Japan won the Asian Cup on Jan. 29 for the fourth time by taking the breathtaking final against Australia that went deep into additional time in Qatar. In the six matches it played from the elimination round through the cup final, the Japanese squad caught up with their opponent squad to secure a tie or came from behind to win hard-fought matches whenever the ebb of the play turned unfavorable for them.

The Asian Cup, though it is the most prestigious soccer championship in the region, had never before attracted so much attention in Japan or elsewhere. The Asian Cup championship this time has provided Japanese supporters, and perhaps many other soccer fans in other areas as well, with the good opportunity to perceive the outpouring fighting spirits put on by the Japanese squad and to become well aware of the growing tenacity demonstrated by its players.

After last summer’s World Cup held in South Africa, goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima left Japan to play in Belgium while fullback Yuto Nagatomo played in Italy; Atsuto Uchida and Shinji Kagawa, in Germany. During this year’s championship play in Qatar, those players who had improved their skills and power through their activities in Europe added vitality to the Japanese quad.

Shortly after the Qatar Asian Cup final, Nagatomo signed up to play for Italy’s reigning world club champions Inter Milan. He had outrun an Australian player and sent a beautiful cross on which substitute striker Tadanari Lee volleyed the winning shot into the goal net a few minutes into the latter-half of additional time during the final. Aggressive ace Shinji Okazaki, who achieved a hat-trick in Japan’s first-round win against Saudi Arabia, also signed with the Stuttgart club in Germany.

Captain Makoto Hasebe and star player Keisuke Honda, who had played well and achieved good results for their European clubs, both contributed greatly to the stability of the national team by demonstrating maturity at a high performance level. The entire team had gone abroad with dreams of growing into world-class players instead of remaining content with a secure life as footballers stuck to their Japan League clubs.

In the past, it has often been the case that once the opposing team took the lead away from the Japanese national team, players lost their spirits and momentum to end up defeated. This time, such immaturity and fragility did not prevail. Team members demonstrated gutsy play throughout.

Captain Hasebe made great efforts to inspire the team by raising his voice and clapping his hands each time the lead was taken over by the opposing squad. In response, team members continued to play on strongly with their chins up and fought throughout the match tenaciously.

Nowadays in Japan, the number of ordinary students going abroad for studies in foreign countries has been declining year after year. The enthusiasm of those students about going out of Japan to acquire a wider perspective of the world or to broaden their horizon more dynamically has been on the wane. In other words, the inward-looking trend is getting stronger among young people in this country.

However, the adventurous and challenging spirit of members of this national team put them at the opposite end of the spectrum from the docility of ordinary young Japanese people. They were consumed with a burning aspiration to win a title just as soon as they left their club teams and got together as members of the national team.

The unconstrained attitude of the Japanese players strongly indicated that relations between them and veteran Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni, who took over the helm of the Japanese national team last autumn, were going well.

Coach Zaccheroni is said to be a man of craftsmanlike temperament who persists in improving specific segments of his work. It seems that the criteria by which the Japanese Football Association selected him — reflecting on what had happened previously concerning the matter and recognizing his good personality — were correct.

All of his judgments made in choosing starting players, playing tactics and member replacements appeared flawless and reasonable. By his steady strategy and directions, he fared well in leading the team to score goals while averting perils. His players did not lose their way.

This team was full of fighting spirits. All of its members had in common an eagerness to jump into the hard environment of soccer in Europe and to square up competitively against talented players converging there from around the world. This is why they were able to demonstrate their strength and skills so well. They did not lose heart in difficult situations. Their strong aspirations to generate a fighting spirit that could not be broken became their precious asset.

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