Japan Climbed The Mountain Once, And Now They Need To Do It Again
2:18 PM EDT on July 3, 2023
It’s almost time for the 2023 World Cup. To help get you ready, we will be providing you with precious information about every team in the tournament. You can read all of our team previews here.
Part of what makes the World Cup such a captivating spectacle is its ability to not just make heroes and champions out of players and teams, but to change an entire country's relationship to soccer. So much of a nation's cultural and economic relationship to soccer flows down from the national team, and so the World Cup presents the opportunity for teams to release ripples that can alter the future. Winning the World Cup changes everything.
Or does it? It's easy to get caught up in a World Cup title run, and to over-romanticize the moment when the trophy is lifted. Ripples certainly flow out from an image like that, but what gets talked about less is the work that's required to keep those ripples from dissipating. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that winning the World Cup doesn't alter the course of history so much as it presents the opportunity for that to happen. What matters, then, is what federations, fans, and players make of that opportunity.
Japan engineered one of the most memorable World Cup performances in history in 2011, when they beat Germany and Sweden on the way to the final, where they upset the USWNT on penalty kicks. It was a shining, glorious moment in the sun that seemed to kick off a golden era for the Nadeshiko. They followed that up with a trip to the final of the 2012 Olympics, where they fell 2-1 in a rematch with the Americans; next came their first-ever Asian Cup win, in 2014. By that time, Japan was consistently ranked as the third best team in the world by FIFA, and they returned to the World Cup final in 2015, yet again drawing the USWNT as an opponent. That rematch didn't go so well for the Nadeshiko, as they were down 4-0 within 16 minutes and eventually lost 5-2. Even with that blowout on the books, Japan had every reason to be proud of its standing in international soccer. Any country would kill to end a four-year run adding a World Cup title, an Olympic silver medal, an Asian Cup title, and a World Cup silver to the trophy cabinet.
Things have been more up and down in recent years. Japan failed to qualify for the 2016 Olympics, claimed another Asian Cup title in 2018, and then bounced out of the 2019 World Cup in the round of 16. A quarterfinals finish at the 2020 Olympics didn't do much to revitalize the program, nor did losing in the semis at the 2022 Asian Cup. And now, all of a sudden, it feels like there's a lot riding on this trip to the World Cup.
Saki Kumagai, the last player remaining from the 2011 team, has been blunt about the need to stop Japan's regression. From DW:
"After we won the World Cup, a lot of girls started playing football," she explained to DW. "A lot of girls teams had better conditions and also a lot of people came to watch games in the Japanese league."
"Now the sport is less popular again and that's not good. Our national team hasn't won a lot recently and the Japanese people are less interested in the sport again."DW
The Nadeshiko are currently 11th in the FIFA rankings, right back where they were in the years before the 2011 title run. This year's tournament does seem set up to be another historical hinge-point for Japan. A win, or even a respectable run deep into the knockout rounds, could restore some momentum behind those decade-old ripples. But another disappointing showing could kill whatever dreams still exist of Japan becoming a perennial juggernaut on the international circuit.
Who Is Their Star?
If there's a reason to feel hopeful that the positive effects of the 2011 World Cup will be long-lasting, it might be in the existence of players like Yui Hasegawa. The 26-year-old midfielder was 14 years old when Japan won the World Cup, and her journey through the country's youth development system has brought her to a starring role in England's WSL.
Hasegawa made her debut in England in 2021, playing in the center of midfield for West Ham, and it didn't take long for her to catch the eye of a bigger club. She made the move to Manchester City last summer, and immediately became one of the most important players on the team. Hasegawa started 20 games for City last season, and in each of them demonstrated her ridiculous technical skills and ability to control the action from midfield. Hasegawa has said that she grew up modeling her game after Andrés Iniesta, and you can see more than traces of his genius in the way she manipulates both the ball and defenders.
Hasegawa is one of those players who stands out as soon as she touches the ball. You see her make one pass and you just see it. She has the juice. The sauce. The stuff that makes you reflexively scrunch up your face and go Oooohhhh shit. Certain midfielders reach a level at which it appears that they are playing with the advantage of some unseen force. They can control not just the ball and their own bodies, but the very space they and everyone else occupies. Everything that happens in Hasegawa's orbit happens because she makes it so. Watch her receive a pass, shift the ball and her body from one direction to the other, and send two onrushing defenders stumbling into nothing but air more than a few times and you'll be convinced that she's using telekinesis out there. She's also a pretty damn good passer:
Tell Me About A Cool Youngster
Like Hasegawa, Jun Endo embodies every reason to feel hopeful about the future of Japanese soccer. The 23-year-old was born in Fukushima, and is a survivor of the 9.1 magnitude earthquake that destroyed much of the city and caused a nuclear reactor meltdown in 2011. Endo, 10 years old at the time and already a soccer obsessive, wasn't allowed to play outside for months following the disaster. Her team was eventually allowed back onto the pitch only after traveling hours by bus to other cities, but as she recently told ESPN, kids on teams from other cities would treat her like she was radioactive:
"They treated me like I was a germ," Endo says. During one-on-ones, the opposing defenders would recoil: "Don't touch me," they'd say, a memory burned into Endo. She never said anything in response -- "I didn't believe I could change how people saw me now," she says.ESPN
Endo said such incidents made her want to give up playing, but then she saw the Nadeshiko win the World Cup in 2011, and she decided to keep going.
