It’s World Cup time again and everyone in the US is glued to their screens…right? Well, even if you’re only peripherally aware of this year’s World Cup, you’ve probably seen last week’s viral news story about Japanese fans cleaning up after themselves at the World Cup stadium in Brazil. The Twitter photos of fans with trash bags caused quite the stir, with some people applauding the fans’ perceived classy and considerate behavior and others criticizing them for taking the stadium staff’s jobs away from them. It was a mildly interesting story, but the story of Japan’s national football team, aka “Samurai Blue,” and their future in the World Cup is a lot more compelling.
First, here’s some background on Samurai Blue. This year marks the fifth consecutive appearance of Japan’s national team in the FIFA World Cup Finals, having first debuted in 1998. Japan came heart-wrenchingly close to qualifying for the World Cup in 1994, but during the qualification rounds in Doha, Qatar a 2-2 draw with Iraq left Japan in third place in their group, with their arch-rival South Korea advancing instead. In Japan, the match has come to be known as the “Agony of Doha.” (Of course in South Korea it is referred to as the “Miracle of Doha.”)
In 2002, Japan co-hosted the FIFA World Cup with South Korea, the first time the event was held in Asia. It was also the first time the Japan team advanced to the Round of 16, topping their group with wins against Russia and Tunisia in the group stage. Although they were ultimately defeated in the knockout stage, the unprecedented success of the team had a profound effect on the sport nationally, seeing a boost in the number of Japanese football players and fans.
Samurai Blue’s current Coach is Alberto Zaccheroni, who before joining the team in 2010 was best known for managing a number of top football clubs in Italy. Most recently Zaccheroni led the Japan team to their fourth record Asian Cup victory in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup in Qatar. Samurai Blue struggled in the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, losing all 3 of their matches, but the team recovered quickly under Zaccheroni’s instruction and resulted in Japan becoming the first country (outside of host nation Brazil) to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Finals.
Japan’s national team has a few players to look out for, the foremost being midfielder and national superstar Keisuke Honda. Before the World Cup Finals, Honda had a record of 20 goals in 52 international appearances, five of them qualifying for Brazil. He also has Japan’s only goal in its 2-1 loss to the Ivory Coast from last week’s match. Japan’s other top players include Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki, both top-scoring forwards on the attacking line, and Makoto Yasebe, the team’s captain and first to lead Japan to victory on foreign soil in South Africa 2010.
Now we’ve come to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. For those of you who, like me, had a less-than-rudimentary understanding of how the World Cup tournament operated before this year, let me go through some basics. The World Cup consists of 5 rounds with teams from 32 countries competing for the title. The first round has all 32 international teams divided into 8 groups (A-H) of 4, with each team competing with the other 3 in their group for the top 2 spots that will advance them to the Round of 16. Which teams advance and which don’t is determined primarily by points: a win earns you 3 points, a draw 1 point, and a loss 0 points. If at the end of the first round teams are tied in points for a top slot, the advancing team is determined by goal difference (overall goals scored – total goals allowed). If the goal differentials result in a tie, then there are other rules that can be employed to determine a tiebreaker.
Samurai Blue is in Group C and has played two matches thus far, including a 2-1 loss to the Ivory Coast and a 0-0 draw with Greece, leaving them currently with 1 point. Their next and final game in their Group is with Colombia on Tuesday, June 24th.
As of right now Japan’s scores haven’t knocked them completely out of the running, but they will need a few things to happen in their final game to earn them a spot in the Round of 16. First, Japan has to beat Colombia – if that doesn’t happen, it’s game over. Of course this is easier said than done, considering Colombia is sitting pretty having won its first two games already. Japan also needs Greece to beat or tie with the Ivory Coast, otherwise the Ivory Coast will automatically advance with 6 points. Even if Japan wins its final match and Greece doesn’t lose its match, Japan will still be tied with 4 points with either Greece or the Ivory Coast, and from there it comes down to goal difference. Currently, Greece has a goal difference of -3, Japan has -1, and the Ivory Coast has 0, putting Ivory Coast ahead.
Starting tomorrow it’s do-or-die for Japan. There may be a slim chance, but it’s a chance nonetheless! Regardless, the Japan-Colombia game is guaranteed to be an interesting match, so if you’re not doing anything tomorrow at 4:00 pm you could maybe, you know, consider watching. And don’t forget to chant Vamos Nippon!