The question of how to catch up to the rest of the world has been a focal point for Japanese soccer for as long as the country has competed on the international stage.

Like many key games before it, Tuesday’s extra-time 1-0 defeat to Spain in the semifinals of the Olympic men’s soccer tournament failed to provide an answer.

That Hajime Moriyasu’s under-24 side stood up to one of the tournament’s strongest lineups for 114 minutes — even putting the European side on its back feet at several points — is laudable.

But in the end it was Real Madrid star Marco Asensio’s game-winning goal, a blistering rocket of a shot, that stood out the most when contrasted with Japan’s failure to capitalize on any of its chances in the penalty area.

“As (Moriyasu) said, it really comes down to quality. The difference is the quality needed to be able to make decisive plays,” substitute winger Yuki Soma said after a long night at Saitama Stadium.

“I can see Ascensio making that turn and scoring on that shot clearly in my mind. I think that quality… makes the difference between teams who can advance and those who cannot, so I feel disappointed in myself.”

The lack of a cutting edge has troubled Japan’s men across several cycles and age categories. While the country is adept at producing agile wingers and creative playmakers, goals in any given game are, for the most part, shared by committee, and at the moment there’s no attacker capable of imitating the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi and carrying any given game.

Spainish midfielder Marco Asensio and teammates celebrate his decisive goal on Tuesday night. | AFP-JIJI
Spainish midfielder Marco Asensio and teammates celebrate his decisive goal on Tuesday night. | AFP-JIJI

That missing element appears to be the main obstacle stopping Japan’s Olympic generations from winning a gold medal. It has also prevented the senior Samurai Blue from breaking into the World Cup quarterfinals and beyond.

“We came into this match wondering what it would take for Japan to beat one of the world’s top teams, but we have to recognize that Spain was a step above us,” Japan Football Association Chairman Kozo Tashima said.

“Until Spain won the 2010 World Cup it had countless difficult experiences in Europe. This game has certainly shown us what Japan needs in order to battle with the world’s best and overcome them, and we need to take decisive action.”

There is little fault to be found with Moriyasu’s selections, even if some players have failed to live up to their potential. Certainly nobody can criticize the decision to call up right back Hiroki Sakai, center back Maya Yoshida and midfielder Wataru Endo as overage players — all have made significant contributions to Japan’s campaign and captain Yoshida in particular made a number of key defensive plays against Spain.

He and Sakai, who represented Japan in its London 2012 campaign, both understand the pressures of competing at the Olympics — and how it feels to end up one spot short of the podium after the team lost to South Korea in the third-place game in Cardiff.

“I’m sure this loss is more frustrating for Maya and Hiroki than it is for any of us,” midfielder Takefusa Kubo said. “I want to give them a bronze medal.”

Japanese midfielder Ritsu Doan crosses the ball as he is marked by Spain's forward Mikel Oyarzabal. | AFP-JIJI
Japanese midfielder Ritsu Doan crosses the ball as he is marked by Spain’s forward Mikel Oyarzabal. | AFP-JIJI

Yet questions remain as to whether forwards Daichi Hayashi, Ayase Ueda and Daizen Maeda were enough up front, and if a player like Werder Bremen striker Yuya Osako wouldn’t have given Japan what it needed to get over the line in Tuesday’s crucial semifinal.

“The only goal Japan’s forwards have scored was a late goal by Maeda against France with the game already decided,” Mori Ekuni wrote for Soccer Digest. “Moriyasu’s biggest miscalculation came as a result of Ueda’s pre-tournament injury.

“Though he recovered in time for the Games and played well against France, Ueda has lacked his usual sharpness and he’s still not in his best form.”

Time can still heal most wounds, though. Gold and silver may be out of reach, but a win against Mexico on Friday in Saitama would still give Japan its second-ever Olympic bronze — putting this team into the history books alongside the amateur side that reached the podium in Mexico City in 1968.

Although some of this squad will likely have bright futures as members of the Samurai Blue, it could be a last hurrah on the international stage for many. It’s a chance that Yoshida, a veteran of three Olympics and two World Cups, hopes Japan will not waste.

“This will be the players’ last chance together as a youth-category team. I’d like to play with everyone at the senior level, but the world isn’t that simple,” Yoshida said. “This is a really good team and I want to do whatever I can to help them finish with a win.”

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