Prior to the launch of the J League in 1993, Japanese football was distinctly the land of the amateur. That’s not to say there hadn’t been some highly noteworthy successes over the years; the Olympic team in particular had impressed on occasion, beating Sweden in the 1936 Games.
By far Japan’s most significant footballing moment came when taking the bronze medal at the 1968 Olympic Games, navigating past Brazil and France on the way and only losing out to eventual gold medallists Hungary in the semi-final. The bronze medal came courtesy of a win in Mexico City’s Azteca against the hosts no less. Japan were also one of the earliest international teams in Asia. Everything should have pointed to a successful football nation. And yet it simply didn’t.
The 60s and 70s had seen a boom of sorts in the popularity of football in Japan on the back of that 1968 Olympic success, but as that memory faded and the national team of the time slipped backwards, the interest waned.
With Asia’s premier tournament, the Asian Cup, Japan’s relationship with had been a fleeting one. Not entering until the 1968 edition, they withdrew from several tournaments through the 70s and 80s before re-entering the scene in 1988. Their qualification for the finals that year marked Japan’s first appearance at the Asian Cup; a remarkably slender record for what is now a giant of the continental game.
Things all changed for Japan in the early 1990s when the decision was made to start a professional league – the J League – to improve the level of domestic play and thus strengthen the national team, whilst also attracting more fans and wider interest. The league would launch in 1993, but its unveiling tied in with the hosting of the 10th Asian Cup finals in Hiroshima the year before. A good performance from the national team would make the prospects of the fledgeling professional league somewhat brighter.
Japan would be joined in the finals by the holders Saudi Arabia plus six other qualifiers, as the tournament reverted to eight teams for the first time, making for a more streamlined structure.
Three stadiums in the Hiroshima Prefecture of Japan played host to the finals, which started at the end of October 1992, with the eight teams split into two opening round groups. The holders, Saudi Arabia, opened the tournament at the large Hiroshima Big Arch Stadium in the heart of the city in front of a frankly disappointingly low crowd. Only 15,000 were present as the Saudis kicked things off against China, with those two sides eventually making it through, edging out Qatar and the surprise qualifiers Thailand, who had provided a shock in eliminating South Korea.
Meanwhile, the hosts began their campaign at the magnificently named Bingo Sports Park in the town of Onomichi, along the coast from Hiroshima. Japan opened rather nervously with a 0-0 draw against the United Arab Emirates, who had taken part in the World Cup finals two years earlier, and then a 1-1 tie with North Korea back in Hiroshima’s Big Arch stadium. It was in that second match that Japan, trailing to an early goal from Kim Gwang Min Za, finally got going and turned their fortunes around.
Just 10 minutes remained when Masashi Nakayama brought Japan level, sending the 32,000 crowd into rapture with a heavy dose of relief. The draw had been saved and Japan showed the first signs of growing in confidence, even if it was only a little at this stage.
The final group match was against an Iran side who knew that a draw would see them join the United Arab Emirates in the semi-finals. Japan had to win. The crowd packed into the Big Arch Stadium screamed their encouragement to the men in blue, but Iran were a tough nut to crack; perennially one of Asia’s strongest.
Indeed, it was Iran who opened by far the brighter, with the clearest of the early chances coming their way. Once Japan settled, though, their intricate midfield play opened up the Iranians once or twice, with Tsuyoshi Kitazawa having the clearest opportunity, lifting the ball over the bar when well placed, and blazing another effort wide. The second half began in the same style, and again once Japan had settled, they came agonisingly close, Masashi Nakayama heading inches wide after beating the onrushing Iranian keeper to the ball.
Iran’s task became harder when Jamshid Shahmohammadi was sent off for a second bookable offence early in the second half. That simply made them defend deeper and deeper, and even more lustily, clinging on to the goalless draw that would see them through as they repelled wave after wave of Japanese attacks.
Those attacks were becoming increasingly frantic as the time ticked down on Japan’s involvement in the tournament. Big moments are made for big players, however, and in Japanese football history, there is no bigger player than Kazuyoshi Miura. He was only at the start of his glittering international career but had the necessary poise when. with only three minutes remaining on the clock, he gathered a lofted ball that should never have eluded the Iranian defence and fired into the roof of the net, putting Japan ahead at long last. He ran off in shock as much as in celebration, the significance of what he had just done visibly dawning on him as he wheeled away.
Iran only had minutes to save themselves, and having been set to defend for much of the match it was hard for them to alter their outlook so quickly. Amid a tempestuous conclusion, Iran not only failed to score but also managed to lose their heads completely. Already down to ten men, they finished the match with just eight after straight red cards for Nader Mohammadkhani and Farshad Pious saw them end the tournament in disgrace rather than with a place in the knock out rounds.
For Japan, this match represented a coming of age. The young prodigy Miura had delivered when his country needed it the most, and that brittle confidence of the opening matches was now replaced with a growing belief in what was already their best ever Asian Cup performance.
Only three days after that dramatic game, Japan were in action again against China in the semi-finals. Having ended the Iran match on such a high, they were swiftly brought back down to earth when China scored through Xie Yuxin in the opening seconds. The shock of that concession took Japan some time to recover from; their composure waning. A stern talking to and one or two tweaks by their Dutch manager Hans Ooft at half-time turned things around and, within three minutes of the restart, they were level thanks to Masahiro Fukuda’s goal.
Now the confidence was back in spades as the attacks came again and again. It was no surprise when Japan took the lead on the hour mark through Tsuyoshi Kitazawa, who broke through a troublingly absent Chinese defence to fire unchallenged across the goalkeeper.
It was a lead they couldn’t hold as Li Xiao equalising for China after 70 minutes. But this Japan team seemed to specialise in dramatic late winners, and they found one again through Masashi Nakayama. He rose unchallenged to head home a lofted, looping cross, sealing a 3-2 win and sending the home crowd into delirium. It also ensured a first-ever place in the final, where they would take on the defending champions, Saudi Arabia.
Playing in front of a sell-out 60,000 crowd, the Japanese played with a pace and tenacity that made for great viewing for the neutral if not for the nervous crowd. Japan’s confidence was high and it showed in the way they began the game, dominating possession and dictating the tempo. The Saudis seemed overawed either by the occasion or by the crowd, or both.
Japan’s endeavours were rewarded when Takuya Takagi opened the scoring on 36 minutes. He neatly chested down a deep cross, before lashing home a left-footed volley past the hopelessly exposed Saudi goalkeeper. In the stands, the crowds went into a flag-waving frenzy, while Takagi ran towards the bench holding his head in sheer disbelief.
Saudi Arabia pushed on more and more as the game wore on and came ever so close to grabbing an equaliser, but nothing could stop the home team’s march to success, with Miura bossing the side from the centre and the crowd willing them on. For all the Saudi pressure in the second half, the clearest chances again came Japan’s way, though none were ultimately taken. As the last of those chances went begging, the final whistle brought relief and jubilation in equal measure.
Japan’s 1-0 victory marked the emergence, from seemingly several notches below the top sides in Asia, of a new power. With the J League kicking off the very next year, this success meant that the fledgeling league would start from a base of a galvanised support on the back of what had initially seemed an improbable success.
It is a convincing argument to say that the initial success of the J League owed an awful lot to the Japanese victory in 1992; the feel-good factor, the increased level of popular support, a winning team and an individual hero. Everything had fallen into place.
From this point on, Japanese football always had the conditions to succeed. The lost years were now a thing of the past. It was dawn for the Land of the Rising Sun. A new power of the Asian game was rising, with Kazu Miura, the player of the tournament, at the helm.
By Aidan Williams @yad_williams