In the space of nearly 24 hours, Japan’s hopes at two major international tournaments were extinguished.
On Monday, the Samurai Blue’s Copa America campaign ended — not with a bang but with a relative whimper — following a 1-1 draw against Ecuador in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
Then came Tuesday in Rennes, France, where a controversial late handball and ensuing penalty kick doomed Nadeshiko Japan to a 2-1 defeat against Netherlands in the FIFA Women’s World Cup’s round of 16.
Now that the dust has settled and both teams are on their way back home, it’s time to take a step back and think about what it all means for Japan’s soccer’s coming year and beyond.
Even though Nadeshiko failed in its quest to reach a third straight World Cup final, there are arguably a number of positives to be found from this tournament.
After mixed results in the group stage, the team played its best against the Dutchwomen, going toe-to-toe over an entertaining 90 minutes. For a game so evenly balanced to have been decided on captain Saki Kumagai’s handball — a scene that will be replayed and debated in the days and weeks to come — is even more heartbreaking.
There’s undoubtedly still more to come from a talented squad with loads of potential, reflective of the generational transition head coach Asako Takakura has overseen since taking the helm three years ago. Her players averaged 24 years of age, nearly four years younger than the 2015 side that previous head coach Norio Sasaki took to Canada.
Among players making their World Cup debut in France were 22-year-old midfielder Yui Hasegawa, who scored the 1-1 equalizer shortly before halftime and already has nearly 40 caps to her name, as well as 19-year-old Saori Takarada, a Silver Ball and Bronze Boot winner for the championship-winning Young Nadeshiko the 2018 Women’s U-20 World Cup.
The pieces are there and Takakura seems to have the team moving in a good direction, which is why the Japan Football Association should be confident in Nadeshiko’s chances of riding enthusiastic home support to a podium finish in 2020.
But so should the JFA be wary of complacency — if the impressive results of European teams in this year’s World Cup have made anything clear, it’s that the gap in skill that has plagued women’s soccer for years is rapidly shrinking. Japan can no longer rest on its laurels as other countries catch up in terms of grassroots development, and greater investment in the women’s game is greatly needed if the country is to remain a world power.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the path to Olympic glory appeared a bit murkier for Japan’s men after the Copa America.
Unable to summon his best players as an invited nation, head coach Hajime Moriyasu instead used the tournament as an audition for his some of his best and brightest Olympic candidates.
Some fared better than others. Midfielder Takefusa Kubo demonstrated the creativity and vision that earned him a transfer to Real Madrid earlier this month, while Koji Miyoshi scored both of Japan’s goals — including a tremendous solo run to open his senior international account — in the 2-2 draw against Uruguay.
The tournament also saw solid performances from central midfielder Gaku Shibasaki and attacking midfielder Shoya Nakajima, two established Samurai Blue members who are strong contenders to represent Japan in 2020 as overage players.
Japan’s campaign also laid bare several troubling deficiencies. Perhaps first and foremost was Hosei University striker Ayase Ueda, who struggled to stay on target and wasted a tournament-worst five chances on goal.
It was a rude awakening for the 20-year-old, who has committed to join Kashima Antlers after graduating in 2021 and will undoubtedly grow into his own potential.
But it was also a reminder that Japan, which drew 0-0 against lowly Trinidad and Tobago with a full-strength squad earlier this month, is no stranger to finishing problems.
Goalkeeping is another area of great concern. After 19-year-old Keisuke Osako was hammered for four goals in his international debut against Chile in the opener, he was replaced for the last two games by 36-year-old Eiji Kawashima, who earned just one appearance last season for France’s RC Strasbourg.
The evergreen Kawashima, who has started for Japan at the last three World Cups, was a perfectly fine choice to take to Brazil as a veteran locker-room leader. But if the point of the tournament was to bestow experience upon younger players, then that is what Moriyasu should have done, especially at a position that for years has rung alarm bells as Japan’s most urgent in terms of depth.
With the Samurai Blue’s starting lineup still unsettled heading into World Cup qualifying, Moriyasu — who is Japan’s first head coach since Philippe Troussier to manage both the senior and Olympic teams — will have a lot to consider this summer. As usual, most of the individual puzzle pieces appear to be present. The question, as always, is whether or not they will click into place.