Endo rose through the Japanese youth system and became a pro in Japan's domestic league as a 21-year-old. After one season with Beleza, she made the jump to America, joining Angel City in 2022. She caught on right away, starting 22 games for Angel City and becoming one of their most popular players. She only scored one goal and notched four assists in that first season, but she's got a lot more ability than those numbers might indicate.
Endo is similar to Hasegawa in that her talent and technical ability leap off the screen every time she plays, and if there's a reason her skills haven't yet translated into a steady flow of goals and assists, it might be her versatility. She hasn't yet staked a strong claim on any one spot in Angel City's starting lineup because of the manager's comfort with deploying her all over the field. She's played on both the left and right wings, on the left side of midfield, as a left back, and even occasionally as a deep-lying midfielder. It's hard for any player to get into a productive groove when swapping positions that frequently, but when Endo does get a chance to sink her teeth into a game, she can run things. If you want to get a good idea of what Endo is truly capable of, I recommend watching the highlights of this May 7 game between Angel City and Kansas City, in which she took six shots, got a goal and an assist, and led her team to a 3-2 victory:
Who Is Their Enemy?
It feels like an upset that we've gotten this far into the team previews without naming FIFA as an enemy of any of the teams, but oh boy do the Nadeshiko have an enemy in Gianni Infantino (aka Johnny Baby) and the scheme he's currently trying to run.
This year, for the first time ever, FIFA decided to sell the TV broadcast rights for the men's and women's World Cup separately rather than together as a bundle. This move presented Mr. Baby and FIFA with a lucrative opportunity to double dip. Now, FIFA can demand the same huge sums they've always gotten for the bundled rights be paid for just the men's tournament one year, and then in the next ask for another huge chunk of money to broadcast the women's tournament. Predictably, broadcasters around the world have not been eager to pay two similarly hefty sums, and so they submitted a lot of lowball offers for the rights to the women's tournament. This allowed Infantino to make a big show of calling those broadcasters out for not being feminist enough, going so far as to say that the paltry bids were a "slap in the face of all the great FIFA Women’s World Cup players and indeed of all women worldwide."
The trick, of course, is that Infantino purposely engineered these exact circumstances. By charging the same price that used to secure the rights for both tournaments for just the rights to the men's edition, Infantino and FIFA have all but explicitly stated that they believe the women's tournament to be completely worthless. That he can make such a tacit admission in one instance, and then go out there and thump his chest, say the women's tournament is incredibly valuable, and go on about how nobody respects women just because broadcasters resist getting strong-armed into his obvious protection racket is enough to make your stomach turn.
Anyway, Infantino eventually got the big European broadcasters onboard, but Japan's are still holding out. The tournament starts in less than two weeks, and the parties involved are still yet to strike a deal that would put the games—which are in an ideal timezone for Japanese fans—on TV. Remember how FIFA and Infantino conducted themselves here the next time anyone from that organization wants to open their mouth and talk about the importance of investing in and growing the women's game. They're on the verge of robbing Japan of a whole generation of potential soccer fans over rights fees.
National Folk Hero Who I Think Is Cool
Every culture has a figure from folklore who fits the archetype of Extremely Badass Warrior Who Performed Feats Of Bravery, but few are as cool as Benkei, the Japanese warrior monk.
Benkei may have been born a half-ogre, which explains why he was 6-foot-6. He always carried seven weapons with him in addition to his sword (axe, rake, sickle, mallet, saw, staff, glaive), and he defeated hundreds of guys in each battle he participated in. He spent most of his time wandering around Japan and challenging samurai to duels because he thought they were arrogant pricks. His goal was to collect 1,000 swords from samurai he had defeated, but he stopped at 999 after being defeated by Minamoto no Yoshitsune and pledging to serve him.
Did Benkei die in an extremely gruesome but heroic death? You bet he did! According to legend, he died while protecting Yoshitsune from an invading army, which he kept from crossing a bridge by killing 300 soldiers all by himself. Eventually, the soldiers got wise and decided to just shoot a bunch of arrows at Benkei, which riddled his body but did not knock him over. He died standing up, all full of arrows, frightening the enemy soldiers.
Scran Or Not Scran: National Dish Edition
There are few things in this world that are more satisfying to eat than a big ladleful of intensely flavored curry plopped down on a pile of rice. The Japanese version of this isn't all that different from what you'd find elsewhere in terms of taste and ingredients, but it's become something of a national dish due to innovations in production. In Japanese households curry rice is made quickly and easily thanks to instant curry roux, big solidified blocks of curry powder, flour, oil, and other tasty spices that can be quickly cooked down into a bubbling, delicious batch of curry.
A foodstuff's scran-ness is determined by a variety of factors, and one of the most important is, "Is this something you could easily make and consume at 12:32 a.m. while slightly drunk and then go to sleep fully satisfied?" As far as curry rice is concerned, the answer to that question is, "Hell yes, brother," and therefore I declare this dish to be scran.
What Would A Successful World Cup Look Like For This Team?
As I said in the intro, there's a lot riding on this tournament for Japan. The Nadeshiko have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of given all that's been accomplished since 2011, but nobody can deny that the pull towards international mediocrity is getting stronger. The World Cup is the perfect place for this team to find its footing and start pulling in the opposite direction. Well, it would be if anyone in Japan could watch it happen.