attacking midfielder Shinji Kagawa, available as an underage player but left out of the squad to allow him to settle in at Manchester United. That arrangement may well turn out to benefit the national team in the long run, but with Japan so close to ending its 44-year wait for another Olympic medal in London, Kagawa’s inclusion could have made all the difference.

Such is the dilemma thrown up by the curious nature of men’s soccer at the Summer Games — essentially a glorified youth tournament with one eye on the next World Cup, yet one that is rewarded with the most iconic prize in world sport. The absence of such age restrictions in the women’s event allowed Nadeshiko to take a squad entirely comprised of World Cup winners to the U.K., and although Norio Sasaki’s players failed to complete a historic double, their silver medal was thoroughly deserved and proved that last year’s triumph was no fluke.

Such statements are important in world soccer, and with two teams involved in the business end of both tournaments, Japan certainly made one at the London Games.

Gold may have been out of reach this time, but the future looks brighter than ever.