The men’s Olympic football competition at the London games has been surprisingly immersive so far, the samba beat of Brazil have lit up group C while entertainment has been provided throughout the groups by the likes of Morocco, Honduras, South Korea and Mexico, whilst Team GB have provided adept enough performances to maintain a jingoistic interest in a tournament that has faced questions over its value in an Olympic setting, the age-old argument where a gold medal is not the pinnacle of the sport.
It was Spain who provided the firmest answer to the seriousness of the competition, coming to London with European Championship winners Juan Mata, Jordi Alba and Javi Martinez in tow, but it was also them who provided the spectators with the entertaining factor that the Olympics will not follow the predictive script that saw them cap an unprecedented major tournament triple in the summer, and instead they were dumped out of the search for global domination at all forms of the sport that they had so seemingly mastered with wonderful passing football as early as the group stages.
They became re-acquainted with premature elimination at the hands of Honduras in their second match with a 1-0 defeat against the run of constant Spanish pressure in the match at St James’ Park, though it was the opening game loss to Japan that will linger a little longer in the memory as they were bettered tactically and physically by a nation threatening to become one of the international stages’ major players with their next generation of talent.
The growth of the sport in the far-east has coincided with the introduction of the J-League back in 1993, seeing the nation reach the World Cup for the first time in 1998 and going onto the reach the last 16 in two of the summer’s major tournaments since then. Hidetoshi Nakata and Junichi Inamoto were two of the trailblazers to a new dawn after spells in Europe in an era that saw the country crowned Asian Cup champions 4 times since the creation of their flagship professional league.
Brazilian’s Falcao and Zico brought with them some Brazilian influence during managerial spells in the 90’s and the early 2000’s respectively, while Frenchman Phillipe Troussier imprinted his European experience during a spell in which he guided them to the 2000 Asian Cup and runners-up in the 2001 Confederations Cup. It was the youthful Takeshi Okada who oversaw what was possibly the latest watershed moment in Japan’s fruitful football development, their decent showing in the South African World Cup of 2010, that saw them past Cameroon and Denmark and onto a second round exit to Paraguay by the ever-unfortunate modicum of penalties despite an impressive showing in defeat against the Netherlands.
An official placing of ninth was a more than satisfactory showing for a squad that contained just 4 of 23 players that plied their trade in Europe; Keisuke Honda of CSKA Moscow, Makoto Hasebe of Wolfsburg, Daisuke Matsui of Grenoble and Takayuki Morimoto of Catania were flag-bearers for a new wave of Japanese footballer that has followed the impact of the nation’s modest success and taken residence in European football.
Of the under-23 side that achieved the unexpected scalp of Spain in this Olympiad, five of the 18 players play their club football in Germany and Holland, while Sevilla’s Hiroshi Ibusuki narrowly missed out on selection along with Arsenal’s Ryo Miyaichi who turned in a very impressive loan spell at Bolton towards the end of the last Premier League season.
Leading the Japanese procession into European club football is Manchester United’s new midfield signing Shinji Kagawa who earned his big money move after playing an integral part in two successive Bundesliga titles for Borussia Dortmund and he will be charged, alongside Shinji Okazaki of Stuttgart and Schalke 04 right back Astuto Uchida to lead the Samurai Blues’ bright new generation into the Brazilian World Cup of 2014. Germany’s role in the arrival of Japan’s raft of new talent cannot be understated, 6 of the 14 foreign based players in the latest Japanese squad played in the German Bundesliga.
Another 1-0 win over Morocco in Group D has put Japan into the quarter finals of the London Olympics as the prospect of a medal becomes a clearer reality to a highly physical and technical Japanese side which have continuously evolved in recent years. The defeat of Spain that could have yearned 3 or 4 goals, not just the one that sufficed in the end may have been a surprise but Japan are working hard to prove that it is not just a shocking anomaly.