Is this World Cup a poisoned chalice for Japan?

Against all odds (and my own pessimistic predictions), Japan are in the Round of 16 where they will face Belgium. One would think that the national mood would be jubilant as a nation of 120 million people unite to support the Samurai Blue.

Yet, that is not the case.

While many fans have found reason to cheer thus far, Japan’s progression from the group stage has been overshadowed by either uncertainty or controversy. Lingering doubt remains as to what legacy this squad will leave in the country’s footballing history.

This began before the World Cup even started. Manager Akira Nishino had just two months to prepare for Russia after his shock appointment in April, and his squad full of ageing veterans was nicknamed ‘Old Man Japan’ by media and fans. Keisuke Honda, a player considered to have played a key role in the sacking of previous manager Vahid Halilhodžić, was ineffective in friendlies against Ghana and Switzerland.

Even a 4-2 win over Paraguay, with Real Betis-bound Takashi Inui scoring twice, left observers uncertain: was this simply an easy win against a team with nothing on the line, or a promising indication that the pieces were falling into place?

Then came the fateful day in Saransk, and Nishino’s eleven looked rather reasonable. There was Yuya Osako up front, Inui on the left wing, Gaku Shibasaki in midfield, and Honda on the bench, all of which made for arguably one of the strongest lineups Japan could field. With James Rodríguez starting from the bench, it seemed a competitive match against heavily-favoured Colombia was in the works.

Nobody could have predicted Carlos Sánchez’s handball and subsequent red card in the third minute of play. By the time Shinji Kagawa converted from the spot, our predictions for this Japan side were crumpled up and tossed into the dustbin of Football Hot Take History.

Despite the lead, Japan played timidly, giving up an equaliser to Juan Quintero’s clever free kick. Indeed, the lasting image of that match may not be Yuya Osako’s winning header in the 73rd minute, but rather that of goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima attempting to deny that the ball had crossed the line in front of God, Goal Line Technology, and over 40,000 fans inside the Mordovia Arena.

The 2-1 win over Colombia was unquestionably historic. For the first time, an Asian team had defeated a South American opponent in the World Cup. However, heading into the team’s second match against Senegal, more concerns arose. Was Japan capable of playing better from the start against a confident side not hamstrung by a red card? Could Eiji Kawashima avoid another gaffe? And what role was there in the squad for Keisuke Honda, who contributed little in the opener after coming off the bench?

The wild 2-2 draw at the Ekaterinburg Arena had everything. Kawashima did indeed commit a howler, punching the ball off Sadio Mané’s knee and back into the net for Senegal’s 11th-minute opener. Japan bounced back twice from deficits, first courtesy of an Inui golazo, then from none other than Honda, who scored against an African side for a third straight World Cup when he put one past Senegal goalkeeper Khadim N’Diaye.

But even as Japan controlled its own destiny, the hype felt somewhat diluted, with fans and writers calling for Kawashima to be benched in favor of backup Masaaki Higashiguchi or heir apparent Kosuke Nakamura. The day before the match, several Japanese newspapers reported that Nishino would make six changes to his squad in deference to the oppressive Volgograd heat. Would the ‘B Team’ be enough to carry Japan to their third Round of 16?

Yes, as it turns out, but only barely. Trailing 0-1 to Poland with 15 minutes remaining, Nishino learned what all of us following the Group H climax already knew: Colombia had taken the lead over Senegal. If both results stood, Japan would beat Senegal in the hitherto-unused Fair Play Point tiebreaker. In order for that to happen, Japan couldn’t give up any more goals or cards, and Senegal could not equalise.

What ensued was – depending on who you ask – a shrewd gamble or a gutless display of cynicism by Nishino, who sent on captain Makoto Hasebe to tell his teammates to pass the ball around the back and not give Poland a sight of goal. And so they did for the next 10 minutes under a chorus of boos, finding out moments after the final whistle that Colombia had retained their lead and that Japan had become the first Asian country to earn a third Round of 16 appearance at the World Cup.

Yet, the topic of discussion on Friday was not that Japan would take on Belgium, but whether the way in which they reached the knockout stage was ‘appropriately Japanese’. Was it ‘fair play’ to waste time? Was it shameful entertainment that insulted fans who paid thousands of dollars to attend the match? Or was it a sign that 25 years after the country had missed out on USA 1994 (coined as the Agony of Doha), Japan had simply learned that sometimes one must step backward in order to take two steps forward?

To suss out the legacy of this Samurai Blue squad is to grasp at straws. Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda will likely retire from international play sooner rather than later, but there is no one (yet) who can replace them as Japanese football’s biggest idols. Takashi Inui is playing the best international football of his career, but at 30 years old, he will face an uphill battle toward Qatar 2022. Gaku Shibasaki, at 26, has finally grasped the mantle passed on by Yasuhito Endo, and could command Japan’s midfield through 2026.

Then there are the questions of whether Akira Nishino will get a contract extension ahead of January’s AFC Asian Cup, how an increasingly antagonistic relationship between the Japan Football Association and the media will develop (or de-evolve), and whether a J.League that is pivoting toward blockbusters signings of foreign stars such as Andrés Iniesta, Lukas Podolski, and (possibly) Fernando Torres will be able to raise the country’s future generations of young stars.

While this squad may not have much of a future, it has a present. If they can somehow muster a game-winning performance performance against Belgium and reach a first-ever quarter-finals, it will be enough to silence the critics as Japan takes its first step to unchartered ground.

Illustration by Ifrha (@ifrha3)

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